Fabrizio Goldstein made a splash earlier this summer when offering homeless people Spin classes on freshly minted Citi Bikes in New York City. Comedian by trade—this Vice clip in which he blames his father for having a small penis is a good sample—the man known as The Fat Jew is back with a new fitness regimen: Subway Bikram Yoga, again for the homeless.
Goldstein probably won't encounter any lawsuits from Bikram Choudhury, considering his sequence resembles nothing the magnate created, but the sweltering heat in the Manhattan underground—108 degrees with 100% humidity—trumps any hot yoga class I've ever attended.
More importantly, Goldstein's initiative strikes the heart of the underreported and much less glamorous side of yoga: its charitable nature. Most mainstream press regarding yoga requires one of the following elements:
— Celebrities practicing and/or endorsing it.
— New apparel.
— High end retreat centers.
— Sex controversies.
Occasionally scientific studies slip into the mainstream, but that's usually only if it's related to losing weight (something yoga is not particularly suited for, given it slows metabolism, contrary to claims by attention-seeking instructors), or helping veterans grapple with PTSD, one of the most important applications over the past few years—and something that should receive much more attention.
More relevant issues are discussed in the vibrant yoga blogosphere. While some of the unfortunate trappings mentioned above circulate, stories about prison yoga, yoga as an empowering tool to combat sex trafficking in India, yoga studios as soup kitchens and other incredible projects find a home in popular online publications.
This is not to say that there's an inherent problem with some amount of commercialism. We exist in a capitalist culture; as former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich recently remarked, it's not capitalism that's the problem, but its wild excesses. There is no better time to contemplate this as our government closes due to the Affordable Care Act, the GOP arguing against its existence while ensuring it will receive its fruits.
That, in a nutshell, is the general problem with commercialized yoga. The internal benefits the practice offers are confused with its presentation; thus, you have a potentially universal discipline that, due to its glossy edge, feels like something shaped for a minority. This, again, is not necessarily due to studio owners, as the economics behind running public spaces is more challenging than one might assume. It's simply a matter of being honest with what yoga can do, and what it cannot, and not getting caught up in the latter.
When yoga is celebrated for its own excesses—spa retreats, $700 designer yoga bags and whatever 'famous' person carries a sticky mat—it cheapens the value of the actual discipline. Yoga is not, by nature, exclusively a charitable endeavor. But when practiced in our modern society, charity becomes an obvious extension, being that a central tenet is understanding your place in the wider world and how your actions affect others.
The Fat Jew claims that his classes are not gimmicks, that they come from the heart. Given the few rough homemade clips available online, Goldstein seems completely genuine in his approach. So then let's celebrate a man helping out a community that the larger culture generally ignores. It might not be as glamorous as a week on the beach, but it's certainly more important.