It’s no stretch to say Americans embrace yoga

You’re not imagining it: Everyone really is doing yoga.

OK, maybe not everyone. But the ancient discipline, which promises spiritual enlightenment along with long, lean muscles, has indeed boomed in popularity over the past several years.

Just how big has the trend become?

WHO DOES YOGA?

Among Americans who practice yoga:

77 percent are women.

15 percent have an annual household income over $100,000.

Nearly half have completed college.

27 percent are ages 45-54; another 25 percent are 25-34.

Slightly less than 20 percent live on the West Coast, compared to 30 percent in the Northeast and 30 percent in the central United States.
Source: Harris International market study for Yoga Journal, 2003

Yoga is now practiced by 7 percent of U.S. adults, or 15 million people, according to a market study conducted by Harris International this summer for Yoga Journal. That’s up 28.5 percent in the last two years alone.

The same study found that more than half of the general population has at least a casual interest in yoga, and one in six respondents planned to try yoga in the next year.

Three-quarters of fitness clubs now offer some form of yoga class, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association

Just call us the Yoga Nation.

For a dramatic example of the juggernaut that yoga has become in America, look no further than San Francisco, where Berkeley-based Yoga Journal magazine held its West Coast regional conference five weeks ago.

The event brought hundreds of teachers and practitioners to the Embarcadero Hyatt Regency, where they did lunch, traded business cards and unrolled their sticky mats in giant meeting rooms to work with such yoga legends as Baron Baptiste.

Some teachers, such as Ashtanga veteran David Swenson, had to wear microphone headsets to amplify their voices through the twisting and stretching crowds.

“I wonder if Patanjali had one of these,” Swenson joked, referring to the Indian sage who wrote the Yoga Sutras.

Quite a change from the old days, he added, when yoga enthusiasts scrounged for old carpet scraps to use as mats.

Judith Hanson Lasater, a longtime yoga teacher and the author of “30 Essential Yoga Poses,” said the current flurry of interest in yoga is really the second to hit the United States.

“I started yoga practice myself in 1970, when there was a mini-wave of yoga, with the Beatles and the Maharishi and sitar in rock music,” she said. “There was a big cultural divide, and this was sort of part of the counterculture. It wasn’t just yoga; it was how you ate and how you dressed.

“There are some people that go to ashrams and do that, but I think the majority of the people go to a yoga class like they go to a gym. … It’s different now; it’s meeting different needs.”

Yoga

Most westerners are naive to the religious origin and nature of yoga. Many practitioners who do, merely presume that the exercises are harmless if they are not practiced with a spiritual intent.

Yoga is a series of exercises and postures (asanas) which are advertised as a way to tone up, reduce stress and experience tranquility.

Yoga though is an intrinsic part of Hinduism. Swami Vishnudevananda, well known authority of Yoga, in his book The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga explains the purpose of Yoga, “It is the duty of each developed man to train his body to the highest degree of perfection so that it may be used to pursue spiritual purposes… the aim of all yoga practice is to achieve truth wherein the individual soul identifies itself with the supreme soul of God.”
- Source: Yoga, a Profile by Watchman Fellowship

Mention yoga these days, and Americans are more likely to picture a mat-toting movie star than a patchouli-soaked hippie in a unitard.

The practice has become so thoroughly entrenched in mainstream culture that you can even buy trendy yoga gear at Niketown.

Yoga is now recommended to pro athletes by their coaches, pushed by cardiologists and physical therapists and taught in East Bay high schools for physical education credit.

In workplaces around the Bay Area, employees are pushing aside the conference room chairs and tables to make room for weekly yoga sessions.

“Companies are more conscious of the needs of their employees, especially since the dot-com, dot-bomb — their employees are working basically two jobs,” says Christine Chang, owner of Yoga Motion in San Francisco, which offers yoga lessons exclusively to businesses.

Chang, who has studied yoga for 20 years, has been teaching on-site corporate classes for five.

“Even the most traditional types of companies are now coming to me,” she said. “People are more aware of the need to destress and center and find quality of life.”

Clients are often surprised when they first try yoga, she said, having assumed “that you would sit and chant and not really move around.”

Still, the hardest part for many students is not doing the poses, she says, but learning to stop criticizing their own efforts.

“The first thing I say is ‘I have no expectations of you, and whatever expectations you have of yourself, let it go,'” said Chang. “People say I can’t come to yoga because I’m not flexible — that’s why you’re supposed to come.”

Inevitably, the yoga boom has its dark side, too.

Bikram Choudhury has ignited a fiery debate by threatening to sue those who infringe his copyright by using the term “Bikram” or teaching his patented pose sequence without forking over a franchise fee.

Last spring, a Times of London reporter noted the emergence of a disturbing reaction to overcrowded classes: Yoga Rage.

And Los Angeles police have reported a rash of thefts of trendy Ugg boots, all stolen from outside the front doors of popular yoga studios.

If yoga is changing Americans, so, too, are Americans changing yoga, with a result that looks distinctly different from the tradition’s roots in India, which reach back thousands of years.

For one thing, students in the United States are embracing sweaty, strenuous varieties of the discipline, lumped together under the term Power Yoga. Teachers are hanging mirrors in their studios, piping in music and offering hybrid classes such as “Disco Yoga” and “PiYo” (Pilates and yoga combined).

“Yoga’s in the mainstream now, it’s in the market, so it’s going to get the same vibe as the rest of the culture,” Santa Fe instructor Tias Little told his students at the Yoga Journal Conference, amidst a lecture on balancing one’s digestive tract. “Which is a little bit sad, but it’s good because people get exposed to it.”

Not surprisingly, many longtime teachers and practitioners share these mixed feelings about yoga’s popularity.

One major complaint is that today’s students tend to see yoga merely as the process of perfecting difficult poses, ignoring its meditative and spiritual components.

“If I could wave my magic wand, I would like the deeper philosophical aspects of yoga to be taught more,” said Lasater, who holds a doctorate in East-West psychology. “I would like it if people just knew the ten commandments of yoga, the yama and niyama.”

Those principals include not lying, stealing, harming others, or being greedy, and knowing oneself, surrendering to God and seeking purity and contentment.

“Real yoga is not just gymnastics,” Swenson told one of his classes at the Yoga Journal conference. “It is the unseen attention to breathing and the development of awareness.”

“It can be a form of physical fitness, or it can be a deep spiritual practice. It can be a way of life.”

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