Let me first say: I love yoga.
Ever since I took my first class several years ago I've been a yoga addict. I know it's cliche but yoga truly has incredible effects on my body and mind.
The first time I tried yoga was at a community center where I lived at the time. It only cost a few dollars. We had a small group of maybe fifteen people. There was some quiet “zen” music in the background. The instructor was this guy in his thirties who put everybody at ease with his laid back demeanor. Even though I was out of shape and could barely touch my toes, I wasn't the least bit intimidated.
Sadly, I've since learned that classes like that one are hard to find.
I've now been to many yoga studios and tried many types of yoga. And although I've had a couple really good instructors, the modern yoga industry has made it so that the best option for a normal person like me is to practice in the comfort of my home.
There are a number of things I find problematic about today's “yoga-industrial complex”, which I will tell you about now.
Pricing Out Ordinary People
Did you know that the average American is barely breaking even each month? If each paycheck is going to car payments, credit cards, and feeding your family, there's a good chance you're stretched pretty thin by the end of the month.
But if you're stressed about bills and think a yoga class would help ease your mind, think again. In my experience, almost every yoga studio costs at least $100/month. Not only that but most studios hawk super expensive yoga gear and organic shade-grown coconut water, plus “extra” classes and workshops that cost more money.
That's all well and good if you can afford it. But the harsh truth is that joining a yoga studio is not realistic for most people.
Is This Even Yoga?
If you're going to yoga to unwind to the sound of your instructor's soothing voice, you might be in for a surprise. In fact at some studios you may wonder if you accidentally stumbled into a crossfit class.
It's common for yoga classes to incorporate some strength training, but it can go too far. I've been to classes that were basically just an hour of core work with a few stretching poses in between. All while an instructor yells at us to push harder over some blaring EDM music.
There's nothing wrong with getting a great workout. And there's nothing wrong with a challenging yoga class. But studios advertise these classes as standard yoga, which is really not the case.
All Up In Your Space
I'm a bit of a claustrophobe. I don't like getting too close to people, especially strangers. And especially sweaty strangers.
I know I'm not the only one who feels that way, too. So for those of us who value our personal space: beware.
If you go to a hot yoga class there is a 110% chance someone will sweat on your mat, and probably on you also. At some places you will be close enough to feel your neighbor breathing on you. And at some point you will probably find your face way too close to your neighbor's (you can guess).
That might be okay with you, but it's not going to be everybody's thing. But it's pretty much inevitable at your average studio.
We can't talk about the modern yoga experience without mentioning the contrived spirituality. Yoga teachers love saying things that sound spiritual and profound while you're in a resting pose.
A little bit of that is fine with me. But it can get excessive. What if you just want to move and breathe and not listen to a bunch of platitudes about “acceptance” or whatever?
I'm not sure why yoga instructors believe they are also qualified to instruct us about life after finishing their 6-week teacher training. And it's especially off-putting to the older participants when they have to listen to some 26-year-old who posts selfies on Instagram three times a day teaching them the path to enlightenment.
Attend enough yoga classes and you will inevitably hear some dubious claims.
Don't get me wrong, without a doubt there are lots of real benefits of practicing yoga, including physical and mental and emotional health benefits. But that doesn't mean that everything your yoga teacher tells you is scientifically true.
For example, one of the central claims of hot yoga (and especially Bikram yoga) is that the heat can help you stretch deeper. This article debunks the myth of increased stretching ability. Yoga certainly improves flexibility, but it does so just as well at room temperature as it does in 110 degree heat.
Another claim that's almost universal in the hot yoga world is the idea that sweating more helps you “detoxify.” Of course “toxins” are not really defined, but let's assume they mean impurities built up in your body from your diet and environment. It turns out that sweating doesn't actually get rid of these toxins. We already have organs that do that full time — your kidneys and your liver, which filter toxins out of your blood stream so they can be excreted when you use the bathroom, not when you sweat.
As I said, there are real, clinically-validated benefits of doing yoga. Shouldn't those be enough? I don't see the need to embellish. But it's mostly harmless and even kind of amusing. The only time when fake yoga science might actually endanger someone is when it's being pushed too far by the wrong instructor.
The Yoga Drill Instructor
Just to be clear, most studio instructors are very good about keeping you from hurting yourself (at least in my experience). Ideally you want an instructor who will encourage you to take all the rest and water you need, and who will never push you beyond what you're reasonably capable of.
But there are exceptions. Some yoga instructors (especially at hot studios) will scold and shame students for drinking water outside of the designated water breaks. They will say you'll puke if you drink water when you're not supposed to (I've never seen someone puke from yoga). Or they might say that water does no good – that you need to hydrate hours before class, not during.
So what are you supposed to do? Ignore your body when it's telling you to drink water? Even if they're right about hydration water still can help cool you down. And in 100+ degrees that is not a bad thing at all.
I was in a class once with some people who were brand new to yoga. One of them drank some water outside the designated water break (gasp!) and the instructor got in their face and loudly scolded them in front of everybody. It must have been incredibly embarrassing and I have no doubt that was their first and last yoga class.
Another big taboo in hot yoga is leaving the room early. And this actually makes some sense, because if you are having a serious problem and you leave the room early the instructor might not be able to properly help you. But any reasonable instructor should permit a student to leave if they absolutely must. Yoga should never put your health at risk, and you know your body better than anyone else.
Unfortunately some teachers will berate you for leaving before they tell you to, and will even chase you out of the class to berate you some more. What's meant as a safety precaution can easily become an ego thing for the wrong type of instructor.
Like I said, most instructors aren't this extreme, and you might be able to gauge which studios to avoid by reading the online reviews. But these drill sergeant types are lurking everywhere so chances are you'll encounter one if you take enough classes.
How To Practice Yoga Without All The Nonsense
Everybody is looking for different things in their yoga classes. Some of us love the loud music, hot rooms, and don't mind the occasional oddball instructor. If that's your thing then there are many yoga studios that will suit you well.
But what about those of us who want our yoga without all the craziness? Maybe you are new to yoga and feel intimidated. Or you don't have the budget for a studio membership. Or maybe you just want to do yoga as a way to keep moving as you get older and you're not interested in all the vanity. If that's you then there are a few options.
If you do your research you can find a studio that will fit your personality (and your budget) better. This could take some trial-and-error though. Yelp reviews will only tell you so much – you will have to see for yourself. Fortunately most studios offer a few weeks of trial at a discount so you can try it before you lock into a package.
A lot of community gyms also offer yoga classes. This will usually be more affordable, and sometimes the instructors are really good. But it's hit-or-miss, and sometimes the yoga classes offered at larger gyms have a lot of the same problems as high-end studios.
Practicing At Home
Practicing yoga at home can be one of the best ways to ensure you have a good yoga experience. You don't have to deal with sweaty neighbors or feel self-conscious in front of strangers. Instead you can practice whenever you want, without all the stares and judgment.
Of course it still helps to have some guidance, even when you practice at home. There are tons of free yoga videos on YouTube, and also some very affordable programs that are great for home practice. I recommend Zoe Bray Cotton's program because it's the most complete at-home course I've come across. In fact, in many ways it is better than taking classes at a studio. (Read my full review here.)
In the future I will try to write about more at-home yoga programs. If you know any good ones let me know in the comments!