Well, actually, yoga itself isn’t expensive. It’s one of the few physical and spiritual practices that requires very few materials. Mats are definitely not required, props weren’t popularized until the 20th century, practicing outside in the blazing sun is Mother Nature’s hot studio, and most of the original yoga practitioners wore little more than a loincloth.
No, the actual question we should ask is: “Why is it so expensive to practice yoga in the West?” I’m sure you’ve felt the pressure to conform to unspoken “yoga lifestyle” standards. I hear it all the time from my friends, students, and fellow teachers. There’s a weird, implied rule in the yoga world which indicates that the more yoga “stuff” you have, the more legitimate your practice becomes.
This is the thing: Ever heard of aparigraha? It’s a Sanskrit word that means non-possessiveness. I like to loosely translate it as “don’t be greedy.” The funny thing about aparigraha? It’s literally one of the yamas, the first limb in Patanjali’s eight-limbed path of yoga from The Yoga Sutras. Aparigraha is considered an absolutely essential ingredient to a balanced yoga practice. Maybe your local studio forgot to mention it because they were too busy pressing you to purchase coconut water and join them on their upcoming Costa Rican meditation retreat.
Now, unlike the person who brings up the yama of ahimsa primarily as a way to corral the eating habits of their loved ones, I don’t mention aparigraha to inspire guilt. I mean, I think my $160 yoga mat is one of the best investments of my life, and I was literally pricing meditation pillows on Etsy earlier today. However, as yoga sweeps across the Western hemisphere, I fear that Westerners have created an unshakable link between material possessions and a deepened yoga practice.
This outlook seems to permeate every aspect of Western yoga culture—most successful Western gurus are also master business people. When you consider that yoga has evolved into a modern industry just like any other, it seems unreasonable to expect anything else. However, this trajectory is the complete opposite of yoga’s nomadic and material-free origin. It’s also off-putting and gives yoga a hypocritical quality that can be discouraging to practitioners who can’t afford all of the bells and whistles. Yoga shouldn’t feel elitist.
There’s a reasonable argument that the solution is simply accepting the profound difference between traditional Eastern yoga practice and its much younger and more eclectic Western sibling. Sure, we must accept that we live in the looming shadow of capitalism. But it’s still the responsibility of teachers and studio owners to take note of this trend, and find new ways to exhibit the true meaning of aparigraha: that regardless of how many yoga retreats you attend or mats you buy, coveting possessions is absolutely not the key to anyone’s definition of enlightenment. Basically, by truly “walking the walk,” we can actually inspire our students to “talk the talk.”
Jessamyn Stanley is a North Carolina-based yoga teacher, body-positive advocate, and writer. Her classes provide a body-positive approach to yoga which celebrates students’ bodies and encourages them to ask “How Do I Feel?” rather than “How Do I Look?” when practicing. Jessamyn has been featured in a variety of print and online publications including Good Morning America, The Huffington Post, NPR, People, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, Fitness Magazine, and Yoga International, among others. For more body-positive yoga tips, check out her blog and follow her on Instagram @mynameisjessamyn or on Facebook.