What Does “Yoga” Mean to Vancouver These Days?

The corporatization of yoga may be harmful to students and teachers alike.

Though her students call her Vancouver’s grandmother of yoga, 76-year-old Sandra Sammartino doesn’t have an official teaching certification. In her 30’s, she studied in India with B.K. Iyengar, a guru who founded a style of yoga by the same name, but the school revoked her membership upon learning she wasn’t teaching their practice of physical precision.“I didn’t mind giving it back to them,” says Sammartino, who started training teachers in the early ’90’s. “Yoga doesn’t need organizations or certificates for it—there’s yoga going on everywhere.”Yet it was Sammartino who founded the first yoga conference to take place in North American, which eventually transformed from the Unity in Yoga Conference to the American Yoga Alliance.Translated from sanskrit, yoga means “union” and consists of physical postures (asanas) and breathing techniques (pranayamas), but since the ancient tradition started evolving in western culture, opinions over how yoga should be practiced in order to respect its origins.The Canadian Yoga Alliance was started by a friend of Sammartino’s who grew tired of just how rule oriented and corporate AYA had become.“They changed Unity’s motto from ‘many paths, one light’ to ‘many paths, one American Yoga Alliance’. That really pissed me off,” says Sammartino, surprisingly angry considering she’s a woman who said she loved me the first time we met.According to Canadian Yoga Alliance, there are 500 registered schools offering certification in Canada. Two-hundred hour teacher training programs cost an average of $3,000 throughout the nation, though online certifications cost less while destination retreats have the highest tuitions.  Communications Manager Joanne Preece suggests the number of yoga teachers is likely closer to 20,000 since not all teachers require independent insurance—a main perk of membership with the alliance.Insurance is an important thing for yoga teachers to have given the growing number of practitioners, and the demand for a variety of class styles. At Semperviva’s studios—there are four throughout Vancouver, all boasting the city’s leading teacher training program—their biggest room can host 125 students.“We can usually squeeze in a couple more if the instructor is okay with it,” their receptionist explains over the phone.So that’s one teacher for 125 (plus) students of varying skill levels being instructed unfamiliar sequences of multi-stepped poses.“It makes me crazy when I go to classes at big box studios, to look around and know that people can injure themselves,” says Evelyn Neaman, one of Sammartino’s first students. Neaman can only fit 10 students in her home studio, Tikkun Yoga Centre. But she’s not one to compain: “I know that physios have seen an increase in yoga related injuries in recent years, but it’s not going to make me protest. Everyone has a right to do what they want.”

“It makes me crazy when I go to classes at big box studios, to look around and know that people can injure themselves.”

But for people who want to teach yoga, the demand often outweighs the supply. While Neaman decided to take a  teacher training program in order to deepen her personal practice, many aspire for a career in teaching.“Teacher trainings are bread and butter for studios, it’s where they make their money,” Neaman says. “But it’s unfortunate because there are more teachers cycling through than there are teaching jobs.”With so many yoga studios open in Vancouver, one would assume there are plenty of teacher job openings, but the cost of rent in the city encourages studios to take on more students than instructors.When I became a certified instructor three years ago, I had already been doing voluntary administration work for the same studio I took my training with. While teaching weekly karma classes—a position that pays you with experience and good karma rather than Canadian currency—I tried applying to studios all over the lower mainland. The response seemed to be the same everywhere I went: only karma positions were available. Meanwhile, students were still being charged for the classes I was teaching for free.

The cost of rent in the city encourages studios to take on more students than instructors.

“If you’re really working on a yogic path, I think that giving back is a really important part of being a practitioner of yoga in general,” says Neaman. “I feel bad for yoga teachers that have to teach 20 classes a week to make a living. I have another job that allows me to do this because I love it, not because I have bills to pay.”Even Semperviva requires aspiring instructors to attend a set number of classes, send in a brief essay of their impression with different teaching styles, and lead a class for the studio managers before they could even be put on the substitute teacher list.Considering the time it takes to choreograph a 60-90 minute class, the time I was spending on trying to make a go of teaching yoga resulted in my personal practice coming to a stand still. After three years, I stopped trying to teach as well as attending yoga classes. I felt jaded that I couldn’t trust whether my teachers were being paid for their time facilitating a class that cost me close to $20.“If you really really want to be a yoga teacher, you can’t also want to make a lot of money, because in order to make a lot of money you can’t be a real yoga teacher,” says Neaman.According to her, yoga is about having a personal practice and seeing how it involved you, your spiritual, physical and emotional identity, and then perhaps offering that to other people. “It’s not something that can be taught in eight easy sessions by one person to a room of 60 people.”Yoga was meant to be a tradition passed on from teacher to student. Making yoga into a business suggests that physical and spiritual union is a product that can be sold. So are we diluting the practice by making it a convenient exercise class people can attend before their 9 to 5? Considering a pillar of yoga is “ahimsa,” meaning “no harm,” is it appropriate to call what we’re doing in Vancouver “yoga?”“I just think that the more people who do yoga—whatever that means to them—the better,” says Sammartino.“No one enters yoga without going through certain initiations, which has nothing to do with teacher training programs. It’s what a person goes through internally. People will find the deeper stuff if they want to. It’s a spiritual law.”