Yoga, Inc.


By Russell Wild  |  

According to a May article in U.S. News & World Report, about 18 million Americans now practice yoga. The average practitioner’s yearly expenditure on all things yoga-instruction, mats, props, clothing, weekend workshops, books, CDs, videos-could be conservatively estimated at a ballpark $1,500. That amount times 18 million equals $27 billion. To put this into perspective, if the yoga business were consolidated, the resulting corporation (Yoga-Mart?) would be slightly larger than Dow Chemical, slightly smaller than Microsoft.

That’s big.

And it’s getting bigger. Mainstream retailers like J.Crew and Puma have been selling their own lines of yoga gear for some time now, and Nike is introducing its first yoga shoe (the Kyoto, $55 retail) in November.

Some people, granted, not many, are getting rich off yoga. One executive, whose company is one of the largest sellers of yoga paraphernalia, makes a quarter-million a year in salary. That’s in addition to this manager’s stock options, which over the last several years have totaled $1.4 million. When asked to comment on such good fortune, this executive responded testily, “To take this [discussion] into my salary is to trivialize what we do here. I feel compromised by your asking me that question. People are expected to make a living. And besides, you have no clue what I do with my worldly goods-what, for instance, I give to charity. I’m very upset with you.”

A touch of soul-scraping ambivalence? If so, our executive is far from alone. Throughout the yoga community, people are wondering whether the bustling business of yoga is good karma. Is it OK to make big money off a practice that has its roots in renunciation and asceticism? Is the commercialization of yoga distorting its very essence? And what’s next for the yoga biz, now that we’ve already seen the marketing of yogatards, yoga shoes, yogi pillows (stuffed with buckwheat hulls), the $1,200 “Tantric Bedroom Set” (for adults only), and a battery-operated, inflatable “Chi Machine”?

Where Dollars Meet Divinity
Yoga isn’t the only spiritual practice to be subject to commercialization—far from it. Just name a church, any church, and there’s a store that goes with it. Christianity is huge business, from the selling of Christmas spirit and the $1.8 billion Bible and book trade to the thriving market for Christian pop music and religious gifts. Apparel is the latest wrinkle in New Testament merchandising, with the recent advent of companies such as God’s Gear Gospel Wear, Living Epistles and Exodus. In a 2001 survey done by the Christian Booksellers Association, 34 percent of adults said they had shopped in a store that specializes in Christian products in the past six months.

Surfing the Web, you can buy a gentleman’s 14-karat Star of David ring for $1,100 at www.jewjew.com or a stuffed Torah for the kids at www.judaica-online.com. Looking for a Koran baseball cap, jersey, coffee mug, or perhaps a nice tote bag? Check out www.my-muslim.com. If you’re into Transcendental Meditation (TM), buy TM-approved beverages, herbal supplements, books, and CDs at www.maharishi.co.uk. Even eBay has opened itself to the spiritual marketplace. One man from Des Moines, Iowa, recently offered his soul for sale. The bidding rose from $1 to $400 before eBay pulled the item.


The marketing of spirituality began long before there was a World Wide Web, says Chava Weissler, Ph.D., professor of religion studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She remarks that during the Middle Ages, it was not uncommon for ragged vendors along dirt roads to hawk souvenirs, such as pieces of earth from the Holy Land, chunks of the Holy Cross, and shreds of bone or the garment of some popular saint.

One of the factors in the rise of Protestantism was the reaction to what was seen as overcommercialization in the Catholic Church, specifically the selling of indulgences-”get-out-of-hell-free cards”-by the Vatican. Pope Leo X began selling them to pay back the money borrowed to build St. Peter’s Basilica, and Martin Luther was outraged. “I grieve over the wholly false impressions which the people have conceived . . . they are sure of their salvation; again, that so soon as they cast their contributions into the money-box, souls fly out of purgatory,” wrote Luther in 1517.

With the founding of the New World several centuries later, despite Luther’s earlier protestations, spiritual marketing was still growing and suddenly got a boost. “America was founded largely by people who sought religious and economic freedoms. Here came the opening of the world’s first free market for spirituality,” says Laurence R. Iannaccone, Ph.D., professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia. Here people could practice whatever faith they wished, and they were also free to capitalize on it. One of the earliest Americans to do so was Benjamin Franklin, who, while no Sunday churchgoer himself, made good money publishing religious pamphlets.

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century when consumerism itself has arguably become a religion, fueled by a retail industry that’s open 24/7, the world’s easiest credit terms, and product promotions that bombard us day and night. It’s hard to get from home to yoga class, or anywhere for that matter, without being sold something by someone. The Dalai Lama’s image looms over a freeway interchange on a billboard stamped with the Apple computer logo. From the Canadian firm that pioneered the placement of advertising posters above men’s urinals in restaurants comes audio ads projected from tiny speakers hidden in the ads’ aluminum frames. And in a recent ecology journal, a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo expresses confidence that butterflies can be genetically tooled to allow company logos on their wings.

Within such a context, is it at all surprising to find yogi pillows and Tantric bedroom sets for sale, not to mention yoga skydiving and weekends in the rainforest? Not at all, says Professor Weissler: “Nothing in our society escapes commodification.”

Yoga: Over 18,000,000 Served
McDonald’s had a problem. The corporation wanted to expand its hamburger empire onto the Indian subcontinent, but most Indians consider cows sacred. So McDonald’s introduced the Maharajah Mac, which is sort of the American Big Mac and sort of not. It’s big. It’s got three buns. But the patty in the middle is made from ground chicken and local spices. It was a success, and McDonald’s of India is soon to open its 100th outlet.


At the same time, a certain Indian import continues to expand throughout the U.S. market. And yoga, like the Big Mac, must bend to meet American consumer tastes and ideas about sanctity. Yoga has thus been adapted to fit into a culture that promotes, perhaps above all, the pursuit of the body beautiful and the generation of profit. Yoga the American way emphasizes the sexy yoga butt along with the serene yoga mind. And the practice of asanas, once done barefoot on dry earth, is now performed on glossy mats by people wearing designer fashions.

That’s just the way it is, say some devotees, and there’s nothing wrong with it. “We are not Indian. We’re not living 3,000 years ago. We are here, and our practice reflects and serves and supports us here,” says Nixa De Bellis, a vinyasa yoga instructor in New York City. “The great masters who sent their disciples to the West to bring the tradition here must have known it would change in a radically different culture.” But could they have possibly foreseen Yogilates in yogatards? And hip-hop yoga?

“I don’t know anything about hip-hop yoga, but it sounds like fun!” says Leslie Harris, who was originally trained at Integral Yoga and now teaches a combination of Iyengar and vinyasa in Manhattan. “If that’s where people choose to enter the practice, that’s fine. A good number of those people, once they’ve started the process, will surely discover that yoga has much more to offer.” Echoing that same sentiment, Barbara Benagh, founder of Boston’s Yoga Studio, says, “Yoga can fit into the fitness box. But it won’t stay in that box.”

And what of the well-stocked gift shops beside the hip-hop and Yogilates studios?
David Newman, founder and director of Yoga on Main in Philadelphia, has a gift shop in his studio. He isn’t at all apologetic for it. “I had the center for nine years and suddenly felt the urge to expand. I decided to open a temple disguised as a store,” he says. “Some people are hungry for God realization. Some are hungry for a cool T-shirt with an Om sign on it. We are here to feed people and to meet them on their level. The wonderful thing is that somebody may come in to buy a T-shirt and end up developing a regular practice in yoga.”

Asked if he feels any ambivalence making money off trinkets, Newman, who trained in the Viniyoga tradition, displays no defensiveness. “I’m sure there are people out there merely looking to suck money out of yoga’s popularity. But there are others generating income in a sweet and spiritual way. I’m totally in celebration of what we’re doing.”

Alan Finger, who co-owns six Yoga Zone studios in the New York area, is a true yoga entrepreneur. He says he doesn’t know what his revenues are but suggests that he is not hurting for money. And he sees nothing wrong with that. “Money itself is not a problem, although it can be,” he says. “The question is, Is it helping you to deepen your evolution, or is it dragging you down?”

As for whether yoga itself is being dragged down, dumbed down, or otherwise corrupted by the commercial habits of American yogis, Finger thinks not. He says that commercialism is inextricably tied to growth, and growth is good. “American yoga, for all its commercialism,” says Finger, “is actually stimulating the Indians to wake up and recognize what they’ve got.”


The Shadow Side
Not all practitioners find the Americanization of yoga—and especially its commodification—to be so fantastic. “The downside to it is that people get the impression that they need props and paraphernalia and a color-coordinated yoga outfit with shoes to practice yoga. In truth, you don’t need anything,” says Sharon Staubach, one of the founding members of Yoga Alliance and an instructor in the Denver area. “Shoes, if anything, interfere with the practice of asana.”
Another downside, says Staubach, is evident in the advertisements used to sell yoga products. “Like most ads, they feature beautiful people, Cindy Crawford types, who are then airbrushed into somebody’s version of perfection. Studies show that when women look at women’s magazines-rife with such ads-their self-esteem plummets,” she says. “For yoga ads to do this is so against what yoga’s all about. Yoga is about cultivating nonharming to self and others.”

Professor Weissler sees another problem in the commodification of yoga, as with other spiritual practices. “People come to believe that they can buy enlightenment. And a kind of spiritual laziness sets in. People say to themselves, ‘Oh, I bought the meditation cushion. I bought the yoga outfit. Now I’m a yogi.’ Of course, it doesn’t work that way,” she says. “Enlightenment is only achieved through hard work and daily spiritual practice. It’s not easy to achieve. It’s not meant to be easy.”
The bounty being made selling yoga and yoga products is off the mark, says Deborah Rogers of Scottsdale, Arizona, who practices Iyengar and Anusara Yoga. “At a time when the economy has taken a toll on many Americans, there are studios raising their prices. It saddens me. I have heard many people comment that they love yoga but can’t afford the extra cost per month,” she says. “Another thing is the price of the clothing. I can remember a couple of years ago paying $40 for a top and bottom. Now they’re charging $60 for just a pair of cotton pants.”

Steven Thompson, a student of raja yoga in Ontario and a teacher of philosophy at the University of Toronto, says he doesn’t like to see acquisitiveness and greed anywhere, “but they are especially noisome when the products being hawked are related to yoga. Yoga is about turning inward and finding peace there, not in material excess.”

Thompson adds that he is averse to anyone making oodles of money off yoga- whether by working at a studio, selling products, or teaching. Yet a recent issue of Entrepreneur, a magazine that ballyhoos great money-making schemes, called the yoga studio a “million-dollar idea.” The publication profiled one California couple who opened a Bikram Yoga studio in 1995 with $25,000 and by 2001 were earning $250,000 a year. Thompson finds that kind of profit excessive. “One of the people who introduced me to yoga was taught by an Indian yogi who refused to take money because he saw his knowledge as a gift freely given from our ancestors,” says Thompson. “I realize that people need to eat. But still, to serve as examples for the practice, a yoga teacher should not earn more than is necessary to live in modest comfort.”


The End of a Trend?
Whether you are stressed or impressed by the commercial success of yoga, you probably have an interest in what the experts say about the future of yoga and the yoga business. One thing can be said for certain: “It is always a big mistake to look at a current trend and project it into the future,” says George Mason economist Iannaccone. “Because yoga has been growing in leaps and bounds, that does not mean that by the year 2050, we’ll all be yogis. Some people will never be interested in anything having to do with health or Eastern spirituality.”

Iannaccone points to an example of the foolishness of projecting trends: “When nearly one million Promise Keepers [followers of the men's evangelical movement] descended on Washington for a massive rally in October of 1997, some pundits said it would in time surely become a ‘Two-Million Man March’ and then a ‘Three-Million Man March.’ Some were thrilled and saw it as the dawn of a new Christian America. Others were less than enthusiastic and saw America turning into a Nazi state. But neither side’s vision came to pass,” says Iannaccone. “The truth was that the Promise Keepers movement had reached its peak right at that point. They had reached their limit.”

So when might yoga do likewise? Barry Minkin, author of Future in Sight: The 100 Most Important Global Business Trends (Macmillan, 1995) and a global management consultant to companies such as PepsiCo, Pillsbury, and Ford Motors, says that the rapid growth of yoga and the yoga business is closely tied to other trends in America. He cites the recent growth of interest in fitness, Eastern culture, and the mind-body connection, as well as the aging of the population and the emphasis that groups like the American Academy of Sports Medicine have put on maintaining flexibility. Because of this interconnectedness, it is difficult to say when the trend might reverse, says Minkin. But he estimates that a peak might come within 10 years, with the number of yoga practitioners having risen to about 20 percent greater than the current number.

Why then? Because Minkin already sees signs that the trend is maturing. One sign is what he calls “fragmentation.” It happens almost inevitably when any trend starts to mature. “The providers of the good or service feel a need to differentiate themselves, to market in different ways.” He points out that when martial arts first came to the United States, it was basically judo. Then we got karate. Today, there is practically a different form of martial art taught in every strip mall. Similarly, when Elvis first started plucking and strutting, there were only a few passionate followers and one kind of rock ‘n’ roll. Later, when practically everyone in the country under 30 called himself a rock fan, rock was divided into categories like hard rock, soft rock, heavy metal, bubblegum, and punk.
When the yoga trend started to take off in America back in the ’60s and ’70s, most of the growth was in hatha yoga, a la Iyengar. Today, the number of yoga offshoots seems infinite. “I teach at the Yoga Centre in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Across the street is a fitness center where they have recently started to offer Boga classes. Boga? A combination of yoga and boxing. No kidding,” says George McFaul, a hatha yoga teacher. “We often hear the exhortations to ‘push it, harder’ coming out of the windows over their extremely loud sound system.” (Interestingly, the Sanskrit word bhoga refers to the enjoyment of worldly pleasures and is in opposition to the ascetic ethics of some schools of yoga.)


Boga, Yogilates, hip-hop yoga, and other yoga offshoots may all become trends within themselves, says Minkin. More traditional yoga almost surely will lose customers to some of the upcoming yoga hybrids. And one or two of them may eventually spin off into something that hardly resembles yoga at all. Remember how Taebo spun off from karate and dance aerobics to become a hot trend all by itself for a while?

The same kind of “fragmentation” is easy to spot in the ever-increasing lines of yoga apparel, props, literature, recordings, and Om paraphernalia. Sara Chambers, founder and co-owner of Salt Lake City-based Hugger Mugger, says that the number of manufacturers and wholesalers trying to tap into the yoga market is forever increasing. “I’ve been approached to stock everything from cookware to candles, but we try to carry only things that will benefit the yoga practice,” she says.

As to Minkin’s forecast of the yoga trend eventually peaking, Chambers acknowledges that it undoubtedly will. But she has her doubts that that time will come soon. “The trend has been carrying us along swiftly. We haven’t spent any energy in trying to forecast the yoga market. Right now, we’re just trying to keep up with fulfilling orders.”

As part of a larger report for a major food company on consumer dining trends, Minkin once did a study of New England pizza shops. “Pizza was so popular that there got to be a shop on every street corner. It became obvious that they couldn’t all survive. And sure enough, many disappeared,” he says. “Looking around me today, I see many, many yoga studios, and a lot of outfits selling yoga products. When the trend reverses, not all will survive.” But Minkin, though not a yogi himself, echoes the optimism often heard within the yoga community: “I don’t think we need to worry about yoga disappearing, as many other things have,” he assures. “After all, how many trends have been around for 5,000 years?”

Russell Wild is a freelance journalist based in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and often writes about money for various national publications.