Americans ruined yoga for the rest of the world

Powering through Times Square.
Powering through Times Square.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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Countless articles about the highly lucrative and often ridiculed yoga culture begin by locating us within a spacious, candlelit studio with polished wood floors, possibly bamboo in—pick your random major metro area. On the occasion of my visit to a new studio around the block from my apartment in Harlem, I didn’t get past the reception area or the blonde waif with a face scrubbed free of character, who informed me that following an introductory series, I would be expected to pay 25 bucks for the privilege of accessing the space for a self-led practice.

“So I’m paying you to teach myself,” I said, clarifying the deal that all but included a bridge. “Well in India,” she replied, invoking the yogi motherland, its mere mention imbuing higher power credibility to what sounded like an old-fashioned big city scam. Maybe yogis practice to their own tune in India, but this is New York City, this is Harlem, and what I should have said while I was mindfully annoyed—but didn’t—is that this is the land of pricy Lululemon gear where yogis fit their lotus between a mani/pedi and a cocktail.

In America, classes are described as sweaty, flow, and power; they’re built around endless sun salutations (yogi calisthenics) and doused with a photoshopped version of femininity. Yoga may have its roots as a practice largely for the benefit of men in India, but in this country, $20-$25 buys women an entrée into a world where hips, sacrums, and elongated necks are prized, and a woman’s body is worshipped. In exchange for 90 minutes of our time, we attain a personal encounter with our inner goddess by pushing ourselves to reach high, dig deep, and make contact with our perineum—but often as a means of peddling a stereotype of femininity, one tied to a certain aesthetic of what a woman’s body should be.

What began as an esoteric practice tied to meditation has become an industry with a corporate studio culture and a practice built on the notion of twisting ourselves into becoming someone else. “It makes sense to me that as yoga adapts to our culture what will be popular goes with the culture,” Gioconda Parker, a veteran yoga teacher who tours regularly told me after a class in Austin. “Yoga has been the place where the super-fit, super lean go hangout together.” Only in yoga will people chant in a foreign language, oblivious to the meaning of the words and then closely examine their curves in pants now worn by porn stars.

J. Brown, who owns the Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, calls it “chicked out” yoga, its classes offering a little bit of everything, he says—a little cardio, a little weight loss, a little spirituality. They can be in gyms or in studios resembling mediations halls, the classes may be structured around sun salutations or another series of vigorous postures but what they have in common is a yoga scene that celebrates the commodified male ideal of the feminine—“the white dancer chick.”

Much like a trip to the nail salon or spa, “chicked out yoga” promises a respite from the competitive, sharp-elbowed, ahem, masculine world, except we supply most of our own accoutrements. But yoga in its commodified form capitalizes on body imagery, hyper-aggressive classes, and a culture of competitiveness that urges women to be more, do more. Yoga culture has found a place within the multitude of think pieces that scrutinize the most effective octave of our voices, or applauds our panache for empathy and team-building, or gauges the precise angle at which we should lean in or out. It plays to the part of us, and the conversations about women, that center on what we can do to be happy, successful, fit, and of course, less intimidating to men. And like those conversations, the yoga image is constructed for and by a decidedly fit, white, middle-upper middle class, even as much of the nation staggers through the fallout of the nation’s economic meltdown.

To be fair, for some people yoga—of any variety—offers a space for emotional release and a sense of sisterhood, says Jessica Bennett, a columnist for Time who writes about gender and sexuality. It’s also provided a venue for ritual, says Melanie Klein, a sociology professor and co-editor of Yoga and Body Image. Its popularity, in part, “speaks to the fact that there aren’t enough sacred spaces in our community,” said Klein. “What are the rituals we have—graduation, marriage and baby showers—other than that, what rituals do we have?”

I experimented with studios and styles in New York and while traveling for one simple reason: it works. I recovered from shoulder and back issues through yoga, on a $2 palm-woven mat in El Salvador while occasionally springing for personal instruction that formed the basis of my daily morning practice. Naturally, I wrote about it for Yoga Journal. While bowing to the volcano in San Salvador, I discovered that I gained more—physically and spiritually—by scaling back, or at least, becoming more discerning about using my competitive pushiness.

Such was the yoga scene less than 20 years ago, when yoga was associated with austerity and simplicity. Classes were generally offered in mediation and holistic centers. Yoga clothes were unheard of, much less pricy, form-fitting pants. With the economic boom of the late 1990s, but more importantly in the early 21st century, yoga entered the mainstream, spawning trends like sweaty and power yoga. “Of course power yoga got popular,” said Parker. “We have a drive for power in this country.”

Indeed, in a culture where people would rather subject themselves to electric shock than sit with their own thoughts for 15 minutes, it stands to reason that a practice meant to prepare us for meditation requires a room heated to 120 degrees to get us there. And even then, I invariably eye with envy the perfect round sun rising a few rows in front of me. After all, much of the multibillion-dollar industry relies on the tactics of a cutthroat competitive world, a patriarchal world—stoking a woman’s desire to be more. “Being hyper aggressive on the body plays on women’s self-image,” said Brown. “If you think there is something wrong with you and lacking, torturing your body makes perfect sense.”

As it happens, some of the Gen-Xers who inherited yoga from the baby boomers and ran with it through the optimistic and turbo-charged corporate era have ushered in a renaissance that trades power for balance, and when they speak of the feminine, they aren’t referring to hip opening postures or even gender, but recalibrating the female polarity in all of us. In this iteration, gentle is the new advanced and yoga instructors offer alternative postures—while changing the conversation about yoga and femininity.

In the Bronx, that famed New York City borough where culture is born, Griselda Rodriguez organized a yoga class centered on the feminine for the De Almas Women’s Institute. Midway through, she says, women began to break down and cry. Not that crying is the feminine aspect, she said, but an awareness of what is inside is part of that highly charged term, femininity. “In a masculine society,” said Rodriguez, a college professor, “you put your game face on and you fake it until you make it.” Its effect is clearly seen in the huge swath of our society that turns to food, drink and drugs to numb out, lest the mask slip from its place. If you don’t believe me, just ask any one of the millions of people who watched researcher Brené Brown’s viral lecture on the power of vulnerability.

Femininity in this context—for those with their hackles raised and knives sharpened—is not formed by adjectives. It is not descriptive and not even marketable. Of all the experts and teachers I spoke with, Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, an attorney specializing in international gender issues and whose presence inspires me to sit up straighter, offered the best description: “Yoga and femininity is about your intimate contact with your own body and being present in your body in a very powerful way.” The “control and power over our body” that she describes makes selling celebrities and products to women though all the more difficult.

In the new anthology, Yoga and Body Image, yogis take stock of what became of the yoga practice, the culture, and women, as the yoga industry took off. Seane Corn, who gained fame as a yoga instructor and one of the first poster girls for mainstream yoga, writes that her success was in part predicated on embodying a particular image. “I was thin, flexible, strong, pretty, and white. I fit into a mainstream ideal that could be marketed and used to help commercialize yoga,” she writes in an essay titled “Power, Privilege and the Beauty Myth.” In her essay, Corn, now in her late 40s, reflects on the yoga industry that celebrated a certain brand of woman and her role in it. “I apologize for the ways I perpetuated the myth that beauty is a certain shape, size, and color, but I’m glad to now be in a position where I can raise awareness about it.”

Seven years ago, Brown, 42, abandoned the power yoga craze to offer a practice focused on balancing female polarities rather than packaging femininity, and “working within limits rather than trying to push limits.” It seems even yoga teachers have grown tired of telling women they can be more. In Austin, Gioconda Parker, 42, suffered a moment of doubt when the yoga explosion began to involve body paints and paddle boards. Her classes, extremely popular around the city and some offered by donation, feel like a return to a yoga experience that is deeply personal and noncompetitive. She offers multiple alternatives to poses, and the word choice leans on concepts of “receptivity” while instructing us to allow ourselves to be changed and shaped by the poses, rather than focusing on the power of achieving the pose.

“If we’re living in a healthy balance, we shift back and forth from being the doer and recognizing how much is being done for us,” she later told me. “The way to replenish the reserves is to stop the doing and receive, and to recognize when we are receiving and let it in.”

After nearly two decades of yoga craze, it may be that the feminine promise of yoga is the very element that often eludes us—contentment. And rather than escape on pricy retreats, yoga is best practiced by inviting the chaotic, loud, and decidedly un-yogi world to actually affect us. But happiness, as we all know, is the most desirable commodity—and in whatever form, someone somewhere is selling happiness through women to women.