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 more than $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-backward.” “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 more than 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.