money & debt with yoga

Money & Debt: Tackling Taboos Through a Yoga Lens

Something happened last month: I put my credit card over the limit. To be honest, I’m often hovering just below the limit. And then my bank will invite me to increase my limit, which I do, and that buys me some short-lived peace of mind. Then the credit floats up, and I’m back to hovering around the limit. I make regular payments, often paying much more than the monthly minimum, but I can’t make a dent in the debt.

Something else happened last month: I decided I’m tired of living this way. I’m tired of slowly sinking in a sea of debt. I’m tired of the weight dragging me down. I’m tired of feeling like I’m never getting ahead in the world. I'm tired of this financial suffering.

Then I did something we’re not supposed to do with debt and money: I started talking about it. On my personal Facebook page first, where I called out for good financial tracking apps as a starting place for tackling my debt. I received dozens of recommendations and suggestions, and people who didn’t know each other were sharing resources and following the conversation. Even though talking about money is supposed to be taboo, people seemed to want to talk about it.

And finally, just for fun, I posted something on my Facebook page. Because what I noticed as I started reflecting on my dysfunctional relationship with money is that yoga culture has an even more complicated relationship with money (okay, I saw this a while ago, but was too busy living in denial to comment on it).

While yoga has had no trouble becoming a capitalist pursuit, it’s still shrouded by a spiritual gloss that obscures its inner financial workings. It’s a perfect scenario. Actually – some entities (namely clothing companies and corporate yoga studios) are able to make a lot of money while teachers struggle and the target market (i.e., those who can afford the practice) has affluence and leisure time.

A Yoga-Informed Framework for Working With Money

The Facebook post received hundreds of reactions and comments. People shared stories about personal financial struggles, the challenges of making a living as a yoga teacher, and choices to return to the world of “regular” work.

It became clear that this is a conversation that isn’t happening. And when it does happen, it’s framed in a “business of yoga” or “how to market your yoga teaching” message. In both of these approaches, I haven’t encountered a lot of honest or healing conversations about the role of making money in our lives, or how we can apply a yoga-informed framework to our relationship with money.

What I’m interested in is those who are committed to the practice and somehow trying to make meaning and some sort of living in the world. I’m interested in knowing how many of us are in debt because of teacher trainings, workshops, and yoga retreats. How many of us are blindly hoping that we can repay our debts through “manifesting abundance”?

I can speak for myself when I see how I’ve gained so much self-awareness and transformation through yoga, but I haven’t been able to apply this to my personal finances. Yoga has helped me heal from depression, purify my heart, overcome personal failures, develop a healthy body image, experience deeper and more fulfilling relationships, and trust in a higher power/divine force – yet I have $15,000 credit card debt, no savings, and practically no personal worth.

I’m not trying to blame yoga for this. Still, it’s a culture that has enabled me to hide from my financial fears while pursuing more esoteric and touchy-feely personal developments (of course, mainstream consumer culture supports this as well!).

What I’m curious about now is how classical yogic practices, especially the yamas and niyamas in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, can support introspection and self-awareness around money. Sincere practice has taught me to be content with what I already have (whether that’s my body or my worldview) and not need to look elsewhere for validation or solutions. Can I finally learn to do this in the material world?

What’s Going to Happen Here

So my plan is to dedicate 2020 to facing my financial fears and paying down my debt, and I’ll be writing about this journey in this space. These are the reasons why:  

  • Accountability  There’s nothing like having an audience to help me stick to a goal. I hope IAYB readers will follow along, cheer from the sidelines, and offer support. At the very least, I’ll be able to share what I’m learning.
  • Conversation  I would love to see this project encourage dialogue within a culture and a sub-culture that doesn’t talk about money. It’s also my wish that an open dialogue will support yoga teachers, studio owners, and practitioners in sharing their own stories, best practices, and new models. (I touched on some of this in my recent interview with Angela Jamison and her “sociological experiment,” the Ashtanga yoga community she leads which is based on transparency, trust, and value – she spoke about her teaching practice being based on “a deep sense that I have debts that I cannot repay” and has open conversations with students about their monthly contributions to practice in the community.)
  • Subversion  My big dream is that this project will challenge a multi-million dollar industry where many workers (yes, yoga instructors are workers, even if you’re self-employed; yoga studio staff are definitely workers, even if you’re doing an “energy exchange”) can’t earn a living wage. They’re teaching a practice that many working/lower class people can’t even access. I hope to continue exposing imbalances and injustices within yoga culture.

It’s All Money, Baby

This will be an emerging conversation. Get ready for personal reflections, interviews, profiles, and guest posts. I have a dream list of people I want to talk to, and I expect that this list will grow as I start digging deeper. I’m also going to be revealing my own struggles with cutting back and living a more austere life (here’s where the yamas and niyamas will come in).

But really, I’m doing this because I haven’t found the approach that I’m looking for in the financial blogs I’ve read, the podcasts I’ve listened to, and the “thought leaders” I’ve started following. I haven’t found a perfect blend of practical information, collective awareness, and sass. I want to know who’s talking about upping their money game as an act of resistance. Who’s talking about paying off debt as a process of spiritual and cultural transformation and subversion?

While my journey to heal my relationship with money is individual and highly personal, I hope that it will illuminate how living in this precarious debt-state sucks for so many people, and expose the trauma of late capitalism and its impact on our psyches and bank accounts.  

So this is what’s going down. Follow along, because it’s going to be a wild ride.

What are your experiences with yoga practice, making a living, debt, and money? Where are you at right now? What have you learned? What do you want to know?

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