The selling of yoga

I was downtown shopping at our new public market last month when I stopped to watch a yoga demo nearby.  The fittest, most eye-poppingly flexible woman with the darkest spray tan I’ve ever seen was demonstrating yoga poses that left me gobsmacked – but not in a good way. She was wrapping limbs around body parts that I’m pretty sure were never designed to have said limbs anywhere in the vicinity. Her stretches made my own hamstrings ache. She didn’t look even remotely serene doing yoga – she looked, in fact, quite cranky.

I’m pretty sure that the hopeful intent of the yoga studio owner who organized this demo was to inspire and motivate me and other spectators to sign right up for their yoga classes. But instead, I was utterly horrified, and scurried quickly away to sample the cinnamon pear balsamic vinegar on tap at the olive oil shop, where I soon found serenity.

It turns out that there’s yoga – and then there’s yoga.

There’s the yoga that includes specific stretching and balance exercises that have been practiced since the sixth century B.C.  For this, you just need your body, some free time, a bit of open floor space, and maybe a yoga mat.

And for thousands of years, the religions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism considered yoga to be the sacred path to divine realization, a spiritual discipline more than a form of exercise.

But as Mark Jolly wrote in his essay in The New Yorker, yoga has gone from a 5,000-year-old Indian philosophy to the craze of new age counter-cultural hipsters to a multi-billion-dollar international Big Business cult:

“Now that the practice has reached a critical and spiritual — not to mention celebrity — mass, yoga has become big business for the very people who practice disconnection from the material world.

In Beverly Hills, a Calcutta-born man named Bikram Choudhury was the first to spot this ancient spiritual tradition’s enormous money-making potential, and in 2001 claimed copyright to ‘his’ 26-pose sequence and two breathing exercises experienced in the swampy heat of 40.6 degree C (105 F) rooms – much to the dismay of the wider yoga community, for whom claiming ownership of ancient asanas was like taking out intellectual property rights to verses of the Bible.

Ironically, Choudhury has made his millions from a hatha yoga tradition promoting spiritual rather than worldly aspirations. His brand name ‘Bikram Yoga’ studios have become the McDonald’s of the yoga world.  Trained Bikram studio franchisees pay him a franchise fee, a royalty of 5 percent of gross revenues, an advertising fee of 2 percent of gross revenues and a flat monthly technology fee. He once told The Guardian that he’s franchising two new studios every day worldwide, and that he makes “millions of dollars a day”, adding:

“There’s nothing like this in the world! Give me a pen or a T-shirt and put ‘Bikram Yoga’ on it, and it will sell for $45!”

In his trademark trash-talking, Rolls-Royce-driving style, the charismatic yoga-vangelist also bragged to a Boston audience last summer:

Lady Gaga listens to me. Her mantra is only one word – Bikram – because Bikram makes her what she is today!” 

If hot and sweaty Bikram doesn’t appeal to you, consider other yoga franchises in a very crowded market, including hip-hop yoga, disco yoga, yoga retreats, yoga weekends, yoga books, yoga calendars, yoga videos, baby yoga, yoga cruises, online yoga, yoga with pets and even (oh, please!) yoga for pets.

Or how about former professional wrestler and three-time WCW world heavyweight champion Diamond Dallas Page? He developed Power Yoga, a pumped-up form of yoga for men that forgoes all traditions associated with the spiritual discipline. As one of his gushing devotees boasted:

“It’s a different kind of yoga. It ain’t your Momma’s yoga.”

Trisha Lamb Feuerstein of the Yoga Research and Education Center, a California nonprofit that tracks yoga trends, told the Los Angeles Times, that franchising an ancient tradition defies the spirit of yoga:

“Yoga is huge and infinite. What’s being branded are the physical aspects of the practice. You can’t brand the spiritual aspects.

“Yoga is not hamburgers.”

Yet North Americans spend over $10 billion annually on yoga classes and equipment, according to Yoga Journal magazine. And last year, Lululemon, the Vancouver-based yoga-apparel brand, earned more than $1 billion globally. Vancouver once won the dubitable honour of being named among the top three “Worst-Dressed Cities in Canada” (due entirely, according to the MSN Travel judges, to being the “birthplace of a certain, insanely popular yoga gear brand for lazy pseudo-fashionistas.”) Yet despite the proliferation of Lululemon-clad female bottoms on display throughout Vancouver’s leafy streets, Toronto yogis insist that their city is actually the country’s yoga capital, with more yoga studios per capita than anywhere else in North America.

Speaking of overpriced yoga wear, Lululemon’s founder Chip Wilson used to hire experienced yogis exclusively as his retail chain’s employees (or “educators” as they’re called in Lululemon Land), but he found that the serious yoga personality was not quite “up” enough for Lululemon. Apparently, you really need the Type A personality of a runner to move $98 workout pants.

“It’s all just ridiculous!” according to Australian John Philp, quoted in New York Magazine. Philp was so amused/outraged by the boom in yoga pants, yoga chain studios, and especially trademarked yoga practices like Bikram that he made a documentary called Yoga, Inc., which he has also turned into a book. His take on the selling of this spiritual tradition:

“You don’t need anything to do yoga. You don’t even need shoes. Yoga is supposed to be about asceticism, not expensive accessories.”

Watching the yoga demonstration that morning near the public market, I saw both a magnificent physical specimen at her peak, and also a person who had no doubt done her share of ignoring pain.

Dr. Justin Anderson, a sports consultant for the Center for Sports Psychology in Denton, Texas, writes about what extreme athletes know as “the law of diminishing returns”.

“Reaching the same goal over and over doesn’t bring the same rewards as it did the first time, so they want to push the envelope and go for the next big goal.

“Take free diving, for example. People who free dive with no oxygen tank are always pushing deeper and deeper into the ocean with just one breath. They’re never satisfied with their last dive.”

So if you carry this extreme “I don’t need no oxygen” gene, going to your nice Saturday morning yoga class just doesn’t do it for you after a while. You’ll need to triumph over increasingly difficult poses, endure hotter hot yoga and purchase still hotter gear, all while striving to push more, stretch more, do more, sweat more today than you were able to yesterday.

And then one day, you too may find yourself showing off a crane position demo . . .


Q: Do you do yoga, and what kind of yoga do you like to do?

8 thoughts on “The selling of yoga

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head for today’s culture, Carolyn.

    Fast, easy, results at any price. And a certain % of people will pay for it. And a smaller percent will actually do it.

    • Agreed, Lynn, except it may not even feel “easy” at all. One researcher described Bikram yoga as “a fitness regime that should come with a health warning”, and Bikram himself is known to begin each yoga class by saying: “Welcome to Bikram’s torture chamber.”

  2. No need to admire those people who can perform those tricky yoga stances—– they MIGHT have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS). (grin)

    From (gasp) Wiki:
    ” EDS is caused by a defect in the synthesis of collagen”
    “abnormal collagen renders these structures more elastic”
    “Depending on the individual, the severity of the mutation can vary from mild to life-threatening”

    From NCBI:
    “Excess joint laxity and joint hypermobility”

      • Yoga is dangerous for anyone with EDS. I have a variant that recently was given another label and moved from the EDS spectrum, but it’s just a matter of degree. We are still easily injured and are vulnerable to arthritis, as my ligaments and joints give no warning whatsoever as they move into danger range and can easily dislocate. I keep telling nieces and nephews who also seem to have the condition that, however fun it might be to show off, Be careful: It’s not a party trick.

        While one-on-one work with a particular yoga instructor has been useful from time to time, yoga classes tend toward an aspirational (or competitive) dynamic, and that would be one of the worst things for me to do. But some people with messianic zeal are not easily dissuaded, as they are certain that more and more yoga is the solution for everyone! and for me! if only I would stop being so negative! and give our class a chance!

        I politely say that I have found other practices that work for me, but on rare occasions have been goaded into a sharp “I have a joint condition. It’s actually dangerous.” And one of those tireless advocates, actually a doctor, said, “What’s the first rule in any class? Don’t do anything that hurts.”

        But for me it never hurts, not until much later, and then it’s excruciating, and for a very long time.

  3. My gentle yoga moves have been part of my life for forty years – nothing extreme, done at home as part of my daily body work, no pushing, just letting my body and spirit connect for this quiet time with my kind of music…. peace.

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