A few years ago, I was sputtering through New Delhi in a fume-belching 1950s Ambassador taxi, en route to a "yoga hospital" I hoped to include in the book I was researching. Sitting next to me was an official guide assigned to me by the Indian Office of Tourism--an earnest young woman in a lilac sari whose face lit up when I told her where I was from and what I was working on. As we lurched through bumper-to-bumper traffic, my guide told me that she wanted to change her life. She was reading "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus," and she had joined a "Celestine Prophecy" support group. "I love yoga so much," she said. "If only I had enough money, I would go to California and study it."
Roughly five millennia after Indian mystics, intoxicated on the sacred drink soma, soared into the ecstatic trances that inspired the earliest yogic teachings, a new incarnation of this ancient spiritual technology has taken up permanent residence in the United States.
You've probably watched Sun Salutations on "Rosie O'Donnell" and "Good Morning America." According to a 1994 Roper poll, 6 million Americans do yoga. (One estimate places the current number at 12 million.) It's the most popular new feature at health and fitness clubs around the country, with close to 40 percent of them now offering classes. The Los Angeles Times estimates that there are more than 70 yoga studios in Southern California alone, with some of the bigger ones pulling in as much as $30,000 a week.
The popular Jivamukti Yoga Center in Manhattan offers at least 108 classes a week, with an average of 60 students packed into every class. The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts--the country's largest residential yoga retreat center--draws close to 20,000 guests a year, for an annual gross of about $10 million. A search on Amazon.com pulls up more than 1,350 yoga book titles, ranging from "A Reinterpretation of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras in the Light of the Buddha Dharma" to "Yoga for Cats." My favorite automobile ad shows an image of a man meditating in front of an immense mound of outdoor gear and a brand new pickup truck. "To be one with
everything," he says, "you've gotta have one of
everything," the copy reads.
Sure, this phenomenon tends to be trivialized in the mainstream media, which likes to portray yoga as the latest fitness fad, hastening to reassure us that it's not really
mystical. ("I don't want it to change my life," actress Julia Roberts told In Style magazine. "Just my butt.") But that superficial spin on things may be more a reflection of the nature of the media than the nature of American yoga. Today, your doctor may well recommend yoga; your insurance company may pay for it. The Fortune 500 company you work for might offer it during lunch hour. Your psychotherapist recommends it to reduce stress. Yoga and meditation are being taught in AIDS hospices, corporate boardrooms, battered-women's shelters, inner-city churches. Yoga images permeate everything from your favorite sitcom to your least-favorite junk-mail catalog. And in the process, Western society is leaving its mark on yoga as well.
"Yoga is American now," says Judith Lasater, a yoga teacher for almost 30 years and the author of "Living Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life." "Back when I first started teaching, it was very tied to Hinduism--to wearing white cotton yoga pants, taking a Hindu name, burning incense, and having a guru. Now it's taking on an American patina rather than a Hindu patina." Is
yoga American now? And if so, what is American yoga like?