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X-Treme Karma

Yoga, once defined by asceticism, has become big, cushy business in America. Can it survive what some fear is the selling of its soul?

By Russell Wild

A bottle of vodka stands on its head. The caption reads "absolut Yoga." Ads for a Kellogg's breakfast cereal, Oil of Olay face cream and the Oxford Health Plan use yoga themes. Even Jeep SUV ads--once the stuff of rugged individuals grinding across open terrain--now feature silhouettes of eight yoga positions, along with a ninth, in the center, that shows a man reclining as if behind the wheel of a car. The caption reads: Any journey of self-discovery starts by finding a quiet place.

Yoga's gone mainstream. According to a May article in U.S. News & World Report, about 18 million Americans now practice some variety of the mystic and ascetic Hindu discipline of meditation, prescribed postures and breathing. The average yoga practitioner's yearly expenditure on all things yoga--instruction, mats, props, clothing, weekend workshops, books, CDs--comes to a ballpark $1,500, conservatively speaking. That amount times 18 million equals $27 billion. To put that into perspective, if the yoga business were consolidated, the resulting corporation (Yoga-Mart?) would be slightly larger than Dow Chemical, slightly smaller than Microsoft.

That's big.

And it's getting bigger. Mainstream retailers like J. Crew and Puma have been selling their own lines of yoga gear for some time now, and Nike is just introducing its first yoga shoe (the Kyoto, $55 retail).

Some people (granted, not many) are getting rich off yoga. Lynn Powers, president of Gaiam Inc., one of the largest sellers of yoga paraphernalia, took home a paycheck of $251,154 last year. That's in addition to the manager's stock options, which sweetened the pot by $982,300. When asked to comment on such good fortune, this executive responded testily, "To take this [discussion] into my salary is to trivialize what we do here. I feel compromised by your asking me that question. People are expected to make a living. And besides, you have no clue what I do with my worldly goods--what, for instance, I give to charity. I'm very upset with you."

A touch of soul-scraping ambivalence? Perhaps. If so, our executive is far from alone. Throughout the yoga community, people are wondering whether the bustling business of yoga is good karma. Is it OK to make big money off a practice that has its roots in renunciation and asceticism? Is the commercialization of yoga messing with its very essence? And what's next for the yoga biz, now that we've already seen the marketing of yogatards, yoga shoes, yogi pillows (stuffed with buckwheat hulls), the $1,200 "tantric bedroom set" (for adults only) and a battery-operated, inflatable "Chi machine"?

Where Dollars Meet Divinity

Yoga isn't the only spiritual practice to become commercialized. Far from it. Just name a church. Any church. There's a store that goes with it. Christianity is huge business, from the selling of Christmas spirit and the ($1.8 billion) Bible and book trade, to the thriving market for Christian pop music and weight-loss classes. Apparel is the latest wrinkle in New Testament merchandising, with the recent advent of companies such as God's Gear Gospel Wear, Living Epistles and Exodus. In a 2001 survey done by the Christian Booksellers Association, 34 percent of adults say they have shopped in a store that specializes in Christian products in the past six months.

You can be sure that other religions have their own shops. Just cruise the web. Go to www.jewjew.com, and you can buy a gentleman's 14-karat Star of David ring for $1,100. Or go to www.judaica-online.com to buy a stuffed Torah for the kids. Looking for a Koran baseball cap, jersey, coffee mug or perhaps a nice tote bag? Check out www.my-muslim.com. If you are into Transcendental Meditation, buy TM-approved beverages, nutritional supplements, books and CDs at www.maharishi.co.uk. Even eBay has opened itself to the spiritual marketplace. One man from Des Moines, Iowa, recently offered his soul for sale. The bidding rose from $1 up to $400 before eBay pulled the item down.

The marketing of spirituality began long, long before there was a World Wide Web, says Chava Weissler, Ph.D., professor of religion studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. 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 garment from the body of some popular saint.

Protestantism was in good part born in 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, should fly out of purgatory," wrote Luther in 1517.

Later, with the founding of the New World, despite Luther's earlier protestations, religious 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 Santa Clara University. Here people could practice whatever religion 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 selling religious pamphlets.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and consumerism itself has arguably become a religion, fueled by a retail industry that's open 24/7, easy credit cards 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 sharing a billboard with the Apple Computer logo. From the Canadian firm that pioneered the placement of advertising posters above men's urinals in restaurants come audio ads projected from tiny speakers hidden in the urinals' aluminum walls. 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, tantric bedroom sets and chi machines bought and sold, not to mention yoga weekends in the rainforest and yoga cruises to exotic ports? Not at all, says professor Weissler. "Nothing in our society escapes commodification."

Yoga: More Than 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, adapting to the culture, introduced the Maharajah Mac, which is sort of the American Big Mac, and sort of not. It's big. It's got a bun. But the patty in the middle is made from ground chicken and local spices. The Maharajah Mac was a success, and McDonald's of India is soon to open its 100th outlet.

At the same time, a certain Indian import continues to expand throughout the U.S. market. Americans, like Indians, have their own consumer tastes and ideas about sanctity. And yoga, like the Big Mac, must bend. It has therefore been adapted to fit into a culture that promotes, perhaps above all, the pursuit of body beautiful and the generation of profit. So it seems apt--even inevitable--that Yoga USA emphasizes the sexy yoga butt along with the serene yoga mind. And it seems equally apt that the practice of asanas, once done barefoot on dry earth, is now performed on glossy mats by people wearing designer fashions.

That's just the way it was meant to be, say some devotees, and there's nothing wrong with it. "We are not Indian. We're not living 3,000 years ago. We are here, and our practice reflects and serves and supports us here," says Nixa De Bellis, a Vinyasa Yoga instructor. "The great masters who sent their disciples to the West to bring the tradition here must have known it would change in a radically different culture." Yeah, but change to incorporate yogalates in yogatards? And hip-hop yoga?

"I don't know anything about yoga hip-hop, but it sounds like fun!" says yoga teacher Leslie Harris, who has many certificates from Integral Yoga. "If that's where people choose to enter the practice, that's fine. A good number of those people, once they've started the process, will surely discover that yoga has much more to offer."

And what of the well-stocked gift shops beside the hip-hop and yogalates studios?

David Newman, founder and director of his own studio, trained in the Viniyoga tradition, isn't into anything too crazy where it comes to the practice, but he does have a gift shop, and he isn't at all apologetic for it.

"I had the center for nine years and suddenly felt the urge to expand. I decided to open a temple disguised as a store," he says. "Some people are hungry for God realization. Some are hungry for a cool T-shirt with an Om sign on it. We are here to feed people and to meet them on their level. The wonderful thing is that somebody may come in to buy a T-shirt and end up developing a regular practice in yoga."

Asked if he feels any ambivalence making money off trinkets, Newman displays no defensiveness. "I'm sure there are people out there merely looking to suck money out of yoga's popularity. But there are others generating income in a sweet and spiritual way. I'm totally in celebration of what we're doing."

Alan Finger, who co-owns six yoga studios in the New York area, is a true yoga entrepreneur. He says he doesn't know what his revenues are but suggests that he is not hurting for money. And he sees nothing wrong with that whatsoever. "Money itself is not a problem, although it can be," he says. "The question to ask is whether it is helping you to deepen your evolution, or is it dragging you down."

As for whether yoga itself is being dragged down, dumbed down, or otherwise corrupted by American yogis' commercial ways, Finger thinks not. Way not. He says that commercialism is inextricably tied to growth, and growth is good.

"Indians, the founders of yoga, were letting it drop so much. Besides Iyengar and a few other phenomenal yoga places here and there, the amount of yoga in India was rather pathetic," says Finger. "American yoga, for all its commercialism, is actually stimulating the Indians to wake up and recognize what they've got. I think it's fantastic!"

Commodification: The Dark Side

Not all practitioners find the Americanization of yoga--and especially its commodification--to be so fantastic. "The downside to it is that people get the impression that they need props and paraphernalia and a color-coordinated yoga outfit with shoes to practice yoga. In truth, you don't need anything," says Sharon Staubach, co-founder of the Yoga Alliance and a longtime instructor . "Shoes, if anything, interfere with the practice of asana."

Another downside, says Staubach, are the advertisements used to sell yoga products. "Like most ads, they feature beautiful people, Cindy Crawford types who are then airbrushed into somebody's version of perfection. Studies show that when women look at women's magazines [rife with such ads] their self-esteem plummets," she says. "For yoga ads to do this is so against what yoga's all about. Yoga is about cultivating self-love."

Professor Weissman sees another problem in the commodification of yoga, as with other spiritual practices. "People come to believe that they can buy enlightenment. And a kind of spiritual laziness sets in. People say to themselves, 'Oh, I bought the meditation cushion. I bought the yoga outfit. Now I'm a yogi.' Of course it doesn't work that way," she says. "Enlightenment is only achieved through hard work and daily spiritual practice. It's not easy to achieve. It's not meant to be easy."

As to the bounty being made selling yoga and yoga products, it is wrong, says Deborah Rogers, who bases her practice on Iyengar and Anusara principles. "At a time when the economy has taken a toll on many Americans, there are studios raising their prices. It saddens me. I have heard many people comment that they love yoga but can't afford the classes," she says. "Another thing is the price of the clothing. I can remember a couple of years ago paying $40 for a top and bottom. Now they're charging $60 for just a pair of cotton pants. I consider this robbery."

Steven Thompson, a student of Raja Yoga in Ontario, and a teacher of philosophy at the University of Toronto, sees a lot of robbery going on. "I don't like to see acquisitiveness and greed anywhere, but they are especially noisome when the products being hawked are related to yoga. Yoga is about turning inward and finding peace there, not in material excess."

Thompson adds that he is averse to anyone making oodles of money off yoga, whether by selling products or teaching. Granted, few teachers are swimming in cash, but there are some--studio owners, mostly--who are.

In fact, a recent issue of Entrepreneur, a magazine that ballyhoos great money-making schemes, called the yoga studio a "million-dollar idea." The publication profiled one California couple who opened a Bikram yoga studio in 1995 with $25,000 and by 2001 were earning $250,000 a year.

Thompson finds that kind of money somewhat excessive. "The person who introduced me to yoga was an Indian man who refused to take money, because he saw his knowledge as a gift freely given from our ancestors. I realize that people need to eat. But still, to serve as examples for the practice, a yoga teacher should not earn more than is necessary to live in modest comfort."

The Saturation Point

Whether you fall into the nay-commodification or the yea-commodification group, you probably have an interest in what the experts say about the future of yoga and the yoga business. One thing can be said for certain: "It is always a big mistake to look at a current trend and project it into the future," says Santa Clara economist Iannaccone. "Because yoga has been growing in leaps and bounds, that does not mean that by the year 2050, we'll all be yogis. No. Some people will never be interested in anything having to do with health or Eastern spirituality."

Iannaccone points to an example of the foolishness of projecting trends. "When the Promisekeepers [followers of the men's evangelical movement] descended on Washington for their 'Million Man March' in October of 1997, some pundits said it would in time surely become a 'Two-million Man March,' and then a 'Three-million Man March.' Some were thrilled and saw it as the dawn of a new Christian America. Others were less than enthusiastic and saw America turning into a Nazi state. But neither side's vision came to pass," says Iannaconne. "The truth was that the Promisekeepers movement had reached it peak right at that point. They had reached their limit."

So when might yoga do likewise? Barry Minkin, author of Future in Sight: 100 of the Most Important Trends, Implications and Predictions for the New Millennium (Diane Publishing, 1999), and a global management consultant to companies such as PepsiCo, Pillsbury and Ford Motors, says that the rapid growth of yoga and the yoga business is closely tied to other trends in America. He cites the recent growth of interest in fitness, in Eastern culture and in the mind/body connection, as well as the aging of the population and the emphasis that groups such as the American Academy of Sports Medicine have put on maintaining flexibility. Because of this interconnectedness, it is difficult to say when the trend might reverse, says Minkin. But he estimates that a peak might come within 10 years, with the number of yoga practitioners having risen to 20 or 30 percent greater than the current number.

Why then? Because Minkin already sees signs that the trend is maturing. One sign is what he calls fragmentation. It happens almost inevitably when any trend starts to mature: "The providers of the good or service feel a need to differentiate themselves, to market in different ways."

He points out that when martial arts first came to the United States, it was basically judo. Then we got karate. Today, there is practically a different form of martial art taught in every strip mall. Similarly, when Elvis first started plucking and strutting, there were only a few passionate followers, and one kind of rock & roll. Later, when practically everyone in the country under 30 called himself a rock fan, came fragmentation: hard rock, soft rock, heavy metal, bubblegum, country rock, reggae ...

When the yoga trend started to take off in America, back in the '60s and '70s, most of the growth was in hatha yoga, a la Iyengar. Today, the number of yoga offshoots seems infinite. "I teach at the Yoga Centre in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Across the street is a fitness center where they have recently started to offer Boga classes. Boga? A combination of yoga and boxing. No kidding," says George McFaul, himself trained in the Iyengar tradition. "We often hear the exhortations to 'push it, harder' coming out of the windows over their extremely loud sound system."

Boga, yogalates, hip-hop yoga and other yoga offshoots all promise to become trends within themselves, says Minkin. (Well, maybe not Boga.) Like the queen bee threatened by her female offspring, more traditional yoga almost surely will lose customers to some of the upcoming yoga hybrids. And one or two of them may eventually spin off into something that hardly resembles yoga at all. (Remember how Taebo spun off from karate and dance aerobics to become a hot trend all by itself, at least for a while.)

The same kind of "fragmentation" is easy to see with the ever-increasing lines of yoga apparel, props, literature, recordings and Om necklaces. Sara Chambers, founder and co-owner of Salt Lake City-based Hugger Mugger, says that the number of manufacturers and wholesalers trying to tap into the yoga market is forever increasing. "I've been approached to stock everything from cookware to candles, but we try to carry only things that will benefit the yoga practice," she says.

As to Minkin's forecast of the yoga trend eventually peaking, Chambers acknowledges that it undoubtedly will. But she has her doubts that that time will come any time soon. "The trend has been carrying us along swiftly. We haven't spent any energy in trying to forecast the yoga market. Right now, we're just trying to keep up with it."

As part of a larger report for a major food company on consumer dining trends, Minkin once did a study of New England pizza shops. "Pizza was so popular that there got to be a shop on every street corner. It became obvious that they couldn't all survive. And sure enough, many disappear-ed," he says. "Looking around me today, I see many, many yoga studios, and a lot of outfits selling yoga products. When the trend reverses, not all will survive. But I don't think we need to worry about yoga disappearing, as many other things have," he assures. "After all, how many trends have been around for 5,000 years?"

High-Tech Lotus

Silicon Valley's antidote to stale air, cubicle butt and the keyboard slump

By Traci Vogel

LOCATED SMACK on the Oracle campus in Redwood Shores, Club Oracle resembles a luxury workout center on the scale of Jay Leno's auto garage. Club Oracle's offerings include equally enviable lists of workout options and classes, and assistant manager Ben Labonog says that yoga classes are gaining students at the highest rate. He thinks yoga appeals to people because "it's kind of more of a holistic-type exercise, where people are involved in the stretching and meditation aspects. There are a lot of athletic types, even on the professional level, here at Oracle, and people understand the importance of stretching. Then you have the beginning student who's more into the spiritual aspect."

Although newer trends might sacrifice this spiritual aspect, Labonog thinks these niches are just market adaptations: "Like Cardio-Kick, which takes martial arts and sets it to hip-hop, it's just a way to appeal to the next generation." Labonog thinks it makes perfect sense for Silicon Valley companies to offer in-house yoga classes. "We're talking decreased absenteeism, employer medical costs go down ... a happier, healthier employee leads to a more productive employee." Maybe not exactly what the original yogis were aiming for, but who can argue with happy high-tech campers?

Missy Madrigal-Walters, fitness specialist at Fit@Sun, SunMicrosystems' in-house gym, laughs when asked why she thinks yoga appeals to Silicon Valleyites, acknowledging the obvious answer: "They feel like it can help them relax. It takes away their thoughts about what's going on in their daily life, helps them focus on something else for one hour. And based on how stressful their jobs are, they need it."

The onsite Fit@Sun offers basic yoga classes that concentrate on strengthening, along with the more athletic Pilates. Madrigal-Walters thinks a trendiness factor is inevitable with any workout routine, and she isn't disconcerted by specializations such as hip-hop yoga. In fact, she thinks, "This is just a way of finding a niche for people who might not be as interested in the spiritual background of yoga--the humming and that stuff."

"Whatever gets people moving," she says, "Is great."

Sara Bousfield, group fitness program director at Cisco's Timeout Services Fitness Center, favors traditional styles and teaching methods over the new wave of wild and wacky contortionism. "We try to keep away from the too-trendy stuff," she says (Timeout Services offers Power yoga, or fast-paced flow yoga, along with traditional hatha yoga and a "Good Morning" class that combines the two). Bousfield feels that trendiness can lead to injuries, and that a lot of studios pack too many people into one class, as a result skimping on the individual attention--another path to injury.

Bousfield agrees that many Silicon Valley employees are wrapping their limbs around yoga because they see it as a good way to relieve stress. "Also," she adds, "people see movie stars doing it."

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From the June 12-18, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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