Category Archives: Yoga in America

All the repercussions of the introduction of yoga in the United States, including the market

Listmania comes to city rankings for yoga

There is an unhealthy fascination with lists on the web so the news should not be surprising.

Forbe’s has published a List of Top 10 Cities for Yoga, and Washington is in a tie for fourth place, in a tie with New York City. Somehow, Los Angeles does not make the list, though you’d probably have to divide up suburbs. San Diego does.

Who elected Forbe’s as the arbiter of yoga status among U.S. cities and why?

To determine the top U.S. cities for yoga, we turned to data from the marketing firm GfK MRI, which conducted surveys in 205 markets last year, asking participants whether they practiced yoga, and if so, how frequently and for how long.

To be fair, Alice G. Walton has written multiple articles about yoga, meditation and neuroscience so we can’t ascribe her motives to the latest run on Lululemon stock.

Yoga pants, what else?

America (and Canada) is obsessed about yoga pants.

That leaves nothing else to write about in a yoga blog, but the predicament that Lululemon finds itself in after letting substandard merchandise get out the door. This time around, the drooling is not about Lululemon’s profit margins. I am not going to link to all the coverage in the blogs, mainstream media or business news sites because it would just encourage the prurient interest in see-through apparel.

This incident also shows how many media outlets want to fetishize yoga, simplifying the spread of the practice across mainstream American culture into an example of commercial branding targeted at an upscale niche market. Lululemon’s going to sell more than $1.5 billion in sports apparel this year, even if it recalls all the faulty pants. I almost expect some kind of fashion twist that will keep the pants on the mats — the bottom equivalent of a sports bra?


I’ve been dragging around the sequel of a persistent, bad head cold for the past two weeks, which means that I have not gone to class. Every morning I wake up expecting to have finally kicked it, but it lingers on. I’ve taken two handkerchiefs to work to handle the drainage.

A new market study released about the US yoga market

Now we have a more current version of the market study about Yoga in America to tear our garments and lament the commercialization of yoga:

New Study Find More Than 20 Million Yogis in U.S. “The latest Yoga in America study shows that 20.4 million Americans practice yoga, compared to 15.8 million from the previous 2008 study, an increase of 29 percent. In addition, practitioners spend $10.3 billion a year on yoga classes and products, including equipment, clothing, vacations and media. The previous estimate from the 2008 study was $5.7 billion.”

I wrote about this previous version last year, It’s just money but who’s counting. What has been made public this time is just a press release. Yoga Journal will probably publish a longer piece in a coming issue of the magazine. At least now, we won’t have to cite the pre-Great Recession 2008 figures.

National Yoga Month (late) and the search for a broader community

Logo of National Yoga Month
September was National Yoga Month

Last month, September was National Yoga Month, and I did not get around to mentioning it. In fact, I didn’t even post in September, which shows how I have shifted the focus of my practice or been preoccupied with other things. In any case, I still lived my yoga.

Activities were promoted on Facebook and on the Web, and the DC yoga community did their thing too. It is mainly an opportunity to open up studio doors to newcomers who want to sample a yoga class or take a basics course. But National Yoga Month is just a slice of time, and yoga has become a year-round activity.

What strikes me about yoga’s place in US mainstream culture is the current surge in “yoga festivals” across the country. It probably grew out yoga conference, a weekend or week-long convention of yoga studio owners, teachers, service providers, equipment suppliers and other businesses. The best known ones are those organized by Yoga Journal. But the festivals are broader phenomenon, something like mini-Woodstocks where music, dance, food, and celebration are melded with the yoga movement at an attractive outdoor setting like the Hanuman Festival in Boulder, the Wanderlust festivals in multiple sites, and elsewhere. Many take advantage of ski resorts during off-season. Others are more local affairs, steering closer to the conference formula (Also see this older article about this trend.).

Part of the yoga festival phenomenon is that there is a search for a broader social environment in which to play out yoga’s growth, without strict allegiance to doctrines, boundaries and other restraints. There is also a strong commercial presence at these events, and not just strictly yoga-related businesses: the market is the petri dish of yoga in the United States, as opposed to religious or spiritual considerations. Because the yoga  happening is so grassroots, decentralized, and amorphous, there’s no clear regional or national leadership.

Long feature about an old story

Where have I been for the past two weeks? I did not even notice that my hometown paper published a long article detailing the upheaval in the Anusara and broader yoga scene because of John Friend’s misadventures:

Scandal contorts future of John Friend, Anusara yoga: “Friend’s empire — an international network that claims more than 1,500 teachers, including 25 in the Washington metro area, and 600,000 students — is in crisis now, teetering under the strain of a sex scandal that has split its most loyal practitioners and prompted an astounding venting of emotions, from rage and recriminations to compassion and sadness.”

The Washington Post piece was so long that I could not finish — I’m at work right now so I’ll have to come back to it later.

A yoga addict proves she was feeding her ego

New York Times A Yoga Devotee Finds a New Guru in a Personal Trainer starts out with a confession that said far more than a simple statement of fact.

I was an addict of ashtanga yoga for a decade. It made me strong. It made me feel superior to people who went to the gym. What it did not make me was skinny.

Ashtanga yoga is essentially the mother of vinyasa, the sweaty kind — a set series of daily poses you do abetted by a teacher “adjusting” you by, say, sitting on your back. There’s no music and little talking. It is widely believed to have been created for adolescent boys and tends to attract former drug addicts and Type A personalities; I’m the latter

The author, Deborah Schoeneman, then chronicles her journey through the yoga world in New York City and Los Angeles and her gradually shift of other exercise methods. And how she was able to get the flab out of her arms and fit in a size 6, in between name dropping (“Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna”). She cuts her yoga down to one session a week for “meditation, stretching and community.” She ended the artilce saying:

I left her that day feeling the way yoga is supposed to make you feel: enlightened. If not particularly lighter.

Come again?  Schoeneman misrepresents yoga in so many ways, it’s no wonder Hindu purists are worried about what America is doing to yoga. For that matter, I am worried about what the New York Times’s agenda is with this kind of message. After all, it was published in the Fashion and Style section.

In Defense of ToeSox

ToeSox, the athletic apparel company that specializes in socks that fit five toes like a glove and have a sticky sole surface, was pilloried in the blogosphere a few months ago because it used two women au natural to model their merchandise. Kathryn Budig did ads that featured yoga poses. Carrie Macy did Pilates routines. Rarely mentioned was the photographer, Jasper Johal, who has specialized in the human form in various stages of undress — yoga, dance and fashion.

I have to admit that I’ve taken a peek at the ads in Yoga Journal. Of course, I have the excuse that I am an amateur photographer in love with the human body in a state of mindfulness. I was attracted by the challenge of capturing advanced asana without displaying any naughty parts.

For anyone living in a cave during August and September last year, here are a few pointers: Judith Hanson Lasater’s Facebook letter, It’s All Yoga, Baby’s portrayal of the dispute no more sexy yoga ads! and toesoxnudegate: the feminists & kathryn budig speak up, Elephant Journal and  JHN interview, or Yoga Journal’s defense with Naked Truth in response to JHN. Carol Horton’s take,  Naked Yoga Beauties Selling Stuff! Or, the Personal, the Political, and the Commodification of the Body.

I could not do justice to the diverse perspectives that came to bear on the issue, and there were many. But I’d like to come back to one aspect of the debate that did not get highlighted.  Some commentators sneered at ToeSox because this type of sock was not “standard-issue” yoga gear, and was therefore superfluous to the practice. ToeSox is merely exploiting yoga to flog conspicuous consumption and profit off objectifying women.

I started thinking, however, that there could be valid reasons to use grippy sole socks:

  • Modesty: Not everyone has feet that conform to classically shaped feet, or they may be sensitive to ridicule or just have a bad body image. I have seen people in yoga class who insist on keeping their socks on, and slide around on the mat.
  • Skin and nail conditions: Lots of people have reasons to hide their feet because various skin and nail diseases may disfigure their feet. These conditions can be resistant to treatment. Wearing clean socks to class (combined with a fungicide because these socks are not the equivalent of sanitized latex) would shield other yogis from possible infection.
  • Slick surfaces or slippery carpets: it’s a lot easier to fit a pair of socks in your carry-on than a yoga mat, even a travel mat. The ToeSox site points out that Pilates equipment can be slick.
  • Cold feet: poor circulation could make some people to bundle up their extremities (ToeSox also sells grippy gloves). I’ve practiced in a couple of rooms where I wished I’d had a pair of sox because a bad draft made my mat feel as if I’d pulled it out of the refrigerator.
  • Better than sneakers: in some gyms and fitness centers, people practice yoga in their athletic shoes so replacing sneakers with ToeSox is an improvement.

In defense of the company, ToeSox tries to do the right thing, supporting charities like the fight against breast cancer and sanctuaries for hard-to-place dogs and the Green Bus Project (an effort to share yoga and conscious living). The company uses organic cotton to protect the environment.

I guess what I am trying to say is that one of the virtues of a dynamic market economy is that it tends to respond to needs, even the niche demand of people who want to cover their feet (for whatever reason). Who are we to create even more obstacles to a yoga practice?

A studio owner tells her story about “business success” The Business of Yoga will probably strike many yoga purists as another example of crass commercialism. But the growth of Gina Norman’s Kaia Yoga from a single studio to three wellness centers over four years shows how their understanding of yoga guided them along a path of personal truth:

Our business has been so successful because we realize that yoga classes are just the start to supporting all aspects of a person’s being. This lifestyle approach leaves room for endless growth within our business model. In a world that is increasingly speeding up and overmedicating to deal with unhappiness and stress, our business is a breath of fresh air. An individual can find a yoga class, a green juice, a massage, a workshop or a relaxing yoga trip to Costa Rica. There are never-ending options for personal growth, healing, embodiment and mindfulness for everyone.

Gina Norman’s holistic approach actually opens up multiple income streams, as they like to say in business school, and made the company more resilient to get through tough times.

I have vowed to avoid writing about news stories on yoga, but this one is important because it provides a fresh point of view of the discussion about the viability of yoga in America.

Giving American yoga a bad name

USAToday Western influence turns yoga on its head in Mumbai: The veteran writer Gail Sheehy writes about how American yoga is feeding back into Indian culture and subverting the traditional discipline, but she gets something wrong:

Power yoga, an aerobic deviation, was launched in 1995 by an American woman, Beryl Bender Birch. It ignores the original concept of yoga, which was to be done in silence so the mind can develop awareness of the body.

Photo: Beryl Bender Birch signs a book after class
Continue reading Giving American yoga a bad name

A yoga blog with a personal compass

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve wanted to give a big pointer to Carol Horton’s Think Body Electric, citing just one post, Yogis, Ascetic, and Fakirs: Fascinating historical images of India that I don’t pretend to understand, but I could mention any number of posts over the past year. In this particular entry, she runs through a number of photographs and drawings from India, and registers her own emotional reaction to these photos of “non-Western” practices. She has all the analytical skills of an academic, but never loses her personal (moral, ethical, whatever) compass.  I was struck by the following comments:

In other words, all of the cultural referents that were hard-wired into me at an early age were Judeo-Christian. This is not good or bad; it just is. But it is significant.
I can work to understand Hinduism, traditional yogic austerities, or whatever. But it’s not encoded into my cultural DNA.
Even in today’s highly globalized, mulit-culti world, I still feel very conscious of being a Westerner.
I know where she’s coming from because I feel much the similar way, having been a multicultural journalist who came to yoga late in life.