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?
New age, new world

America’s first gurus, imported from India, neglected their  bodies as a sign of their holiness. When Swami Vive-   kananda took the boat over from Bombay in 1893 to attend the World’s Parliament of Religions, in Chicago, he slept in a boxcar, wore a robe and turban, and begged for his food and lodging. In the streets, people treated him like a circus freak. But he was the star of the parliament: the Transcendentalists, Unitarians, and biblical skeptics in attendance had already begun studying Hindu texts, and Vivekananda gave a more polite and formal version of the kind of “One God” talk—about the “beautiful earth” and sweet harmony and different streams mingling in the great big sea—that would filter down through the New Age movement and ultimately make its way to the parking lots of Grateful Dead shows.

Because of the difficulty of travel and immigration restrictions, very few yogis followed him. But Americans began trekking to ashrams in India and bringing back their spiritual trinkets. Nobody back then thought of yoga as exercise. In the ’50s and ’60s it was considered either a spiritual practice or an alternative kind of trip, one of the many ways to get high. Allen Ginsberg praised yoga, and in 1968 the Beatles and Mia Farrow made a pilgrimage to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. By the ’70s yoga was part of the flotsam of hippie culture (“If you like piña-coladas, and getting caught in the rain / If you’re not into yoga, if you have half a brain”).

In the ’80s and ’90s yoga popped up as a West Coast fad. Sting and Raquel Welch were early adopters. Jane Fonda eventually worked it into her fitness routine. Madonna played a yoga teacher in a film, Gwyneth Paltrow bragged about practicing ninety minutes a day, Charlie Sheen took private lessons to lose weight (and presumably to stay clean). In 2001, Christy Turlington was outed on the cover of Time, and it seemed everyone had jumped on board: Jerry Seinfeld, Cameron Diaz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Nicolas Cage, David Duchovny, Angelina Jolie, Sarah Jessica Parker, all three Dixie Chicks.

In the meantime, the Baby Boomers were reaching midlife with their joints aching and crises looming. John Abbott was a Citicorp executive and marathon runner who started doing yoga after a knee injury. He bought Yoga Journal in 1998, when it was housed in, as he put it, “a dump in Berkeley, very hippie- dippy, dirty lavatories, that kind of thing.” It used to be more New Age than yoga, with articles on crystal gazing and trapeze flying and liberal use of the word consciousness. Now it’s a guidebook to the new yoga nation: a thick glossy with a readership of more than 1 million, printed in cheerful hues of melon and saffron and lime. The new generation of yoga entrepreneurs—Lululemon Athletica, Yoga Works, Gaiam—compete for attention on its increasingly numerous ad pages. Meanwhile, mainstream companies—Chevy, Toyota, Nike, Quaker, Eileen Fisher—try for a piece of the well-toned demographic.

Abbott is trim and fit, and on the day I interviewed him in the magazine’s new downtown San Francisco office, he was dressed in soothing light blues and grays. When he bought the magazine he was new to publishing, but he learned quickly. Once he tried running a cover story titled “Life Without Sex,” but that issue’s newsstand sales were among the lowest in the magazine’s recent history. The day I visited, the editors were laying out the antidote—a feature on “Sex and Yoga,” with a photo of a couple in bed; she’s straddling him, her long, lithe back is bare, her thick curly hair trailing down it. The staff debated whether this was too much, but then decided it was OK because this couple was married, and both were real yogis. “We have to thread the needle,” Abbott told me. “Things have gotten so mainstream that we want to appeal to broad consumer interest, but still keep the depth and integrity.” Then he disappeared into a meeting about ad revenues.

When the old yogis complain about commercialization, who can blame them? Gucci sells a yoga mat and matching bag for $655. Companies use famous yogis and yoga lingo to advertise cereal, beer, and Hormel pork-loin fillets. Jane magazine’s new ad shows a foxy blonde: “She practices yoga,” reads the caption. “She’s perfected the keg stand.” Yoga is at a confused, precarious place, teetering on the edge of overexposure. On my way to the Jivamukti party I stumbled on a tiny store in the ultrahip Lower East Side called Fuck Yoga, which features store-branded T-shirts, matchbooks, skateboards, and neon signs. I figured this was my proof that yoga had indeed crossed over to the dark side, becoming a close cousin to the SUV and the fur coat and dental insurance—all the eternal targets of youthful mockery and protest.

So was this all meant in hostility to yoga? I asked Fuck Yoga’s owner, Barnaby Harris, thinking I was asking the obvious.

“No, not at all,” he said, “I practice yoga every day. And we sell yoga mats.”

You do? So what the—?

“Enough already,” said Harris. “I mean, OK, [yoga’s] great for you, makes you glowing and healthy, etc., etc. But enough already.” (The store also sells T-shirts that say fuck frank gehry. Same basic idea.)

The Here and Now

So yoga may be overexposed and commercialized. But that doesn’t mean we’re all hypocrites. This is not the ’60s, not an age of ideological purity. What harm can it do if a rich couple in Beverly Hills wants to fund yoga for East L.A. schools, or if a psychiatrist prescribes yoga to one of his patients? It’s a tepid approach, perhaps, but it’s harmless, and maybe even a little bit cheering. If anything major is lost, it’s a sense of abandon. Yoga hurries the trend of what Christopher Lasch called “the corruption of sports,” where “[g]ames quickly lose part of their charm when pressed into the service of education, character development, or social improvement,” as he wrote in a 1977 essay.

Yet the abandon is still there, if you know where to find it. Late in the evening at the Jivamukti party, after all the concerts and speeches, the buzz dies down. Sting is gone; so is Trudie. Russell Simmons and Kimora Lee, Simmons’s diva wife (they are reportedly separated), have gotten tired of sitting cross-legged on little folded blankets. Baptiste is gone too. There are yoga celebrities here, but they’re of the old-school kind, known only to real insiders.

This is the authentic Jivamukti, which better than most studios seems to effortlessly, unself-consciously hold odd things together: the fun and the overly earnest, the fringe and the impossibly trendy. The whole staff once posed in one of those PETA ads (“We’d rather go naked than wear fur”) and made it look like the Princeton Nude Olympics. The Jivamukti teacher who taught my class that afternoon looked like a fourteen-year-old’s fantasy of a camp counselor: blonde and tan and a little mysterious, a party girl with a serious side.

Just before midnight, Michael Franti is singing his jokey reggae, and everyone’s dancing. Now that the paparazzi are gone, Uma Thurman has finally turned up, in the back of the crowd. Her brother teaches at Jivamukti (he’s the central Jesus figure in the naked ad), and her father is an eminent scholar of Buddhism. Some stars are less overwhelming in real life than on screen, but Uma is not one of them. In a cotton dress and a long cream-colored cashmere sweater, she is some fabulous combination of gigantic and gossamer-light. For the rest of the night she stands next to a podium, perfectly at home, instant-messaging on her cell phone, swaying a little to Franti’s music, and you think: this is the only place in the whole country where—for a night at least—her celebrity is irrelevant.

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

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