Major tectonic shifts in the modern yoga world have created an entirely new landscape for both the industry and consumers. The founding generation of yoga trend-setters, whose innovation and entrepreneurial spirit fostered what is now established convention, have largely achieved the goal of ushering yoga into the mainstream of society, and no longer speak from the same obscure or vaulted mantles they once did. And some of the most renowned among these figures have fallen from proverbial pedestals, revealing the fallibility of yoga celebrity and a vacuum of substance.
The second official study of the yoga industry, since the first in 2008, was released last month and the perpetuation of yoga and related commerce has not slowed in the least. In the last five years alone, we've gone from 15.8 million to 20.4 million Americans practicing yoga, that is a 29% increase and represents 8.7% of American adults. Spending on yoga classes, equipment, clothing, vacations and media is estimated at 10.3 billion a year, almost double the 5.7 billion estimate from 2008. Among the 91.3% of Americans who do not practice yoga, 44.4% say they are interested in yoga but have yet to give it a try.
I started teaching yoga when I was 23 years old. At that time, there was no google, youtube, facebook, twitter or Lululemon. There was no 200-hour yoga teacher certification. There were no commercials for banks with people doing yoga poses in them. And there was no multi-billion dollar yoga industry to fuel. Now, I'm forty years old. I am married with a kid and I own a yoga center and train yoga teachers in my neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. I rode the crest of the yoga wave that started in the early nineties and have grown into my adulthood along with the emergence of yoga in our culture.
I remember watching the rise of John Friend and Anusara Yoga and thinking to myself: "Wow. This is the future. This is what is possible for a yoga teacher to achieve." Now that the brand is all but defunct and the man is considered by many to be a pariah in the field, there is a tragic irony to the youtube videos of once prominent and self-identified Anusara Yoga teachers who sincerely hope to help others better brand themselves into abundance.
Things have certainly changed when a teacher who, over more than a decade, earned reputation and standing for an overly aggressive teaching style, is now considered an expert on the injurious nature of yoga. And a senior science writer from the NY Times who was once an expert on the proliferation of nuclear weapons is now writing about the proliferation of yoga. Unfortunately, his reductionist assertions about the safety and origins of yoga and the sensationalizing of scientific data has served to obfuscate the issues more then further any understanding or educate the public.
Among serious-minded practitioners, there is palpable discontent with the course the yoga industry seems to be on. Teachers, who in the past were voices defining what yoga is in the 21st century, are now understandably more concerned with enjoying their latter years then attempting to push back against entrenched forces that care little for the soul of yoga. The newer generation has often been thrown out into the wilderness without the tools or knowledge to fulfill their impulse to carry the torch. In the absence of teachers framing the conversation and defining yoga in authentic ways, the market will always fill the gap with whatever sells.
The good news is that we may be reaching a turning point. That will happen when enough people who have practiced yoga for long enough come to their own informed determinations about what yoga is and why they practice it. I can't think of the last time I met someone who had never heard or read of yoga before. There is a new savvy among the uninitiated and greater discernment among veteran attendees. And while most of what they hear and read about yoga is horribly inaccurate, still more and more, people understand that yoga is being utilized with different purposes and there are choices to be made.
Folks are not buying just anything as yoga anymore. And they are telling their friends. The rampant commercialization and co-opting of yoga has become so overblown that even the unfamiliar are skeptical. Times remain too tough to effectively continue hocking candy-coated platitudes. From out of the daunting malaise of pressures and seeming demise, conditions are becoming more ripe to slough off obsolete thinking. No more will we be led around by false gurus or complacent with hypocrisies. No longer will success be defined by status or achieved at the expense of others. We can and will do better. Let us have the courage to imagine it so.