The corruption of yoga

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

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.

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

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.

 

 

4 comments so far

  • I have been practicing at Jois yoga in Bondi for almost two and a half years now, and I am amazed that anyone would call what happens at Jois "McYoga"! As per the directions of Krishna Pattabhi Jois, many of us practice 4-6 days a week, following the traditional sequence with few to no alterations made for the western body. It is HARD WORK, and I cannot think of anything further removed from the fast-food lifestyle so prevalent in today's world. I heard a fellow Ashtangi say that one of the greatest things about Ashtanga was that, rather than adapt it to fit our lives and bodies, we are asked to rise to its expectations of us. I do not have what people usually think of as the "perfect yoga body" - very few people do. The whole point of yoga is to heal and realign the body you have, not aspire to some imagined ideal.

    As for it being expensive, the monthly fee that most of us pay works out at around $7 a class...show me another yoga school in Sydney that cheap! Given how incredible our teachers are, how beautiful our shala (practice space) is and the fact that we are have the honour of being taught by members of the Jois family from time to time, it's the best money I spend, hands down.

    The idea that having a shop that sells beautiful (and yes, really expensive) stuff somehow detracts from what happens in the actual studio is ludicrous to me...how are these connected?

    I have met Sonia, and she is passionate and dedicated to encouraging people to embrace a frankly life-changing practice. She walks the talk and I admire her immensely. I thank my lucky stars every day for the Bondi Jois studio.

    Commenter
    Rhenzell
    Date and time
    July 13, 2012, 10:39AM
    • Hi Rhenzell, yes. I agree and I hope that comes across in the article. None of my research found Sonia to be anything but passionate and dedicated, not only to yoga but to the Jois cause. As a former yogi myself I know how hard yogi can be to stick at, so she gets my admiration, for sure.

      Commenter
      Jen V
      Date and time
      July 13, 2012, 1:45PM
  • My experience of yoga is limited to Australia and Taiwan, where I've found that virtually all studios interpret yoga as a form of gymnastics that encourage comparison and competition. Rather than living in the moment, one is constantly reminded that '..you'll get there'. The most meaningful interpretation of yoga for me is one that has an intrinsic link to meditation. Unfortunately I've also discovered that there is little connection between a flexible body and a flexible mind imbued with wisdom and a merciful attitude toward those who are suffering. However maybe these studios can serve as a first step in gaining a deeper awareness of a wonderful philosophy. My own yoga experience has provided me a lot to share with Buddhists while prefering the non-religious natue of yoga.

    Commenter
    Peter
    Location
    Doncaster
    Date and time
    July 13, 2012, 12:29PM
    • What a spot-on article. I cannot commet on the Jois schools, but as a regular yoga practicioner (4-5 hours a week), I find the commercialisation of yoga quite amusing. The deep spirituality of the practice is lost when the focus becomes clothing, accessories and trendiness. It also amuses me when yoga teachers who have next to zero awarness of spirituality or self in their everyday, moment to moment experience of life, go on to make "zen" statements during their classes. I take my yoga practice as a continuation of my spiritual practice and am therefore very careful when choosing my teachers and often just do the poses by myself in my own home. Hopefully yoga is not practiced as a trendy hippie stretching class, as its true value is then lost.

      Commenter
      jhn
      Location
      Bondi
      Date and time
      July 13, 2012, 1:25PM

      Make a comment

      You are logged in as [Logout]

      All information entered below may be published.

      Error: Please enter your screen name.

      Error: Your Screen Name must be less than 255 characters.

      Error: Your Location must be less than 255 characters.

      Error: Please enter your comment.

      Error: Your Message must be less than 300 words.

      Post to

      You need to have read and accepted the Conditions of Use.

      Thank you

      Your comment has been submitted for approval.

      Comments are moderated and are generally published if they are on-topic and not abusive.