Yoga has a PR problem

Suzanne Nagel
March 31, 2022

Yoga is in trouble. The practice and the industry have a PR problem.

Yoga is in trouble. The practice and the industry have a PR problem. 26 years ago, I began practicing yoga on a recommendation from my therapist. I was 24 years old and was working in a high-stress job: television news. I had been struggling with insomnia and severe anxiety. On my therapist’s advice, I opened up the YELLOW PAGES (gasp!) and found some yoga classes in Squirrel Hill. I paid by check for a 6-week session. Classes were once a week in the evening for 90 minutes. Once you paid, you either showed up or not.I was the youngest person in the room, an empty office with carpet.  But it was that room, that class, that teacher, Gae Galza, that sparked my love for the practice so much so that I would eventually become a teacher and studio owner.

Back then, yoga was different. It was not the trend it is today. There was no Instagram and yoga had nothing to do with arm balancing or handstands, girls in bikinis on cliffs doing yoga poses, or yoga teachers hiring professional photographers to take pictures of them to post on social media. Yoga was small, intimate. Classes were small, intimate.  And yoga was mostly thought of as stretching, healing, meditating; yoga was SOFT, GENTLE, SLOW.

And this is inherently the PR problem that Yoga has. Because Yoga is actually HARD. A regular asana practice takes commitment, dedication, strength, and skill.  Yoga is NOT just one thing and that is also part of the public’s misperception of yoga. Many athletic people who want a “killer workout” don’t consider Yoga to be a viable option for that (they could not be more wrong). And folks who are looking for a kinder, gentler type of physical movement, stretching, and meditation often sign up for classes at yoga studios only to be completely shocked at the level of physicality that some studio practices require, at the “workout” they didn’t sign up for.

This is a problem. Yoga is too many things to fit into one label. There are hundreds of styles of yoga now. There are thousands of yoga studios. Yoga studios (and teachers) seek to define themselves in this wide net, only to find students in their classes that are NOT looking for what they offer.  Where Yoga was maybe once considered something for more middle-aged folks seeking low impact movement, the younger generations are now finding the practice and are seduced by its combination of physicality, athleticism, strength, empowerment, and mindfulness.

Yoga teachers, like me, have sought to establish the practice as a full body and mind workout- a “work-in” if you will.  As a yoga teacher who has a background in gymnastics and dance, I gravitated towards Vinyasa Krama which is a style of yoga that is rhythmic, flowing, strong, athletic, and keeps moving for almost 60 minutes. It is most definitely a workout and students that do not want that will not be pleased.

But what is YOGA to do when the general public has preconceived notions about what it is and does not understand it, or what to look for when seeking out a yoga class for their specific needs?

At my studios, we embrace anyone at any level to come to try our classes. But just because we are open to that does not mean that you will walk right in and know exactly what to do or even be able to do everything.  There is a learning curve. There is a certain amount of time involved in creating muscle memory in your body, developing strength, poise, and learning how to properly breathe (pranayama) throughout class. On any given day in my class, you will be meditating on a philosophical tenant of yoga, doing breathwork, working through a creatively crafted sequence that builds in intensity, practicing arm balances, hopping, doing HIIT movements, twisting, stretching, and resting in savasana.

Our yoga classes are challenging. There, I said it. They are NOT for everyone, though we invite anyone to come as they are to experience them. How can that be? They are NOT for everyone because everyone is different in their approach to physical movement. Everyone is working with different expectations for themselves and their bodies. And not everyone understands that Yoga is NOT one thing.

I am 50 years old and my practice of 26 years has made my body strong and fit. It has also made my mind stronger as well and served as a cornerstone for my mental health. But it wasn’t overnight. It was 26 years, thousands of classes, studying to become a teacher, dedicating my livelihood to the practice, and commitment. I practice alongside students half my age and I am physically stronger than many of them. But I also recognize that a person my age just getting into yoga (or specifically the style that I teach and that we share at my studios) may not be able to do a good portion of the class (at FIRST!) And then what happens is they tend to give up right away.

Yoga does not respond well to quitting or giving up. It barely responds to those that only dabble in it. Yoga takes offense when the practitioner does not show up to learn regularly and that’s why there is no shortcut when it comes to the practice.

Yoga is meant to push your buttons. It is meant to break through the veil to bring you to a higher understanding, a higher place of being. Yoga is NOT meant to be EASY.

And this is the PR problem.

The images we see of candles, smoking sage wafting through the room, and cross-legged students with their eyes closed seem so peaceful. The images of 25 students laying peacefully on the floor while meditative music plays in the background belie the truth of what just transpired- the sweat, the challenge to stay focused, the level of physicality that the students just endured.

Here is what happens: The general public who wants to challenge themselves and find strength they never knew they had DOES NOT generally choose Yoga for this. Many think yoga is for recovery, to lay down and stretch. (And yes, there IS Yoga for that specifically! It is called Restorative Yoga!)  And the general public who still thinks of Yoga as it was in the West 30 years ago… and who wants to breathe and stretch and lay down …is not understanding the depth of variability in the styles of Yoga that are offered today, and hence, walks into a studio that is wholly NOT what they came for.

This is a problem. One that I, as a studio owner, grapple with a lot. How do I convince the younger generation that Yoga IS like no other full-body workout you will ever experience, that it is FUN and that it will make you physically strong while taming the noise of your mind —- AND at the same time, convince those that may be older and/or not in the best physical shape, of the potential they can unlock if they would come more than once every two months, always leaving frustrated. How do I convince people that to be "Yoga Strong" means different things to different people? How do I convince a person that runs every day pounding their joints on the pavement that their body will be so grateful if they start to practice yoga regularly? How do I convince the people who want fun music and fun choreography that THAT is exactly what we do at our studio, and it is NOT boring? How do I convince those that haven’t moved their body in these ways and are discouraged by how challenging it is that if they just give it some time, they will reap numerous benefits, that they can move and modify the postures, and that their body will begin to adapt.

Yoga is not a cure-all. And the truth is that all styles of yoga are not for everyone but it has been pushed into the ether as this massive healing thing that SHOULD work for anyone who walks into a yoga studio at any time for any reason at any level.  This just simply isn’t true.

We need to do a better job as teachers and practitioners of yoga to explain that YOGA is not just one thing: and to explain that if you went to one studio and it wasn’t “enough of a workout” or you went to another studio and it was “too hard” that the practice itself is actually in the showing up and cultivating it regularly.  We need to explain that you can find the right style for you and encourage folks to not write it off just because one style was not your cup of tea.

I have decided that to be all things to all people is not possible. That is Yoga’s PR problem.  It posits itself as ONE THING that is GOOD for EVERYONE whilst hiding the complicated truth that modern yoga and its grapevine of yoga styles are not that AT ALL.

Shining the light on this problem is the first step. At our studio, we want to be true to our challenging style of Vinyasa Krama yoga and what we love, and hope that others will love it too! With that said, we want to offer other options for people to explore. You will be seeing POP-UP classes on our schedule that will highlight different styles of yoga for you to try using your class credits or memberships. Perhaps you have a friend that might benefit as well. We will be exploring restorative, yin, meditation, slow flows, reiki, and more.  This is a way for us to show you that yoga is not just one thing. But it doesn’t mean we will change our OM LOUNGE Vinyasa Krama flow. That is what we do. That is what we love. Our regular daily class schedule will always be the sweaty, flowy, challenging, fun, have a laugh, drop an f-bomb, “what just happened” style that we have cultivated at OM. That is us. Take me, baby, or leave me.

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