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Yoga, Inc.

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

By Russell Wild

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.

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Reader Comments


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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