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The Ashtanga Yoga Kool-Aid: An Outsider in Mysore, India

As I write this, I am sitting on the cold tile floor of my wide-open, one-bedroom apartment in Mysore, India, where I have been living the past month for the purpose of studying at the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute. I practice Ashtanga yoga every morning at sunrise, here and back home in Florida, and my yogic training is rooted firmly in the Ashtanga tradition. But despite my fondness for the practice, and my trust in its methods, I am disheartened with the current managers’ business scheme and with the community here as a whole.

Let me first say that the guy Sharath who is essentially CEO of today’s KPJAYI is making bank. Every single student that walks into his shala (which this month is around 500) brings in 30,000 rupees. That’s equivalent to about $450 per month, per student. If a yoga studio in the United States—where everything is about five times more expensive than India—charged this per month, everyone would think they were insane. A month unlimited pass at the studios where I’m from in St. Petersburg, Florida, is about $75 per month. Granted, it is not with this venerable guru, but six times the price?

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The actual process of achieving a coveted “certification” from KPJAYI is arbitrary, to say the least, but seven years of consecutive trips to India is considered a short amount of time to attain the title. And, despite the monstrous amount of cost this entails for the practitioner, the certification is only valid if a $2000 fee is paid. Per year.  It seems cost should not be the prohibiting factor that it is, for shouldn’t everyone be able to benefit if the goal is really to attain enlightenment? The Tibetan monks are claiming the same thing, but you don’t see them charging shit for their services.

I realize that the Ashtanga certification is taken very seriously because the creators want to preserve the tradition, trusted in the hands of only very experienced practitioners. They want to make sure those that bear the reputation of KPJAYI are of the highest training. What I am talking about is not the commitment, but the money involved—just what they do with it all that dough is a mystery to me (though it’s certainly not being used to buy toilet paper for the shala). I do know that Sharath lives in a mansion next door to his equally impressive shala.

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The scary thing is, nobody here sees it. KPJAYI has become an exclusive empire, where troops of gaunt yogis from across the globe eagerly shed the bills to take part in and behold this master. As I said, I love the Ashtanga practice, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for the lineage and the knowledge it embodies. But I can’t bring myself to drink the damn yoga Kool-Aid. I’m content to learn from my teachers at home, whom I trust because they do shell out the money each year to make the sacred pilgrimage, although I admit the esteem I held my teacher prior to this trip has faded slightly since coming. She, too, is as member of the cult—a cult marketed exquisitely to Western audiences. In fact, I have encountered just a handful of actual Indians while here, in a crowd of around 500 white faces. I do not need to spend that money myself, on continual flights and shala fees to support who-knows-what. I do not need to join the cult and earn the sacred blessing from Sharath. I’d rather enjoy the fruits of the practice for my own benefit.

What exactly is going on behind the doors of that mansion? It’s a mystery to us mortals, but if you’re willing to shell out enough money, you might just find out.

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