Branding a Style of Yoga

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Imagine this spin on the first few verses of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, adapted for a new business school course on yoga franchising:

1.This is the beginning of instruction in yoga branding.

2.Yoga branding is the control of the impulse-waves of the marketplace.

3.Then the yoga corporation abides in its true entrepreneurial success.

4.At other times, when not enjoying business success, the yoga corporation (and its constituent members) remain identified with the impulse-waves of the marketplace.

5.There are different kinds of impulse-waves—some painful, others not painful.

Is branding a gross distortion of everything Patanjali taught, everything for which yoga stands? Or is it a pragmatic adaptation of Patanjali's wisdom for a competitive marketplace in which yoga, like any other business, rises or falls not only on the strength of its essence, but also on economic trends, cash flows, marketing successes, and similar matters common to other forms of corporate life?

With branded styles of yoga teaching, branded yoga clothing, branded training programs, branded certificates, and branded instructors, present trends suggest that yoga and marketing go hand-in-hand. In recent years, we've seen a proliferation of branded styles of yoga, some named after their founders (such as Baptiste Yoga or Forrest Yoga) and others after some yogic word or concept (such as Om Yoga). Even ashtanga (literally, "eight limbs"), the name Patanjali gave to the practice of yoga, has become a brand name for a particular style of yoga.

Then there are the many well-known brands of yoga clothing, including those that distill yogic advice into a catchphrase: "Life is good." Even prana, the word for spiritual breath, is a recognized trademark—protected by law as designating particular product goodies.

Is branding actually necessary and helpful to the business of yoga? How is branding yoga any different from branding a hamburger—from offering yoga students a form of McYoga? Or, more dramatically, is branding a form of spiritual prostitution—selling one's image or self, rather than offering yoga (albeit in exchange for compensation) as a service to humanity?

Consider this recent ad for a branded yoga program: "A Harvard Medical School study published in an April 2004 issue of Barron's estimates there are 50 million Americans involved in mind-body therapy. Great Yoga Teachers® brand is poised to become a category-killer within the $230 billion lifestyle of health and sustainability market." The authors for this promotional copy had no trouble putting the term "killer" in the same sentence as "yoga."

And what about yoga ethics? Aparigraha, or non-covetousness, is one of the Eight Limbs. Where does the profit motive—and the many means (including branding) used to pursue it—end and covetousness begin? Is it proper for Isvara pranidhana (surrender to God, another of the Eight Limbs) to merge with surrender to commercial dictates?

These questions have no answers. Like most subjects that inspire heated debate, branding yoga has both a positive and a dark side. It is easy to look to the abuses and forget that branding, like other marketing tools, can serve a useful purpose: helping customers to associate a particular good or service with certain images or assumptions about quality.

Branding also creates incentives for maintaining standards of excellence. Legal rules, such as those involving copyrights and trademarks, exist to protect and encourage the freedom to innovate, disseminate the fruits of one's innovation, and profit from such dissemination.

The key to reconciling marketing and yogic principles may lie in taking advantage of branding's beneficent aspects without going overboard into abusing an emphasis on marketing. In that light, here are some helpful tips to consider when branding a style of yoga or an aspect of the business of yoga:

  • Balance tradition and innovation. It is a truism in art that to truly innovate and break away from tradition, one has to first master the classics. Certain "classical" styles of yoga (arguably, such as those taught by K. Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar) have intrinsic value based on their form and possible benefits. Branding for the sake of being seen as different serves little purpose; there has to be some substantive value to the modification, as well as sufficient adherence to tradition.
  • Be authentic. To create a style that will resonate as distinctive, new, and exciting, make it your own. John Friend has explained that he felt he had to break away from saying he was teaching Iyengar's yoga because he had built in so many modifications to the practice over the years; at the same time, he respected Iyengar as one of his core teachers, without whom his own style could not have been developed. Based on what he had learned, Friend was able to build an authentic style of yoga that he could then share with others; he found himself comfortable branding Anusara Yoga without sacrificing the powerful substance of his practice.
  • Refrain from overstatement. A little humility goes a long way. At best, immodesty contradicts the principle of satya, truthfulness; at worst, grossly overstating one's own contribution or uniqueness might encourage later lawsuits (such as fraud or misrepresentation) by disappointed seekers.
  • Beware of overzealous promotion. Just as refraining from overstatement builds in a certain modesty, refraining from overzealous promotion can help balance the desire for growth, recognition, and profit against the need to stay true to yoga's essence.
  • Remember what yoga is about. In homeopathic medicine, the more dilute the substance, the more powerful the remedy might be. Not so in yoga. At some indefinable point, a practice can cease being considered yoga and become something else: gymnastics, perhaps, or aerobic exercise. It's hard to make an authoritative judgment about what is yoga and what is not, particularly as some teachers and studios blend such practices as hatha yoga and Pilates. When branding a unique form, consider whether the practice has ceased being yoga. Patanjali's wisdom provides one guide—as does the emphasis on breath and conscious awareness.
  • Understand the legal implications of branding. Many branded yoga products can and arguably should be legally protected. For example, original works, such as a brand name, may be afforded legal protection through copyright, trademark, and other laws. It may be helpful to hire a lawyer to work through some of these legal issues. At the same time, consider the ethics of business practices such franchising a yoga studio brand, or requiring a franchise fee when graduates of a teacher-training program open their own studios. These areas are less settled within the yoga profession and may require contemplation, as well as legal advice.

Perhaps the single most important overall tip is to allow respect for the teachings of yoga to permeate the business aspects of owning, managing, or growing a studio or practice. Beyond business ethics and legal advice, the classical sutras and postures provide ready guides to what may be appropriate regarding branding.

Michael H. Cohen, J.D., M.B.A. is Principal in the Law Offices of Michael H. Cohen and the publisher of the Complementary and Alternative Medicine Law Blog (www.camlawblog.com). The materials in this article have been prepared by Michael H. Cohen, J.D., M.B.A. and Yoga Journal for informational purposes only and are not legal opinion or advice. Online readers should not act upon this information without seeking professional legal counsel.