When I was a student of Eknath Easwaran in the 1980s, I’d drive from Berkeley to Petaluma each Tuesday night with a group of mainly artsy types from my satsang (study group; literally "true company") to hear yoga wisdom from a master teacher, free of charge. Of course, donations were accepted and his classic books were available, but learning the keys to living was offered from the depths of his understanding without request for monetary compensation. We later had the opportunity to live and work with Easwaran and his small community, and that, too, was due largely to the greatness of his generosity.
Since then, I have seen presenters use his books and eight-point program for self-promotion or as a key to business success. And I can’t help but flinch a little bit. Still, when something is that good, someone is going to view it as a way to make money. So I have to ask myself, if the message helps someone, is it unethical that money changed hands?
Why then do we wince at making money in yoga?
The word artha (prosperity) pops up in the oldest Sanskrit texts, often appearing alongside the words dharma (living a virtuous, meaningful existence); kama (desire and emotional fulfillment); and moksha (illumination ornirvana). Artha includes wealth, career, activity to make a living, and financial security. The proper pursuit of artha, alongside these other goals, is considered the aim of human life and our birthright. Why then do we wince at making money in yoga?
My youngest daughters are looking at colleges and studies in the arts, and the topic comes up, “Do we use our gifts to earn our living or treat our art as too sacred to be touched by coin, relegating our lives to dull jobs so that we can share our art skills for free?" Having worked as a jazz musician for some time, I completely understand their dilemma. I can well remember conversations with my fellow musicians about loving the music but hating the business. And my husband, a designer, has on occasion felt that he had to “sell out” his aesthetic in order to please his client. Teaching yoga and then training teachers, I found accepting payment necessary to feed my family and to compensate for the many hours spent preparing and instructing. A donation bowl has honor but is oft overlooked at the end of class in our culture.
But there's a lot that goes along with taking money for teaching yoga—jealousy and competition among individual studios and styles of practice, assessment of worth, maintaining credentials and study, self-promotion. And while ego abounds in every field, the asana industry has become rich compost for the ahamkara (the ego, or I-maker).
Maybe that's why Easwaran discouraged asana practice as we know it in the West. His was a path of study and meditation. While he wanted us to maintain healthy bodies and walk and exercise, we never practiced a yoga pose other than meditative sitting. I think he knew that Western folks would take that third limb of yoga and sever it from the other seven, and turn it into a flag proclaiming, "This is all that is yoga." Which they have. But I teach asana now alongside the other seven limbs, instilling the practice with many concepts I learned from Easwaran. And I get paid to do so.
Justifying a living from these beloved time-honored practices has an interesting history. Physical gifts are traditionally given to one’s guru (not that I consider myself such), and in many ways one might think this odd. Isn’t the teacher above the need for such trifles? Wouldn’t words honoring the teacher be sufficient? The tradition doesn’t stem from the teacher’s needs, but the student’s. But here's the deal: Words, while sincere and truthful, require no further investment, and investment is what the teacher is looking for. A physical gift is a way of saying, “I'm thinking about you and what you teach when I am not here with you and took time to select a gift with money I might have spent on myself.” And therein lies a similarity with the student of yoga today—payment honors both the teaching and the lineage.
When I owned a studio, like most instructors I had many students who came needing classes and help but who lacked financial means. They often happily took out the trash or stayed after class to straighten up as a way of squaring things. I also offered a sliding scale for yogis (often college students and seniors) who couldn't afford the prices, and there were a few by-donation classes presented as well. But something was always given in return for the instruction.
Having a healthy relationship with money’s actual worth is a part of leading a yogic lifestyle.
Most people entering yoga or the arts as a profession don’t have "I'm-going-to-get-rich" delusions occupying their thoughts. Having a healthy relationship with money’s actual worth is a part of leading a yogic lifestyle. The
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (Iv.4.5) states, "You are what your deep, driving desire is. As your deep, driving desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny." In addition to that, we're also informed that we become that upon which we meditate. "That upon which we meditate" can be scripture, mantra, sex, food, or money. In this sense, Easwaran mused in his translation of the Bhagavad Gita, every one of us has been meditating for a long time.
The problem is that we're not controlling, or shaping, our meditations. To take a negative example, look at what happens over a period of years to someone whose love has been captured by money. At first, they may show only a tendency to be slightly greedy. But if they dwell on making money, that desire begins to condition their way of thinking. Making a profit comes easily for such a person for the simple reason that they don’t really see anything else. And as the Buddha would remind us, we don’t see with our eyes. We see with our minds, and here the mind is always thinking about money. So this person sees a redwood grove and thinks “That’s a dollar a board foot!” If they see the Grand Canyon, they want to dam it up and turn it into a resort.
We have witnessed this happening in the yoga community, with a party atmosphere and costly attire casting a seedy shadow on the lives of the master teachers. When money becomes the top priority and business overrides the schooling of people coming to the studio to still the fluctuations of their minds, then we must reassess. Remembering that the four desires (artha, dharma, kama, and moksha) work together helps us to find and maintain balance. And that's what it’s about—healthy relationships all around. And that means with ourselves, too.
As Ram Dass said, “A feeling of aversion or attachment to something is your clue that there’s work to be done.” In yoga, we learn to serve on the ship of our highest ideals. Food, sex, and money take the seats behind the captain. When mutiny erupts, the captain has our support. The mutineers, our urges and instincts, aren’t thrown overboard, but they are trained to understand their place.
As Ram Dass said, “A feeling of aversion or attachment to something is your clue that there’s work to be done.”
A healthy relationship with income helps not only with receiving what is offered but with finding a wiser and more conscious way of spending our earnings. And earned they are, by our education, study, passion, creativity, and commitment to helping others. So let's feel good about what we do and how we earn a living and put the real focus on the real work—getting to know ourselves and supporting our inner life so we can be the best that we can be!