Yoga Teaching and Money: A Conversation with Mark Whitwell

Mark Whitwell has been teaching yoga around the world for many decades, after first meeting his teachers Tirumali Krishnamacharya and his son TKV Desikachar in Chennai in 1973. Mark Whitwell is one of the few yoga teachers who has refused to commercialise the practice, never turning away anyone who cannot afford a training. The editor of and contributor to Desikachar’s classic book “The Heart of Yoga,” Mark Whitwell is the founder of the Heart of Yoga Foundation, which has sponsored yoga education for thousands of people who would otherwise not be able to access it. A hippy at heart, he successfully uses a Robin Hood “pay what you can” model for his online teachings, and is interested in making sure each individual is able to get their own personal practice of yoga as intimacy with life, in the way that is right for them, making the teacher redundant. He has been an outspoken voice against the commercialisation of yoga in the west, and the loss of the richness of the Indian tradition, yet gentle and humorously encouraging western practitioners to look into the full depth and spectrum of yoga, before medicalising it and trying to improve on a practice that has not yet been grasped. And yet he is also a critic of right-wing Indian movements that would seek to claim yoga as a purely hindu nationalist practice and the intolerant mythistories produced by such movements. After encircling the globe for decades, teaching in scores of countries, Mark lives in remote rural Fiji with his partner, where he can be found playing the sitar, eating papaya, and chatting with the global heart of yoga sangha online. Anyone is welcome to come and learn the basic principles of yoga with him.

Q: In my fear of being tarred with the same brush as the language “special discount, on now, two spots left!” commodification, I tend to charge nothing for my classes. What is going on here?

Mark Whitwell: I like that. Uncompromising. Krishnamacharya’s instruction was that yoga is not commercial activity. Yoga is caring for each other in local community. Yoga is the force of mother nature’s nurturing transmitted one person to another. Caring and giving the tools of healing and self-empowerment in the way that is right for each person. Now, any one who is capable of being a teacher will want to do it anyway, and earning money from it is entirely secondary to that first motive, which is that you care for people. So I think it’s very good that we establish this, that the first principle is to care for people, and we are willing to teach yoga for nothing. If people have nothing, they pay nothing, or perhaps they bring two carrots out of the garden or something. But other people will understand what you’re doing, and perhaps have income from the major secular cashflows of this world, and they might like to bring along a thousand dollars one day, because they see what you’re doing.

Q: Do you think, though, that being willing to teach for nothing is different from insisting on teaching for nothing in the belief that money is bad or tainted or to be avoided.

Mark Whitwell: The ideals of conventional spirituality and religion is to go beyond desire, beyond the apparent need for money. But there’s no going beyond that, everybody needs it, it’s the basic currency, the basic transmission of energy between people. We need money for survival, it’s how the world works. People have developed language to avoid saying money, like energy exchange, or words like “offering” to obscure that what they are doing is very much a transaction. If something is an offering then nothing is expected in return.

I think we should talk money. And its fine to say to somebody, “You can have this for nothing, if you’ve got no money, that’s ok, you can come anyway. But if you’ve got some money, then that would be good to make a contribution, so we can do this work in the world. When you talk about money, talk about money.

I often say to people, keep your day job. Don’t leap into relying on fulltime yoga teaching to survive. Gurdjieff used to say, do your spiritual life with your full frontal into the world, and make your money with your left back foot. You know, work your money out somehow., Be practical. We have to be practical.

Q: I know that what I’m teaching isn’t really yoga, but I need to do what is popular to survive financially. No one ever told me that being a yoga teacher would be a constant financial struggle that would force me to just cater to existing tastes and consumer demand. I need to pay my rent so I have to teach gymnastics!

Mark Whitwell: I know it’s hard, it’s just that we shouldn’t oblige yoga to keep us in house and car and mortgage and everything else. Getting the kids to school. I mean that’s hard. If that is our circumstance, then fair enough, do your best, but also understand that when money becomes a priority of your motive to teach, it’s not good. It creates a vulnerability to having to perform to the conventional expectations of yoga, where you have to do what’s popular to survive financially.

Let’s be clear, we are teaching each person how to do their yoga that is right for them, free of any dependence on a book, a video, a class, a teacher present. Giving them the principles where their own breath becomes the guiding principle of how to do their own practice. And the paradox is that yoga was always something that was done in the sanctuary of your home, the temple of your own body, the heart’s temple. A personal matter. We need to be trying to put ourselves out of a job. The current situation is as ridiculous as if a Hindu person had to go down to a local puja studio three times a week, and pay them to do a puja. It’s something personal, something prior to all transactions and monetisation. We have been forced to return to home practice in the pandemic, and this is a good thing. This is what we are doing as yoga teachers, giving people their own home practice.

Q: If I’m a teacher and I have to teach gymnastics in order to pay my rent, how do I get out of that?

Mark Whitwell: Be assertive in your local environment and yoga studio about what you are teaching. “This is what I teach, this is what I want you to know”. Be in the room, be with the group and teach what you know. And if don’t want to do that, you feel you can’t do that, then that’s alright, teach some duplication of patterns, but be honest with yourself about what you’re doing, and I expect you will gradually feel moved to share something more. We have this opportunity to bring these principles from the wisdom tradition into what has been popularized, the patterns. People doing the popular styles and derivates deserve to have these principles included in their practice. There doesn’t need to be any conflict or criticism. If this yoga has gone into you, if you understand it with the authority of your own intimate experience as life itself, that the body loves its breath, the inhale loves the exhale, strength loves to receive, you know. If you know that, then teach that with some sort of assertiveness, with the authority of your experience. That’s the yoga teacher. With your own unique voice. Your yoga, not somebody else’s yoga. And what makes it yours is not the shapes, not the sequences. It’s the feeling they are done with. Your intimacy with life. Your participation in life.

Q: And so as a teacher, if I notice that I am in fact trying to get something from people, whether its approval or love or money or whatever, that it’s not really a clean gift, should I stop teaching? If I’m still looking for something from others, that it’s not ‘no strings attached.’

Mark Whitwell: Well, it’s a great question. It depends if you can simply witness that and understand it as the momentum of social patterning. That you intend to be free of. If that clarity of intention is there, and you can abide as reality itself, compassion itself, for yourself and your student, and not identify as that pattern, then, well ok. You don’t have to be some kind of perfect saint to share yoga. Don’t wait until you are pure and perfect. But you do need that touchstone through your own practice with the fact that you are reality, not those patterns. You know in Yoga there is no such thing as yoga, there is no such thing. There is asmita or association. And if you’re associated with an idea of a person trying to get rid of their ego, that’s your association. And you can go on in that identity and thought structure. There is this understanding that all there is is reality, the cosmos arising as the whole body and all its vast relationships and interdependence. And you live that, and now teach yoga. There is no process. It’s just understanding. As long as there is that samskara of separate object and you as the separate knower, the subject, to the imagined separate object, if that continues as a habit of thought activity and identification with that presumption, which by the way the body becomes like vehicle of pain relative to that presumption. So you notice all that and at some point you just go F*****. So what do you do? You practice, you do the yogas of participation in reality itself, and that doesn’t even have to be accompanied by this philosophical understanding that we just mentioned. The yogas done accurately as they came from the tradition, as Krishnamacharya bought them through and rescued them, if you do that practice, it is your direct embrace of reality itself, which is nurturing force, and in time those presumptions disappear out of your system.



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