In 1971, Sat Jivan Singh Khalsa moved to New York to open a yoga studio. A lawyer moonlighting as a Kundalini yoga teacher, he set up shop in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, opening a school to share the teachings of the spiritual leader Yogi Bhajan. At that time, there were only two other yoga studios in the city.
It was a time, as Khalsa told The Huffington Post, when “people confused yoga and yogurt. They were both brand new and nobody knew what either of them were.”
In the more than 40 years since Khalsa opened his school, he has watched as yoga in America has evolved from a niche activity of devout New Agers to part of the cultural mainstream. Dozens of yoga variations can be found within a 1-mile radius of his studio in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, from Equinox power yoga to yogalates to “zen bootcamp.” Across America, students, stressed-out young professionals, CEOs and retirees are among those who have embraced yoga, fueling a $27 billion industry with more than 20 million practitioners -- 83 percent of them women. As Khalsa says, “The love of yoga is out there and the time is right for yoga.”
Perhaps inevitably, yoga’s journey from ancient spiritual practice to big business and premium lifestyle -- complete with designer yogawear, mats, towels, luxury retreats and $100-a-day juice cleanses -- has some devotees worrying that something has been lost along the way. The growing perception of yoga as a leisure activity catering to a high-end clientele doesn’t help. "The number of practitioners and the amount they spend has increased dramatically in the last four years," Bill Harper, vice president of Active Interest Media's Healthy Living Group, told Yoga Journal.
More than 30 percent of Yoga Journal’s readership has a household income of over $100,000. As American yoga master Rodney Yee remarked at a 2011 Omega Institute conference, compromising the authenticity of the practice and ignoring its traditions is “ass-backwards.” “It dumbs down the whole art form,” he said.
Others are more optimistic about the evolution of yoga in America, welcoming the conversations and occasional yoga-world infighting that have accompanied its rise.
“If you value yoga and the traditions it comes from, it’s a good problem to have,” Philip Goldberg, a spiritual teacher and author of American Veda, tells The Huffington Post. “Ever since the ideas of yoga came here in book form and then the gurus started to arrive, it’s all been a question of how do you adapt these ancient teachings and practices, modernize them and bring them to a new culture, without distorting or corrupting them, or diluting their effect? That’s really the key issue here.”
Of course, much of yoga’s appeal is the fact that it can be traced back roughly 5,000 years -- in a world of exercise trends and diet fads, it’s a tradition that has stood the test of time. Traditionally, Yoga (Sanskrit for “divine union”) has one single aim: stilling the thoughts of the mind in order to experience one’s true self, and ultimately, to achieve liberation (moksha) from the cycle of birth and death (samsara), or enlightenment.
The Westernized, modernized form of the ancient practice expresses just one component of what was originally considered yoga. The physical practice of postures, or asana, is one of eight traditional limbs of yoga, as outlined in the foundational text of yoga philosophy, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, thought to be over 2,000 years old. These limbs present a sort of eightfold path to enlightenment, which includes turning inward, meditation, concentration and mindful breathing. The Sutras make no mention of any specific postures, but the original 15 yoga poses were later outlined in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, dated to the 15th century CE, making it one of the oldest surviving texts of hatha yoga, the yoga of physical exercises.
The way we practice asana -- usually in a crowded, mirrored room -- has also changed over the years to suit modern needs. Traditionally, yoga was a private, personal practice that involved a sacred bond between student and teacher (guru), part of the oral system of imparting knowledge known as guru-shishya paramparya.
“In the West, there are streams where this authentic transmission from living masters to students still exists,” Viniyoga founder Gary Kraftsow said at the Omega Institute Being Yoga conference in 2011. “But there’s a lot of yoga that’s made up, modern stuff, with no understanding of depth and meaning of text.”
Although the guru-student tradition may have gone the way of the loincloth (which was, yes, the original yogawear), Indian knowledge has been steadily spreading in the West since the 19th century (Henry David Thoreau is commonly said to be the first yogi in America). But the physical practice didn’t really catch on until the “new cultural era” of the 1970s, a time of surging interest in both spirituality and physical fitness, Goldberg explains.
“Following the fitness and exercise boom in America, it was the physical practices [of yoga] that caught on,” he said.
That fitness and exercise boom -- propelled by the emergence Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda as fitness stars, and the at-home video workout -- led to growing scientific interest in yoga and meditation. More and more American research demonstrated their measurable physical and mental health benefits, legitimizing yoga in the eye of the public.
Today, yoga has come to be seen as something of a panacea for the ailments of modern society -- tech overload, disconnection and alienation, insomnia, stress and anxiety. And in many cases, the timeworn technique is the perfect antidote to the modern speed of life that’s created a culture of stress and burnout. Yoga has been shown to help fight everything from addiction and lower back pain to diabetes and aging, in addition to boosting overall well-being and stress relief.
“Yoga is a traditional way of easing pain and people are flocking to it,” says Khalsa. “We’re on our phone all day, in front of the TV, in front of our computer. We hardly ever get away from it. But you can come to a yoga class and get rid of all this ‘stuff.’”
Still, it’s the tradition that many worry is being lost. Yoga’s proven health benefits don’t mean that every form of adaption of the practice is valuable, says Goldberg. “People are very concerned about this, and for good reason,” he says.
Variations began to proliferate as research on yoga’s health benefits became more robust. At that time, the practice became more widely accepted -- and the industry started to cash in.
“The sudden boom of interest led to people wanting to fill the demand by getting more teachers trained, and studios discovering that they can make more money training yoga teachers than giving classes in some cases,” says Goldberg. “The standards can get compromised along the way.”
The new emphasis on asana meant that yoga institutions could train new instructors to teach physical poses without necessarily knowing much about the larger framework of yoga.
Balancing the old and the new is the “number-one challenge” for the Yoga Alliance (YA), the largest nonprofit association representing yoga teachers, schools and studios, according to CEO Richard Karpel.
“[When] the Yoga Alliance created standards for teacher training programs back in 1999, one of the primary focuses was on respecting diversity … nobody wanted an organization to tell people how to practice or teach yoga,” Karpel told The Huffington Post. “By , the balance had shifted … where the concern was more about rigor.”
Currently, all YA-certified, 200-hour teacher training programs include 20 hours of philosophy, intended to give teachers a deeper understanding of the practice’s origins. “Every studio, every teacher, and every teacher-training program counts,” Karpel says, adding that YA recently implemented a new social credentialing system to gain more feedback on various teacher-training programs.
“Yoga’s very popularity creates the possibility of corruption and distortion, and lowest common denominator teachings,” says Goldberg. “The very fact that if you ask the average person what yoga is, they immediately think of a beautiful woman doing stretches and bends, that tells you how commercialized it has become, and how limited. What yoga has meant for thousands of years is not just that.”
Complaints about the commercialization of yoga go as far back as the Beatles’ 1968 trip to India, but as the multibillion-dollar industry has grown, so have efforts to keep the practice rooted in tradition.
In 2010, the Hindu America Foundation (HAF) launched the “Take Back Yoga” movement to raise awareness about the practice’s Hindu roots. “Our issue is that yoga has thrived, but Hinduism has lost control of the brand,” HAF cofounder Dr. Aseem Shukla told The New York Times.
The movement didn’t gain much traction, but it did spark a conversation about yoga’s modernization and adaptation. Religion aside, some have argued that yoga has become an elitist practice that’s inaccessible to the majority of Americans. As one Bustle writer put it, “inner peace comes with a high price tag.”
The presentation of the female “yoga body” in the media has also drawn criticism.
"The yoga body is Gwyneth Paltrow's body -- the elongated feminine form," Karyln Crowley, a women’s studies professor at St. Norbert College, recently told ELLE. "That is still the way yoga is represented in mainstream media."
And of course, many have noted the irony that a practice originally intended as a vehicle for transcending the ego has become a seemingly vanity-driven pursuit. Wellness junkies share Instagram shots of kale smoothies and selfies of figure-contorted inversions and balancing postures -- there are more than 400,000 photos tagged #yogi on Instagram, enough to warrant a New York Times trend piece.
“Isn’t yoga supposed to be about turning your gaze inward?” the Times quipped.
But in true yogic fashion, Khalsa and some other more traditional practitioners, like ViraYoga founder Elena Brower, are unperturbed by these changes.
When Brower practices and teaches yoga, she puts a personal issue at the forefront of her mind -- something that she’s confused or conflicted about. While she’s practicing, she is simply with that issue, “until all the movements in my body and the way I’m paying attention to my breathing can actually shift the way my brain is holding that thing.”
The veteran yogi and Art of Attention co-author invites thousands of students into her SoHo studio each week to help them get away from the stress of the city.
“Yoga is the time where we don’t have our phone, we are just with ourselves, our bodies and our movements,” Brower said. “There’s something very magical about that time; something very important and healing about giving yourself that time.”
Her work as a teacher, Brower explains, is to simply give people that opportunity for self-healing. “The job is one of just holding space for people to do their own healing.”
With the fitness era giving way to the explosive growth of interest in wellness and mindfulness practices, more and more Americans are taking health and healing into their own hands, and the role of yoga is evolving yet again, making the gradual move from a purely physical activity to a tool for holistic healing. This time it’s not just focused on the body, but also the mind.
“There’s a level of consciousness and an evolving way that people are talking and thinking,” Jivamukti Yoga CEO Celina Belizan told The Huffington Post. “It’s this new language that people are talking in more and more.”
More and more studios, like Jivamutki and Virayoga -- popular downtown Manhattan yoga centers -- are embracing the spiritual elements of the practice, drawing students into their studios with chanting, meditation and traditional teachings.
The rise of “spiritual but not religious” has supported this return to yoga’s traditional teachings. More than 1 in 3 Americans describe themselves as spiritual but not religious, according to a 2012 Pew Forum survey.
Goldberg explains that this inward-facing spirituality -- in which individuals, whether or not they ever set foot on a yoga mat, turn inward to develop a connection with something larger than themselves -- is fundamentally a yogic one, and that in fact, we are becoming a “nation of yogis.”
“People are taking charge of their spiritual lives in a very yogic way,” he says. “That’s changing the face of spirituality in the West.”
This story appears in Issue 80 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available Friday, Dec. 20 in the iTunes App store.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Hindu America Foundation as the American Hindu Foundation. The article has been updated.