The Business of Yoga

This has been a year of interesting yoga teachers, studios and owners, that has left me feeling like Dorothy (technically Toto) pulling back the curtain to reveal not a wizard, but a mogul.  Whether it’s Yoga “gurus” claiming that a mat “will lead to the essence of [my] heart” or selling vitamins that are apparently based on key principles of Yoga, it’s become very clear that yoga is not immune from what I’ll refer to simply as the “Don Draper effect” after the main character from AMC’s Mad Men television series.

The truth is that modern yoga is a business and like any other business it has to stay viable.  In order to stay viable it has to sell.  In order to sell, it must first convince the consumer that they are lacking something.  The business must convince the consumer that there is a hole in their lives than can only be filled by the services or products they provide—the Don Draper effect.

None of this is wrong, per say. I am not suggesting that businesses or corporations are inherently bad—I am not so naïve.  In fact, I was one of the many people confused by the Occupy Wall Street movement, still am, but that’s another story.  As I’ve written before I don’t think anything is inherently yoga or not; just like I don’t believe that any action is inherently good or bad.

 What I do believe in is internal consistency. 

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By this I mean that every man, woman and maybe even child, must have a code and they must stick by that code in order to be viewed as anything other than flaky, wishy washy, or phony.  This does not mean that the code cannot change.  But should the code change then the behaviors that the code dictates must change along with it. As long as one subscribes to a code, then one’s actions must, ideally, matched that code.   You can’t claim to be a feminist while simultaneously running a brothel (though I suppose an argument could be made).  Is running a brothel inherent evil? It’s not my place to say.  However, a feminist running a brothel would violate the principles to which she subscribes; it would be internal INconsistent.

It doesn’t mean that mistakes won’t be made (violations of the code), but once the mistake is recognized, the violation of the code must be identified, amended, and a return to the behaviors dictated by the code initiated.  Alternatively, the individual can adopt a new code that incorporates the offending behavior.  A business is no different…or, at least, it shouldn’t be.

Companies pay lots of money to develop mission statements that serve as guiding principles to help determine which practices are acceptable and which are not.  They also serve to let their customers know what behaviors to expect from them.

I do believe all things are yoga, and refuse to argue that making money is “not yoga.”  I say if your aim is to make a lot of money and you do, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Money has never been evil.  The love of money on the other hand…  However, if your stated aim in that yoga room is to teach the key principles of yoga such as non-violence, detachment, contentment, etc., yet your business model reflects otherwise, then I’m afraid you have violated a stated code and have ceased to be internally consistent.

 A crooked arrow, no matter how true the aim, will never find its target.

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Spirituality alone (keyword) doesn’t sell anymore.  It has to offer something else in order to really get the money flowing.  In most cases of spirituality meets business that something else is salvation, or, at the very least, the avoidance of damnation.  In the case of yoga, the something else is a fit body.

By tying directly into the insatiable American need to “look good,” yoga as a business has found its stronghold.  By tying its services to what Americans believe is vital to the good life — not health, but looking good — it has found a way to generate over 6 billion dollars in revenue a year.

But is this a “bad” thing?

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After all, a 6 billion dollar a year industry must be giving the market what it wants, what it craves, and that is the definition of sound economics.  If this is what the people want, then who am I or you or anyone else to say that it is wrong?  After all, if the studios can’t pay their bills and are forced to close their doors, where would the people go?  Fair enough.  But that perspective raises another question: Is there a point beyond which a yoga business has become too big?  Where its size dictates policy rather than its intentions.

My tentative answer is yes, and this is based on an observation of Nature.  The majority of organisms have an outer limit, a point beyond which they will not grow because to go beyond that point is to encroach on the resources/territory of others. In other words if you get too big, then you have to start taking more than is rightfully (loaded word) yours.

If we view a business as an organism, then we must also assume that it should have an outer limit, and that outer limit should likely be defined by the type of business it is. Thus, one could argue that the outer limits of a yoga business should be defined by the sutras, the eight limbs.  If the individual yogis are beholden to the sutras (if this is part of your code that is), then why would the corporations made up of these individuals not be?  Or is the business an emergent entity, greater than the sum of its parts and therefore not subject to the rules of the organisms that make it up?

Creative Commons License photo credit: jurvetson

I will admit a very strong personal disillusionment with the business of yoga. I suppose, in the yoga industry, I had hoped for a haven from the avaricious practices of other industries, but now realize that a business is a business is a business.  This is not good or bad; it is simply what it is.

What do you think?  Is there an outer limit for a yoga business?

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- who has written 6 posts on Yoga Modern.

Ifeoluwa (Ife) Togun is a freelance writer whose articles have been featured on Yoga Modern, Yahoo, Yahoo Finance, and He also maintains a blog dedicated to his adventures raising his newborn daughter, Skye Lily, at He holds a Bachelor's degree in Psychology from Grambling State University, a Master's degree in Clinical/Counseling Psychology from Southern Methodist University, and a Doctorate in Experimental Psychology from the University of Texas at Arlington.

12 Responses

  • Street Yoga says:

    Thank you for opening this discussion! As a non-profit organization, Street Yoga expends a large amount of time seeking funds to support the volunteers that form the foundation for our yoga outreach. We believe yoga should be available to every person dealing with personal trauma, challenges and especially homelessness. We see an amazing potential in connecting with local yoga businesses to incorporate giving to local non-profits as a part of their yogic seva practice. It is a challenge to keep your focus on the work that is occurring while sitting behind a computer handling emails & coordination, but when you read the testimonials from our partner sites and students, the reward is overwhelming.

    • IfeTogun says:

      Glad you like it.

    • mick timpson says:

      This is a tough one. I am a yoga teacher and working architect so I am well aware on what is needed to sell ideas, benefits and the power of change. Yoga as you say has to be 'sold' and I have found that it can sell itself quite well. But you have to keep it simple and pure (as much as possible) and cover it with stuff that you know can only happen if a student work hard for say…many lifetimes. I went to the Yoga Show in London last year and like you I was a little surprised on what was being sold as yoga. Still my view is that real yoga comes when you ask for it. Keep it real and keep it simple. Surely thats what Don Draper would say…

  • Catherine says:

    As owner of a yoga studio and a yoga teacher trainer, I totally agree that our actions and, by extension, the actions of our business should be totally based in the Sutras. As Street Yoga said in the previous response, sometimes it's easy to lose that. That's why we MUST have a strong personal practice…and not only a physical one. As studio owners, teachers or teacher trainers, our practice must include ALL 8 limbs of yoga…in thought, speech and action.

  • KaraLeahGrant says:

    Oh this is juicy. And eloquent.

    Yes, modern yoga is a business. To which I would ask why? What's the point? Businesses tend to exist for one of two reasons.

    The first is to offer or create a particular kind of product or experience.
    The second is to make money.

    Often businesses start out as a #1, but as they seek to constantly cut costs, especially fixed costs, by doing things such as outsourcing production to far away lands, they begin to eat into the experience they're creating. Not just for their customers, but also for their staff. They start to become a #2.

    In the yoga world, you can see this is the way that some studios begin to operate. First they start to offer an experience, for their students and their teachers. Then, looking at the numbers, they begin to find ways to lower the fixed costs – one of which is often the pay rate for the yoga teachers. In order to get those costs down, the rate of pay for teachers is reduced. The yoga business has shifted into a #2 business.

    Of course, it's never that cut and dry… but that constant inquiry into the heart of the operation can be illuminating. Why am I creating this business? What is the experience I'm providing or co-creating for my staff, customers and suppliers? Am I treating these people who I need to operate, the same way I would like to be treated myself? Am I offerin a fair price, regardless of what I can "get" something for? Am I making too much money… profit… is there even such a thing? I would suggest there is. Excessive profit on the backs of lowly paid workers or degradation of the environment is merely pillaging the earth…. but that's an entirely different article.

    So can business and yoga combine?

    I think it's imperative that they do.

    Our world is crying out for a new way to do business that honours all involved in the process, and works solely on win-win-win for everyone from workers to the environment.

    Yoga could actually save business, and by extension the world. Which is why as yogis, when we go into business, we have an opportunity to do it differently. To base our actions on our values and be creative and truly be the change we'd all like to see…

  • Sugel says:

    The group, which includes schools, solar power factories, health supplements, organic farms, software, jewelry, and many other businesses, was reported in 1999 to be worth $700 million.

  • Hey, thanks for the blog post. Really Cool.