Yoga’s evolution from spiritual practice to a global commercialised endeavor
A pungent fog blankets Goda Yoga in Culver City. It’s Friday night and the studio is packed, with overflow mats extending down the back hall to the bathroom.
Votive candles and sitar music set the mood. But this class offers a whiff – actually plenty – of something extra: the unmistakable scent of marijuana.
Participants vape, then stretch. It’s yoga with deep breathing.
And, after several inhalations, a lot of coughing.
Co-instructor Emily Meyers asks the 20 participants: “What are you most passionate about?”
“Staying in touch with nature and making out with my dog,” is one reply.
“I’m not quite sure. That’s why I moved to California.”
“Uh, I forgot the question.”
Such moments are common in Higher Self yoga, a monthly “ganja yoga” class that Goda owner Nathania Stambouli introduced in the fall: “We’re bringing together two great spiritual practices. Marijuana is a way of enhancing the experience.”
Ah, yes, enhancing the experience. Of late, there’s been a fair amount of yoga-enhancing going on. It’s yoga with something extra on the side.
Would you like beer with your yoga? There’s a class for that.
Yoga in the buff? Manhattan’s Bold and Naked Yoga is precisely what it says it is.
For yogis who prefer to bundle in down, there’s snowga – yoga with snowshoes.
Some classes eschew the calm and quiet many practitioners seek. Y7, with locations in New York and Los Angeles, bills itself as “the original hip-hop yoga studio.”
Wish to vocalise at multiple decibels above a soothing om? There’s yoga with karaoke and – YES! REALLY! – tantrum yoga, which encourages poses and primal screams.
Trampoline yoga also exists, which must make balancing in Tree pose a challenge.
And, because it had to happen, there’s a yoga class with goats.
Yoga now welcomes a menagerie of critters, in fact: yoga with horses, yoga with dogs (doga – yoga lends itself to a sun salutation series of puns), yoga with bunnies, even yoga with cats, which seems like an exercise doomed to failure.
Already rife with rival and sometimes competing schools, the ancient practice has become a tabula rasa, open to endless permutations and personal spins. It’s such a fixture in popular culture that it has inevitably become ripe for parody, in fare such as “Yoga Hosers,” a Johnny Depp spoof in which a pair of teenage Californians use their yoga prowess to defeat villains.
So we have to ask: Has yoga jumped the shark? (Or goat?)
Depends on whom you ask.
“Yoga has become the answer to everything,” laments John Philpin his documentary, “Yoga, Inc.,” which traces – and bemoans – yoga’s evolution from spiritual practice to a global commercialised endeavour.
But Andrea R. Jain, associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University and the author of Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture points out that although yoga dates back thousands of years, “it has always been open to malleability.”
The vast and unusual array of classes reflects a marketplace bursting with jewel-toned rubber mats. From 2012 to 2016, the number of Americans practicing yoga – three-fourths of them women – almost doubled to nearly 37 million, according to a major study, creating a $17 billion industry. The growth is partly attributable to the promotion of yoga and wellness and the pervasive practice of mindfulness.
Or maybe it’s just that yoga’s super trendy.
It would seem a challenge to make yoga expensive. It’s not exactly yachting. You don’t need specific togs, shoes, nor even a mat. But it has come to be viewed as a privileged practice, done in $98 Lululemon pants in Bali or Tulum, some exotic beach retreat far, far from home.
“We’ve packaged yoga to make it look like it’s done only by young, thin white women,” says Lori Hunter, a sociology professor who teaches a course titled Yoga, Culture & Society. “If that’s not you, you feel that space is not for you.”
Enter the goats and bunnies, the tantrums and marijuana, brought in to make yoga appear fun, less exclusive and sanctimonious, and to attract different people.
“If adding cats and bunnies to yoga introduces more people to a positive physical and mental experience that leads them to pursue deeper study of yoga, then it’s all for the good,” says Andrew Tanner, chief ambassador for the nonprofit Yoga Alliance, which represents 76,000 registered yoga teachers and 5,000 yoga schools.
The breakfast-cereal aisle of offerings, a little hip-hop with your plank pose, has not pleased everyone. In 2014, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a dedicated yogi, launched a campaign to reclaim yoga as Indian and to strengthen its moorings to Hinduism, and even appointed a yoga minister.
And that was before the yoga and goats business. So how’s that working out?
Unsurprisingly, Higher Self regularly attracts lots of male students, some taking yoga for the first time. Almost half of tonight’s class is male, which is also diverse in age and race.
“Maybe they’ve been toying with the idea of yoga in a safe space,” Stambouli says of the male contingent. “Socially, yoga’s a girl thing to do.”
Or, she notes, “Maybe they’re fans of marijuana.” Maybe?
The 90-minute class incorporates meditation, deep breathing and gentle beginner poses, rather than an aerobic regimen of sun salutations. It is supremely mellow.
A good thing, because some poses are decidedly raggedy in their execution. Triangle poses melt into trapezoids. Bridge poses crumble.
One student becomes too baked to attempt anything more rigorous than Savasana, the aptly named Corpse pose. For much of the class, he lies on the mat doing the most rigorous yoga he can muster, which is almost nothing at all.
Possibly, he is sleeping.
One man struggles to distinguish right limb from left and tumbles repeatedly from Downward-Facing Dog.
Goda Yoga is a 15-year-old studio that Stambouli purchased last August. There are three other studios only a short distance from her practice. “That’s nothing compared to Santa Monica, where there must be 20 in 2 kilometres,” she says. “It’s like Starbucks. There’s a yoga studio on every corner.”
Goda “had an older client base. I’m trying to bring it up and distinguish it from other studios,” says Stambouli, who quit a career in marketing to join what she calls “the yoga industry.”
In 2018, recreational marijuana will be legal in California, creating the nation’s largest market for its products.
And activities incorporating those products. “The demand for yoga and weed is going to explode,” Stambouli says. For the time being, she says, “We’re going to let the buzz build.” She may add a second monthly class.
She may need to.
The man who kept plummeting downward doing Downward-Facing Dog drifts out of a yoga class in a yoga studio, content and mellow, and asks, perfectly serious – well, in a stoned sort of way – “Do you offer other yoga classes here?”
The Washington Post
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