The rise and rise of yoga

Hindustan Times | ByAnirudh Bhattacharyya and Dipankar De Sarkar, New Delhi
May 22, 2010 06:34 PM IST

Yoga has become so commonplace in the West that new forms are emerging – many of which are completely unrecognisable to us. Anirudh Bhattacharyya and Dipankar De Sarkar tell you more.

Every year on the summer solstice, Times Square in New York is transformed into a giant outdoor yoga studio as hundreds unfurl their yoga mats at an annual event called Mind over Madness that aims to "find tranquillity and transcendence in the midst of the world’s most commercial and frenetic place."

Given the determinedly unworldly implications of Mind over Madness, it’s a little ironic to correlate the event to the opening of a new Indian eatery in Murray Hill, a stretch of Lexington Avenue in Midtown Manhattan that is referred to as Curry Hill because of the multiplicity of Indian restaurants that crowd it. But there is a connection.

The new Indian eatery that opened in Murray Hill on May 3 is not just another desi joint. This one mines the burgeoning American fascination with all things yoga. Called Yogi’s Kitchen, this vegetarian restaurant is the brainchild of Dinu and Mamta Mulloli, who have shifted from their professions of finance and marketing and online software development respectively, to the cuisine business.

"Yogi’s Kitchen is based on the principles of yoga. Most yogis take ayurvedic food, with proteins, calcium, vitamins, nothing deep fried," explains Dinu Mulloli. This ‘holistic food’ outlet is gradually gathering a clientele, and some of that is derived from the numerous yoga studios that dot Manhattan.

Yoga in its many manifestations has become part of the American landscape, and a lucrative industry. Yoga Journal, a 35-year-old publication with a readership of nearly a million per month, estimates the annual market for this industry in the US at roughly $6 billion, with nearly 16 million Americans practicing yoga in 2008.

In money terms the industry has almost doubled since 2004. (Other than yoga classes, there are DVDs, workshops, conventions, retreats. And mats. And couture. A Calvin Klein hoarding towers over Times Square displaying a model in a yoga posture, pushing Capri-length yogawear. Outdoor clothing brand Eddie Bauer is in the business. There are even chic mats like those marketed by Manduka.)

Part of yoga’s appeal in the US is its adoption by celebrities. Former First Lady Laura Bush reportedly did yoga in the White House. Hollywood and showbiz types drive the craze with adherents including Madonna, Oprah Winfrey, Cameron Diaz and Sarah Jessica Parker. Professional sportsmen in the baseball and American football league make it part of their exercise routine. The US military has incorporated it in training, even at bases in Iraq.

Across the Atlantic Ocean in the UK, yoga is a multi-million-pound business, spanning lifestyle, health and sport, just as in the US. (There are no reports of Piccadilly Circus becoming a giant outdoor yoga studio, however.) According to the British Wheel of Yoga, a nationwide association that acts as a governing body for the practice, there are around half a million practitioners of yoga in Britain with the number of teachers growing by around 10 per cent every year. It’s popular in gyms, and countless private classes are held across the land.

But there’s more to yoga in the West than its status as an industry. It’s become so commonplace in the US and UK, in fact, that new forms are emerging. Forms that transcend the original version that emerged in India, so that for many Indians, they seem as foreign as yoga itself must once have seemed to Westerners.

Twist and shout
A quick round up of some of America’s takes on yoga can leave you metaphorically standing on your head. There’s Circus Yoga, Nude Yoga, Pre- and Post-Natal Yoga, Ball Yoga (with a ball as an accessory) and even Yoga for dogs (or Doga). Not to forget Acro Yoga (acrobatics!) and Hip-Hop Yoga. Many of these ‘new’ forms have migrated across the Atlantic as well. One of the pioneers of Circus Yoga, New York-based Erin Maile O’Keefe says, “Circus Yoga blends the consciousness and practices of yoga with the communal celebration and skills of circus.”

Nude Yoga is self-explanatory and comes in several variants. One of them is led by a New Yorker who goes by the name of Isis Phoenix. The version is known as Asana Exposed and is defined as “an au natural yoga movement that has been paving the way for yogis to embrace another layer of freedom in their yoga practice. It is a yoga practice that holds an intention of a holy body free from shame, guilt and suffering.” Another type, Hot Nude Yoga, is practiced mainly in New York and Los Angeles and caters largely to gay men.

But yoga in America isn’t just for human beings. Arizona-based Amy Stevens has created a Yoga4Dogs workout routine that allows pet owners and their dogs “to improve, advance, and enjoy a healthier lifestyle.”

To many of us in India, these ‘forms’ of yoga seem bizarre in the extreme. But practitioners of the more customary forms of yoga see no harm in them. “It amuses me,” says Dr Rajvi H Mehta, a student of Iyengar yoga for 30 years, teacher at Iyengar Yogashraya in Mumbai, and editor of Yoga Rahasya, the quarterly journal of the Iyengar Yoga Institute. “It just shows how popular yoga is and how much it has captured the minds of people. Add the word yoga to whatever you do and it generates interest!”

The spirit is willing...

More potent than these ‘amusing’ forms of yoga though, are the issues raised by yoga and religion. Yoga’s association with Hinduism sometimes makes it difficult for people of other religions to accept. Till a few years ago, yoga carried an exotic tag in the US – it was seen as a spiritual activity imported from India. But its growing popularity there these days has ironically led to its decoupling from any hint of Hindu or Indian association.

For instance, there is Christian Yoga that makes asanas accessible to those who may be uncomfortable with a regimen that is so closely identified with Hinduism. Among those who are popularising this is Phoenix, Arizona-based Brooke Boon, the founder of Holy Yoga.

The mission statement behind her movement is clear: 100 per cent Yoga, 100 per cent Christian. But Boon makes it clear that she’s not a Christian fundamentalist, just a “spiritual individual who has given her life to Christ.” Boon says she had her awakening on a yoga mat as she realised “a connection to the divine” and wanted to share her experience with other Christians who had become disconnected from their religion.

The adaptation of yoga is not limited to Christians. It has also become increasingly popular with North American Jews. Among those who are teaching Jewish Yoga is Montreal, Canada-based Audi Gozlan, who practices Kabalah Yoga, bringing together a mystic tradition in Judaism and Yoga.

Gozlan who regularly holds training sessions in the US, says, “I saw the Hebrew letters in the movements of yoga postures. I realised the body can tap into the great energy of these Hebrew letters.” Another practitioner is Long Beach, California-based Reisha Golden, who teaches “gentle yoga designed for all ages and beliefs in a relaxed, meditative setting in the light of traditional and mystical Jewish wisdom.” She says putting yoga in the context of Judaism can draw in those who may otherwise be averse to a foreign tradition. The Jewish tradition has spawned, other than Kabalah yoga, also Torah and Aleph Bet Yoga.

However, this trend of religion-appropriate yoga has earned a backlash of sorts. In a column online for Newsweek, a co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, Aseem Shukla, wrote, “They are appropriating the collective wisdom of millennia of yogis without a whisper of acknowledgment of yoga’s spiritual roots. Not surprisingly, the most popular yoga journals and magazines are also in the act. Once yoga was no longer intertwined with its Hindu roots, it became up for grabs and easy to sell.”

Shukla earned a counter column from New Age megaguru Deepak Chopra who responded that “yoga is a spiritual discipline in India, and always has been. The aim of the practice is liberation. When liberation occurs, the yogi is freed from the religious trappings that enclose Yoga. Those trappings have always been incidental to the deeper aim of enlightenment.”

Still, says yoga practitioner Bharat Thakur, the trappings do help, because they attract more people to yoga. “Just like science that only grows with research, yoga’s popularity is also increasing due to all the experimentation that is happening. So whether people come out with Circus Yoga, Christian Yoga or Hebrew Yoga, it doesn’t matter,” he says.

“All forms of yoga take their inspiration from the

Patanjali Yoga Sutra

, which is why the forms are so strong in their basis. And with so much research happening on a daily basis, the science of yoga is getting authenticated every single minute. I myself have just finished my seventh research project and am working on two more.”

But there’s not enough scientific research combined with yoga in India, says


Bikram Choudhury, who has created a system of yoga called Bikram Yoga or Hot Yoga – a system of 26 asanas plus two breathing techniques practiced in a certain sequence in a studio heated to 40° centigrade.

Though Bikram Choudhury is originally from Kolkata, he was sent abroad by his guru in the 1970s (first to Japan, from where he moved to America) to spread the word – which he seems to have done in a spectacular manner. Bikram Yoga is wildly popular in the US and elsewhere in the world (though there is only one studio in India – in Mumbai, part of the Singapore-owned fitness lifestyle centre, True Fitness), and has even given birth to a verb – Bikramming.

“Yoga in India is a 5,000-year-old system and it hasn’t changed in those 5,000 years,” says Bikram. “I am the first person to combine Hatha Yoga with medical science and I have 4,000 studios across the world. Indian yogis are still conservative. Their hearts and minds are closed.”

The home stretch
Conservative or not, traditional practices of yoga still have their fans worldwide. “From 1995 to 2004, the trend towards yoga as more of a physical culture than anything else was quite strong. It was threatening actual yoga,” says Prahlada, director of the Sivananda Ashram in Montreal, Canada. “But the trend is changing again. People are looking for a more meditative yoga.”

They are also looking for ‘real’ yoga – or at least that’s what comes across when Christine Hays, director, spa operations, The Oberoi Group, says: “A larger number of international travellers wish to experience yoga as it is practiced in the country of its origin.” Which is why the Oberoi Group offers yoga as part of its wellness packages at its leisure properties.

High-end resort Ananda in the Himalayas also offers yoga packages, while the Sivananda organisation offers yoga vacations at its ashrams and centres worldwide, where guests can relax as they settle into a routine of yoga practice. “Ninety per cent of our guests are foreigners,” says Nataraj, director of the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram, Neyyar Dam, Kerala. “People are leading more and more stressful lives, and they find that yoga is a system that really helps them find balance and peace of mind.”

That ‘real’ yoga is still in demand in the West is demonstrated by celebrity yoga teacher Subodh Gupta, who moved from Delhi to London five years ago to launch his practice and now charges clients up to £300 an hour. “What I offer is extreme quality,” says Gupta, who refuses to name any of his celeb students other than Simon Le Bon, lead singer of the ’80s pop band Duran Duran.

Gupta says his clients include actors, supermodels and chairmen of private companies: “I serve a high-end niche market.” He finds it more satisfying teaching in London than in Delhi – and not only for reasons of money. “People in London are serious about yoga – they really want to learn and they are disciplined. Back in India, they would only come to you if they had a health problem. Here everything is different.”

The qualifications for teaching yoga in Britain are rigorous, says Gupta – instructors have to have a minimum of 240 hours of teachers’ training under their belt to qualify for a place on a Register of Exercise Professionals. “In India, nobody asks you if you have a teacher training certificate.”

Triyoga, with three studios in London and its own line of clothing, DVDs and books, is one of the largest yoga-focused gyms serving both celebrities and local communities. “We aim to provide a greater choice while maintaining the authenticity of yoga,” says Triyoga managing director Jonathan Sattin. Triyoga attracts not only many celebrities, but also mums, teens, kids and toddlers. Daily 1.5-hour ‘community classes’ cost only £6.50. “Our only mantra is we like to have the best teachers who are also authentic – a yoga that works for you,” Sattin says.

Funnily, while yoga practitioners in India are unconcerned by the twists that the West has given yoga, in the UK, yoga’s popularity has spawned calls for regulation. John Philp, author of the book Yoga Inc, argues that the booming business behind yoga has little to do with the yogi’s original purpose of providing spiritual salvation. “The goal of yoga, after all, is detachment and enlightenment,” he says.

“Much in today’s yoga scene seems designed to enlighten our wallets and detach us from our savings. And that’s hypocritical.”

But a minority of trainers is opposed to regulation, arguing yoga can’t be defined easily. “Essentially, yoga was reinvented here in the 1960s as a series of physical exercises rather than the individual practice of meditation,” said Keith ap Owen, a trainer and member of the Independent Yoga Network, UK, which opposes regulation. “At the time, we didn’t have any yoga masters or teachers in Britain. It became a very big business. Everybody wanted in, and the easiest way to do it was through exercises, which led people away from the essence of yoga, which is the development of the individual.”

But Owen, who has been a yogi for 50 years, has liaised between trainers, sporting and education authorities, arguing against regulation. “There is no definition of yoga,” he says. “It is so diverse…” Precisely what India’s own yoga practitioners say.

How the west was won
Swami Vivekananda addresses the Parliament of Religions in Chicago

Early 1900s: American Pierre Bernard who learned yoga and Hindu philosophy from a Syrian-Indian mystic in the US itself sets up a centre, according to Robert Love, author of The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America

1920: Paramahansa Yogananda visits Boston

1950s: Swami Vishnudevananda is sent West by his guru, Swami Sivananda

1960s: The Beatles’ association with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi brings yoga into popular consciousness

What never failed
Celebrity association. It made for super word-of-mouth advertising

— With inputs from Veenu Singh and Kushalrani Gulab

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