If people actually practiced yoga, the $13 billion yoga industry would likely crumble overnight.
In America, Yoga has become a caricature of itself. According to Yoga Journal’s 2012 “Yoga in America” study, 82% of practitioners of yoga in the United States are women between the ages of 18 – 44, and over 55 percent of them cite practicing yoga to improve the way they look.
A multibillion-dollar fashion market has sprung up around yoga to sell expensive and unnecessary commodities such as Lululemon pants, Manduka mats, Yogitoes towels.
According to the same “Yoga in America” study, a full third of yoga studio owners think American yoga is on the wrong track, becoming ever more a fitness industry and less a spiritual-philosophical discipline.
You may leave your yoga studio feeling clean and calm, but your distress is just displaced to the sweatshops that produce the yoga mats, tights, and towels that the American yoga industry markets to its armies of yogis.
The worst of it is lampooned brilliantly in the following College Humor video, where Gandhi goes to an American yoga class.
But yoga has some serious philosophy behind it. Philosophy that is ignored, and would likely jeopardize the whole industry that’s been built upon its back.
I’ve been doing what Americans consider is yoga off-and-on for the past 7-8 years. It’s only in recent years that I discovered what was missing from western yoga is most of yoga. Namely: its philosophical core.
Hatha Yoga—the physical yoga postures or asanas—is only one of the 8 branches of yoga.
Even if the average person in an American yoga studio comes looking for something more than a better beach body for bikini season, yoga studios typically don’t provide it. There seems to be an underlying assumption that doing the motions alone is enough to reap spiritual-philosophical benefits.
But usually, all it does is serve to do is offer a cooling spritz during the money-driven marathon that is modern life. In other words: people often don’t go to a yoga class to transform themselves. They go to keep themselves the same.
What I will say is this: I have found real wisdom in what I’ve read of the philosophy that lies behind yoga. But that wisdom typically won’t be found at an American yoga studio. The insights of works like the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, the Upanishads, the Rigveda, and the many other texts in the vast corpus of Hindu writings are left out.
In becoming a yoga teacher, yogic philosophy is often part of the training process. Why it isn’t brought into the classrooms I speculate has more to do with business than anything: Its lack of spiritual and philosophical rigor is what keeps it from clashing with other beliefs, helps it spread, makes it marketable, and incidentally what keeps it largely empty of serious philosophical substance.
The College Humor video above is on point. Gandhi’s activism and life philosophy, his challenge to English imperialism, was greatly influenced by the Bhagavad Gita, a central text of yoga as well as of Hinduism in general. In a commentary on the Gita Gandhi explained the text’s influence on his pacifism, pacifism that draws on the ancient concept of ahimsa: causing no harm, violence, or distress to other living things.
But what if American yoga runs against ahimsa? What if rather than peace, it creates harm and distress? You may leave your yoga studio feeling clean and calm, but your distress is just displaced to the sweatshops that produce the yoga mats, tights, and towels that the American yoga industry markets to its armies of yogis.
When Gandhi overhears two people at the yoga studio talking about a juice fast, he gets excited: “Oh you’re fasting! What for? To protest imperialism?”
“Beach season,” they say.
America’s money-making creed has taken the oldest recorded strand of human thought and made it a component of an economy of bodily beauty. It’s hard not to take seriously the critique that yoga becomes merely an exercise routine, or even worse: a way to placate and calm the anxieties of oppressors living at the top of the Global North. While those living in the Global South, among them millions of Indians, work in factories earning next to nothing to produce their luxury yoga mats and tights.
I can’t say what doing yoga right entails, but I’m willing to take a stand and say that this certainly isn’t it.