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Nickel-and-Diming Yoga: What Is the Cost of Eternal Wisdom?

guru satyam, guru jñānam, guru ānandam, guru śhanti

Meaning: The teacher is Truth, the teacher is knowledge, the teacher is bliss, and the teacher is peace. – Interpretation, Austin Sanderson

Have you ever seen an advertisement for “FREE YOGA”? When we see advertisements for “free yoga” we have to ask ourselves, “Is the idea that spiritual yogic teachings are of little or no value part of the ancient yoga tradition?” To try and understand the history of the cost of yogic teachings within the ancient tradition of yoga (which some say are over 5,000 years old) it helps to look at the Puranas or stories. Like all ancient cultures, Indian’s ancient culture explains things through storytelling.

Spoiler alert: when asking whether the yogic teachings should be free or even discounted for the student; the Puranas would honestly not support the concept of free or discounted spiritual yogic teachings. So if you’re looking for affirmations to support the concept of discounted yoga classes, you will not find it here.

According to the Bhagavta Purana, Saint Sandipani Muni was Krishna’s guru (Spiritual Yoga Teacher) – yes, even the Supreme Personality of God needed a Master Yoga Teacher. Saint Sandipani bestowed his enlightened yogic teachings on Krishna and his brother Balarama for months and months; when the teachings had finished, Shri Krishna asked Sandipani what the total cost for the lessons had come to. Back in the good ol’ days, the fees for the teachings of yoga were not discussed until after the lesions were completed. This may seem odd to us in modern times, but this allowed the teacher to evaluate the quality of the student’s attentiveness and how much wisdom the student absorbed. The deeper the students went, the more valuable the teachings and in the case of Lord Krishna, we can assume that the teachings were deeply absorbed.

The great teacher sadly looked down, not responding to Krishna’s inquiry at first. Sandipani had a young son who had died years earlier, and Sandipani’s wife was still grief-stricken years after the young man’s death. Her grief had created deep rifts in the relationship between husband and wife. Their home was filled with despair and joylessness.

Sandipani looked up at Krishna with tears in his eyes and said, “Bring my son back from the dead, and end my wife’s grief. This is my fee for the teachings to you and your brother, dear Krishna.” Krishna understood that there must be an energetic exchange between teacher and student as payment, and in this case, the price was nothing less than a miracle. Krishna did not complain, haggle for a discount, or act insulted by the high price. Krishna was willing to pay his teacher’s “fee.” Sandipani’s son’s resurrection brought happiness back to his wife and home. Krishna’s debt for the teaching of yoga had been paid in full. But we are still left with the question of “What is a fair price for the teachings of yoga?”, after all, none of us would be able to raise the dead if we were told that was the price for yoga teachings. And where does this idea of “free yoga” come from anyway?

The concept of no-cost, free spiritual teachings is deeply rooted in the Christian movement, founded on the spiritual teachings of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus gave away his spiritual teachings to the masses for free, it is assumed by many Westerners (and non-Westerners) that all spiritual traditions function in the same way. The Christian church operates on a donation-based system (10 percent of income is the gold standard for tithing), but no parishioner is confronted if less is dropped into the collection plate at a Sunday service. For the past 2,000-plus years, this model has worked well for the Christian movement. But the same model has not worked so well for the yoga tradition, which only made its appearance in American culture in 1893 with Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the first World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, where he introduced Hinduism and Yoga philosophy to America’s intellectual elite.

It is important to note that Swami Vivekananda did not come to Chicago penniless and barefoot, as Jesus Christ might have; he was fully funded by his Madras disciples, the kings of Mysore, Ramnad, Khetri, diwans, and other followers to help spread the spiritual message of Hinduism and Yoga philosophy to an emerging American audience. 1893 was the pinnacle of American’s Gilded Age and Swami Vivekananda was looking to tap into the wealth of America’s nouveau riche (new money) families to support his charitable work. For example, while in America he spent time teaching John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil and one of the richest men in the world. We can rest assured that his teachings to Rockefeller were not “free yoga in the park”. Swami Vivekananda gave all the money he made on his American tour to help the poor in his country (India). As a renunciant monk he was conflicted with the role money plays in spiritually overall: he knew he need money to continue his teachings, but he did not like it dealing with the issues of finances.

As my dear friend and teacher Devdutt Pattanaik (@devduttmyth) once told me (I am paraphrasing): “Yoga teaches us that life is about paying one’s debt; we are in debt to our parents, family, community, teachers, and God. Discounts for yoga teachings are a Western device that comes out of capitalism.” Modern yoga students need to see the value in spiritual guidance and be willing to pay their debt for those teachings. Too often we fall into the trap of the Christian idea of “free” spiritual ministry and when yoga meets capitalism the answer to the misunderstanding is discounts, add-ons, coupons, sales, sliding scales, scholarships, haggling over prices, and (the worst of all) “free yoga” classes – all in the hope that this will make the modern yoga student see value in the yogic teachings. But unfortunately, it never works; it only leads to more request for discounts and freebies. In today’s times, the energetic exchange for spiritual yogic teachings is the use of money to pay one’s debt for the teachings. Money must be seen as energy that allows for the valuable yoga teachings to continue to be transmitted in the modern world.

Another side of the equation is that whatever a student believes to be true around the concept of money affects the outcome of how they will handle a fee for the teachings of yoga. No matter what price we place on a yoga class or spiritual seminar that a qualified teacher is offering, some people will always find it too expensive, whether they can afford it or not. For them, yogic wisdom has no value. Then there are people who are so poor — especially outside the US — that any reasonable price whatsoever would be impossible to meet. In cases like this, scholarships are a godsend to a true seeker. But as students of yoga, practicing in one of the richest countries in the world (America), we must constantly acknowledge that the teachers who bring us the teachings of yoga (Truth, knowledge, bliss, and peace) should also experience the abundance of the location in which they serve as spiritual guides. As students our generosity is the expression of that gratitude for the teachers and the teachings of yoga.

~ Austin Sanderson Urban Sadhu Yoga


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