"Striking a Pose" (December 2006)
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. By Hanna Rosin
The photographs are oddly mesmerizing: a silver-haired Indian man in dark briefs, twisting his body into undreamt of shapes and poses. In one image, he balances on a single hand, his leg bent upwards into a half-pretzel. In another, he rests on perfectly straight forearms while touching his toes to his scalp. These pictures first appeared in Light on Yoga, the 1966 book that propelled its author, B.K.S. Iyengar, to international celebrity. Awestruck seekers from Hawaii to Berlin bought copies to display on their bookcases, although only the most dedicated and limber took the time to learn Iyengar’s postures themselves.
Yoga has now shed its foreignness. “It’s everywhere,” reports Hanna Rosin in the December Atlantic, “on every third corner in New York or Los Angeles, and available in any city big enough for a gym or a country club.” Executives finish work and head straight to the nearest yoga studio, peeling off their nylons and slipping into stretchy cotton pants. Their instructors—young, fit, and thoroughly American—welcome them with soothing aromas and encouraging words. Although phrases like “higher power” and “sacred place” weave through the lessons, the focus tends to be on the workout itself, making yoga barely more exotic than aerobics or Pilates.
Urban chic is only the latest incarnation of a discipline that has been changing form for thousands of years. The Sanskrit word yoga, literally “yoke,” originally referred to a “yoking together” of individual and universal consciousness. The eight branches, or “limbs,” of yoga outlined by the sage Patanjali in the second century B.C. dealt mainly with meditation, breathing, and devotional practices. Only one of the limbs, asana, had anything to do with the body. When Hatha Yoga emerged in the fifteenth century A.D., there were about sixteen asanas, or postures, in the yoga canon. It was only in the twentieth century that yogis like Iyengar introduced hundreds of new positions, shifting the focus from the eight limbs of Patanjali to the four limbs of the human form.
In her Atlantic piece, Rosin makes the novel argument that “yoga had to wait until now, when our spiritual hunger runs a little more shallow, to reach the American mainstream.” In decades past, yoga was seen as a real commitment, part of a lifestyle that involved buying whole grains in bulk from large plastic bins. Today, yoga has joined a vast smorgasbord of exercise options, and most of its students are less interested in enlightenment than in well-toned arms. Rosin puts it this way:
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…. Yoga is no longer a spiritual antidote to the upscale Western lifestyle; it’s just the latest manifestation.
Rosin’s wry take on yoga culture comes largely from firsthand experience. She began flirting with yoga eight years ago, a time when fringy women still taught classes in their living rooms. She now practices at an upscale studio alongside preppy Georgetown moms and Washington Wizards basketball players. But even in the midst of posh neighborhoods and celebrity yoga galas, she occasionally glimpses something that transcends the hurried, body-conscious scene that is upper-middle-class America. “The abandon is still there,” she writes, “if you know where to find it.”
Rosin lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, five-year-old daughter, and three-year-old son. We spoke by telephone on October 18th.
Could you define yoga as we use the term in America, as opposed to the way it has been traditionally understood in India?
In India, yoga is a very ancient practice associated with spirituality and meditation and monks who live high in the mountains. In America, we think of yoga as a form of exercise, an alternative to going running or doing Pilates. This isn’t true for somebody who is really serious about yoga. One of my closest friends is a yoga teacher. Seeing how she practices, the discipline she has, the things she knows, I can only imagine how superficial we all seem. For the most part, though, we think of yoga as interchangeable with getting on an exercise bicycle.