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."