By: Brittany Chase and Liz Underwood
The beautiful art form and practice of yoga has been highly trivialized and transformed into a commodity to be consumed instead of an ancient practice by the west. According to a study done by Princeton University on Yoga practices in the west, 16 million Americans practice yoga every year. Companies such as Lululemon and Athleta have taken the phenomena of yoga and made it into a multimillion-dollar yoga and athletic clothing industry. Scholars of traditions of India have argued it that yoga; one of India’s greatest cultural practices has been transformed into a cultural phenomenon worldwide but particularly in the west. After studying and researching the main differences between eastern and western yoga practices and how western societies have adopted yoga practices into solely being a form of physical exercise and a money making industry, it is obvious that westerners have exploited the practices of yoga and made a lot of money in the process.
Brief History of Yoga
First of all, it is important to note that there are many forms and traditions of the practice of yoga. It is a malleable term that has changed over time. Yoga is much more than increasing flexibility and strength. Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism have similar meanings for the word yoga, which is spiritual discipline. After almost more than a century of research, we still don’t know much about the earliest beginnings of yoga. We do know, however, that it originated in India 5,000 years ago. Many Western scholars thought that Yoga originated much later, around 500 B.C., which is the time of Gautama the Buddha. In the early 1920s, archeologists discovered of the Indus civilization, a culture that we now know extended over an area of roughly 300,000 square miles. This was in fact the largest civilization in early antiquity. In the ruins of the big cities of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, archeologists found depictions engraved on soapstone seals that strongly resemble yogi-like figures. Yoga has changed and adopted over the decades as it has first thought of as practice to understand your surroundings and the world around you, and later it changed to an understanding of the self. And ultimately self-enlightenment became the goal. It was not until the 6th century B.C. when poses and mediation were implemented through Buddhist teachings of yoga.
Today, yoga has become a multi-billion dollar Western business, with classes like “Hot yoga”, “Power Yoga” and even “doga,” practicing yoga with your dog. Luxury retreats and upscale clothing brands like Lululemon, Prana, and Athleta have all become popularized around the yoga trend in recent years. They are selling an image of what yoga should be like, oftentimes creating a false image through the media that has become very far fetch from traditional yoga practices. “There’s nothing very Indian about it,” says New York Times author Heather Timmons. Traditional yoga participants in India and other Buddhist cultures have an entirely different view on yoga, where participants often times wear loose-fitting clothing that makes the West’s body-baring yoga clothing seem somewhat explicit. They also often practice a much gentler form of the classic yoga postures, whereas the West’s representation of yoga tends to have a more narrow focus on the physical benefits of yoga like strength, agility, flexibility, and a way to cure body pains and illnesses. The spiritual aspect has almost vanished completely as we have reinvented yoga by using Sanskrit names like “Vedic” and “Asana” that have little meaning on logos for brands of clothing, and marketed a lifestyle that characterizes yoga with leisure, relaxing spas, and seminars on eastern spirituality. Delhi yoga teacher Nivedita Joshi states that “Yoga is not just about asanas, it is a union of the body, mind and soul, it’s a way of life,” something that has been lost in Western culture (Huffington Post).
Recently, Lulu Lemon launched a new bag series that includes the five yamas, the principles of right living that are outlined in the Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the ancient Hindu foundational text of yoga. Lululemon mistakenly used the term “brahmacharya” on their bags which translates in Sanskrit to celibacy. Carolyn Gregory says that Lulu’s marketing team failed to do any research before creating this shopper series exploring the yamas as the side of the bag defines brahmacharya as moderation and gives a short explanation for it. “Trivializing and misusing a sacred tradition to sell luxury yoga clothing is not only embarrassing, it’s offensive” (Huffington Post). Author Carolyn Gregory has is a credible author from the Huffington Post, but is also slightly bias as she has written other articles on Lulu Lemon like “Why I have Always Hated Lulu Lemon” that have also criticized the brand. They have also recently outraged customers by discriminating against certain body types, as they don’t fit their ideal “formula” of customer’s sizes 2-12, and that it isn’t in their business plan to focus on plus size yoga clothing. Again, this displays the disconnect between traditional yoga and its focus on philosophy, purity and a way of life, to how the media has portrayed yoga to be a trend that is only for certain types of body types.
Many people in America today actively participate in yoga, and the industry earns just under $10 billion a year. Not to mention, several celebrities are getting involved, adding to the popularity of the business. Actress, Kate Hudson recently launched her brand of yoga clothing called “Fabletics” with the notion that Kate Hudson is very active and has created this affordable clothing line for everyday people, which seem unreasonable. Or, for example Russel Brand, after his divorce to Katy Perry said he started doing yoga and meditation to reduce stress, manage weight gain, and health conditions like depression, again far from the classical Indian perception of the benefits of yoga. Several of these articles were solely based on opinions from people, especially celebrities and famous yoga instructors about their experiences with yoga physically, not how it has helped them spiritually
Many people today however, argue that yoga should be performed in a way one thinks it benefits them the most, whether that would be in a traditional, spiritual based manner, or in a contemporary, fun manner that incorporates exercise and other physical benefits. This short clip from CCTV News discusses new “fun” approach to yoga that many yoga instructors are taking, especially in more urban areas that can be just as beneficial opposed to a more traditional and serious approach many are in disputing. However, there is no information that backs up this statement on how these modern yoga practices can be just as beneficial which can make them skeptical to some. There are several ongoing debates whether yoga belongs to the spiritual or physical realm. So, who does own yoga? I have found that several articles acknowledge the roots of yoga, but yoga has become too westernized to reconnect with its spiritual roots, as it has become more or less a business in America.
As you can see, large companies such as Lululemom, Athleta, Prana and western society as a whole, have taken traditional yoga practices and approaches and have created a multimillion dollar business. Through works of the media, we have falsely been led to believe that yoga is simply something people do as a form of exercise to help their health and fitness, and is seen as a trend where you need to have the latest yoga pants from Lulu Lemon to fit in in the yoga world. If our society gave more credit to these ancient practices and come to the realization that there are many other benefits to yoga other than the physical attributes of it, maybe we would appreciate it more deeply in a western context. Western society has taken eastern practices for centuries and made them their own. It seems we owe these eastern nations a “thank you” as we have made lots of money on their cultural practices.
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