Yoga has become a billion-dollar industry and has spread to cities all over the world. The middle class has embraced this spiritual practice, with all that it entails in terms of expensive equipment and new, strange hybrids like dog yoga and naked yoga. Yoga has become far removed from its ascetic beginnings and has at once become big business and the counterbalance to the stress and speed of modern life. Read about why yoga has become the indulgence of our time.
"Yoga's promise of inner peace comes with an expensive price tag"
The concentration is deafening. Hips and quads scream. Gazes and lips are forced into relaxation. The personal yoga mats are only a few inches apart, and there is a smell of rubber and café latte in equal measures. Even though the air is cooler than usual for the end of August, salty drops of sweat weave their way in long dotted lines, down the backs of a couple of thousand participants who have chosen to spend their weekend doing yoga at the Copenhagen Yoga Festival. This is no unusual sight in a Western city – nor in many other parts of the world, for that matter.
In practically all major cities of the world, from Mexico to South Korea, you will find yoga studios for every taste. According to the American National Institutes of Health, one American out of ten does yoga, and globally, the International Yoga Federation reports the number of yoga practitioners – or yogis – to be more than 300 million in 2016. Yoga is everywhere.
The question is why yoga is so popular. One explanation is that the ascetic tradition has become the indulgence of our time: something that allows you, in a technological and
interconnected world, to use bodily exercises and breathing techniques as a kind of antidote. However, the promise of a long, healthy, and wonderful life that the yoga lifestyle offers is only complete with designer clothing and health-food recommendations. Yoga’s promise of inner peace comes with an expensive price tag.
In the ancient scriptures – some say they are well over 5,000 years old – yoga is defined as a technique to break the, otherwise endless, cycle of life, and find revelation. As people of the West confessed in church to achieve salvation, the Indus people of the East practised abstinence and meditation in the service of inner peace. Yoga can be translated as “divine union”, and according to the father of yoga philosophy, Patanjali, the road to this union is through eight techniques that will make you one with your divine Self.
Today, yoga does not necessarily amount to divine salvation; it is a brand that rhymes with big business and holistic self-help. So if you do a lot of yoga without having ever heard about the eightfold path to enlightenment, it is not that strange. According to the world’s foremost yoga magazine, Yoga Journal, the great majority of yogis live in cities, seven out of ten are women, and the same number have a high or medium income.
No matter whether you go to a gym to do high-impact yoga, or meditate six hours a day, all yoga gives you a feeling of balance. That is Jacob Hartvig Sandager’s conclusion. He is a PhD in Religious Studies, and has spoken to hundreds of yogis all over the world. But whereas the effect of the different kinds of yoga is the same, the ways to balance are far from identical. There are countless styles of yoga from sweaty hot yoga in heated rooms, through relaxing – and to many, painful – yin yoga, to more experimental hybrids such as beer yoga, naked yoga, and dog yoga. None of the new variants resemble the ancient Indian tradition. In fact, the physical exercises that most of us associate with yoga today, most likely were not practiced in India until the Danish gymnast, Niels Bukh, taught his gymnastics system to young Indian soldiers just before World War II. Bukh’s six gymnastics series are identical to the widespread Ashtanga yoga series that came to the US at the same time with the yoga guru K. Pattabhi Jois who helped set up the exercise programme for the Indian soldiers. So, the prevalence of modern yoga owes just as much to Western gymnastics as to the Eastern origin of the tradition. Jacob H.S. Hansen believes that yoga is unique, precisely because it is a phenomenon that can be attributed several different meanings, anything from a healthier lifestyle to a search for God:
"The tradition has survived for thousands of years because it has a high degree of plasticity, allowing it to be reinterpreted and recontextualised."
However, the rapid growth of the yoga industry does not just involve the exercises themselves, but all the products and services that have become part of the yoga universe: Exotic island retreats, chai lattes, matcleaning products with fir, lavender, and lemongrass scents, soy candles with an even greater range of scents, and of course all kinds of yoga wear. And there is no indication that the global growth of the yoga industry will slow down in the near future: The BizReport agency estimates that the global turnover from the sale of yoga mats alone will grow from USD 1.1 billion in 2016 to USD 1.42 billion in 2021. Yoga is a thriving business.
The ancient yoga and meditation techniques appeal to our times. They promise an antidote to hectic modern life, stress and burnout. So, science has become interested in examining the verifiable effects of yoga on body and mind. Most recently, a study by researchers from Goldsmiths University in London has found evidence of the positive effects of yoga on mood and resilience. And back in 2009, a report was published in the Psychooncology journal that found indications that yoga can help relieve the psychological effects of chemotherapy in breast cancer patients.
Since then, the scientific interest has extended to the related field of Zen-Buddhist meditation techniques, “mindfulness”, which in recent years has grown in popularity in sync with yoga. At Harvard University, a special research department devoted to the medical connections between body and mind has been established, The Mind/Body Institute, while the American National Institutes of Health (NiH) have sponsored more than 150 research projects within the field of mindfulness alone in just five years.
Giant corporations, such as Google and IKEA, whose success partly depends on the creativity of their employees, invest massively in mindfulness tools for their staff. And mindfulness has even made its way to the world’s oldest car manufacturer, Ford Motors. Ford’s most recent car models are equipped with a do-not-disturb function on the instrument panel to be activated when you need a feeling of tranquillity on the go. The company’s in-house futurist, Sheryl Connelly, says that the vision is to turn the cars of the future into calm oases where you can be in Zen.
Jørn Borup, a scholar of religion who has been heading a research project on mindfulness at Aarhus University, points out that the interest grows as mindfulness becomes more clinical. According to him, the clinical approach to meditation and enlightenment fits in very well with an age characterised by a widespread “tendency to psychologise”, as Borup describes our seemingly unflagging interest in the psychology of modern man. Moreover, he believes that mindfulness corresponds well with the spirit of our times because it is such a specific and individual practise. We like to set up definite and individual goals in our professional lives, and we like to treat our meditation and yoga exercises the same way.
The simple yoga principles of concentration, breathing, and slow movements in many ways contrast with a modern life where you are digitally connected twenty four hours a day. The reason that this pair of contrasts makes for a thriving business can be explained by the futurist John Naisbitt’s theory of high tech – high touch. According to his equation of high tech, technological living, and high touch, non-technological contact, first described in his 1982 bestseller Megatrends, the human need for the latter grows the more we are surrounded by technology. In a world where we are constantly accessible and can be distracted at any time, this is one of the explanations for why we take refuge in exotic retreats, digital detoxing, and yoga lessons by subscription.
Mette Sillesen, an expert in modern spirituality, has used Naisbitt’s theory in her studies of spiritual communities and practises. Sillesen sees the popularity of yoga as a response to an accelerating pace of life, as well as a solution to living with this pace.
"With the high-speed information rate of today, it takes more to unwind than just flopping down in front of the television," Sillesen says. "We need to pull the plug, recharge, and unwind, more than ever before, because the extremes are intensifying."
The premise of Naisbitt’s theory was that technology use, and "anti-technology", such as exotic travels, constitute two of the biggest markets in the USA, and if you look at the yoga industry, the only way is up. So, you can use the high tech – high touch equation to understand why yoga is the technological indulgence of our times. But that is not the entire explanation. For how do Zen cars and yoga streaming sites fit into this picture?
The question is not just if we are able to live in a high-tech world, but how we do it. As Sillesen points out, this shows that high touch is no longer necessarily the antithesis to high tech, as Naisbitt thought. Today, a yogi lifestyle does not necessarily rule out material over-consumption and digital connectivity, and very few yogis lead ascetic lives. On the contrary, the yogi lifestyle has become something you indulge in as a consumer of yoga retreats and vegan cookbooks, and show off on social media.
According to Jakob H.S. Hansen, yoga and late modernity go hand in hand in a world with increased insecurity, pressure, and stress, where we have to create our own identity. "When family- bound and class-divided societies are dissolved, it is up to you to make sense of your life, and not least creating your own life- narrative," he says.
He points to the fact that many people start doing yoga to reduce their levels of stress, and for some, this flirtation does indeed end with the choice of a simpler, calmer life. He has spent several months in ashrams – small monastery-like Hindu communities – all over the world and has met many people who have chosen to leave their high-paced lives behind. "Yoga is a symptom of modern problems, but it also offers a way out," he says.
But for the majority who do not clock off and move into an ashram, the yoga lifestyle has become more of a social marker that indicates health and personal balance. Previously, wealth held social prestige, but now, it is about being fit and taking care of your health.
"Resilience has become a kind of emblem," Jakob H.S. Hansen says. "In traditional Western philosophy, there is a distinct dualism between body and mind. But now, our way of thinking is much more holistic." That is why Google and much of the corporate world care so much about health and provide, for instance, yoga and mindfulness. So, he believes yoga has also become commodity fetishism like much else.
"It has become prestigious. There is a majority of academics, and the prototypical yogi is a well-educated woman in her middle twenties, or older," he says, referring to the statistics, and continues: "A journalist recently wrote that she no longer asks her friends if they do yoga, but where they do their yoga."
Retreat to spirituality
Nearly forty years ago, the French sociologist Michel Maffesoli preached that "neo-tribes", and the way they are formed, would characterise the time to come. To Maffesoli, these neo-tribes, such as the punk movement, represented a new ideal directed towards the now and an aesthetic community, rather than utility value, social morality, and goals – the ideals of the baby-boomers. What Maffesoli saw in the underground culture of the late eighties, Mette Sillesen sees in mainstream culture today.
"Spirituality has become a lifestyle trend," she says, using the example that you go to Bali, take pictures of yoga poses on the beach, call yourself spiritual, and go home again.
We find reassurance in working on our body and mind – and displaying it. So, there is performance potential in yoga poses in beautiful surroundings, and "likes" to be gathered for well-meaning, semi-Hindu quotes.
"Everything becomes performance," Sillesen says. "And this has to do with the labour market of the future where we are required to bring our social, perceptual, and spiritual competences into play because it gives direct access to creativity."
Creativity has become a skill in great demand. According to Sillesen, the labour market now demands human rather than mechanical qualities. She calls this value-shift from utility to sensuality a movement from an Apollonian to a Dionysian ideal, with reference to the Greek gods, Apollo and Dionysus, representing productivity and creativity, respectively. In this way, the interest in the merits of yoga is not just a question of technological indulgence; it has to do with the employee of the future who is not only required to produce, but must be a harmonious and creative human being.
Moreover, the spiritual competences mentioned by Sillesen are growing in the West where fewer people call themselves religious in the traditional sense. A poll from PEW Research Center in 2008 showed that more than one in three Americans characterised themselves as spiritual, but not religious, while the number of non- religious Americans has doubled to one in five. So even if religiousness has been on the retreat in more than thirty years, apparently, the search for meaning has not. But the dividing line between the two is not clear.
"Because, when is something secular self-development, and when does it have something to do with religion?" Jacob H. S. Hansen asks.
Maybe, the answer is really not that important. Even if liberation from the sufferings of this earthly life has, traditionally, been the main goal of yoga, yoga today is so many different things than it was at the time when people, in other corners of the Earth than those of the Hindus, bought indulgences in the confessional. Yoga is, at the same time, a popular trend that rhymes with facile mantras and pricey yoga leggings, and the universal remedy against a digital culture of burn-out and stress. So, we need not reject the idea of either yoga indulgence, spirituality, or medical effects, when self-proclaimed yogis go fitness-bananas and spend all their money on yoga equipment. Regardless of whether you wish to discard your modern life, you are religious, or you just like to have a beer and do a sun salutation, yoga is the indulgence of our times. Namasté.