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The New Yoga

From health clubs to corporations, yoga has entered the American mainstream. But is it becoming too popular for its own good?

By Anne Cushman

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A few years ago, I was sputtering through New Delhi in a fume-belching 1950s Ambassador taxi, en route to a "yoga hospital" I hoped to include in the guidebook to spiritual India I was researching. Sitting next to me was an official guide assigned to me by the Indian Office of Tourism—an earnest young woman in a lilac sari, whose face lit up when I told her where I was from and what I was working on. As we lurched through bumper-to-bumper traffic—beggars clawing at our windows at gridlocked intersections, an occasional cow peering at us grimly through a cloud of exhaust—my guide told me that she wanted to change her life. She was reading Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus; she had joined a Celestine Prophecy support group. "And I love yoga so much," she said. "If only I had enough money, I would go to California and study it."

Bemused, I asked her why someone from India—the birthplace of yoga and its cradle for almost 5,000 years—would want to go to California to practice. She looked back at me, equally confused. "But I was wondering why you would need to come here," she said. "In California, you have Dr. Dean Ornish!" She spoke the name of the best-selling American M.D.—a student of Swami Satchidananda whose heart disease reversal program centers on yoga and a low-fat vegetarian diet—with reverence, the way freshly baptized yogis in San Francisco refer to the sage Patanjali.

Yoga's Latest Incarnation

Roughly five millennia after Indian mystics, intoxicated on the sacred drink soma, soared into the ecstatic trances that inspired the earliest yogic teachings, a new incarnation of this ancient spiritual technology has taken up permanent residence in the United States. And you don't need me to tell you that yoga has made it big. You've already heard it from Oprah.

You've watched Sun Salutations on Rosie O'Donnell and Good Morning America. You've read the statistics everywhere from the New York Times to the Tulsa World: According to a 1994 Roper poll, 6 million Americans do yoga. (One estimate places the current number at 12 million.) It's the most popular new feature at health and fitness clubs around the country, with close to 40 percent of them now offering classes. The Los Angeles Times estimates that there are more than 70 yoga studios in Southern California alone, with some of the bigger ones pulling in as much as $30,000 a week.

The popular Jivamukti Yoga Center in Manhattan offers at least 108 classes a week, with an average of 60 students packed into every class. The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts—the country's largest residential yoga retreat center—draws close to 20,000 guests a year, for an annual gross of about $10 million. A search on Amazon.com pulls up more than 1,350 yoga book titles, ranging in erudition from A Reinterpretation of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras in the Light of Buddha Dharma to Yoga for Cats. I've done my share of mocking the way yoga shows up in our capitalist culture. (My new favorite automobile ad: an image of a man meditating in front of an immense mound of outdoor gear and a brand new pickup truck. "To be one with everything, he says, you've gotta have one of everything," the copy reads. "That's why he also has the new Ford Ranger. So he can seek wisdom on a mountain top. Take off in hot pursuit of enlightenment....") But in my more serious moments, I believe that when future scholars write the cultural history of the twentieth century, one of the most momentous social trends they will describe is the transplantation into Western culture of Eastern contemplative practices such as yoga and meditation.

Sure, this phenomenon tends to be trivialized in the mainstream media, which likes to portray yoga as the latest fitness fad, hastening to reassure us that it's not really mystical. ("I don't want it to change my life," actress Julia Roberts told In Style magazine. "Just my butt.") But that superficial spin on things may be more a reflection of the nature of the media than the nature of American yoga. The fact is, yogic mind-body practices are influencing almost every aspect of Western society, from medicine to Madonna's choice of outfits at the MTV awards.

Your doctor recommends yoga. Your insurance company pays for it. The Fortune 500 company you work for offers it over lunch hour. Your psychotherapist recommends it to reduce stress. Yoga and meditation are being taught in AIDS hospices, corporate boardrooms, battered women's shelters, inner city churches. Yoga images permeate everything from your favorite sitcom to your least favorite junkmail catalog. And in the process, Western society is leaving its mark on yoga as well. "Yoga is American now," says Judith Lasater, a yoga teacher for almost 30 years and the author of Living Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life. "Back when I first started teaching, it was very tied to Hinduism—to wearing white cotton yoga pants, taking a Hindu name, burning incense, and having a guru. Now it's taken on an American patina rather than a Hindu patina." Is yoga American now? And if so, what is American yoga like? Maybe I've been stricken by millennial fever, whose symptoms include an irresistible compulsion to cogitate on the Big Picture. Because when Yoga Journal asked me to write an article taking the pulse of yoga in America, I jumped at the chance.

I found myself wondering: What are the unique characteristics of yoga's newest incarnation? What are the perils and promises that sincere practitioners face as yoga surfs on a tsunami of popularity into twenty-first-century America? In a land where (if the mass media is to be believed) a yoga practice goes hand-in-hand with a face lift, breast implants, and a tummy tuck, and yoga teachers are the darlings of Hollywood stars, can yoga retain the spirit that has kept it alive since the time of the ancient Vedic sages?

Yoginis in Bikinis?

At the 1993 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, an Indian swami stopped by the Yoga Journal booth to leaf through our calendar. He winced and walked away, sniffing, "Yoga in bikinis!" In Bombay, a few years later, I interviewed Dr. Jayadeva Yogendra, director of the nearby Yoga Institute of Santa Cruz. His father, at the turn of the twentieth century, was one of the first yogic crusaders to bring hatha yoga practices out of the ashrams and mountain caves and begin teaching them to a lay audience. "When I see what yoga has become in the West," Dr. Yogendra told me mournfully, "I wish my father had left it with the hermits in the caves."

Certainly, the form in which yoga is practiced has altered so radically in the West that it is almost unrecognizable to a traditional Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain practitioner. Traveling in India, I met yogis living in caves in the Himalayas, their foreheads painted with insignias marking them as devotees of one of the dozens of yogic sects. I saw them practicing meditation by the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, their almost-naked bodies covered with ashes from the funeral pyres to remind themselves of the impermanence of the flesh.

I visited ashrams decked with brilliantly painted deities and presided over by robed swamis with names as long as their beards. I saw devotees fainting in ecstatic trance at the feet of a woman believed to be an incarnation of the Divine Mother. Not once (outside of a handful of hatha yoga centers catering almost entirely to Western students) did I see the image that has become almost synonymous with yoga in the Western imagination: a sleek young woman—with buns and abs to die for—flexing in a Lycra unitard.

Yoga's new body does not necessarily imply a new soul—yogis, of all people, should understand that. After all, yoga has been reincarnated a hundred times already.

"Yoga has a history of at least 5,000 years, and in the course of that long history it has made many adaptations to changing social and cultural traditions," says yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein, the author of The Yoga Tradition. "That's why we have such a rich heritage." Over the centuries, the word "yoga" has been used to describe a wide range of diverse—and sometimes contradictory—practices and philosophies, from ascetic self-mutilations to Tantric rituals, from austere silent meditations to ecstasies of devotional song, from selfless service to total withdrawal from the world.

Yogis have traditionally been experimenters, picking up whatever tool was on hand to probe more deeply into their true nature. The earliest yogis were rebels who eschewed the traditional Brahmanic culture of India, pursuing instead the radical belief that truth could be found by looking within oneself.

But now that yoga has crossed the Indian borders, it's changing more rapidly—and more radically—than ever before. "I see a dialogue happening with the Western mind, the Western culture—whereas in previous periods that dialogue happened primarily within India. Now yoga is confronting a significantly different social system, a different value system, and so on," Feuerstein continues. "As a result, what we find is that the yoga movement in the Western world is much more of a stew-pot than it has ever been."

"We have to be open-minded to how our culture is going to integrate this ancient art," says yoga teacher John Friend, a 27-year practitioner whose workshop schedule takes him to dozens of cities across the country every year. "Yoga is not going to look like it did at any other time in the past. We can't say, 'The ancient yogis only wore loincloths, so we have to too' or, 'Since we've never seen yoga images on coffee mugs before, putting them there must be wrong.' Americans are so innovative that they're going to come up with a unique expression of yoga."

How can we characterize this new and bubbling yogic stew? In my travels and practice in India and the United States over the past 15 years, I've observed three main characteristics that distinguish American yoga from its traditional history in India: the prominence of asana (posture) practice; the emphasis on lay, nonsectarian practice; and the incorporation of other Eastern contemplative traditions and Western psychology and mind-body disciplines.

Asana Rules!

Say "yoga" to most Americans, and they think "yoga poses." With its emphasis on using the physical body as a vehicle for spiritual awakening, hatha yoga—formerly a small and obscure corner of the vast yoga firmament—has captured the imagination and spirit of America, and is the branch of yoga that has flourished here most successfully. Never before in the history of yoga has the practice of physical postures assumed the importance that it has in the West.

Not that other branches of the path aren't flourishing as well. Bhakti yogis (followers of the path of devotion) are flocking to teachers such as Ammachi, the South Indian "hugging saint" believed by devotees to be an incarnation of the Divine Mother, who draws tens of thousands during her annual Western tour. Buddhist meditation (the Buddha was one of the greatest yogis of all time) has made the cover of Time magazine, and 1 million native-born Americans now identify themselves as Buddhist. The charismatic Gurumayi Chidvilasananda—the spiritual head of Siddha Yoga meditation, which teaches a shakti-based path of awakening energy—has tens of thousands of disciples, many of them Manhattan and Los Angeles glitterati.

But these numbers are dwarfed by the millions of Americans for whom "yoga" means "asana"—and for whom the physical postures are both the gateway into the practice and the vehicle for the spiritual teachings.

It may come as a surprise to these practitioners, but when scholars say that yoga is 5,000 years old, they're not referring to Downward-Facing Dog Pose. For most of yoga history, the attempt to achieve spiritual awakening—the "union" with the Divine and "yoking" of the mind that is the literal meaning of the word yoga—did not involve any particular physical postures other than the classic cross-legged meditation pose. (Which, by the way, is not the exclusive property of yogis—I've seen 10-year-old boys driving buffalo carts down the streets of India, perched in full Lotus on top of their loads of hay.) The elaborate physical postures and breathing techniques of hatha yoga probably weren't invented until at least the end of the first millennium A.D., as part of the Tantric movement, which celebrated the physical body as a vehicle for enlightenment.

Even then, hatha yoga remained a relatively obscure, esoteric, and even controversial practice. It drew harsh criticism from conservatives who viewed it as subverting the lofty goals of classical yoga. For the most part, it remained the province of a few subsects of sadhus, who practiced it in isolation in their temple monasteries and mountain caves—most notably the Natha yogis, the sect founded by Goraksha, the legendary father of hatha yoga, in the tenth century A.D. (The Natha's other distinguishing rites included slitting and stretching the lobes of their ears until they hung down to their shoulders, a practice that thus far has not caught on in the West.)

East Meets West

But in the first decades of the twentieth century, several pioneering Indians—working independently in different parts of their country—began delving into the practices of hatha yoga and introducing them to a lay audience. Sri Krishnamacharya in Mysore, Swami Sivananda in Rishikesh, Sri Yogendra in Bombay, and Swami Kuvalyananda in Lonavala were twentieth-century visionaries who shared an openness to Western science and medicine in addition to their profound knowledge of traditional Indian philosophy, medicine, and spirituality—and, most of all, an interest in hatha yoga as a tool for health of body and mind, and as a vehicle for transmitting the teachings of yoga philosophy to a broad audience.

These pioneers resurrected obscure texts, sought out adepts in remote ashrams (Krishnamacharya, it's said, had to go to Tibet to find a living master), and modified and modernized traditional practices to suit a broad audience. To the horror of their more conservative peers, they began teaching hatha yoga to the general public, including groups that had long been excluded from yogic practices, such as women and foreigners.

These first popularizers of yoga made only tiny inroads into Indian society.

But their students included such luminaries as B.K.S. Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois (founder of the popular Ashtanga Yoga system), Swami Satchidananda (of Woodstock fame), and Swami Vishnu-devananda (whose Sivananda Yoga ashrams now dot the globe). These teachers caught the attention of the blossoming Western counterculture and went on to found yoga empires in the West.

Most of the hatha yoga that is practiced in the West today, in fact, was brought here by the students of this handful of Indian pioneers.

It's not surprising that hatha yoga has become so popular in the West. We're a culture that's obsessed with the body—and paradoxically, sadly out of touch with it. Hatha yoga taps into our lust for physical perfection, but at the same time, it gives us a feeling of connection and peace with our bodies that we've yearned for, even if only unconsciously.

Our Western fascination with the physical dimension of practice makes some yogis uneasy. In a system centered on physical mastery, it's all too easy to use our practice to fuel, rather than abate, our ambition and egotism. In the quest for the perfect backbend, we can easily become distracted from yoga's primary purpose: to calm our minds and open our hearts. "I am concerned that we are getting very focused on sweat and perfection and muscle," says Lilias Folan, who helped spread the gospel of hatha yoga to a wide audience back in the '60s through her pioneering PBS show. "I respect that approach, but my concern is that we're getting away from the wonder and spirit of this great tradition." But at the same time, most senior yoga teachers feel that America's love affair with yoga goes deeper than just the poses.

"People who come here don't only want to get into their bodies—they want to get into their bodies so they can get connected with the meaning and purpose of their lives," says Stephen Cope, author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self and scholar-in-residence at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. "They want their whole lives to be transformed in some way. On opening nights of programs, you have people saying things like 'I want to find my true voice. I want to find the self I've lost touch with.'

"We attract two major categories of people," Cope continues. "One is the middle-aged 40 to 60-somethings, dealing with disillusionment about what our culture holds up as the goals of life—money, status, achievement. The other is the younger 20-somethings, looking for something solid to base their lives on."

"There's more and more thirst for the more esoteric teachings," says Sharon Gannon, cofounder of the ultrafashionable Jivamukti Yoga Center in Manhattan, where weekly meditation classes routinely draw 50 or more students, and every asana class also includes chanting, pPranayama, and meditation. "When I first started teaching, there was an attitude among teachers that you couldn't be too sophisticated in what you talk to the students about because the student body didn't have the desire to know esoteric things. I was told by other teachers that most people are just interested in getting in shape and wearing their leotard. But I never believed that, because I knew that I wasn't like that—that wasn't what I went to yoga for. And that lack of respect for the intelligence and sophistication of the average person turned out to be very wrong."

That's not to say that most Americans come to yoga—or stick with it—out of a yearning for spiritual awakening. For most people, it starts as simply as this: Yoga makes us feel good, and we like to feel good. And if it makes us look good, too, we're all for that.

But such relatively superficial motivations aren't unique to yoga—the longing for material-world happiness is often why people initially come to spiritual practice in general. Our spiritual cravings, to begin with, are often simplistic and even infantile. We're looking for a Santa Claus-like God to stuff our stockings. We pray for things that we want; we pray that good things will happen to us and the people we love, and that bad things won't.

But gradually, if we're lucky, we notice that the Santa Claus approach to spiritual practice has limitations. We may become more fit, healthy, and calm, but we discover that mastering Lotus doesn't necessarily save our marriage. We notice that doing yoga doesn't mean that we won't ever get sick and die. We may even find that as our yoga practice makes us more sensitive to our inner experiences, we feel more rather than less emotional pain: We become aware of grief and longing that we didn't even know were there. And so we start looking to our yoga to give us something other than perfect bodies and charmed lives: an ability to meet whatever is true in our bodies—and our lives—with grace and awareness and compassion. If you look closely at the serious yoga practitioner—the person who does it on a regular basis for more than a year or so—you'll often find that asana has become not just an end in itself, but the medium through which he or she begins to explore other yogic teachings. For us in the West, the body has become the meditation hall in which we first learn to practice the basic contemplative arts of concentration, insight, and mindfulness. Asanas have become the tools for opening the heart to compassion and devotion; for studying the flows of breath and energy; for gently releasing the classic spiritual obstacles of greed, hatred, delusion, egoism, and attachment. The poses, used appropriately, can be paths that lead us deeper into the true Self—and that, after all, is what yoga has always been about.

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Reader Comments

shannon

I think that the permutations of yoga by the west is a problem, in that the focus is commercial, attracting as many students as possible. Most practitioners like any other endeavor are not hard core consistent and studious. This is what morphs the practice- the groupon cross fitters who are flocking to studios. Experienced traditional teachers leave, yoga mill teachers replace them and there you have it- Mc Yoga

Kumari de Silva

Up until I read this article it had not occurred to me that anyone would think that "yoga" in it's original Hindi had the same meaning it does in English. This helped me understand my American students better

Ginny

It saddens me to see how commercial Yoga has become, with studios marketing everything from clothing to books on anything but yoga. I would agree with Dr. Yogendra that what we've done for Yoga in America is not a positive beautiful thing. It's typical commercialism. I love the small studios where improving our bodies and our lives naturally using Yoga has always been the true focus, rather than wearing all the newest "Yoga" apparel.

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