Striking a Pose

Fifty years ago, yoga was the province of California communes and fringy New Agers. Now it’s teetering on the brink of overexposure and commodification. So, is it a spiritual antidote to the upscale Western lifestyle, or just the latest manifestation?
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Interviews: "Turn Off, Tune Out, Drop In" (November 21, 2006)
Hanna Rosin, the author of "Striking a Pose," discusses yoga's journey from Himalayan mountaintops to the studio down the street.

Is Uma coming?” asks one of the pack of New York tabloid photographers.

Alas, not yet. For the moment, the paparazzi will have to make do with the lesser, two-name celebrities already crowding the VIP room at this unveiling of the new Jivamukti studio, the center of New York’s yoga scene. In one corner, hip-hop tycoon Russell Simmons is being interviewed by a six-foot-tall bombshell from the Food Network about top vegan chefs (“His soy bacon is fabulous!”). In another corner, Elizabeth Berkley, who made her name pole dancing in Showgirls, is shifting her bare feet under a hot-pink dress, insisting to a reporter, Trendy is not really the word I would use to describe yoga.”

The altars are dusted and polished, the big plywood Ganesh outfitted with a fresh new lei. Fat, happy tomatoes that have never known the horror of chemicals glide out on trays from the studio’s new vegan café—which feels more like a cathedral, with its chandeliers and stained-glass windows and sandwiches named after great, unspecified powers (“The Creator,” “The Preserver,” “The Muse”). It’s only an hour into the party, and 400 people are already here. “It’s difficult when you invite half of New York to your opening, and they show up,” says David Life, one of the studio’s founders.

Julia “Butterfly” Hill, the woman who lived on a branch of a redwood for two years to protest logging in ancient forests, is holding court (“I started to do yoga when I got down from the tree”). She is unrecognizable. Instead of her usual worn wool hat— she is sporting a black cocktail dress, a new Winona Ryder pixie cut, and a stylish purse made out of recycled soda tabs. She is trying to sell the reporters on her new project—enlisting the actress Daryl Hannah to help save the South Central Farm in Los Angeles—but they keep coming back to her purse (“Are those real soda tabs? That’s so cool!”).

“Sting!” someone yells, and in he walks, with his wife, Trudie. Sting looks like his just-got-out-of-the-coal-mine self in his washed-out overalls, but Trudie is all glitzed up in a red satin getup and silver spike heels. “Trudie, look this way! Look at me!” the photographers shout, as if it’s a fashion shoot, and she does, expertly turning her head this way and that. At one point an actual Hare Krishna devotee wanders into the VIP room with her robe and her drum, a poor pale soul whose only makeup is a slash of white on her forehead. She’s invited, but she seems like a traveler from a lost era, the last one to have heard the news: in America, yoga has come out of the ashram.

Stretching Out

For at least fifty years, the prophets of California’s communes have told us how much the denatured, stressed-out West needs the curative power of yoga. Now, to their great dismay, the West is listening. No longer does yoga belong to the handful of seekers making their annual pilgrimage to India. It’s everywhere: on every third corner in New York or Los Angeles, and available in any city big enough for a gym or a country club. According to a 2004 Harris study commissioned by Yoga Journal, an estimated 15 million Americans do some kind of yoga. The study reported that 25 million more planned to try yoga within the next year—enough to make it as unexotic an Eastern novelty as Chinese food or judo.

In Washington, D.C., where I live, there are now roughly twenty-five yoga studios, many of which opened in the last five years, according to a Washington Post survey. They share a growth pattern with Starbucks, and a similar connotation: in a fast-gentrifying city, yoga studio spaces are attached to developers’ fancy new lofts to signal to potential urban pioneers that the neighborhood is more cutting-edge than scary. (“Let’s face it—yoga is something that people with disposable income can do,” one woman, who just moved to the marginal neighborhood of Petworth and is taking classes at a new yoga studio there, told The Post.)

I took my first yoga class in the living room of someone who seemed too old to be using saris as window treatments. That was about eight years ago, when it was hard to find a studio and practically the only style of yoga around was one called Iyengar, imported here in the 1970s by the godfather of modern American yoga, B. K. S. Iyengar. I’d worn my running shorts and a Nike shirt and quickly realized my mistake: in this room the body was a temple, and common exercise gear was proof that you’d defiled it. After class the teacher pulled me aside to say she couldn’t properly see my alignment in the loose clothes; she suggested I wear something else. Like what? I asked. She pointed to a picture of Iyengar himself floating on one hand. As far as I could tell, he was wearing a black cloth diaper. I wasn’t sure what would count as the matching top.

Now I do yoga at an airy, lavender-painted studio called Down Dog in Georgetown, Washington’s posh shopping district. Like many of the fast-growing schools of yoga, this studio’s style is a subset of “flow yoga,” which involves moving quickly from pose to pose while breathing in a regulated way. This particular version is called “power yoga” and is associated with Baron Baptiste, who perfected it while training the Philadelphia Eagles football team in the mid-1990s. On weekends the room is packed with a particular cross section of Washingtonians: students from Georgetown University wearing next to nothing, preppy Georgetown moms with their $84 lotus-flower pants from the studio’s boutique, men built like bouncers in tight shorts. A couple of former Washington Wizards basketball players come regularly as well, and so does the entire Georgetown lacrosse team.

Once the door shuts on the heated-to-90-degrees room, you are in for a combination of basic training and morning chapel. It begins with a grueling routine not meant for the contemplative. (By the end of class some of us find ourselves in a literal puddle of sweat, even though we’d laid down towels beforehand.) Usually, toward the end, the teacher offers what can only be described as bits of a sermon in which, in another context, the word Jesus would not be out of place: “Trust in the higher power,” the instructor will say, as you’re contorted into some excruciating pose designed to open your hips. “Your mat is a sacred place.” “This studio is your sanctuary.” “Find grace! Feel the possibility of that which is greater!”

Although we are a society known for creative multitasking, it seems odd that we have mixed up our gym and our church. Monks once flagellated themselves in hopes of getting to heaven, and it’s true that once or twice the image of Silas, the naked self-whipping monk assassin in The Da Vinci Code, has popped into my head while I was holding a particularly difficult pose. But Silas was deferring his pleasure until after death, whereas I’m just deferring mine until after class. Where older religions promised heaven, the church of yoga promises quicker, more practical, earthly gratification, in the form of better heart rates and well-toned arms.

The yogis say people come to class to get fit, but wind up answering a more urgent call. “There is a deeper spiritual hunger for something larger than ourselves, which is many times not answered by organized religion in 2006,” says John Friend, another yoga celebrity, who founded one of the fastest-growing styles of yoga, called Anusara. But yogis have been saying such things to Americans since the nineteenth century. In fact, yoga had to wait until now, when our spiritual hunger runs a little more shallow, to reach the American mainstream. We’re attracted to self-denying faiths of all kinds—Islam, Latin-Mass Catholicism, traditional Judaism. But we tend to take what suits us and discard the rest. Young Muslim women choose to wear the veil in defiance of their more assimilated parents. Jewish Buddhists can meditate for hours on the souls of insects and rocks but still eat their pastrami and rye. In this atmosphere you can pick up some of the old familiar language—“higher power,” “grace—and layer on some incense, and no one will feel confused, or threatened.

Even being “New Age” doesn’t require particular effort anymore. You can find twelve-step programs at evangelical megachurches, and holistic language on every label at Whole Foods. When a Jivamukti teacher says she practices yoga as her lifestyle, she means something involving great sacrifice: she meditates every morning at six, doesn’t eat meat or wear fur, and applies the yogic moral code of ahimsa—Do no harm—to all of her life. For the rest of us, though, yoga is like Red Bull: a midday pick-me-up for the body and mind. In a world where Butterfly Hill is a fashion trendsetter, yoga is no longer a spiritual antidote to the upscale Western lifestyle; it’s just the latest manifestation.

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Hanna Rosin, an Atlantic contributing editor, is working on a book about young evangelicals.

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