Over the past year, America’s premier newspaper has captured the superficial nature of yoga today. Yoga articles in The New York Times cover companies touting stylish yoga products, those who party yoga-style, fun-in-the-sun yoga retreats, and (worst of all) a recent trend toward “Doga”—Yoga for dogs.
Is The Times just giving us pop pablum we want to read? Has American yoga become the latest in junk spirituality? Am I a yoga curmudgeon who needs to loosen up? Maybe all three. But it took a long time for America, yoga, and I to get to this point.
A Long, Flowing Sequence
In the mid-1970s, many young adults, buoyed by growing interest in meditation and yoga, entertained values considered countercultural in the 1960s—self-care, vegetarianism, natural healing, and psycho-spiritual growth. I was one of them. Gurus from Asia had been invited here by their American followers. Ashrams and yoga and meditation centers sprang up in cities along both coasts, and retreat centers were established in the Rockies and Appalachians. Authors taking up the Eastern trail, like Ram Dass (Dr. Richard Alpert), became household names.
My cross-fertilizing involvement with Hinduism and Buddhism began back then. My intellectual interest began with Hinduism, as did my dedication to Yoga. My commitment to meditation began with Buddhism. As a sociology graduate student, I studied Hare Krishnas in Evanston and Divine Light Mission devotees in Chicago,
and spent time at the Himalayan Institute in Milwaukee and with Transcendental Meditation practitioners in Madison. I witnessed how fervor and commitment transformed lives through practices that cultivate a love and knowledge for living fully and happily.
Eventually, my yoga ran parallel to my meditation and evolved into my life practice—working with prana or life force energy through poses and breath work (what we know as “Hatha yoga”), ethical restraints and observances, dietary restrictions and chants, and meditation and visualization practices. Experiencing yoga’s health benefits happened within a wider spiritual context.
The emerging New Age of the early 1980s provided a rationale, worldview, products, and services to meet yoga practitioners’ needs at bookshops, retreat centers, natural food stores, vegetarian restaurants, temples, and holistic health clinics. Popular yoga figures already included B.K.S. Iyengar and others trained by the great Krishnamacharya in India—K. Patabhi Jois, Indra Devi and K.T.V. Desikachar among them. Krishnamacharya treated yoga practice as meditation-in-action while refining physical practices. Most of his students followed suit.
Yoga Explosion: Three Trends Converge
From the 1970s through the 1990s, three parallel trends contributed to the mainstream’s embrace of yoga. First, there was greater social acceptance of role experimentation. It became not only okay, but encouraged, to question traditional social roles and experiment with alternative lifestyles. Many could opt for more egalitarian and androgynous roles as the image of a yoga student slowly embraced stereotypical attributes associated with traditional femininity (gentleness, receptivity and flexibility) and masculinity (endurance, strength and control).
Second, mass media revealed role models who could generate interest and excitement about yoga among the public. The entertainment industry’s tell-all celebrity stories spread from television, radio, magazines and movies to the Web. They covered entertaining topics of interest to largely female audiences. Yoga was one of these topics as a legion of experimenting stars added their names to a growing list of famous practitioners touting the many health and fitness benefits.
Third, the mainstream’s interest in health and fitness led to the spread of yoga classes, services, and products for popular consumption. Emphasizing the benefits of getting in shape, feeling fit, and enjoying life more fully, the fitness industry expanded exponentially with the aging of baby boomers, but also attracted younger generations. The popular media used health, beauty, and self-care tips to hook viewers and readers in an ever more image-conscious society. The industry used medical information to encourage a growing market through the franchising of fitness centers, proliferation of recreation centers and spas, and the spread of personalized training.
This workout perspective began to influence yoga teaching and to infiltrate a growing yoga market. Beryl Bender Birch and Bryan Kest developed power yoga as more of a physical regimen and, as Ann Pizer pointed out in the on-line newsletter Your Guide to Yoga, “it brought yoga into the gyms of America.” Classes began diversifying into varied styles, with some more physically rigorous and demanding than others. The added rigor did not necessarily equate to shallow spirituality, unless the focus became essentially gymnastic.
Krishnamacharya’s student Ramaswami describes this development succinctly in Yoga Beneath the Surface: People wanting dynamic exercises found “the old yoga a bit too sedate. So these energetic exercises have drawn a number of enthusiasts to yoga. Furthermore, many Westerners like to “sweat it out.” So systems of yoga where one is made to profusely sweat by artificially altering the ambient temperature have also become popular.”
It’s no surprise that yoga’s spiritual commentary fell on increasingly deaf ears. As a 2006 Pew Research Center survey found, generations succeeding the baby boomers (tagged as Generation X and Generation Next) are more materialistic and less concerned with spirituality than are earlier generations; yoga could shift to follow suit and easily attract the 18-44 crowd. And shift it did.
The growing popularity of fitness-oriented styles had a profound influence on American yoga. Georg Feuerstein, the Western world’s esteemed yoga scholar, lamented in The Deeper Dimension of Yoga that “most contemporary schools of Hatha yoga ignore prana and pranayama, just as they ignore the mental disciplines and spiritual goals, and instead promote a plethora of physical postures. The emphasis is problematical, as it has led to an unfortunate reductionism and distortion of the traditional yogic heritage.”
Throughout the 1990s, the three broad currents cross-fertilized the growing mainstream interest in what were once exclusively New Age concepts: natural healing products, holistic health modalities, comparative spirituality, and edgy science. Thoughtful writers brought together Eastern thought and Western science and a cadre of physicians with one foot outside the medical establishment touted the benefits of natural healing alternatives, including a now evolving yoga practice. The public took heed of yoga’s healing power, and mainstream medicine assessed its efficacy, with a sharp rise in the use of alternative therapies.
The result was a compelling paradigm of cutting-edge thinking and research findings, a growing market for natural healing products and wellness practices, and a committed readership for a host of holistic health and yoga publications. It has helped to keep a more marginalized spiritual yoga alive.
By 2000, all the secular dynamite needed to ignite the national yoga explosion was present. With full economic expansion, young and middle-aged professionals had larger expendable incomes. Yoga images were everywhere, from toothpaste ads to movie trailers. Given the power of electronic media, young and middle-aged females unassociated with the New Age, but following the fads and fashions of the rich or famous, now entered the yoga subculture nationwide.
Yoga had become avery hot item, but largely reduced to asanas and a physical workout, a healing modality, and a way to remain centered. Studios sprouted, training programs popped up, and new magazines and web sites joined the bandwagon.
Innovators now merged yoga with pilates, kick-boxing, cycling, hip-hop and other physical forms. Yoga traditionalists reflexively recoiled. “They appear to be reinventing yoga by drawing inspiration from other physical training systems,” wrote Ramaswami, while “some of the basic tenets, like slow breathing and mind focus, are being put aside.”
Dumbing-Down the Spiritual
What is the upshot of this dramatic rise in popularity and superficiality? Less attention need be given to yoga as a holistic path of personal purification and freedom, with deep practices that open students to a wider metaphysical worldview and their place in it. If the billions of consumer dollars spent and newspaper articles are any indication, most people are apparently satisfied with a narrowly-circumscribed yoga despite the quiet minority of spiritually-minded practitioners.
According to a Yoga Journalpoll, sixteen million Americans were practicing yoga in 2008. Many more had already tried it, and NAMASTA claimed a staggering 70,000 had been trained as teachers. Statistics bear out the growing popularity of secularized yoga, despite the superficial trappings of namasté-speak and tantra-talk. The American Sports Data Superstudy pointed out that participation in yoga and pilates had displaced more traditional exercise, with enormous growth among the younger exercise crowd. Billions were spent annually on yoga workouts, retreats and paraphernalia.
Some well-known instructors like Cyndi Lee and Stephen Cope hold to deeper things and attract those with spiritual sensitivities. However, relatively few instructors offer regular meditation sessions or classes in yoga philosophy and psychology, much less the breath work, to complement the poses. Yoga’s deeper spirituality had been brushed aside, or as internationally-respected Geeta Iynegar had put it in Yoga Journal: “Popularity becomes a curse. Popularity introduces dilution.”
Worse yet, the online Health, Beauty, and Fitness Center publicly commented—apparently without embarrassment—that “while yoga is popular, it is not quite mainstream as yet. However, many people have the misconception that yoga is boring, too quiet, linked to eastern religions and many other myths.” [Emphasis added.] That is, yoga is really a rigorous workout, can be done to a rock beat, is immensely fun, and has nothing to do with spirituality.
They led me to write my book, Yoga beyond Fitness: Getting More from an Ancient Spiritual Practice, an attempt to refocus the direction of American yoga.
True, doing the poses can be so much fun, can give us a great sense of accomplishment and community, and heal us physically in many ways. Yet celebration of stripped-down yoga is so commonplace that it is now difficult to not express openness and acceptance of almost any development—and that includes “Doga.”
A yoga industry is in the very nature of American cultural life and its incestuous intertwining with business. Newspaper and magazine pages are evidence of how yoga is assimilating into our collective national psyche and interpersonal lives, as well as how its Indian roots are respected but often lost through the forest of its pop culture tree branches. Here, too, is clear testimony of yoga’s integration into the fabric of the country’s institutions as a full-blown industry with leisure lifestyle marketing, educational programming, medical enterprises to prove its health benefits, preventive and rehabilitative modalities to ensure its application, and business products and services that expand its profits.
The end result is that many longtime practitioners are saddened by what is invisible or easily disregarded by many who practice today, despite the marvelous ways yoga now adds to our physical and psychological wellbeing.
Hatha yoga’s commercialization and superficiality is something that yoga’s deeper practices are fortunately spared, since it may be too difficult to sell periods of sitting meditation for cultivating a pure awareness beyond thought or practicing disciplined breath work that moves energy up and down subtle channels of the energy body. These deeper practices are neither as enticing nor as easily promoted as yoga’s outer layer—the poses and the products that cater to pre- and post-asana practice—by business advertising, mass media and entertainment outlets.
The crucial question curdling to the top of this business brew is how Hatha yoga’s integrity as a spiritual practice can be effectively maintained as it becomes just another entrée in the glut of products and services awaiting their turn as grist in the commercial mill of postmodern life. Yoga’s uniquely contemporary bipolar condition—a business enterprise and spiritual path packaged into creative fitness workouts and specialized workshop retreats—appears to
pose a serious danger to the health of a noble ancient path and may warrant some metaphorical medication as a corrective. Our challenge—those of us who are newspaper editors, yoga book writers, teachers, and retreat directors—is how to respond to these developments that so vitally affect yoga’s future.
Will we press our energies to “buck the trend,” and become curmudgeons? Will we reconcile with or actively promote more of the business flow of yoga dough, as The Times appears to do? Many recognize the need to strike a balance—if not to address the tension between—the requirements of traditional yoga spirituality and the business demands of a far more lucrative marketplace. Yet our decisions reflect our perspectives and priorities, and they ultimately affect the public’s as well.
Tom Pilarzyk is a college administrator who rolls out his mat in Shorewood, Wisconsin.