Sometimes Less is, Well, Just Less: Consumer guilt, self denial and financial woes in the yoga community

Spare Change

I recently read an article about ‘spiritual bypass’ by Buddhist teacher John Welwood. It resonated with me, and I felt I could relate it to what seems to be finally coming to the fore in the yoga community also – the way we use our spiritual path as a means of neglecting to deal with our personal baggage. You might say, “but yoga is all about working through our karma.” Yes, but it can also play into our blind spots if we are of a more reclusive nature, for example, or have patterns of “playing small”, or being minimalist junkies.

I don’t want to make it sound like I think we yogis are all self-flagellating hermits who subsist on nettle tea (actually, I probably need three articles to unpack that image), but I’ve seen and experienced yoga practitioners who:

  • spend a lot of time alone and exacerbate their tendency to introversion;
  • fast easily, and slip into very minimal eating and fasting that is not beneficial to their body type;
  • but most prevalent, yogis who have long standing issues with artha, or money/abundance:

We say we believe in abundance, and yet, the yoga community is riddled with scarcity and poverty consciousness, and guilt surrounding possessions and prospering. This can show up in so many ways for people from not pursuing careers they really want, to feeling uncomfortable about charging clients for services. And this is why I have trouble with pithy maxims like “less is more”. Yes, this phrase does accurately represent a part of yoga: aparigraha, or non-hoarding, non-aquisitiveness. And people often really feel so benefited by de-cluttering, not taking on too much, consuming less and experiencing more. I get it! And yet, in yoga circles, I’ve often heard monastics preaching non-consumerism to a room full of dedicated abstainers. Many of us are very good at abstention – we’re minimalist addicts. And so for us, less is really just, well, just less. It may affect our health, and it may keep us ensnared for years in a cycle of believing that we don’t deserve a vacation, or a new coat, or to earn anything much above the poverty line. This is where we need to see the shadow side of our yoga culture, and also perhaps of our own tendencies that led us to yoga in the first place. We need to be skillful. As is taught in the Bhagavad Gita, yoga is balance: yoga is not for the keeper of excessive vigils or fasts. Yoga is skill in action.

Recently I heard a report on the CBC about female foreign correspondents who decided to have children. I was gripped by the story which described women who had lived for years out of a suitcase and were ready to leave town at a moment’s notice to go on assignment. It was a story about a career exacerbating a tendency not to cultivate community ties, to live on a shoestring and without allowing oneself to have a sense of home and family. Most of the women who had decided to have children initially believed they would be able to have a child and continue working and living as they were doing. After all, it was their chosen lifestyle. Of course, children bring with them an incredible sense of home and grounding; having them often makes us recognize how much we have neglected ourselves and the simple pleasures of just sitting on the front porch.

As a long time overseas English teacher, yoga teacher and new parent, this rang a bell. I’d moved overseas four times, living abroad for five years out of eight. When I decided community was important to me, and I wanted to live in a place where people weren’t as transient as expats tend to be, I was 30, and owned nothing that didn’t fit into an old ruck sack and a suitcase I got when I was 17. I went to Honest Ed’s and bought a garbage can, a set of cutlery, 3 glass mixing bowls, a set of stainless steel pots, a few wood spoons, and carried it all home in the garbage can by subway. With the cast off furniture of family members, I set up a neat home for myself in a one-bedroom flat in an old house in mid-town Toronto. I was setting up my first real home.

I began to recognize that no one was benefitting from the fact that I was settling for less, and eventually left the ESL profession (which one of my colleagues described s the Cinderella in the closet of the education industry), and started to teach yoga, only to discover that pay and yoga teaching is a whole other kettle of fish. To deconstruct it, you need to start at the beginning by seeing that your being paid less does not stop another person’s exploitation, just the contrary. When we teach on a per/student basis with no minimum fee, it creates a culture where this is the norm, and most yoga teachers do not benefit from the per/head system, especially in December and August. This really hit home when an Indian businessman told me strictly: “Stop teaching for free! Charge a fair rate to people who value your services and can make yoga a priority in their lives. Then give discounts to people who truly can’t”. Again, we see this in the Bhagavad Gita: a balanced type of service is an appropriate thing, at the right time to a person who needs it.

And so, I set my experience at budgeting to the creation of a business plan, and to figuring out the feasibility of workshops: how many people fit into the space, balanced with the cost of the space, the expected remuneration of the teacher to find the optimal cost (within my clients’ range) of a workshop. I discovered that I actually enjoyed running a business, and once it got going, I was able to own a home, participate in neighbourhood organizations, support two children, and earn a decent salary for my time and expertise.

But something in me tweaks when I hear yoga teachers-in-training talking about the perceived ideal of not charging any money for yoga teaching, or of downsizing, dropping out of society, moving to an intentional community of yurt-dwellers, or challenging me for having a rotation of Indian outfits I wear to teach as if owning several cotton block-print dresses were automatically, ironically, un-yogic.

Yes, I still notice consumer guilt, areas of imperfect self care, and odd incidents of excessive minimalism. You might be thinking that we should have some consumer guilt – we should be cautious that we use our money actively to support businesses that are ethical, and are not just buying into the capitalist machine. You may have heard that halitosis was only really made widely socially unacceptable after the marketing of mouthwash. Yes, yes, yes. I’m not arguing for more denial, or for fewer ethics, or for buying things you’re never going to use from TV infomercials designed to fabricate their own utility. Neem twig, anyone? I’m saying that rather than use yoga philosophy to avoid looking at our issues with money, value, social acceptability, relative deservingness, sense of home and stability etc., we may need to take extra care to cultivate clarity in these particular areas. And if we’re teachers…take time and care in showing the texture of yogic teachings, and the helix like nature of how it works on us. Because sometimes less is more, and sometimes less is, well, just less.

Chetana believes in small family businesses, and communities co-generating wealth. She still has an aversion to “being big” – not small doesn’t mean bigger than other people. She still wears shoes until they’re falling off her feet, but relishes providing herself with new pairs, some of which are unpractical.

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