Behind The Yoga Boom: Narcissism, Irreligion, Or Just Fitness?

Stewart Lawrence Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.
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A market research study released this month claims that some 36 million American practice yoga in one form or another — up from 20 million in 2012, an 80 percent increase in just 4 years. That’s roughly 15 percent of all American adults, about the same number who say they practice golf.  Clearly this is no mere niche practice confined to dingy basement apartments in the urban demimonde. Yoga, for better or worse, is now thoroughly “mainstream.”

It’s also a ubiquitous sales prop. Look at the number of television commercials that feature everyday consumers practicing yoga in the background. Yoga these days is helping to sell everything from hamburgers to insurance. Buick, the American car company, recently hired a world renowned supermodel, Bar Rafaeli, to strike a number of yoga poses alongside its newest offering, while a self-styled guru extolled the vehicle’s “meditative” qualities.

Conservatives are right to be concerned about the “yoga-fication” of American culture. In part, it’s a question of preserving traditional boundaries between church and state, and the sacred and the profane. Pro-yoga groups have succeeded (thus far) in convincing courts that the teaching of yoga to schoolchildren with taxpayer money is constitutional. Yoga is so dumbed down and secularized, they say, that anyone can practice it without fear of losing their soul, Christian or otherwise. But prominent Christian theologians, as well as Pope Francis, have raised concerns about how naively Americans have imbibed yoga, falling prey, in their view, to ungodly influences.

It’s not just Americans, in general, that seem to be taking so readily to yoga — it’s above all, women. The latest study, in line with previous surveys, finds that three-quarters of yoga practitioners are female. Men are increasingly being marketed to – for example Lululemon, the world’s leading manufacturer of posh yoga apparel, including its ubiquitous butt-hugging yoga pants, is developing a new male clothing line – but there’s clearly something about yoga that appeals to women, especially upscale white women, both young and old.

The new study does not specifically identify these factors, but it’s not hard to figure out the practice’s uniquely feminine appeal. Women are under enormous pressure to perform in today’s world and to juggle social and workplace roles that are often deeply stressful. Going to the gym or the beauty salon may only increase that sense of competitive unease.  Yoga’s the perfect psychic laxative: it says detach from it all and love yourself – especially your body — no matter what.  

More women are not only signing up for yoga, they’re also starting to teach it — a growing number full-time. The explosion of women-owned and managed yoga studios nationwide is beginning to open up a new occupational niche for empty-nesters and stay-at-home moms. Working women who can’t break the glass ceiling can also gain an added measure of prominence as neighborhood faith “healers” and public health advocates.

Like religious traditionalists, some state and local governments are increasingly concerned about today’s unchecked yoga’s sprawl – and want to protect consumers from possible injury. But the yoga industry – with the support of a self-styled trade association, the Yoga Alliance — has beaten back most major regulatory efforts. There’s a subtle irony here:  yogis, who overwhelmingly tilt liberal Democratic, have become champions of the business and religious “free market” – even aligning with conservative legislators — as long as it protects their cherished practice.

How long will the new yoga boom last? Some 34 percent of non-practitioners – which translates into nearly 80 million people — say they plan to check out yoga in the next 12 months, but there’s no guarantee that they will. Past studies have suggested that even when people do try yoga – they don’t necessarily stay. In recent years, even long-time practitioners have flocked to entirely new pursuits, including Pilates, Tai-chi, Qi-Gong, and Zumba. Some have simply dropped out. According to the latest survey, some of these yoga defectors will likely drift back.  Like lapsed Catholics, apparently there are “lapsed” yogis, too.

Rest assured conservatives: Americans aren’t really looking to yoga for Hindu “enlightenment,” the practice’s traditional goal. Only a small percentage of respondents in the January 2016 survey even mentioned spirituality as a reason they practice. Apparently, they’re so busy trying to survive the 21st century rat race – and feeling slimmer, calmer and sexier along the way — that they don’t have time to figure out if they’re actually getting anywhere.  In the end, it’s the way yoga stokes cultural narcissism and social disengagement that may be the biggest threat of all.