McYoga for the masses

Popular yogi to franchise ancient Indian discipline
San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 10, 2002

Julian Guthrie, Chronicle Staff Writer

Yoga, the sacred 5,000-year-old Indian tradition that teaches moral discipline, slow and mindful breathing and purposeful poses such as the downward dog, has turned dog-eat-dog.

A Beverly Hills yogi is scrambling to build the nation’s first yoga chain, creating a McYoga for the masses. An airline company and fitness chain have teamed up to deliver inner peace at 30,000 feet. A cosmetics firm is offering skin care products that promote beauty and bliss.

Even pachyderms are striking poses in the new children’s book, “Babar’s Yoga for Elephants.”

With more than 18 million yoga practitioners in the United States — a number that’s more than doubled since 1994 — there’s money to be made from meditation.

Leading the charge to bottle and sell good karma is Bikram Choudhury, a Rolls-Royce-driving, Speedo-wearing yogi who has taught his version of the camel, cobra, happy cow and tree pose to celebrities, including Shirley MacLaine, Raquel Welch, Quincy Jones and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

“We are in the process of franchising . . . and we expect to expand worldwide and have our yoga program and philosophy in every major city in the world,” said Leslie LaPage, CEO of Bikram’s Yoga College of India.

Choudhury opened one of his first studios in San Francisco in 1973. Today, an estimated 500 studios across the country teach his method of hot yoga, in which 26 poses, known by the Sanskrit name asanas, are done twice each in a room heated to over 100 degrees.

Franchising is necessary, LaPage said, “to secure quality control.” Under the plan, a Bikram studio in San Francisco would be exactly the same as one in New York, Miami or Seattle.

Choudhury’s attorneys are in the process of trademarking and copyrighting his asanas, breathing techniques, logo, clothing, even the precise dialogue that must be used in class. The trademark applications are pending with the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office.

By contrast, in India, where Choudhury trained and became a yoga master, yoga schools are free and poses are handed down from teacher to teacher.

Under the franchise plan, which LaPage expects to be completed by the end of this year, studio owners, operators and teachers would be required to be certified by Choudhury. The certification program, already under way at his Los Angeles headquarters and drawing hundreds of wannabe yogis, costs $5,000 per person and takes two months of 12-hour days. Affiliates would pay Choudhury a monthly fee based on the studio’s gross monthly revenues.

“It’s the American way,” said Trisha Lamb Feuerstein of the Yoga Research and Education Center, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit that tracks yoga trends.

“It’s great that more and more people are finding their way to yoga,” she said. “What we’re concerned with is that as people get into yoga, they understand that it’s more than a physical exercise.”

The practice of yoga has evolved over thousands of years, Feuerstein noted, and is rooted in ancient Indian philosophy that promotes concentration and prayerful meditation.

Building a brand, franchise or competition around a spiritual discipline is “nonyogic,” she said. “Yoga is not hamburgers.”

Critics say the attempt to do for yoga what McDonald’s has done for the hamburger and Starbucks for coffee is anathema to yoga’s teachings of selfless devotion to others.

“What happens when people emphasize putting more energy into the capitalism of yoga is they dilute the true meaning and value of yoga and how it’s been presented for ages,” said Tony Sanchez, a San Francisco yoga teacher who offers free yoga classes to inner-city schoolchildren.

“Once the dollar sign comes into the picture, instead of the teacher being concerned about the students and the practice, he or she is more concerned about the pocketbook,” added Sanchez, who runs the nonprofit U.S. Yoga Association.

The push to raise chakras and brand awareness is being geared toward everyone from Baby Boomers to babies.

“Babar’s Yoga for Elephants” shows Babar and friends doing a series of 15 yoga poses to bring out the “inner elephant.” The book was the idea of Babar illustrator Laurent de Brunhoff, a yoga enthusiast.

In the colorful book, Babar and his pachyderm wife are seen doing the lotus position in New York’s Times Square and a headstand in front of the Place de la Concorde in Paris. In San Francisco, they practice the cobra — stomach down, lower half on the ground, upper body elevated slightly by the arms — on a beach in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The allure of yoga is not lost on Madison Avenue. JetBlue airlines and Crunch fitness are promoting in-flight yoga; the Body Shop has a new line of yoga face products; a Dockers ad showed khaki-clad models doing yoga; supermodel Christy Turlington has her own line of yoga clothes and serves as editor at large of Yoga Journal.

Just as Southern California has its entrepreneurial, empire-building yogi in Choudhury, Northern California is home to another industry powerhouse.

Yoga Journal, based in Berkeley, was purchased in 1998 by an investment banker who transformed the sleepy nonprofit niche magazine into a glossy publication that boasts of enviable ad revenues and a soaring paid circulation of 300,000, not including single-copy newsstand sales of over 100,000 per issue, at $4.99 per copy.

The bimonthly publication, which says it will post a profit this year for the first time in its 27-year history, has become a marketing force. It sponsors yoga cruises, vacations and conferences and is thick with ads for videos, music, books and clothing. In recent months, the magazine has drawn criticism from some readers and advertisers for blurring the lines between editorial and advertising and for its perceived role in helping turn yoga teachers into rock stars.

Rodney Yee, dubbed the “stud muffin” of yoga by Time magazine in 2001, is regularly featured in the pages of Yoga Journal and is a paid instructor at many journal-sponsored events. Handsome, charming and fat-free, Yee has attracted legions of flexible fans including Demi Moore, Mariel Hemingway and Oprah Winfrey.

In May, Yee — who had touted yoga as helping keep his married life strong – – was hit with a breach-of-contract lawsuit by a former teacher at his Piedmont Yoga Studio in Oakland. As part of the lawsuit, two students claimed they each had sexual relationships with him. Yee has denied the allegations.

The California Yoga Teachers Association’s guidelines state that “sexual involvement with students is absolutely prohibited.”

Yoga Journal CEO and President John Abbott said the magazine’s goal is to promote a healthy lifestyle through yoga. The more paths to yoga, the more practitioners there will be, he said.

“The Yoga Journal features the foremost yoga teachers in the United States, ” Abbott said. “As to whether Yoga Journal contributes to making Rodney Yee a celebrity, it’s not the Yoga Journal that does that. It’s the popularity of yoga and the fact that you have people like Oprah or magazines like Time featuring Rodney.”

Abbott said that the commercialization of yoga has its upside.

“Fifteen years ago, most yoga teachers couldn’t make a living teaching yoga.

They had to moonlight doing something else. The Yoga Journal couldn’t afford to pay for a professional staff and first-class writers. As long as we are true to the teachings of yoga, the commercialization has some real benefits.”

The magazine is taking on the subject in its November issue. The feature story, called “Yoga, Inc.,” looks at the history of the commercialization of religion, including the economics and evolution of yoga. The article estimates that the yoga industry accounts for as much as $27 billion in annual sales.

St. Helena yoga teacher Haley Recio says Yoga Journal contributes both to the understanding of yoga and to its commercialization.

“You pick up a copy of Yoga Journal and you can see who’s the yogi du jour, who’s in favor, who has the biggest ad space,” said Recio. “I think there are benefits in that this brings yoga into the mainstream. But, what this shows is that the Western mind can’t handle Eastern traditions. Here, yoga has become athletic, not spiritual. It’s gotten very competitive and that’s unfortunate.”

She added, “You can’t take one culture so different from our own and expect it to remain true. It doesn’t work that way.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday November 12, 2002.
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