Yoga stretches far, from India to San Francisco

Discipline that grew in Bay Area is now big business — with growing pains

Bringing together world-renowned faculty and yoga practitioners, Yoga Journal magazine is hosting its second annual West Coast conference.

More than 800 people will be attending the four-day affair, to be held at the San Francisco Hyatt Regency Embarcadero, largely for the chance to work with celebrity instructors such as Judith Lasater, Rodney Yee and Baron Baptiste, who will be on hand to conduct classes and educate attendees about the range of health benefits associated with yoga.

As it happens, all have connections to the Bay Area, too.

Judith Lasater co-founded the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco in 1974, teaches popular yoga workshops around the country and is the president of the California Yoga Teachers Association.

Prominent yoga teacher Rodney Yee co-founded and continues to teach at the Piedmont Yoga Studio in Oakland.

And Baron Baptiste, the owner of two colossal studios in Boston and Cambridge, Mass., is the son of one of yoga’s pioneers, Walt Baptiste.

That the Berkeley magazine is scheduling its first conference of the year here owes partly to the city’s charms. It is also a reflection of yoga’s steady growth in the Bay Area.

Though modern yoga originally moved across the country from the east, introduced first in Boston and Chicago by young swamis and yoga masters of Indian origin, the movement quickly found fertile ground in the Bay Area, with acolytes such as Lasater traveling to India and bringing back its ethical and philosophical precepts. Today, nearly 20 percent of the country’s 15 million practitioners live on the West Coast — a serious number, considering that not so long ago, the yogic lifestyle was considered, well, alternative.

“For a long time, people thought practicing yoga meant putting your foot behind your head,” says Elise Miller, a noted yoga teacher who founded the California Yoga Center studio in Palo Alto and will appear at the conference. “It’s much more than that, though. Among so many other things, it’s about quieting the mind and the nervous system. It’s about concentration, meditation, spirituality and reaching an enlightened state.”

Miller has for years been teaching Iyengar yoga, which along with Ashtanga and Bikram are among the most popular techniques in the country today. Ashtanga, introduced to the United States decades ago by 88-year-old yogi Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, emphasizes connecting the spiritual, psychological and physical, focusing on correct breathing and postures.

Iyengar yoga is named after 85-year-old teacher and author B.K.S. Iyengar, whose 1966 book “Light on Yoga” popularized his own style of yoga, which stresses precision of physical alignment. Meanwhile, Bikram yoga, which subjects students to sweaty temperatures of 105 degrees while they twist into 26 rigorous postures is the brainchild of Bikram Choudhury of Los Angeles, who has franchised his method in more than 600 studios in the United States.

All these techniques are combining to drive record numbers of practitioners into yoga studios. The 15 million people practicing yoga represent an increase of 28.5 percent since 2002, according to a Yoga Journal study. Studios run by the biggest names in the industry are attracting astonishing numbers of practitioners every day. (Baptiste’s studios pull in 3, 000 people weekly; Yee’s Piedmont studio has roughly 1,000 students each week. )

Flipping through old copies of Yoga Journal itself tells the tale. A not- for-profit newsletter launched by the California Yoga Teachers Association back in 1975, the magazine has become a slick glossy whose paid subscriber base has skyrocketed from 90,000 in 1998 to more than 300,000 today. It also organizes several oversubscribed conferences each year.

When Lasater, 56, first began teaching in the city in 1972, she “knew every single yoga teacher in the Bay Area — because there were about 20,” she recalls with a laugh. In 2003, roughly 80 yoga studios appeared in the San Francisco phone book alone.

As with anything that has been around yet suddenly becomes wildly fashionable, tracing yoga’s surge in popularity is an inexact science. Lasater thinks technology has been a major driver. “When the Internet and e-mail emerged, I think it was sort of symbolic of that time that our lives became more busy, more complex, more abstract. We started doing business with people we never meet; we worked from home.”

Yoga, she suggests, represented something concrete and immediate, as well as physical. “It came to fill a lot of unmet needs,” she says. “Certainly, it fulfills a social function for many people. When you practice on a regular basis with people, even if you don’t know them personally, you feel connected with them.”

Similarly, Yee, 46, who teaches Iyengar and is a major beneficiary of yoga’s popularity — he has appeared everywhere from Time magazine to “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in recent years — can recall only four other East Bay studios that were up and running when he opened Piedmont’s doors in 1987, including the Yoga Room in Berkeley, founded nine years earlier. Though Yee is not surprised — “I think this area is generally more accepting of different ideas and people” — he expresses slight disdain over the “tons” of studios that have opened in the East Bay in recent years.

“Yoga used to be for people really searching for some type of spiritual practice, an alternative to the mainstream,” Yee says. “People did it for their own self-interest.” He pauses. “I’m not lambasting what’s happening today. It’s just become more convoluted because of the financial opportunity that exists.”

As with any industry, yoga’s supercharged growth has translated into an exhilarating and lucrative ride for some and a new beginning for others, such as small-business people. Its pervasiveness has also created — or created an interest in uncovering — controversies.

There are, for starters, the alleged sex scandals. Last year, Yee was sued by a former employee who claimed she was denied the opportunity to teach at his studio after she approached him about his alleged sexual affairs with students. (Yee was unavailable to comment on the lawsuit, but according to his Piedmont Avenue studio manager, Lisa Stewart, “the case was settled out of court to the satisfaction of all parties.”)

The paradox between yoga’s spiritual roots in India and the United States’ capitalistic ethos has caused strains, too. The yoga business brings in an estimated hundreds of millions of dollars to studio owners and teachers annually, yet many entrepreneurs are fighting for their piece of the pie. The highest-profile example is Choudhury, who reportedly wears a flashy gold Rolex, hangs out with celebrity clients like Madonna and has very publicly threatened litigation against instructors of Bikram yoga who do not go through his two-month, $5,000 certification process.

That highlights another area of contention within the expanding yoga universe, that of teacher certification. The problem: There’s no state or national licensing of yoga teachers.

“Right now, anybody can say, ‘I’m a yoga teacher,’ ” Lasater says. It is a serious problem, she suggests, particularly for those students who unwittingly learn their practice from people who themselves have received little more than a weekend of training.

Lasater hopes that a nonprofit organization with which she is working called Yoga Alliance, based in Reading, Pa., will change that situation. Though the group explicitly states at its Web site that it does not “represent yoga” in the United States, it has been developing a teachers registry since 1999 to recognize and promote teachers with training that meet the organization’s standards. Hundreds of people are in its growing database already.

The reality is that though yoga might literally mean “union with God,” encouraging a divine harmony with all things, an industry the size of the yoga movement now can’t escape at least some discord.

It doesn’t mean that everyone is unhappy with what is happening, though. “A lot of traditionalists have trouble with the fact that yoga is so popular and that, to an extent, the concept is being watered down to appeal to more people,” says Richard Rosen, who has been teaching yoga for 16 years and works at both Yee’s studio and Fourth Street Yoga in Berkeley. Shrugs Rosen, “Me? I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing.”


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
San Francisco Chronicle, USA
Jan. 18, 2004
Constance Loizos

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday January 19, 2004.
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