Turn Off, Tune Out, Drop In

Hanna Rosin, the author of "Striking a Pose," discusses yoga's journey from Himalayan mountaintops to the studio down the street.

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"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.

Jennie Rothenberg

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.

Isn’t it true that the ancient texts describe eight limbs of yoga and that only one of them, asana, deals with physical poses?

Right. The thing is, even though yoga is so incredibly popular, I don’t think people know anything about the eight limbs. For most people, there’s just asana, along with a general sense that there’s something spiritual about yoga. There’s usually some kind of chanting or incense in a yoga class, something you can pick up in the air. But the vast majority of people who drift in and out don’t know that much about what yoga really is.

Why do you think the physical aspect of yoga has become so much more popular than the other branches?

We’re very body conscious and we like to exercise, so that’s been the entrée for yoga into the mainstream culture. Plus, we’re a culture that has a hard time sitting still. If you read histories of the old Indian yogis, even the ones who came from the elite classes, they spent a lot of time holding poses or sitting in meditation. Americans find this very difficult. It involves turning off your Palm Pilot, then turning off your Blackberry, then turning off your cell phone, then turning off all your thoughts. I mean, we can hardly sleep, let alone sit and think of nothing. So moving around is one way to force us into relaxation.

You have to remember, though, that the first yogis who came over to America took neglect of their bodies as a sign of holiness. You hear so many stories in which the master says to the student, “You really look like you’re wasting away. Eat something.” That was supposed to be a compliment. The body was secondary. Americans have completely flipped that around.

Do you think the physical nature of yoga also makes it seem like spiritual neutral ground—something that Americans of all religious backgrounds can do together without telling each other what to believe?

That’s a really good phrase, “spiritual neutral ground.” In this age of seekers, everyone is trying to find a placid place that doesn’t turn them off or remind them of their past. If you feel guilty about living a materialistic life but don’t want to join the Christian right, yoga allows you to have that little bit of spirituality. Instead of going through life with no spirituality, maybe it’s enough that twice a week you get to tap into it this tiny bit.

A yoga class gives you those small reminders that there is a higher power, or there is grace. But hearing spiritual ideas in this setting doesn’t seem like a betrayal of your urban self. You’re a passive recipient, just drawn along in the flow. You’re wearing your cool pants, and you have your purple mat. You’re proud of yourself for jumping around—that takes a certain discipline and strength. You still get to be trendy and physically fit, so it doesn’t feel alien, like dressing up to go to church.

In the article, you write that yoga classes have “mixed up our gym and our church.” But is the scene you’ve just described—wearing cool pants and listening to a few soothing words—really so different from a Pilates class?

It depends on where you are and what class you go to. I think some teachers are afraid to do much; they’ll maybe slip in a word or two about breathing or being centered. But I’ve been to classes where the instructor goes on and on with a twenty-five minute lecture. If my husband sat in on one of those classes, he would kill the teacher. He really just goes and wants to get some exercise. To him, two minutes of “yogaspeak” is too much. Other people think it’s a betrayal of yoga if teachers don’t at least teach people how to meditate and breathe.

You make an intriguing point in your article that the American mainstream had to become shallower in order for yoga to really catch on.

Well, in the 1970s, you had to have a certain degree of commitment to do yoga. Yoga implied following a whole lifestyle, becoming a vegetarian, going to an ashram. But in this generation, people feel comfortable taking a bit of their hippie past and a bit of their business past, a little bit of Christianity and a little bit of Buddhism, and mixing it all together. It’s impossible to tell what’s rebellious and what’s mainstream—it’s all just thrown in there. And it’s in this atmosphere that yoga becomes non-threatening. It doesn’t involve any serious commitment to a discipline or a way of life.

Was yoga ever mainstream in India?

No. You had to have a calling to be a yogi. You had to live a life of poverty. Whenever someone from an elite class decided to become a yogi, it was very controversial—until the turn of the century, when it became a chic thing. And now it’s become chic again. There’s a nouveau riche yoga trend in India now, inspired by Americans.

Even here, when you look at the very first issues of Yoga Journal, it’s hilarious. They’re not doing anything you’d recognize as yoga; they’re just flopped over in something that’s supposed to be a position. It’s all about reaching higher consciousness, but even I can see that they’re doing the poses horribly. You’d never have a picture like that in Yoga Journal today where it’s all about perfection, the exact placement of the foot and the spine.

Some of the most popular yoga schools are actually fairly new. Your article mentions the Boston-based teacher Baron Baptiste, but even Bikram’s Yoga, which comes from India, seems to have been invented by an Indian weightlifter a few decades ago. At what point does yoga stop being ancient and start being a contemporary movement?

It’s funny—these teachers can’t give up this idea that what they’re doing is linked to Indian tradition, whereas really they’ve invented this wholesale thing that no one in India would recognize. They’ve patented certain words and certain clothes—it’s completely a Western invention. But they can’t quite bring themselves to cut off their ties with India. It would be a great mark of shame upon them if they were to say, “Screw it! I’m not going to visit my ashram this year.” They can’t quite make the break.

But then again, B.K.S. Iyengar, who is the last of the original Indian yogis, is like a God on a whole other order. He’s treated as though he were seventeen levels above the rest.

You wrote an article for The New Republic in the 1990s about companies like the Body Shop and Ben & Jerry’s. Their popularity stems from the idea of “crunchy capitalism”— respecting the environment and promoting fair trade. Do you think yoga speaks to that same longing for global utopia?

In a way, I feel like we’re in a whole different age even than when I wrote that Ben & Jerry’s piece. Then there were these “green visionaries” who had to be very righteous about what they were selling. That’s not necessary now. Whole Foods isn’t something you’d even remark on anymore. These companies have become mainstream.

Do you think that’s ultimately a good thing for society?

That is a really good question. Ultimately, I think it’s pretty neutral. You’d have to spend a long time picking out which parts of it are good and which parts of it are bad. It used to be that if you were the organic type, you’d be living in a yurt somewhere. But here I am in my nice house in Washington, shopping at organic grocery stores and living my upscale yuppie lifestyle. I bought half an organic cow last month. So I get to have it in both ways.

What is it, though, that drives you to go to yoga classes and buy organic food?

I don’t know. It’s like I believe all this nonsense now! I used to make fun of it. At some level, do I think we’re all full of it? Sure I do. I don’t want to make more of it than there is. I would not pretend, for instance, that I’m making great sacrifices for the environment. I still use hot water and drive my car and do everything I want to do.

But then again, I’m not sure that yoga gets to be on the same list as eating whole grains. If organic food is really about creating a sustainable environment and not having huge slaughterhouses and preventing global warming—well, that seems okay. But really, to be perfectly honest, eighty percent of yoga for me is just about having well-toned arms. Do you get to have beautifully toned arms and be self-righteous about it? That doesn’t seem quite right.

You mentioned your yoga-teacher friend as an example of someone who doesn’t just see yoga as a substitute for an exercise bike. What is it that sets these people apart from the trendy masses who just want to have toned arms?

First of all, they know everything about yoga, all eight limbs. And they don’t eat meat; they live their lives for something that is more than just materialistic. Also, when you do yoga yourself, you realize how much effort it takes to get a body to be able to do what they do. The only way to get there is to be really committed, to treat yoga as an exacting discipline, which is something I’m not able to do. I’d have to practice yoga every single day until I got that hazy expression that yoga teachers have. And that’s not going to happen.

Some urban mothers are enthusiastic about raising their children with yoga. I know you have a young daughter. Have you ever brought her along to a yoga class?

I tried sending her to a yoga class, and it seemed pointless to her. Kids do the whole thing naturally, anyhow. They run around and play and imitate dogs—you don’t have to get them into the Down Dog position. In my heart of hearts, I know it would be better for her to do yoga than to do ballet. But I’m never going to be able to sell it to her. Yoga might be fashionable for moms, but you don’t get to wear pretty tutus.