The ‘unlikely prosperity gospel’ of Hinduism and Buddhism

Here’s a little more sobering perspective on the rise of Mindfulness within corporate America and the West. From the New Yorker:

In a recent Harvard Business Review piece, the executive coach David Brendel wrote, “Mindfulness is close to taking on cult status in the business world. But as with any rapidly growing movement—regardless of its potential benefits—there is good reason here for caution.” Brendel’s fear is that meditation might make executives too mellow and compassionate; he described one client who asked for assurance that she could embrace Buddhist meditation and still fire people. Brendel expressed hope that “mindfulness culture” will remain focussed on “optimizing work performance,” so that people can achieve “genuine happiness and fulfillment.”

Brendel needn’t worry. American capitalism has had a long and durable romance with Eastern spirituality, and the latter has hardly undermined the former. For well over a century, business-minded Americans have been transforming Hindu and Buddhist contemplative practices into an unlikely prosperity gospel.

[snip]

A technique once meant to help monks grasp the unreality of the self became the inspiration for a new sort of self-help tool, and from there it was just a short leap to mindfulness becoming a business tool. By all accounts, mindfulness does help people feel more focussed and less frazzled, but it resembles New Thought far more than it does any Eastern religion.

“With business meditation, we have a practice that is extrapolated from Buddhism and secularized so that all of the theological underpinnings are swept away,” Catherine Albanese, the author of “A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion,” says. “So we have Buddhism stood on its head. Mindfulness meditation has been brought into the service of a totally different perspective and world view.” By now, that’s part of a venerable American tradition.

I may catch a hint of sarcasm in that last sentence.

Posted by Steve

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‘A different sort of CEO’

The creep, creep, creep of meditation, mindfulness et al continues. The latest sign? Aetna. Specifically its CEO. From the New York Times:

In case there was any doubt, Mr. Bertolini, who runs one of America’s 100 largest companies by revenue, wants to make it clear he is a different sort of C.E.O.

In recent years, following a near-death experience, Mr. Bertolini set about overhauling his own health regimen, as well reshaping the culture of Aetna with a series of eyebrow-raising moves. He has offered free yoga and meditation classes to Aetna employees; more than 13,000 workers have participated. He began selling the same classes to the businesses that contract with Aetna for their health insurance. And in January, after reading “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the treatise on inequality by the French economist Thomas Piketty, Mr. Bertolini gave his lowest-paid employees a 33 percent raise.

Taken together, these moves have transformed a stodgy insurance company into one of the most progressive actors in corporate America. Most health insurance companies are thriving, largely because of increased enrollment. Aetna’s stock has increased threefold since Mr. Bertolini took over as chief executive in 2010, and recently hit a record high. It’s a decidedly groovy moment for the company, and Mr. Bertolini is reveling in his role as an idealistic, unconventional corporate chieftain.

“We program C.E.O.s to be certain kinds of people. We expect C.E.O.s to be on message all the time,” he said. “The grand experiment here has been how much of that do you really need to do?”

On a February day in Aetna’s Hartford headquarters, there were experiments all around. In a conference room downstairs, a meditation class had just concluded, and employees were returning to their desks. Nearby, preparations were underway for a new yoga class, starting in a week. And in his corner office — where a golden statue of the Hindu deity Ganesha was arranged next to an antique grandfather clock — Mr. Bertolini eagerly shared the most recent data from Aetna’s meditation and yoga programs.

There is the requisite “hang on a second”:

But not everyone believes that meditation and yoga are appropriate in the workplace. A recent article in The Harvard Business Review cautioned that “mindfulness is close to taking on cult status in the business world,” and it enumerated ways that a meditative disposition could backfire in the office. Stress can be a useful prompt to engage in critical thinking, noted the author, David Brendel, and is not something to retreat from through meditation. And even as Aetna and others chart what they say are the health benefits of mindfulness and yoga, not all researchers are convinced.

The piece in the Times is adapted from an upcoming book, Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business From the Inside Out, by David Gelles.

Posted by Steve

The economics of Ashtanga

After a long time away from posting to his blog, Eddie Stern returned this weekend with a pretty fascinating one — albeit it is easy for me to be merely fascinated because its contents don’t affect me directly.

Here’s a link and a central point:

As many of you know, we have not had a price increase at the school in over 10 years, due to our rent remaining at a fixed level of $6,500 per month. Unfortunately, that is ending on October 1st, and the rent of the school is increasing to $12,983.62 per month. As it is, AYNY is not a tremendously profitable venture, and the school will not be able to survive this increase without a shift in our pricing structure.

Nothing hidden there. It’s pretty rare for someone to be so transparent about costs and business expenses. It’s not necessarily a very businessy thing to do, but I think for a yoga shala (with a Hindu temple within, no less), it is the yogic thing to do. So kudos to Eddie for being so up front about the reason for the changes.

He goes on to offer a variety of options to help people manage the increase, which at its most basic is going from $260/month unlimited to $300. Drop-ins go from $20 to $23. Given the near doubling of his rent, that doesn’t strike me as too big a jump. (I actually double-checked because I thought it must be more.)

What his post got me to thinking about was the bottom-line cost of Ashtanga. When I talk about how much a month of classes costs, which I’ve found to be in the $180 range most places outside of New York and its super high rents (maybe San Francisco is in that range, too?), non-Ashtangis get a little yoga workout for their eyebrows: They rise and fall and twist and turn.

Shala-goers spend a lot.

But they also get a lot — or should. That money is paying for — in the sense that we now are talking a customer relationship, a topic I seem to remember has bubbled up from time to time on yoga blogs — daily adjustments and assistance as well as the teacher’s knowledge of an individual’s practice. And it includes paying for the experience and expertise of the teacher.

That’s a lot different than getting a few routine adjustments in a flow class from a teacher one maybe sees twice a week.

You get what you pay for, in other words. (Or, again, should.)

The high cost to Ashtanga is another reason why, I think, it won’t ever be hugely popular. Because down the street there’s a corporate yoga studio that’s charging $50/month for unlimited classes, with your first month free!

That’s some serious competition.

It’s why building a community among the practitioners is so important. The fundamental nature of the relationship between Ashtanga teacher and student demands a deeper level of engagement and understanding than can be fit into a profit & loss sheet. And it is one that doesn’t pencil out very easily — a teacher has got to have enough students willing to pay a higher price for that higher level of service. A teacher has to make it worth the cost; I doubt there’s going to be much economies of scale coming into play (except in the case of the institute in Mysore).

Eddie, from our experience at AYNY, has built that community (as is reflected in the way he has announced the price change). Tim Miller has down in San Diego. Those are the successful ones I’ve had personal experience with over the years; obviously there are others.

Maybe your shala is one.

Posted by Steve

Eddie Stern: Ganesh is the remover of obstacles, even ones like the tax department

The New York Times has caught up to the story that seemed to have gripped New York yoga studios for a while: Whether those studios should have to collect the state’s 4.5% sales tax.

We note it because this story includes a terrific quotation from Eddie Stern, one that captures his compelling sense of humor:

“Agencies are suffering,’’ said J. Brown, the owner of Abhyasa Yoga in Brooklyn. “They think they can reinterpret statutes and apply them to yoga.’’

Mr. Brown was one of about 70 people at a meeting weeks ago in Manhattan of Yoga for New York, a statewide lobbying group. The attendees sat cross-legged, pressed their hands in front of their hearts and chanted to Ganesha.

“He is a remover of obstacles,’’ said Eddie Stern, the owner of Ashtanga Yoga New York. “Even obstacles like the Tax Department.’’

However jokingly expressed, the state’s Tax Department has indeed ceased to be an obstacle.

In April 2011, the department posted a tax bulletin listing yoga, along with Turkish baths and weight-loss centers, as an activity that was subject to a 4.5 percent sales tax. Some studio owners said that state auditors had told them they were responsible to pay back sales taxes.

But after months of discussion with yoga studio operators and others, the Tax Department posted guidance declaring that facilities in New York City offering instruction in “various yoga disciplines” were not subject to sales tax.

“We took into account that yoga is historically practiced for its spiritual and meditative benefits,” said Geoff Gloak, a spokesman for the department. Mr. Gloak acknowledged that the rules could be murky for businesses like yoga studios that have only relatively recently grown into a major industry.

Not all is 100% OK, though. There’s still an issue with the city’s building department. It involves a “physical culture establishment permit, which is required of businesses that the agency considers health clubs and that have facilities like pools, gymnasiums and showers.”

You see where the murkiness lies, right? Further upsetting things is the city’s labor department, which is questioning the status of yoga teachers: independent contractors or full-time employees?

And at the crux of it all is how the classic shoestring yoga studio, which — to toss around a few jugements — are perhaps more firmly rooted to the meditative and spiritual aspects to yoga than bigger chains, fit into the growing business side of yoga. Yes, lots of yoga studios are just scraping by, but they are part of a $6 billion a year industry.

If yoga’s a big business, well, free market rules begin to apply, right? And with them, government regulations on similar type businesses. And in that environment, the yoga studios that are better at business will be the ones to survive. (That’s true of any business, but especially a small business. Being good at business often is more important than being good at what your business is about — yoga, communications, massage, banking, social media, etc. In other words, the yogi who is really good at business probably will do better than the yogi who is a really good yoga teacher. Sad, perhaps, but true.)

And that’s why it pays to have images of Ganesh and Hanuman in your yoga studio.

List of successful early-risers doesn’t include Ashtangis

OK, a little light note for a second.

I came across this Business Insider list of 23 successful people “who wake up really early.”

Not an Ashtangi among them. A few — Condi Rice — who get up to run or go to the gym, but no one who is on the mat at 5 a.m.

What’s up with that?

Couldn’t they have gotten Bill Gross, at least, included?

Here’s the description of these folks:

They are go-getters who want to start the day before their peers and competitors, who want to work long hours and have enough time for their personal life too.

Many function unbelievable well on little sleep. Others may not function well but are driven by the stress of running a company to get up anyway.

That pretty well sounds like your basic Ashtangi, doesn’t it?

Posted by Steve

Yoga news roundup: Lots of business stories

A thali of news today:

  • A Lululemon store’s coming to Boston gets the “it’s news” treatment.
  • Business “yoga” of two Tampa Bay studios.
  • Yoga on trial. No, not Bikram or Yoga to the People.
  • Minor, minor mention of yoga. But in the Wall St. Journal, so that’s something.

The slow news trickle continues.

Posted by Steve

How times have changed for young Americans heading to India

If you’re fortunate enough to study regularly with one of Ashtanga’s Senior Western Teachers, or just had a workshop with one, or even perhaps are a student of another teacher with deep roots in Indian, you’ve undoubtedly heard stories of India from back in the 1970s and early ’80s.

Photo via the NY Times

Those first “modern” Western seekers, who in mass date to the 1960s (there obviously have been Westerners in India for centuries, can weave tales of a land of eye-opening and jaw-dropping difference from the United States and Europe of the time.

These people — for our Ashtanga lineage, starting with David Williams in most respects — caught planes to places that few had ever “seen.” It was adventure with a capital A: Adventure!

Today? Well, today’s a different story, as this piece from the New York Times suggests:

With the economy at home showing no signs of improving, an increasing number of recent graduates from the United States are job-hunting in India. Eager for the talent, Indian companies have responded by setting up recruiting programs overseas. While the pay in India is usually much lower than a graduate would earn in America, a lower cost of living can mean a better quality of life. “The chance to travel the world and live in a colorful Asian democracy far outweighs salary considerations when you have just graduated,” Mr. Bennet.

[snip]

Universities have also noticed the trend. Rajiv Dewan, a senior associate dean at the Simon School of Business at the University of Rochester, said that about 20 percent of the school’s 400 graduates were now taking jobs in Asia, up from less than 10 percent five years ago. Of the nearly 40 Indians in the class, about 10 have taken jobs back home, where in the past only a handful would have done so, he said.

“In the past, if people come back they would be considered a failure,” Mr. Dewan said during a recent visit to India. “Now, when people come back they feel that this is the best start for them.”

We’ve had friends travel to India within the past year or so, so we know that the “India of old” (by which I mean 30 years ago) still exists. And there still are Mysore guides galore on the Internet.

But as the world gets flatter, India seems to be getting less and less exotic.

Meaning? We really need to book our trip sooner than later. Who wants to join us in early 2013?

Posted by Steve