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Yoga, Inc.

Is the bustling business of yoga—a practice rooted in renunciation and greedlessness—good karma?

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.

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Reader Comments

Skyhart

Laura Pellegrini - the article was written in November 2002. I was annoyed they didn't write it at the top - how are people meant to reference it? But a bit of Google digging worked out fine.

Laura Pellegrini

Can anybody please tell me when this article was written? Year/Month? Thanks!

Rara Avis

I must say that I strongly disagree with the content of some of the ads that Yoga Journal chooses to put in their magazine.

I fully understand the amount of cash flow involved in selling ad space, as I myself have looked into advertising in YJ and was blown away by how expensive it was.

Being that your magazine is profiting so highly from the yoga movement, you'd think you'd have the integrity to be a little more selective with the kind of adds you place in your mag.

It turns the real yogis off immediately... and I can honestly say that I wouldn't recommend your magazine to anyone truly interested in a spiritual approach to life.

Between the Mantra bling, and the Tantra boom, it's hard to find a place for the truly sacred when you're constantly being bombarded with shallow, poorly conceived messages that tell you to buy a product just because some plastic looking yoga babe tells you to.

I discovered yoga about 14 years ago while seeking further depth in my music career and also trying to find ways to heal from a devastating car accident. My roots in yoga had nothing to do with advertising or marketing, as I was thankfully guided by my intuition and graced by spirit with an amazing teacher to begin my practice with.

I truly hope that you find it in your collective hearts to start being more sensitive to what yoga really is and in doing so stop taking money from the highest bidder and instead have some self respect and think about how your audience is perceiving themselves and the 'spiritual' catch phrases on almost every page.

Come on people! The world is changing and it's time to wake up... no more profit without a truly conscious approach. Get out of the business office and back onto the yoga mat... perhaps there you will find some integrity.

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