The Battle For Yoga’s Soul

Yoga’s skyrocketing growth in America is due to four things: women, fashion, spiritual longing, and faux ritual.

If I stepped into a classroom at ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management, where I am a professor, and said, “mihi placet discipuli” I would get some odd stares. For those less familiar with ancient languages the term is Latin for “I’m pleased to meet you, students.” As I think most realize, Latin hasn’t been a spoken language since the days of the Roman Empire.

But sit on a mat in any yoga studio and you’re bombarded with Sanskrit, another language not spoken anywhere. Except America.

Holy men perform Yoga on the first International Day of Yoga in Kamakhya

The next time you visit India, don’t bother trying to speak in Sanskrit when you want to cross the street or even cross your legs. In India, you won’t find anyone who speaks the language nor will you hear it in a yoga studio. Over 100% of India’s 1.3 billion people speak Hindi, English, Bengali, Tamil, and Urdu (totals exceed 100% due to a second language).

“In India, yoga teachers never utter a namaste.”

In a blog post by an Indian woman who has taken yoga in both countries, she reports, “Saying namaste in India never made me feel spiritual. Even in the yoga classes in India, the teachers never uttered ‘namaste’.”

The word Namaste punctuates every American yoga class like a Sanskrit exclamation point. So it may come as a surprise that in Hindu culture, the word is a sign of obedience to an elder, a gesture a child makes to a grandparent. It is used as a substitute for a hug in a world that restricts physical contact. What it is not meant to convey is ‘have a nice day’ to someone sitting next to you in Shavasana.

American yoga has smartly turned Namaste into a brand that makes people feel good and feel better about themselves. Marching in close order are a legion of P&G like brand extensions called Vinyasa, Chaturanga, and Tadasana, referring to common yoga poses. They transform a mundane workout routine into sacred practice.

So what if the spiritual suggestiveness is a bit of a stretch? What’s wrong with that? Could this be a simple matter of “do what I say in Sanskrit, and no one gets hurt?”

A small tribute to antiquity turns a fitness class into spiritual therapy and a money maker.

In America, yoga purists use Sanskrit jargon for an obvious reason, it echoes ancient rituals. But the reality is those were abandoned along with the spoken language until it was reprised in America. The question is why? Was ancient Sanskrit coopted by the yoga establishment out of reverence for ancient ritual — or reverence for the ancient dollar?

Unbeknownst to most students, yoga instructors take only 20 hours of instruction in the spiritual and cultural aspects. That’s hardly enough to obtain true learning in religious yoga, about as much as you might get reading a short book.

The real motive for the dusting of sacred words is to camouflage something that was never a part of Hindu yoga tradition — making money. When the instructor chants about your place in the universe, it sounds so much holier in Sanskrit. That small tribute to antiquity gives your teacher the image of a guru and that conveys the right to charge more per hour than a fitness trainer.

It has another business benefit that marketers love — differentiation. If you walk into the local YMCA or Sports Club LA, you won’t get much of a reverential greeting because that’s not what brings you there. But in the case of yoga, people are not just looking for fitness but spiritual rebirth. And the yoga industry is only too happy to cooperate.

Instead of taking yoga, start a yoga studio. You’ll have far more enjoyment making money and taking classes for free

Yoga’s phenomenal growth has been one part fitness, one part fashion, and one part spirituality. It is a fantastic experience for people like me who value the physical aspect, the absence of equipment and the availability of lessons. For women, it is a comfortable, welcoming place to meet and exercise with mostly other women, and men who enjoy the same values.

According to a HuffPo interview with Sat Jivan Singh Khalsa, the guru who brought yoga to America, annual yoga revenues are reaching $30 billion “‘with no end in sight.” Yoga reaches over 20 million people, nearly 75% of them women.

That revenue level makes yoga around 5% of specialty retail revenues at $635 billion, which is showing anemic growth overall. But there are many quite apparent reasons for the hyper growth of yoga including one less obvious.

Some factors are: first, the health craze. Secondly, women make up between 70–80% of yoga adherents and their spending power has skyrocketed, as has their desire for an independent, more female friendly exercise experience. But it is the third reason that makes yoga so unique among fitness and retail activities: the pent up desire for spiritual healing.

Many Americans may have abandoned religion it seems, but not religious experience. More than 1 in 3 Americans describe themselves as spiritual according to a 2012 Pew Forum survey, and the rise of “spiritual but not religious” has spurred the growth of yoga’s leaning on traditional methods including the wide use of Sanskrit. Studios like Jivamutki and Virayoga — popular Manhattan yoga centers — claim it is the spiritual element that draws students to their practice.

Many Americans may have abandoned religion it seems, but not the desire for religious experience.

Why can’t we experience spirituality without faux ritual? I have no problem with yoga instruction from a professional who knows the twists and turns, literally, of this ancient Hindu form of exercise. But a more genuine approach would have yoga teachers stick to the poses, drop the Sanskrit and refer to them in English. We get poses like crow or down dog instantly without compromising any spiritual satisfaction.

The yoga industry should not need to speak in a mysterious language nor should it market itself as a spiritual journey taught by a fitness instructor with 20 hours of training. People are looking for an emotional connection while they stretch and burn calories and do good things for their bodies. That shouldn’t require an ancient liturgy.

So the issue comes down to whether yoga gets real or succumbs to the Hollywood version? I look at it like people buying their first pair of cowboy boots when they move to the American West. It’s okay to believe you’re a cowboy, but please don’t give lessons in cattle herding.

The universe is watching. Namaste.

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