Millions of Americans are practicing yoga to improveflexibility, strengthen muscles, and relieve stress.

But they also are co-opting an ancient spiritual philosophy, many yogaexperts contend. A sacred practice, they complain, is increasingly beingdebased and commercialized.

Yoga is a lucrative and growing business. About 16.5 million Americansnow spend nearly $3 billion annually on classes and products, a Februarypoll by Harris Interactive and Yoga Journal magazine revealed.

Compare that with two basic tenets of yoga--that it is unethical tocharge money to teach it, and that you need nothing but your body to learnit.

The sun salutation, perhaps the best-known series of asanas, orpostures, of hatha yoga--the type most commonly practiced in America--isliterally a Hindu ritual.

"Sun salutation was never a hatha yoga tradition," said SubhasRampersaud Tiwari, professor of yoga philosophy and meditation at HinduUniversity of America in Orlando, Fla. "It is a whole series of ritualappreciations to the sun, being thankful for that source of energy."

To think of it as a mere physical movement is tantamount to "saying thatbaptism is just an underwater exercise," said Swami Param of the ClassicalYoga Hindu Academy and Dharma Yoga Ashram in Manahawkin, N.J.

What Americans are doing--practicing everything from hip-hop yoga toyoga with pets, using Hindu deities as knickknacks--is "hurtful andinsulting" to the 5,000-year-old tradition, Param said.

The debate has intensified among yoga scholars and teachers as yogapractice has grown in popularity.

Between 1998 and 2005 alone, the circulation of the 30-year-old YogaJournal tripled. Now there are yoga cruises, yoga book clubs, yoga datingservices, yoga snacks ("created specifically for yoga"), yoga music ... thelist goes on.

Todd Jones, senior editor of Yoga Journal, explained the evolution. Yoga"did start primarily as a meditative-spiritual practice. But it's gone in somany different directions." There are so many styles practiced in America,he said, it's nearly impossible to describe a "typical" yoga class.

"We live in a market-driven culture," Jones said. "If you're a yogateacher, there's pressure to separate yourself in some way from the hundredsof others." Instructors often do this by "emphasizing whatever feels mostcompelling and authentic to them, and that differs from person to person."

But when Swami Param, now 56, was curious about yoga as a 16-year-old inNew Jersey, it was by no means ubiquitous. So he turned to a dictionary.

"I still keep that Webster's with me," he said. "I looked up yoga and itsaid, `Sanskrit, Hinduism.' That's what it is. Just look at the facts."

Sanskrit is the language of sacred Hindu writings. "Every Sanskrit wordthese teachers are saying in yoga classes, they are using a religiouslanguage," he said.

Imagine the outcry if Christian, Jewish or Islamic prayers were commonlyand casually used in nonreligious contexts, Param said.

The word yoga is most often defined as a yoking, or union. Its practicestrives to unite the individual soul with the "greater soul" of theuniverse, traditionally through four main paths: karma (action), bhakti(devotion), jnana (wisdom) and raja or ashtanga (mental and physicalcontrol).

"A highly evolved spiritual being, not a gymnast"

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