Sonia Jones, former model and wife of financier Paul Tudor Jones, in front of the new studio in Greenwich that she recently opened, in conjunction with Salima Ruffin and the family members of Sri Krishna Patthabi Jois, the founder of the Ashtanga yoga method. Photo: Contributed Photo / Stamford Advocate Contributed
Earlier this year Vanity Fair ran an incendiary little piece on the Australian-born, New York-based yoga entrepreneur Sonia Tudor Jones. The mother of four has joined forces with the family of late Ashtanga-yoga master Krishna Pattabhi Jois to create a yoga franchise which includes high-end yoga accessories boutiques, of which Sydney has a branch. The article accuses Tudor Jones of turning a fragile, ancient and authentic discipline into a soulless commercial enterprise that has been branded “McYoga.”
In the dog-eat-dog-pose world painted by the magazine the 44-year-old certainly holds the leash and it’s not the first time the socialite has been pilloried – nor will it be the last. Tudor Jones, a former model and Dolly cover girl, stands accused of everything under the sun…err…salute, not least for pushing her expensive yoga brand onto the masses with her chic studios.
Paul Tudor Jones, chief executive officer of Tudor Investment Corp., and his wife Sonia Jones attend the Robin Hood Foundation gala in New York. Photo: Getty
It made for a juicy read plump full of trophy wives, dirty lucre and internal backbiting. This much was clear: no matter how peace-loving an ancient discipline is, when talk turns to ownership and purpose there’s little room for calm and serenity.
Sonia Jones, co-owner of the newly opened Jois Yoga studio in Greenwich, practices the Kapotasana or King Pigeon Pose, one of the positions in the sequence of Ashtanga yoga. Photo: Contributed Photo / CT
With yoga an estimated $6 billion industry in the US you don’t need to spend an inordinate amount of time in inverted poses to be blindsided by the enlightened dollar. (In Australia while we are yet to hit the billion-dollar mark more than 270,000 Australians practise some form of yoga, making it our 13th most popular physical activity.)
And if Tudor Jones exploited an opportunity to spread the word, she isn’t the first. Several years back, Bikram Choudhury — he of the eponymous and sweaty Bikram Yoga fame—showed the world that flexibility belonged only in the yoga studio when he moved to patent his sequence of 26 poses.
With that kick-asana move Choudhury betrayed more than good business acumen. Realising that a profound change was but one big law suit away, an Indian government agency began its own campaign to shore up the “ancient practice of yoga” over what it saw as a major threat coming out of the US.
Not surprisingly, the past few years has seen a flurry of “rebel” US yoga practioners such as YouTube sensation Tara Stiles and Greg Gumucio founder of Yoga to the People aka “hot yoga classes at reasonable prices”. Not that this has changed the state of play all that much. Stiles walks the fine line between hero and heretic, and last year Gumucio was sued by the litigious Choudhury for copyright infringement.
And you thought all that bending over backwards only took place on the mat?
Thankfully, back in the early 1990s I was blissfully ignorant of both the politics and the patents when I embarked upon a month-long intensive yoga teacher trainer course in the Nevada desert.
The Sivananda Yoga Teacher Training Course taught me how to execute a near-perfect triangle, sit in the lotus position for hours on end and sing “Govinda Jaya Jaya” by rote, but the best lesson I took away by far was that I wasn’t cut out to be the poster girl for the yogic lifestyle (I’m telling you, it’s no picnic getting caught up in those existential knots). Even without the critical eyes of the world on me.
Sonia Tudor Jones shows no such signs of flagging. Despite the very real pressures on her—such as carrying the Jois name, and the unspoken promise to her dearly departed “Guruji” to bring back his trademark joy and humour—she has dug her heels in (in warrior pose, one suspects).
Of course, the opening of those high-end yoga accessories boutiques, including one in Bondi, sits uncomfortably alongside our idea of yoga as “humanity’s shared knowledge”, but it’s a mistake to write her off for one misguided step.
Beneath Tudor Jones’s tanned exterior you’ll find an ardent follower of a punishing daily routine who initially turned to yoga in desperation after a blown disc left her numb from the waist down.
Rather than claim Ashtanga as her own, even her critics agree that Tudor Jones has toed the Jois line and stuck tenaciously to the sequence of poses. In order to make yoga more accessible and egalitarian she has also set up several far-flung charities, including those in Africa and Australia, and her only discernable ‘sin’, if this is indeed what it can be called, is to have the money (thanks to a wealthy husband) to fund the projects.
It’s perfectly logical to challenge the new wave of…well…posers (didn’t a young nonconformist by the name of B.K.S. Iyengar find himself similarly under the microscope?). At stake are not just its spoils but yoga’s core values, already somewhat undermined by the winds of commerce. And yet to stand in the way of someone who has the vision and the means to widen its influence isn’t only counterproductive; it’s plainly counterintuitive.
Throwing stones is a natural response to an exigent situation, but a misfire is still a misfire. And, unless I’m mistaken, there’s a well-known Sanskrit word for glass houses. Karma.