The Love Songs of J. Brown Yogi
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
— Eliot, “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
J. Brown makes transparency in the yoga biz bittersweet. He consistently points to the sorrow in the shadow of yoga marketing: perpetual change, impossible economics, anxious upselling, getting older, seeing through the dross, living with pain.
This gem of a post expresses the paradox that many full-time yoga teachers share with clerics: they can find themselves committed to leading a ritual that is neither as personally valuable nor as physically accessible as it once was. As always, he finds the sticky ethics in the economics: “There is an inherent conflict of interest between the financial need for increased attendance and an organic ebb and flow of practice and teacher/student interaction.”
But is my friend overly melancholic? Is yoga really of “marginal” utility? Or is it simply time-limited in a way that the perpetual growth-fetish of capitalism cannot tolerate?
I’ve wondered for years whether asana is something realistic seekers can pursue with intense enthusiasm for any longer than they would spend on a graduate degree. Theoretically, postures and breath refinement never end. But the natural limits of tissues and time eventually intersect with a flattening of that learning curve that was so exciting in the honeymoon period. For the shrewd, the question becomes: what does the high-intensity learning stage of asana allow us to go on to learn? What does leaving it in bits and pieces teach us about dying?
In the hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted, I’ve heard a lot of people talk about a five-year plateau. When they hit it, the rebellious find something else to learn. But some devotees blame themselves for their waning ardour, and double down on the ritual. This five-year thing happens to coincide with an offhand comment Christopher Wallis made over lunch one day: that from a Tantrik perspective, there are a lot of physical practices that are age-appropriate and eased away from within a few years.
“Those of us who wish to carry the torch”, writes J., about what lies beyond those few years, “are going to have to forge new models that might retain yoga’s mystical wonder, without the delusion that practice is infallible.”
Perhaps they’ll find inspiration in an old model called the ashramas: the stages of brahmacharya (student), grihastha (householding), vanaprastha (retirement/mentorship), and sannyasa (renunciation). Does intense, exploratory asana fall mostly within the purview of the studentship phase of life? It did for most of Krishnamacharya’s Mysore students. We should remember that Iyengar and Jois were the odd men out for carrying what they learned beyond their twenties. Krishnamacharya’s later work in Chennai was all about adaptation to circumstance, which is why it struggles to be marketable. Capitalism doesn’t adapt to life; it forces life to adapt to it. And it thrives to the extent that it denies death.
What happens when the early asana juice dries up, as it does for everyone who isn’t juicing in some way? Welcoming children, opening a business, or settling on a profession obviously forces asana practice to reorganize. Totally natural for the householding (aka shitstorm) stage. Did we think we’d be sun saluting through retirement and renunciation phases?
J.’s post is embedded in the web of gritty calculus he’s working through as a studio owner in the age of runaway gentrification and the overheads and community breakdown that come with it. So he’s not just talking about the aging bodies of yoga teachers having to embody youth. He’s also troubling the socio-spatial question of what a studio can be.
In a Vastu immersion years ago, I remember Hart deFouw talking about Vedic house floorplans, idealized to embody the ashramas. The dreamt-of house abuts the street with a storefront where the family’s wares or scholarship is on offer. (Seems like an upper-caste vision, but whatever.) Behind it are the family’s living quarters and kitchen. But behind that are the chambers of the grandparents, who would venture out even further into the back garden whenever their children weren’t pestering them for worldly advice. Eventually, they leave the house altogether and wander the earth like Mark Whitwell.
What if the modern studio echoed this floorplan? J.’s Abhyasa Yoga in Williamsburg could have a general asana room to serve the five-year plan, and then a tea room behind that, and a meditation room behind that. Of course, as you “progressed” (aka “got older”) you’d get more and more chill about coming, and J. would feel more and more embarrassed about taking your money when you did.
But could it be organized so that the asana room pays for the other rooms in the same way that younger workers pay into Social Security? Somebody run the numbers! But we’d have to gauge the energy transfer as well: younger/abled bodies doing the sweaty work in trade for less measurable forms of labour.
If we think about it as an ecosystem, it mightn’t be so much about individuals coming into and out of the brawny years of practice, leaving studio owners and teachers trying to keep up with teachers half their age, condemned to moon around like Prufrock. It might feel more like the intergenerational family of Vedic culture (minus patriarchy, heteronormativity, classism, famine, and epidemics): everyone doing different types of work to keep the house both industrious and restful, extroverted and introverted, brimming with equal amounts of new life and fading light.
Lovely! — Interesting to me having seen an entire traditional Chinese home that had been disassembled and brought to the Peabody Essex Museum in the Salem, Mass. area. The configuration for multi-generational life was inspiring. Two stories meant that the older generation had individual retreats off the main floor courtyard. The courtyard (with fish pond) served several functions, including a family gathering area off the central courtyard area that ‘bled’ into the indoor-outdoor feel of the courtyard. — Up top, on the second floor, another family gathering space is directly above the ground floor gathering space.. — The kitchen was offset from the main house, and people would take their meals anywhere in the house, depending on who they were and what they were up to. Balcony above surrounded the interior courtyard on the second floor. — It’s hard to imagine how the families were, at one time, forced to only listen to the propaganda radio, which had to be on at all hours. Even great architecture is open to ruin by crafty power hungry control freaks.
Thanks for the tip, Matthew. Was great to read J. Browns post. Great discussion. 😉
Great writing as always. It seems to me that Qigong, with its emphasis on health and living forever (at least as part of it’s marketing) has better longevity for a practitioner, if much less marketability than yoga (there’s no such thing as a Qigong booty). There’s always the subtler aspects of yoga that one could emphasize, but again, less marketable than psycho-somatic-spiritual hedonism.
Of course. Quigong is much closer to traditional hatha yoga than anything we see in the modern context.
This is so brilliant, and I love the shout out to Mark Whitwell–he came to mind upon reading the J. Brown piece and yours. Mark is a wonderful ambassador for a practice that makes sense for one’s life! As a householder in the thick of raising small children, I have often entertained terrible feelings of guilt for abandoning my formerly vigorous asana practice. However, the yama and niyama are still supremely important in cultivating a happy householder life. 🙂
After becoming a parent and losing my free and easy access to drop in yoga classes and community I became disillusioned. Yoga is for single people with simpler lives. You always talk about relationship, Matthew. Yet the way MPY expresses itself in modern studios is almost as isolationist as Patanjali’s YS. Go in, go in, go in. Buy cute pants in the lobby, but on your mat, go in. And if my baby would have consistently slept through a 5am practice, I might have been able to 1 x per day.
To solve the problem I opened a ‘yoga and family center’. The hearth of my idea was a comfortable lounge with benches wide enough to nap on, or nurse a baby. Classes for adults with classes, activities, and childcare for kids at the same time in a second room. I would describe the lounge the ‘heart’ of the business, and the yoga rooms, retail and wellness rooms the ‘engines’ that enable the lounge to exist. I was encouraged many times not to devote useless space to a lounge. I was once told ‘just find a way to make money off of every square inch of this place’. (I live in CA…expensive rent).
I held the course, and the lounge is the lifeblood of our offering. We are in the business of community…not yoga…We are a community center disguised as a yoga center. There are kids running around, parents with babies, old people, students, teens, men (even single men!). It’s diverse. I was heartened to read your essay “Every yoga center should double as a soup kitchen.” That’s the only thing we’re missing…food.
At first we worried the grown-ups without families wouldn’t come. But it turns out most have a family. We thought we would get complaints about the noise. Classes get interrupted when babies melt down in childcare, it’s not always silent outside the massage rooms. But many have told us they come because the center feels alive and real. It’s real life.
Let’s stop kidding ourselves, and holding onto that mystical idea that we are going to become enlightened on the yoga mat at a yoga center. Let’s embrace what the center is for. Community, joy, breath, and the moving around some energy in our physical bodies.
Now you’ve got me thinking about the interior chambers…the retreat behind the community center for deeper exploration and introspection. Time to hang a beaded curtain!
How beautiful, Valerie. That’s just what your center is. As a young mom, I was influenced by an older yoga teacher, in her sixties, whose body was not svelte and who taught us that yoga was meant to help us enjoy life more. Hers was always a meditative approach to practice and to life and I never felt from her a push to twist our bodies into poses they didn’t want to do. So glad I missed all that “feel the burn” aspect of yoga! I can imagine your center growing to include that garden one day. Now if we can just find a way to do away with capitalism altogether …