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Year in Review: 21 Stories in 2020 That Rocked the Yoga World

What's the future of yoga? We dig deep into the events and news stories of a wildly unprecedented year for clues of what's to come. Grab a seat. This may take a while....

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What a year! Here, we take a look at some of the highlights from 2020—the good, the bad, and alas, the ugly, in this in-depth retrospective on how the past year has shaped—and reshaped—the yoga landscape. 

From activism to the business of yoga to politics, tech, mental health, sexual misconduct, and scientific research, if you’re as hopeful as we are that good things are headed our way in the new year, perhaps these events will serve as a reminder of the strength and resiliency of our yoga community.

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Activism and Social Justice

Following the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the nation, members across the yoga community turned their attention to racial justice and civil rights. In June and July of 2020, Yoga Journal contributed $10,000 to individuals and organizations that support BIPOC or are BIPOC-owned and released our inaugural diversity, equity, and inclusivity report. Though as an industry we have a long way to go in terms of diversification and inclusivity, several leaders in the community have stepped up and are making waves. Here are a few of them.

Davina Davidson, founder of the Melanin Yoga Project (MYP), is on a mission to dismantle racism in the yoga industry by making the practice more accessible to people of color and marginalized communities in the Houston area and beyond. During the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, Davidson offered a donation-based yoga teacher training, and according to an interview from Texas Monthly, over 2,500 trainees attended, which may have been one of the largest donation-based teacher trainings to date. Don’t miss Davidson’s virtual MYP Expo in late January—a one-day event featuring accessible yoga and wellness programs for people of color. 

On July 15, “Antiracism Meditation,” an album of guided meditations to help listeners unpack their privilege and stand up for what’s right, was released by two lifelong friends—one Black, one white. Narrated by Iman Gibson, founder of the wellness brand Brocollete and Tori Lund, a yoga teacher and singer-songwriter in the band Few Miles South, the meditation album addresses allyship and the spectrum of systemic racism. “Racism against black people is not just a white thing,” Gibson tells YJ. The friends became inspired during the Black Lives Matter movement to create a series of guided meditations that would help any person, white or otherwise, dismantle their biases, own their allyship, and cultivate compassion. 

Our December cover model, Amber Karnes, founder of Body Positive Yoga, is working to make yoga more accessible to bodies of all shapes and sizes. When Karnes founded Body Positive Yoga in 2010, the concept was more about social justice than capitalism. She’s spent the past decade documenting her yoga practice and sharing how-to videos for bodies like hers online. She’s now working alongside other social justice activists like Dianne Bondy (with whom she launched Yoga for All Training) and Accessible Yoga founder and director Jivana Heyman. “I just was not really prepared for how meaningful it would be to so many people to see somebody in a body like theirs in a wellness or fitness context practicing yoga,” Karnes tells YJ.

Jordan Smiley
Teacher Jordan Smiley

In November, Jordan Smiley, founder of Courageous Yoga, wrote a compelling column about why it’s time to create safe spaces for transgender and nonbinary yogis—a call to action that was long overdue in the industry. Smiley is on a mission to create an inclusive, identity-affirming environment for the trans and nonbinary communities to practice in that acknowledges “the roots of yoga and other indigenous healing modalities with sincere practices of non-harm, truthfulness and courage.” Courageous Yoga is a BIPOC and queer-led trauma-informed community in Denver, Colorado. 

We see yoga as a field of study and practice, rather than a commercial industry, and we seek to move yoga in that direction. - YŪ cofounder Heather Shereé Titus

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The Business of Yoga

March marked the beginning of the end for many yoga studios around the world and consequently, the careers of some teachers. What started as deep cleaning and sanitization of mats, props, and surfaces soon became reduced class sizes, postponed retreats and trainings, and canceled festivals. The industry changed in an instant, and Zoom became the most sought-after yoga studio in 2020. The practice evolved, and teachers and students adapted to the virtual setting. Even as restrictions loosened in May, responsible studios in states like Georgia committed to the health and safety of their students and remained closed. Hot yoga devotees cranked up their thermostats at home, or flocked to an outdoor hot yoga dome popup in Toronto, or splurged on one of these inflatable hot yoga domes. In-person contact and in-studio classes are still on hold for the foreseeable future, and millions of Americans are still unemployed. As COVID-19 revealed the cracks in the yoga industry, the concept of a universal teachers’ union that could offer some semblance of job security became a hot button issue this year.

In May, Unionize Yoga—the first-ever yoga teachers’ union—reached a severance agreement with major studio chain YogaWorks, an initiative that has been gaining steam since early 2019. What began as a series of internal discussions among YogaWorks teachers in New York about job security, health insurance, and equity quickly reverberated throughout the company. Now, Unionize Yoga is certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and represented by International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), which bargains on their behalf. The severance agreement reached with YogaWorks was a first of its kind, offering paid health care benefits to employees who were enrolled in the company’s health care plan for three months following the permanent closure of the New York studios in mid-April. It was a small step, but one with implications for how yoga teachers can organize moving forward, especially in a new era of online teaching as more brick-and-mortar studios close permanently.

The momentum to mobilize continued into the summer, as CorePower Yoga teachers made another attempt to unionize. A coalition of more than 2,000 CorePower Yoga instructors signed a petition demanding better pay and benefits as well as putting an end to the company’s alleged history of racial discrimination. The unionization movement saw a recent resurgence following the murder of George Floyd, when CorePower Master Trainer Joel Klausler posted a photo of a flower with the caption “I can breathe” on Instagram, which was met with outrage and subsequently removed. This incident of systemic racism was not an isolated one within the company, according to former CorePower Yoga instructor and studio manager Leana Marshall, and it was the catalyst that many dissatisfied CPY instructors needed to attempt to unionize again—this time, nationwide (the first attempt was in 2019). If successful, a teachers’ union would bargain for a number of workers’ rights similar to those bargained for by YogaWorks teachers in New York. Only in this case, CPY instructors have a larger goal of not only unionizing state-by-state, but creating a universal teachers union that would protect their rights across the country. The CPY teachers’ coalition followed in the footsteps of YogaWorks teachers and sought representation by the (IAMAW).

By October, YogaWorks filed for bankruptcy and shuttered all remaining brick-and-mortar studios (more than 60 across the country). The Chapter 11 petition was a result of the financial burden of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. “The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for our industry and business, including mandatory studio closures and social distancing-imposed attendance restrictions even where studios have been permitted to reopen,” YogaWorks CEO Brian Cooper said in a statement. The company will continue its business operations exclusively through its digital platforms, offering livestream and on-demand education and instruction, which includes more than 40 YogaWorks Live classes daily and more than 1,000 hours of pre-recorded sessions and workshops, as well as virtual teacher trainings. YogaWorks’ digital operations have turned a profit and continue to display growth, according to the company.

A glimmer of hope arrived earlier this fall with potential solutions for repairing the cracks in an industry that’s been brought to its knees. Yoga Unify (YŪ) is a new nonprofit organization that aims to set new standards for yoga teachers, prioritize ethics, provide educational resources to students, and unify the community. The organization intends to up-level teacher qualifications and make yoga a safe and inclusive space for all. Two of YŪ’s key principles are fostering pathways to becoming a yoga teacher outside of the 200-, 300- and 500-hour teacher training models, and acknowledging that not everyone can or should be a teacher. “If every student who begins a serious practice of yoga is guided to a teacher training, then we naturally have an imbalance,” says YŪ cofounder Heather Shereé Titus. “We see yoga as a field of study and practice, rather than a commercial industry, and we seek to move yoga in that direction.” Yoga Unify will credential yoga teachers and schools through ongoing assessment and peer review, identifying their level of professional experience and specialization in a public directory that will highlight teacher credentials and experience. Professionals can upload videos, articles, and other promotional and educational material. And students of all levels can search for the type of class, training, or mentorship they are looking for. The organization positions itself as a “new paradigm for the future of yoga” and coincides with a moment that’s ripe for evolution.

If your yoga does not center politics, social justice, and human rights, then it is not yoga. - Wolf Terry

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Politics and Yoga

Yes, politics and yoga sometimes mix. Still, there’s no consensus on this issue and many practitioners want yoga to just be about yoga, not politics. But as our columnist Wolf Terry writes, “If your yoga does not center politics, social justice, and human rights, then it is not yoga.” 2020 was a year charged with politics—and it was only inevitable that it would seep into the yoga setting—virtual and otherwise. Here are a couple ways that leaders in the yoga community responded.

Yogins United, a collective of one hundred and sixteen prominent yoga and Buddhist teachers, launched an initiative in May to help fight voter suppression. Each member of the collective pledged to encourage members of their respective spiritual communities to vote in the November presidential election. Yogins United, started by David Lipsius, a yoga teacher and former president of Yoga Alliance (YA), is a call to action for the yoga, mindfulness, Ayurveda, and spiritual communities to help get out the vote—both in person, or by mail. “The time for division is over,” Lipsius tells YJ. “A new era of partnership and teamwork must be fostered to achieve the highest goals of yoga—peace, freedom and liberation for all.” The group includes luminaries and changemakers like Reginald Hubbard, Octavia Raheem, Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Stephen Cope, Rajni Tripathi, James Bae, Rod Stryker, Seane Corn, and Shiva Rea. 

In September, yoga leaders began speaking out against QAnon to denounce the viral pro-Trump conspiracy theory that had been infiltrating spiritual communities. QAnon alleges that the world is run by satan-worshipping pedophiles and the rhetoric began emerging in the yoga and wellness communities through the spread of misinformation. On social media, some teachers and influencers were posting QAnon-related messaging, calling COVID-19 a hoax, encouraging gun ownership, warning about human trafficking, and celebrating Donald Trump as a “light worker” in his quest to “save the children.” But influential yoga teachers including Hala Khouri and Seane Corn—cofounders of the yoga and social justice organization Off the Mat, Into the World, began speaking out on their social media feeds. Khouri said she believes the debunked viral documentary “Plandemic,” which spread misinformation about COVID-19, was an entry point to QAnon for many in the wellness community. In March, for instance, celebrity obstetrician Christiane Northrup, MD, started sharing QAnon-related “save the children” messaging, along with videos and memes that disparage vaccines and mask-wearing and encourage distrust of mainstream media. Northrup also shared “Plandemic” with her more than 750,000 followers on social media. Corn told YJ that QAnon messaging is manipulative and exploitative—designed to incite chaos and division that was leading up to the upcoming presidential election. “I just wanted to alert people that QAnon is a cult and it’s dangerous and it’s got its roots in white supremacy culture,” she says.

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Feeling anxious? There’s an app for that. In fact, there are tons. 

Mindful Technology

As stress levels soar from COVID-19, people are increasingly turning to technology to find moments of respite. Research published in April in the America’s State of Mind Report detailed the toll that COVID-19 has taken on the country’s mental health. According to the report, by mid-March, more than 75 percent of all antidepressant, anti-anxiety, and anti-insomnia medications were new prescriptions. 

But the meditation market in the U.S. is booming—valued at 1.2 billion dollars—and offers a potential antidote. In April, downloads of mental health apps surged by 2 million compared to January, totaling close to 10 million downloads by the end of the month. And leading these downloads were meditation apps, including the Calm app with 3.9 million downloads, Headspace with 1.5 million downloads, and Meditopia with 1.4 million downloads. A new sleep meditation app, Relax Melodies, which was recently named the Best App for Sleep by Reviewed.com, was also among the top five most used wellness apps during the pandemic with over 50 million downloads. In July, Snapchat launched a series of mini meditations in partnership with Headspace, similar to the app’s “The Wakeup,” which launched earlier this year and features short, 3–5 minute videos that help listeners set a mindful tone for the day ahead. 

Yoga livestream offerings are expanding too, and it seems nearly every teacher and studio is on board and taking advantage of the platforms being offered by MindBody, LiveKick, Namastream, HelloYoga, MamaZen, and many, many more. In late-October, Insight Timer, a popular guided meditation app, launched a donation-based livestream yoga platform for an audience of 18 million. The app boasts the world’s largest library of free guided meditations from renowned speakers, teachers, and authors such as the Dalai Lama, Tara Brach, and Elizabeth Gilbert with more than 60,000 guided meditations from more than 8,000 teachers. 

More than 9,000 yoga teachers had signed on at the time of the launch of the new yoga platform, including celebrated yogis from different backgrounds and methodologies like Dianne Bondy (Yoga for Everyone), Heather Lilleston (Yoga for Bad People), Colleen Saidman, DeAndre Sinette, Janet Stone, Rodney Yee, and Koya Webb.

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Mindfulness and Mental Health

A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) detailed the impact of COVID-19 on mental health in the country and showed that at least 40 percent of adults struggle with substance abuse and mental health issues—with 31 percent experiencing anxiety or depression and nearly 11 percent considering suicide. Some experts have already warned of a potential for long-term psychological effects. It’s no secret that yoga improves psychological well-being, particularly as mounting scientific evidence continues to show the mental health benefits of both yoga and meditation. 

For instance, 32 studies reviewed and analyzed by the British Journal of Sports Medicine demonstrated that people who regularly engaged in physically active yoga were likely to have fewer depressive symptoms than those who used other types of interventions. Yoga types included in the study included hatha, vinyasa, SVYASA, and Kripalu, among others. 

In August, one study showed that Kundalini yoga could help treat symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Researchers compared Kundalini Yoga with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and stress education, and found promising results for the practice as a treatment for anxiety. GAD affects around 3 percent of people in the U.S., is more common among women, and is likely being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another study published in September found that mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR) can help alleviate both chronic pain and depression, two common comorbid disorders that present an elevated risk for suicide. MBSR is a time-tested eight-week yoga and meditation program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979. Chronic pain affects more than 100 million adults in the United States and has been a significant contributor to the 21st-century opioid epidemic, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Suicide rates in 2020 have nearly doubled since 2018. The new research suggests that MSBR is a viable complement to clinical treatment for depression and a possible alternative to prescription opioids for pain management. 

Filmmaker and dedicated meditator, David Lynch

Even celebrities have been known to speak out about the effects of mindfulness on mental health, from Russell Brand to Beyonce to Oprah. The filmmaker David Lynch, who has been a meditator since 1973, recently launched a new initiative, “Meditate America,” to bring free transcendental meditation to as many as 300 million Americans at-risk for stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, the mounting collective stress and trauma in the nation was the impetus for the campaign spearheaded by the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace. “The whole country is at risk,” says David Lynch Foundation CEO Bob Roth. “The whole country is traumatized.”

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Abuse by Yoga Leaders

A great misfortune in the yoga industry has been its long and complicated history of sexual misconduct and misuse of power. From Osho (Bagwan Shree Rajneesh) to the fall of John Friend and Anusara to Bikram Choudhury, and the 300 plus #MeTooYoga stories that were collected by Rachel Brathen in 2017, countless students and teachers have fallen prey to sexual manipulation by yoga leaders for decades—if not longer. Unfortunately, 2020 was not without its scandals, either. Here are two of them (that we know of).

In August, a new report detailed decades of abuse by Yogi Bhajan, the founder of Kundalini Yoga in the West. Bhajan, originally named Harbhajan Singh Khalsa, was implicated in dozens of sexual assault and harassment claims according to an independent investigation conducted by An Olive Branch, an organization formed in 2011 to respond to ethical misconduct in spiritual communities. The sexual assault allegations against Bhajan are likely true, according to the report, which was commissioned by the Siri Singh Sahib Coporation (SSSC), an umbrella organization overseeing all for-profit and non-profit holdings of Bhajan’s estate. SSSC began the independent investigation into the allegations on March 9, 2020, following Pamela Dyson’s publication of her memoir, “Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage,” in late 2019, 16 years after Bhajan’s passing. Dyson was the guru’s former secretary for more than 20 years.

In July, Yoga to the People (YttP) abruptly announced that it was ceasing its operations—but it wasn’t due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A firestorm had been brewing on Instagram leading up to the sudden closure, as an account called YttP Shadow Work began posting disturbing stories from anonymous submitters detailing discrimination and misconduct across the yoga chain founded by Greg Gumucio that stretched from coast to coast. In interviews with The Cut and Vice, former employees came forward, detailing that “the company’s shiny, friendly façade was a dark and dysfunctional workplace built on secrecy and manipulation.” (Both YttP Shadow Work declined an interview with YJ, as did Gumucio). Stories shared on the IG account recounted instances of being touched inappropriately during Savasana or coerced to have sex with a yoga leaders, which resulted in better teaching opportunities. Other reports further indicated instances of sexual manipulation and even rape. Many of the posts have trigger warnings: “sexual misconduct,” “body shaming,” and “racial discrimination,” to name a few. Vice reports that when Gumicio, a former student of Bikram Choudhury, arrived in New York in 2006, he was already a convicted felon and accused rapist. His goal of making yoga affordable and accessible was the foundation for YttP, which offered donation-based classes in a hot yoga setting—and a sequence of poses similar to Bikram’s classic 26-posture series. (Choudhury, who attempted to sue Gumicio in 2011 for copyright infringement, has also faced charges of rape, sexual harassment, and discrimination of his own.) At this time, it is unclear whether formal charges against Gumicio and YttP will be filed. It is also unclear whether or not YttP has resumed its digital operations.

Science is proving the benefits of meditation that practitioners have known for years
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The Science of Yoga 

Emerging scientific studies on the benefits of yoga and meditation on physical health and other factors continues, and 2020 was another notable year for research on the effects of mindfulness. Here are a few standouts.

Mindfulness, when applied to mind control may seem like a paradox, but a new study shows that meditation improves an individual’s ability to control a computer directly from their mind. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have found that meditation training helps people more effectively navigate Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) technology, which can be useful for people with physical disabilities. “Meditation has been widely practiced for well-being and improving health—and our work demonstrates that it can also enhance a person’s mental power for mind control and may facilitate broad use of noninvasive BCI technology,” says lead researcher Bin He, PhD.

In September, new research published in the American Journal of Cardiology shows a possible link between meditation and improved cardiovascular health. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in America. According to the CDC, around 647,000 Americans die of heart disease each year. For perspective, that’s one death every 37 seconds or 1 in every 4 deaths. As current and emerging research continues to investigate stress as a risk factor for heart disease, the American Heart Association recommends stress management for general well-being.

Another new study suggests that yoga is an effective form of treatment for chronic migraine, offering a potential alternative to medications with adverse side-effects. In fact, the researchers found that yoga as an auxiliary therapy was more successful for migraine pain relief than medical treatment alone. Around 14 percent of the population experience migraines, which can be either episodic (0 to 14 headaches per month) or chronic (15 or more headaches per month), according to academic research. Many migraine sufferers would probably say they’d try just about anything to alleviate the pain of this enerving disorder. While the details of the specific yoga postures and practices were not publicly disclosed, any yoga poses that relieve tension in the neck or cervical spine such as seated neck stretches may offer relief. Bridge Pose (with or without support), just about any type of forward fold, Constructive Rest, and Savasana could help facilitate deep diaphragmatic breathing and alleviate symptoms associated with the disorder.

Was 2020 a total bust? Not necessarily! For many of us, it has never been a more interesting, if unpredictable, time to be a part of the yoga industry. From all of us here at YJ, we wish you a happy, safe, and prosperous 2021. May your practice continue to serve you and your community in the new year and beyond.