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Thursday, June 21, 2012 The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards (9781451641424): William J Broad: Books The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards (9781451641424): William J Broad: Books

Yoga is everywhere among the affluent and the educated.

The bending, stretching, and deep breathing have become a kind of oxygen for the modern soul, as a tour of the neighborhood shows rather quickly.

New condo developments feature yoga studios as perks. Cruise ships tout the accomplishments of their yoga instructors, as do tropical resorts. Senior centers and children’s museums offer the stretching as a fringe benefit—Hey, parents, fitness can be fun.

Hollywood stars and professional athletes swear by it. Doctors prescribe it for natural healing.

Hospitals run beginner classes, as do many high schools and colleges. Clinical psychologists urge patients to try yoga for depression. Pregnant women do it (very carefully) as a form of prenatal care. The organizers of writing and painting workshops have their pupils do yoga to stir the creative spirit. So do acting schools. Musicians use it to calm down before going on stage.

Not to mention all the regular classes. In New York City, where I work, it seems like a yoga studio is doing business every few blocks. You can also take classes in Des Moines and Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

Once an esoteric practice of the few, yoga has transformed itself into a global phenomenon as well as a universal icon of serenity, one that resonates deeply with tense urbanites.

In 2010, the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, began illustrating its parking tickets with a series of calming yoga poses.

The popularity of yoga arises not only because of its talent for undoing stress but because its traditions make an engaging counterpoint to modern life.

It’s unplugged and natural, old and centered—a kind of anti-civilization pill that can neutralize the dissipating influence of the Internet and the flood of information we all face. Its ancient serenity offers a new kind of solace.

An indication of yoga’s social ascendency is how its large centers often get housed in former churches, monasteries, and seminaries, the settings frequently rural and inspirational.

Kripalu, on more than three hundred rolling acres of the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, was once a Jesuit seminary.

Each year its yoga school graduates hundreds of new teachers. And they in turn produce thousands of new yogis and yoginis, or female yogis.

Even the White House is into yoga. Michelle Obama made it part of Let’s Move—her national program of exercise for children, which seeks to fight obesity.

The First Lady talks about yoga on school visits and highlights the discipline at the annual Easter Egg Roll, the largest public event on the White House social calendar. Starting in 2009, the egg roll has repeatedly featured a Yoga Garden with colorful mats and helpful teachers. The sessions start early and go throughout the day.

On the White House lawn in 2010, an adult dressed as the Cat in the Hat—a character from the Dr. Seuss book—did a standing posture on one leg. A tougher demonstration featured five yogis simultaneously upending themselves in Headstands. At the 2011 event, the Easter Bunny did a tricky balancing pose. The children watched, played along, and took home a clear message about what the President and First Lady considered to be a smart way of getting in shape.

Yoga is one of the world’s fastest-growing health and fitness activities. The Yoga Health Foundation, based in California, puts the current number of practitioners in the United States at twenty million and around the globe at more than two hundred and fifty million. Many more people, it says, are interested in trying yoga. To spread the word, the foundation organizes Yoga Month—a celebration every September that blankets the United States with free yoga classes, activities, and health fairs.

By any measure, the activity is too widespread and its participants too affluent for advertisers and the news media to ignore. Health and beauty magazines do regular features.  

The New York Times, where I work, has run hundreds of articles and in 2010 began a regular column, Stretch. It has profiled everything from studios that offer hot yoga in overheated rooms to a gathering of thousands in Central Park that its organizers called the largest yoga class on record.

A main attraction of that event was the corporate gifts. Participants got JetBlue yoga mats, SmartWater bottles, and ChicoBags filled with giveaways. The allure was so great that many people got stuck in entrance lines before a downpour chased everybody away.

Yoga may be in the air culturally. But it is also quite visibly a big business.

Merchants sell mats, clothes, magazines, books, videos, travel junkets, creams, healing potions, shoes, soy snacks, and many accessories deemed vital to practice—as well as classes. Purists call it the yoga industrial complex.

Increasingly, the big financial stakes have upended the traditional ethos. Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram Yoga, a hot style, copyrighted his sequence of yoga poses and had his lawyers send out hundreds of threatening notices that charged small studios with violations.

He is not alone. In the United States, yoga entrepreneurs have sought to enhance their exclusivity by registering thousands of patents, trademarks, and copyrights.

Market analysts identify yoga as part of a demographic known as LOHAS—for Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability.

Its upscale, well-educated individuals are drawn to sustainable living and ecological initiatives.

They drive hybrid cars, buy natural products, and seek healthy lifestyles. Yoga moms (a demographic successor to soccer moms) are an example. According to marketing studies, they tend to buy clothes for their children from such places as Mama’s Earth, its goods made from organic cotton, hemp, and recycled materials.

One factor that distinguishes modern yoga from its predecessors is its transformation from a calling into a premium lifestyle. Another is that women make up the vast majority of its practitioners, a fact that dramatically influences the nature of its marketplace. Women buy more books than men, read more, spend more on consumer goods, and pay more attention to their health and appearance.

Yoga Journal—the field’s leading magazine, founded in 1975—claims two million readers and identifies its audience as 87 percent women. It revels in their quality, citing high incomes, impressive jobs, and good educations. A brochure for prospective advertisers notes that more than 90 percent have gone to college.

The colorful pages of the magazine offer a vivid example of how companies target the demographic. Hundreds of ads promote skin-care products, sandals, jewelry, natural soaps, special vitamins and enzymes, alternative cures and therapies, smiling gurus, and ecofriendly cars. Each issue features an index to advertisers. One of my favorites is Hard Tail, a clothing line whose ads feature attractive women in striking poses. “Forever,” reads the minimalist copy.

Another is Lululemon Athletica, a hip brand of yoga clothing known for its form-fitting apparel, most especially its ability to shape and display the buttocks to best advantage. Recently, a market analyst identified Lulu’s signature item as the $98 Groove Pant, “cut with all kinds of special gussets and flat seams to create a snug gluteal enclosure of almost perfect globularity, like a drop of water.”

All of which bears on what yoga (as opposed to its accessories) does for the body and mind or, more precisely, on what gurus, spas, books, instructional videos, merchants, television shows, magazines, resorts, and health clubs say that it does.

In this regard, it is important to remember that yoga has no governing body. There’s no hierarchy of officials or organizations meant to ensure purity and adherence to agreed-upon sets of facts and poses, rules and procedures, outcomes and benefits. It’s not like a religion or modern medicine, where rigorous schooling, licensing, and boards seek to produce a high degree of conformity. And forget about government oversight. There’s no body such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission or the Food and Drug Administration to ensure that yoga lives up to its promises. Instead, it’s a free-for-all—and always has been. Over the ages, that freedom has resulted in a din of conflicting claims.

“The beginner,” notes I. K. Taimni, an Indian scholar, “is likely to feel repulsed by the confusion and exaggerated statements.” Taimni wrote that a half century ago. Today the situation is worse. For one thing, the explosion in publishing—print and electronic—has amplified the din into a cacophony. Another factor is the profit motive.

Billions of dollars are now at stake in public representations of what yoga can do, and the temptations are plentiful to lace declarations with everything from self-deception and happy imprecision to willful misrepresentations and shadings of the truth. Another temptation is to avoid any mention of damage or adverse consequences—a silence often rooted in economic rationalizations. Why tell the whole story if full disclosure might drive away customers? Why limit the sales appeal? Why not let the discipline be all things to all people?

Anyone who has done yoga for a while can rattle off a list of benefits. It calms and relaxes, eases and renews, energizes and strengthens. It somehow makes us feel better.

But beyond such basics lies a frothy hodgepodge of public claims and assurances, sales pitches and New Age promises. The topics include some of life’s most central aspirations—health, attractiveness, fitness, healing, sleep, safety, longevity, peace, willpower, control of body weight, happiness, love, knowledge, sexual satisfaction, personal growth, fulfillment, and the far boundaries of what it means to be human, not to mention enlightenment.

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