It’s just money but who’s counting

Photo: a hand mudra during meditation
A classic hand mudra during meditation closes the energy circuits

Whenever the New York Times starts publishing multiple articles on yoga (two articles in less than a week; see the previous two blog entries), it usually portends a major existential crisis for the U.S. yoga community. The attention from major media is another indication that yoga is dipping into the American mainstream and losing its authenticity.

One of the central bugaboos for many commentators is that yoga  now means big bucks. Just look at some of  recent articles: The Future of YogaHow Yoga Sold Out (WSJ’s Speakeasy blog, written by  Stephanie Syman) and YogaDork’s Who Will Save Yoga?. Somewhere in these articles you’ll find a statement like “…yoga is a $6 billion industry with some 16 million American followers.”

These figures comes out of Yoga Journal‘s 2008 Yoga in America study. Journalists love the YJ figures because they come from a reputable source, confirm that yoga has moved beyond niche status, and impute the value of their own reporting on the topic (“My editor did not send me out to write a human interest feature about an ex-hippie.”).

The purpose of the YJ study was to legitimize the magazine’s potential market to attract advertisers. But the figures are an extrapolation from interviews of 5,000 individual. This is a valid universe for a statistical exercise, but it does not produce firm economic figures. It covers “yoga classes and products, including equipment, clothing, vacations and media (DVDs, videos, books and magazines).”  It reflects what a consumer remembers spending, but that’s not the same as cash flow. In other words, it’s an educated guess.

Do the math

Photo: yoga class in Rockville MD
The flow takes her at a different pace than the rest of the class

But let’s put these figures into context. The U.S. economy was about $14.3 trillion in 2009. That means that the $6 billion market (I think it’s safe to assume that the yoga market has not grown since then.) is actually a tiny faction of the U.S. economy.

On a more human scale, if we take that same $6 billion and divide it by the number of “followers,”  we get $389 a year per yoga follower. That works out to $32 a month, enough to take 2-4 classes a month, depending on where you live and how you practice. Of course, some of those “yoga followers”  might do yoga in the nude in their living room and therefore add nothing to the “billion dollar industry,” while at the other extreme, some yogins buy a $1500 year-long unlimited pass at big name studio and go on retreats to Costa Rica twice a year.

How many of these average yoga converts would be needed to sustain a yoga center?   Three hundred would allow gross monthly gross income of $10,000. Remember that operating expense for a studio in Helena, Montana, is lower than one in Washington, DC, or Los Angeles.

For most studios, there is no “billion dollar” market. There is a steady churn of clients that flows over a small group of bedrock yogis who have chosen that studio as their home base. These studios are limited to the market of driving distance. In some places like Santa Monica, that can mean a dozen studios within a couple of town blocks, all competing for a large population of yoga devotees. In other places, it means that a teacher can barely afford to pay for the use of a church basement a few times a week.

The mythical $150 yoga pants

Photo: a yogini assists a yogin arch back
Getting ready for backbends at a master class at Thrive Yoga

I keep hearing about the existence of  mythical “$150 yoga pants,” another sign of the decadence of American yoga (See story about Boston studio opening). There may be yoga pants that are sold at that price, just as there are $300 jeans and $500 handbags, and there is probably a market for all of them. That has nothing to do with yoga, and more to do with human weakness.

I suspect that there really is no such thing as a “yoga clothing” market, per se. What has really made “yoga pants” catch on is that many women (young, middle-aged and even seniors) have taken to yoga duds for casual ware because they are comfortable, stylish, flattering and colorful. They are certainly better than jogging warm-ups. That kind of appeal is why the big brands (Nike, Under Armour, etc.) are jumping in after prAna, Lululemon and Lucy.

Aside from a few “yoga retailers” and a handful of yoga studio chains that have started to appear, it’s hard to find companies of any scale or volume. Some yoga entrepreneurs like Bikram have made a small fortune, but it’s roughly the equivalent of a family business.  Anusara’s John Friend is portrayed as a “yoga mogul” by the NY Times, but he ain’t no Steve Jobs or Warren Buffet.  If yoga really is selling out (a concept that is really mind-boggling when you think about it), then it’s doing so real cheap.