Ten perspectives on yoga in America

My novel Yoga Bootcamp stirs up more curiosity. Here are ten facts.

  1. Number of yoga teachers in U.S.: 52,746 registered with Yoga Alliance in 2015.
  2. Number of centers: 18,000.
  3. Number of yoga practitioners in U.S.: 37 million.
  4. Number over age 40: 14 million.
  5. Percentage of women and men practicing yoga in U.S.: 72 percent versus 28 percent.
  6. Amount spent on yoga classes, clothing, and gear: $16.8 billion.
  7. Most popular reasons for practicing yoga: flexibility (61 percent); stress relief (56 percent); general fitness (49 percent); overall health (49 percent); physical fitness (44 percent).
  8. The highest percentages of yoga practitioners: Found on the West Coast and Mid-Atlantic states (New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania). The lowest percentages are in New England, the Upper Midwest and Plains states, and the East South.
  9. Circulation of Yoga Journal magazine: 375,000.
  10. Turnover: Only 25 percent have been doing yoga for more than five years.

Ten special diets

These days it seems everyone’s on a restricted diet.

Here are ten of them.

  1. Kosher. This means the historic Jewish restrictions. You know, no ham. But that’s just for starters. And even the plates must be blessed.
  2. Halal. The Muslim equivalent of dietary laws. By the way, Ramadan still sounds like cheating. I mean, what’s the hardship of refraining during the day if you can eat like a pig, uh, beast all night?
  3. Eastern Orthodox fasting.  Food’s allowed, but the options are highly limited. No olive oil, for instance, and no meat. It can be tricky.
  4. Caffeine-free. The Mormon church recently lifted this restriction from carbonated drinks, though it still holds for hot coffee or tea. Some other disciplines, including yogis, also ban it.
  5. Vegan. Or its less restrictive vegetarian alternatives.
  6. Gluten-free or lactose-free or peanut-free. Based on a medical diagnosis, OK?
  7. Healthy Heart. A little broader, largely to reduce cholesterol levels.
  8. Weight-loss. Oh, my, these are endless and ever so trendy.
  9. Alcohol-free. Sometimes as a religious tenet, sometimes as a consequence of addiction.
  10. Hindu. No beef. Those cows are sacred … and sources of milk.

Are you observing any dietary restrictions?

Blessed bliss

My novel YOGA BOOTCAMP describes group meditation as a central discipline in the daily life at Big Pumpkin’s ashram. As a real-life example, here’s a photo taken at the Poconos Ashram in mid-1972. I’m struck by how young we all look and the fact that most of us could sit in a full lotus position. Makes my knees hurt just thinking of it now!

Yes, I really lived this.

Ten major yoga brands today

In the decades since I took up yoga in the early 1970s, the movement has had its ups and downs. For a while, it looked like it was about to peter out altogether, especially as scandals hit many of the teachers or their organizations.

And then came the boom in popularity, far outrunning the earlier flowering.

Today, it’s hard to keep up with many of the trends, especially as they take on commercially branded identities. Back in the day, we knew it essentially as hatha, raja, karma, and so on … but not anymore. When you’re looking for a class, it can be rather confusing.

  1. Here are ten on my radar. Many of the details come from Kristin McGee’s fine overview at the MBGmovement website.
  2. Iyengar: Founded by B.K.S. Iyengar after his arrival in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1973, this system relies heavily on props to help students to perfect their form. The positions are held for longer periods while focusing on details of the pose. Photos of the props still disturb me. Guess I’m just old school.
  3. Restorative yoga: Focused on winding down and relaxing after a long day. As an outgrowth of Iyengar yoga, includes props like bolsters and blankets.
  4. Astanga: (Also spelled ashtanga.) Popularized by K. Pattabhi Jois in the ’70s. Very physically demanding sequence of postures with an emphasis on continuous movement. No props, no music – I wholeheartedly approve, but I am from a line that had long rests in the corpse pose between asanas. Aah. Our goal was meditation, more than physical fitness.
  5. Vinyasa flow:  Adapted from astanga in the 1980s, it is more varied, depending on the teacher and students and the intent of the day. It may include props and music. Vinyasa is considered the most athletic of the popular styles, more suitable for students with previous yoga experience.
  6. Jivamukti: Founded in 1984 by Sharon Gannon and David Life as an outgrowth of vinyasa flow, this includes teachings from Hindu philosophy with an Earth-conscious connection. Many of its followers are also vegetarian.
  7. Hot: Supposedly intended to simulate the steamy jungles of India where yoga was practiced, this covers a range of styles as long as the room’s hot and humid. It’s intended to produce a lot of sweating. I’ll assume that’s to sweat out impurities in the body. One of its earliest strands is Forrest yoga, developed by Ana T. Forrest.
  8. Bikram: Founded by Bikram Choudhury in the late 20th century, it’s the best-known form of hot yoga. Its 90-minute class format has postures each performed twice in a 105-degree room with 40 percent humidity, great for producing sweat. The certified teachers have a standard patter to accompany the workout. He seems to be very proprietary.
  9. Yin: Slow paced and meditative. This system dates from the late ’70s with the work of Paulie Zink, a Taoist and martial arts expert, and developed by Paul Grilley and Sarah Powers.
  10. Anusara: A more traditional hatha yoga with a focus on heart-opening and spirals to align each part of the body. John Friend in 1997 and now continued by a nonprofit school that certifies its teachers.
  11. Acroyoga: The most gymnastic of the systems, this features partners exercising in acrobatic poses. It requires three people – a base, a flyer who will be elevated off the ground, and a spotter to break the fall, if needed. The couple on the cover of my upcoming novel Nearly Canaan are shown in one of its poses.

Note that they’re all focused on physical fitness of one sort or another, rather than the meditative or ethical dimensions of the underlying religious foundation. Where are the swamis nowadays, anyway?

Ten pioneering leaders in American yoga

When I took up yoga in the early 1970s, it was still pretty exotic. In fact, a fair question would ask if yoga was mostly happening in New York. That was my impression from the ads in the weekly Village Voice newspaper, which listed many visiting teachers from Asia, especially.

Not all of the teachers were exactly kosher, either.

The model of the maverick guru was Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural cartoon, inspired by the Sufi and Zen Buddhist Samuel Lewis, but my own teacher, Swami Lakshmy Devi in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania, and Swami Rudrananda at Big Indian in New York’s Catskills, would also fit much of what I describe in my novel Yoga Bootcamp. All three were born in America.

Here are ten more teachers who advanced yoga’s popularity in that era:

  1. Richard Hittleman, New York, beginning in the 1950s. Hatha exercises.
  2. Walt and Magana Baptiste in San Francisco, early ’50s. Hatha exercises.
  3. Swami Vishnudevananda, arriving in 1958, San Francisco, a student of Swami Sivananda in the Himalayas. While emphasizing hatha, he also advanced other aspects of yoga, including meditation. My teacher was trained at Visnu’s Manhattan center. The network now headquartered in Montreal.
  4. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Transcendental Meditation in the early ’60s. With the Beatles and others as celebrity followers, his emphasis on teaching meditation rather than the physical exercises became trendy.
  5. Swami Satchidananda, arriving 1966, New York, also a student of Swami Sivananda. His invocation at the Woodstock festival made him celebrity material. With his big beard and smile, he looked the part.
  6. Swami Prabhupada, founder of what were best known as the Hare Krishnas, or the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Arrived 1966, New York. Brought kirtan, or chanting, and the Bhagavad Gita scriptures to public awareness.
  7. Amrit Desai, arriving in 1968 in the Philadelphia area. His influential organization continues as the Kirpalu Center in the Berkshires in Massachusetts and is known for training and certifying yoga instructors.
  8. Yogi Bhajan presented his Kundalini yoga as hatha and chanting with a Sikh infusion. He founded his Happy, Healthy, Holy Organization in 1968.
  9. Ram Dass, formerly a prominent Harvard psychologist and psychedelic pioneer, published the seminal book Be Here Now in 1971 at the Lama Foundation in Taos, New Mexico. We all wanted to go there, wherever or whatever it was. Its focus was on the philosophy, rather than the exercises – a huge breakthrough, from my point of view.
  10. B.K.S. Iyengar, arrived in 1973 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His focus on technical precision in the hatha exercises influenced many teachers.

Considering labor

How do we make a living without seriously compromising our beliefs?  The military-industrial complex has extensively penetrated nearly all facets of American society. Not even the universities are immune. And corporations, in their quest for ever higher short-term profits, incur other moral difficulties. Law? Medicine? And so on. Until we as Friends resolve this, we are likely to face either accelerated decline in membership or inability to maintain our testimonies, which are eroding too rapidly as it is.

Where do we turn? Retreat into farming? Farmers aren’t surviving. As the French novelist inquired more than a half-century ago: Where are the shoemakers in the Society of Friends nowadays?

Professionals, as hired guns: rootless, living by our wits: how fast can you dance, pardner?