how yoga became a $27 billion industry — and reinvented american spirituality

In 1971, Sat Jivan Singh Khalsa moved to New York to open a yoga studio. A lawyer moonlighting as a Kundalini yoga teacher, he set up shop in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, opening a school to share the teachings of the spiritual leader Yogi Bhajan. At that time, there were only two other yoga studios in the city.

In the more than 40 years since Khalsa opened his school, he has watched as yoga in America has evolved from a niche activity of devout New Agers to part of the cultural mainstream. Dozens of yoga variations can be found within a 1-mile radius of his studio in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, from Equinox power yoga to yogalates to “zen bootcamp.” Across America, students, stressed-out young professionals, CEOs and retirees are among those who have embraced yoga, fueling a $27 billion industry with more than 20 million practitioners — 83 percent of them women. As Khalsa says, “The love of yoga is out there and the time is right for yoga.”

Perhaps inevitably, yoga’s journey from ancient spiritual practice to big business and premium lifestyle — complete with designer yogawear, mats, towels, luxury retreats and $100-a-day juice cleanses — has some devotees worrying that something has been lost along the way. The growing perception of yoga as a leisure activity catering to a high-end clientele doesn’t help. “The number of practitioners and the amount they spend has increased dramatically in the last four years,” Bill Harper, vice president of Active Interest Media’s Healthy Living Group, told Yoga Journal.
Of course, much of yoga’s appeal is the fact that it can be traced back roughly 5,000 years — in a world of exercise trends and diet fads, it’s a tradition that has stood the test of time.

Traditionally, Yoga (Sanskrit for “divine union”) has one single aim: stilling the thoughts of the mind in order to experience one’s true self, and ultimately, to achieve liberation (moksha) from the cycle of birth and death (samsara), or enlightenment.

Others are more optimistic about the evolution of yoga in America, welcoming the conversations and occasional yoga-world infighting that have accompanied its rise.

“If you value yoga and the traditions it comes from, it’s a good problem to have,” Philip Goldberg, a spiritual teacher and author of American Veda, tells The Huffington Post. “Ever since the ideas of yoga came here in book form and then the gurus started to arrive, it’s all been a question of how do you adapt these ancient teachings and practices, modernize them and bring them to a new culture, without distorting or corrupting them, or diluting their effect? That’s really the key issue here.”

Of course, much of yoga’s appeal is the fact that it can be traced back roughly 5,000 years — in a world of exercise trends and diet fads, it’s a tradition that has stood the test of time. Traditionally, Yoga (Sanskrit for “divine union”) has one single aim: stilling the thoughts of the mind in order to experience one’s true self, and ultimately, to achieve liberation (moksha) from the cycle of birth and death (samsara), or enlightenment.The Westernized, modernized form of the ancient practice expresses just one component of what was originally considered yoga. The physical practice of postures, or asana, is one of eight traditional limbs of yoga, as outlined in the foundational text of yoga philosophy, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, thought to be over 2,000 years old. These limbs present a sort of eightfold path to enlightenment, which includes turning inward, meditation, concentration and mindful breathing. The Sutras make no mention of any specific postures, but the original 15 yoga poses were later outlined in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, dated to the 15th century CE, making it one of the oldest surviving texts of hatha yoga, the yoga of physical exercises.

Balancing the old and the new is the “number-one challenge” for the Yoga Alliance(YA), the largest nonprofit association representing yoga teachers, schools and studios, according to CEO Richard Karpel.

“[When] the Yoga Alliance created standards for teacher training programs back in 1999, one of the primary focuses was on respecting diversity … nobody wanted an organization to tell people how to practice or teach yoga,” Karpel told The Huffington Post. “By [2011], the balance had shifted … where the concern was more about rigor.”

The rise of “spiritual but not religious” has supported this return to yoga’s traditional teachings. More than 1 in 3 Americans describe themselves as spiritual but not religious, according to a 2012 Pew Forum survey.

Goldberg explains that this inward-facing spirituality — in which individuals, whether or not they ever set foot on a yoga mat, turn inward to develop a connection with something larger than themselves — is fundamentally a yogic one, and that in fact, we are becoming a “nation of yogis.”

“People are taking charge of their spiritual lives in a very yogic way,” he says. “That’s changing the face of spirituality in the West.”

Excerpts from Huffington Post Article How Yoga Became A $27 Billion Industry — And Reinvented American Spirituality by Carolyn Gregoire

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