The windows are steamy and the air is strangely yeasty sweet, like a beer brewery. Another big snow has hit the valley, so you’re excited for a tropical-like experience and ignore the smell. You strip to skimpy running shorts—joining others wearing sports bras and skimpier shorts—and walk into the 105-degree room; the smell is stronger now, the humidity like being back in the womb—but hotter. You pause because your balance weakens for a second. You think of turning back, but press on, and lay your mat flat under your towel, which soon will be soaked with your sweat. “This must be what it was like when the first primordial organism came to life,” you think while pondering a moist patch of carpet. You’re in a yoga class, though, so mysterious emergence of life and energy seems appropriate.
This isn’t just any yoga, however. This is Bikram, a series of 26 “asanas,” or positions, done in a super-heated room. Leave your oms at home.
Sometimes referred to as the McDonald’s of yoga, Bikram’s heat makes “the Starbucks of yoga” a more apt description because it’s like being surrounded by the vapor rising from a foamy latte. Like McDonald’s and Starbucks, what may help explain Bikram’s success is its reliably consistent product in a yoga world that’s filled with variety and unpredictability. “Yoga” is diversified. Vinyasa, flow, ashtanga, power, hatha, anti-gravity, kundilini and pranayama are varieties seen on local yoga studios’ class schedules, and the list of mysterious names grows each year. It’s easy to research the descriptions of what one will experience in a class, but variety still exists beneath most labels.
But like a Starbucks’ cappuccino, Bikram is the same steamy experience from Sugar House to Jakarta, right down to the cues or instructions given by the teacher to students on the same series of poses.
Watch time-lapse video of a 90-minute Bikram session compressed into less than four minutes.
Both riding and helping create the wave of a more mainstream Western yoga, Bikram was started by Bikram Choudhury, of Los Angeles, a firebrand entrepreneur and yoga superstar who tanked his reputation with much of the yoga world when he copyrighted his system of physical-fitness-focused feel-the-burn yoga, even though it’s derived from philosophy older than Christianity. Rankled by the preponderance of misinformation found on Websites of Bikram studios, Bikram the founder is now organizing the studios into franchise agreements—and one umbrella Website.
“There are people trademarking their names and styles of yoga they’ve developed. It’s kind of a little crazy. Yoga belongs to everybody,” Bell says. “I think there’s a bit of a frenzy because it’s gotten so popular. To some extent, it might be some yoga teachers struggled for a long time, and didn’t make any money; now, suddenly, there’s this opportunity, and they jump on it. I can understand that. I’d like to make a decent living after 24 years, but I’m not willing to compromise yoga, at least the way that I see it.”
The possibility to make a fortune—not just living wages—also seems to be driving yoga into the American mainstream, as Choudhury’s legendary fleet of Rolls Royces well demonstrates (no one knows his actual net worth, but he charges $5,000 to certify an official Bikram studio).
Likewise, retailer LuluLemon, the corporate entity that claims to be “the authority on yoga,” peddles $45 T-shirts and $68 yoga mats. In 2009, the yoga-themed clothing and accessory retailer, which recently opened branches in Kimball Junction and near 9th and 9th in Salt Lake City, cleared $452 million in revenue worldwide, up 9 percent from 2008 despite the Great Recession. Recent controversies in the yoga community—for example, LuluLemon’s use of naked models in advertising—have underscored the trepidation some have about yoga’s newfound commercialism—and its future.
As yoga businesses continue the quest for financial success, Bell stands as a oracle, wondering, “At what point do we change yoga so much that it’s no longer yoga?” In particular, she has concerns that yoga’s reputation as a workout separated from its philosophical underpinnings—and its increasing usefulness in making profits—may be undermining yoga’s mission. “If the yoga that people are coming to is something that basically mirrors our own cultural neuroses about image and weight and all those things, then it’s not really transforming us, it’s just letting us be more of what we are, not pointing us in the direction of something else, which is what it’s supposed to do.”
Amid the mainstreaming and corporatization, several in the Wasatch Front are hoping to popularize yoga, make a living wage from it and keep it real. Any step away from the donation-only “beggar's bowl” model, however, seems to adapt yoga to America, not the other way around. Between corporate control and beggar’s bowls, however, there is a legion of yoga teachers navigating the tricky lessons and trade-offs of yoganomics.
Yoga is Union
The first mentions of yoga were written nearly 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, in ancient Indian texts of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and others. It’s not a religion—yoga per se neither promotes nor discourages belief in God—though it does teach morality, mindfulness and compassion. Its history overlaps and intersects with Hinduism, Buddhism and Tantra, although it’s distinct from all of those, also.
Northern Utah Yoga studio Directory
Bikram Yoga Sandy
Bikram Yoga College of India-Ogden
Centered City Yoga
Charlotte Bell Yoga
Imagination Place Antigravity Yoga
Infusion Yoga & Pilates Studio
Lifted Life Yoga Center
Lotus Leaf Yoga
Park City Yoga Studio
Salt Lake City Bikram Yoga
The Yoga Center
Yoga Jo’s Studio
But physical fitness is only one-prong of the “Eight Limbs” of yoga. The change in yoga’s reputation came about 20 years ago, as yoga businesses began to pop up.
“In order to make yoga popular, it has had to be packaged in a different way. ... [Yoga] includes things like ethical precepts of nonviolence, truthfulness, not stealing, nongreed, and includes personal practices like simplicity, contentment and study,” Bell says. “It includes the asanas, the physical practice, the yoga poses … but they’re just one limb of eight.” The others include breathing practice, meditation, “letting go of the addiction to the senses,” and samadi, “the completely settled mind.”
Bell has arguably the deepest roots in yoga of any teacher in Utah. The author of Mindful Yoga, Mindul Life: A Guide For Everyday Practice, she began practice in 1982 and taught her first class in 1986. Since her start, yoga has changed. "I think of a lot of people are going to class to get a workout, and that works for some, but it doesn’t work for everybody.”
Underscoring her commitment to simplicity, Bell teaches classes outside the yoga-studio circuit and instead uses a multipurpose room at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City. And, like many local teachers, she wishes that yogis could be introduced to yoga in a more complete form.
Andrejs Gailis (pictured above), the studio director of a newly founded Shiva Centre, advocates the same. “Yoga goes out from being exercise into being something as it has been for thousands of years. It’s health science [and] spiritual path, it’s dealing with your emotions, with your mind.”
Gailis emigrated to Utah from Latvia one year ago. The Shiva Centre, located in the old Flow Yoga studio, is an outcropping of what Gailis describes as a veritable university of yoga in Latvia of the same name. The Shiva Centre distinguishes itself in Utah, Gailis says, by offering many lecture-style classes tangential to the practice of yoga as a lifestyle, including chanting, astrology, literature and even tantric sex (coming this month).
Yoga, Gailis says, means “a union or something that unites.”
But, Bell and Gailis’s holistic adherence and teaching of yoga is rare. Many yoga instructors pay homage to all limbs of yoga by voicing traditional aphorisms during an asana practice, but not much more. And it’s the physical-fitness portion—not the philosophy—that is so commercialized. Is this bad for yoga? Or, is the physical practice so enticing that yogis naturally strive for more yogic wisdom after that initial taste?
The yoga asanas are still a large part of the offering at Shiva Centre, Gailis says, “because you can’t have a healthy mind if the body is suffering.” With Americans being the fattest people in the world—30 percent of the population is obese—it seems fitting perhaps that the physical-fitness lessons of yoga reached the mainstream first. “[Physical practice] is a good gateway for people,” Bell says. “Most people don’t want to learn about other parts of it, at least not at first.”
Denise Druce directed her own yoga studio for 15 years and now works for 24 Hour Fitness. She’s a master instructor who trains other teachers to lead group fitness classes like spin, step and yoga. She embraces many aspects of yoga in her life, but is a little glib about others’ concerns that yoga has been corrupted in America.
“Yoga insiders fight over this … but while we fight, people die,” she says, before laughing and apologizing for being so dramatic. “But it’s true,” she adds, still laughing. Druce says she wants yoga to be “holistic” in the sense that all will be welcome, and feel welcome, regardless of fitness level, religion or age. Though she sprinkles nonphysical yoga wisdom into her classes, her primary concern is health and fitness, people’s deadly waistlines and sedentary lifestyles.
But fights over what is real yoga can get in the way of that. The Hindu American Foundation’s call to respect yoga’s Hindu roots, for example, plays into the criticisms of two Southern preachers who recently created waves in yoga circles by denouncing the practice as unChristian. Mormon family members, Druce says, sometimes raise concerns that yoga is not entirely compatible with Christianity. Druce thinks those concerns are unfounded, but she’s pragmatic in honoring those concerns rather than trying to eliminate them in the name of real yoga. Christian yogis, she says, might feel more comfortable with tree pose renamed Jesus pose, and who cares if they do? “I don’t want to do anything exclusive.”
Her position at the gym, she says, helps her democratize yoga. If the philosophical aspects of the class are a minor part of what she teaches, that’s OK, because she’s planting seeds. Druce has bigger classes, and more turnover from students, many of whom, she says, progress away from her gym-yoga class to more specialized classes at studios.
That’s good for yoga, Druce says, and America’s bulging waist lines. If people get healthier and have the opportunity to advance to more traditional yoga practices, how can that be bad for yoga? Well, perhaps a majority of yoga’s students (known as yogis) can afford it—a 2008 Harris Interactive/Yoga Journal survey found 71 percent of American yogis have a college degree and 68 percent have household incomes over $75,000—but not everyone can.
Part of gym-yoga’s popularity is economics: Yoga classes at the gym are included in a monthly fee, sometimes as low as $25 per month; studios charge anywhere from $12 to $16 per class, or more than $100 for monthly unlimited passes.
That price tag for students at studios, however, doesn’t ensure big paydays for yoga teachers, which could confine yoga, for some, to gyms and celebrity-led DVDs. It’s an economic situation that threatens to cement yoga in Americans’ minds as just a workout, but teachers are trying to find ways to make more traditional practice more economically accessible, and that will require more students.
While spending on yoga is growing, the student population is not. The 2008 Yoga Journal survey actually found a dip in yoga students—from 16.5 million in 2004 to 15.8 million in 2008—even while yoga spending jumped 87 percent to $5.7 billion during the same period.
Natalie Buchi operates the Mindful and Embodied Yoga, a placeless business she uses to train teachers, arrange private classes and advertise her appearances. She is one of the most well-known yoga teachers in the valley due to her appearances at so many studios, including Avenues Yoga, The Yoga Center in Holladay, 24 Hour Fitness, as well as teaching yoga classes at the University of Utah and elsewhere. Her livelihood is derived exclusively from teaching yoga—a rare feat in Salt Lake City. “Financially, it’s challenging to earn a living teaching yoga. … It’s just that you’re being paid per class … [and] if you’re only going to teach one class per day making between $20 and $30, you can’t survive on that.”
Even for the young and able-bodied, Buchi says, teaching enough classes to be paid a living wage is physically challenging and impossible for some otherwise-qualified teachers. She would be unable to make yoga her career, she says, without instructing private lessons—at higher rates than studio classes—in addition to her busy class schedule.
But local studio owners don’t seem to be making bank, either. The Shiva Centre—previously Flow Yoga—has changed ownership three times in the past year; the Yoga Centre recently came under new ownership; and Kula yoga studio in Salt Lake City, which opened two years ago, has already closed. Those are all indicators of how tough it is to make a studio work long-term, Buchi says.
Studio classes with just five or six students are quite common in Salt Lake City, Buchi says, so perhaps making yoga more of a volume business could generate living wages for teachers and lower prices for students, too. Buchi says California’s yoga communities have largely evolved to that position already, and she hopes Utah is “just a little behind.”
One Utah nonprofit organization may help spark the multitudes by introducing very young yogis to their breath.
Yael Calhoun is a founder and executive director of GreenTree Yoga, a nonprofit that takes yoga to unexpected places, like elementary school classrooms, rehab centers and jails. She’s quite comfortable with yoga’s commercial practitioners, whom she sees as perhaps odd, but useful, bedfellows.
“The billion-dollar industry has brought yoga into the mainstream. It’s like what Rachel Carson did for the environmental movement with Silent Spring; she brought it into the living room and made [environmentalism] a household word,” Calhoun says.
Calhoun, author of Yoga for Kids and Teens, says, if nothing else, the commercialization has made many people believe that yoga is not in competition with religion. Since she’s teaching yoga to Utah kids, that’s kind of a big deal for her organization. “We approached the State Office of Education to develop some materials for the schools that fit with the national PE program,” she said. “We do a good number of teacher trainings … both for PE teachers and classroom teachers, K through 12, on five-minute yoga breaks.” That wouldn’t happen, she says, if people thought yoga were religion. Watch GreenTree volunteers lead a class of elementary school kids in Salt Lake City in a five-minute yoga break:
But it’s more than just rebranding—or unbranding—yoga that will both spread its popularity while keeping it moored to its foundation, Baptiste says. What yoga really needs is some professionalization.
For example, yoga as a health science needs to be given its due respect like other traditional medical practices, she says. Why, for example, is acupuncture covered by health insurance but not yoga?
Yoga teachers, Baptiste says, should also be given the financial support of other aspiring professionals. Why are massage therapy students eligible for low-interest student loans but not yoga teachers-in-training?
Both would require legislation and legal recognition of yoga and its teachers, which the state of Utah has flirted with doing, perhaps soon. “ At this time, the State of Utah does not regulate these schools/programs or license yoga instructors as a professional license,” wrote Utah Department of Commerce spokeswoman Jennifer Bolton in an e-mail. “This is an issue that is being reviewed currently … and may have proposed changes to the Postsecondary Proprietary School Act put forth during the next legislative session in January 2011.”
Baptiste said some of her peers who are aware of the state’s growing interest in yoga, however, oppose any sort of yoga legislation on the grounds that spirituality should not be regulated. Baptiste shares the concern, but is willing to compromise. “The future of yoga—if we want there to be a future in this community and certainly in the larger U.S.—there has to be some kind of compromise. … Do I want to be legislated? No. But do I want to be recognized? Yes.”
Whether it’s compromises made by corporatizing, branding, profiting, legislating or professionalizing yoga, many teachers find solace that it’s for the greater good. “Yoga works” at making people more comfortable in their lives, Buchi says, “and we need it somehow in our culture. So by whatever means it gets here, the world is evolving, we’re evolving. However yoga makes it into someone’s life, I think it’s a blessing. … We are a very commercialized country. … The most important thing is getting yoga out there.”
Calhoun agrees: “We are a consumer society. There are about 16 million people in the country that do yoga and it is about a $6 billion industry. … This growth has allowed yoga to move from the fringes—I won’t say quite mainstream, but it’s getting there—which allows me to take Green Tree into the schools and hospitals … and find a really receptive audience. Twenty years ago, I would say that would not have been the case.”
Yoga Saved My Life
Bell, however, isn’t so sure all the compromises are worth it. In October, she wrote an article on ElephantJournal.com, a clearinghouse of high-minded yoga debate, in which she explains why she no longer necessarily believes that more people doing yoga is much of a goal to strive for. That’s a rather unusual position in a yoga world that takes evangelism for granted, as if spreading the word of yoga were a founding principle.
For 11 years, Bell wrote, she always pushed for the expansion of yoga in society on the assumption that yogis are “inherently more conscious” than others. She now sees that attitude as spiritual arrogance and she’s in less of a mood to compromise on yoga fundamentals as a result. “Yoga—including all Eight Limbs—has saved my life in more ways than I can count,” she wrote. “But I can’t know unequivocally what is best for anyone else.”
But to demonstrate the sheer pervasiveness of yoga business opportunities, even Bell has found a yoga business opportunity that suits her ideals. Beyond her classes at the Unitarian Church, she’s a representative of Hugger Mugger—a company that specializes in yoga props like blocks and mats. Providing the accoutrements of an actual yoga class, she said, is different than superficially playing on yoga’s en vogue status. “Yoga products like mats, blocks, bolsters and blankets that actually help people do poses with more integrity [are different] than ‘chakra panties.’” Those panties, which Bell finds to be shameless abuses of yoga’s cache, are sold at BePresent.com. “The colors for the line are inspired by the colors of the chakras. Need more grounding? Red is root chakra, attributed to stability and inner strength. Want to feel sexy? Orange is sacral chakra, associated with being sensual,” and so on, read the product descriptions.
Baptiste senses a shift in American yoga practice. In the early 1990s, she says, as yoga began its entry into the American mainstream, yoga entrepreneurs such as Bikram, John Friend and even her yoga-famous ex-husband were more “self-help gurus than yoga teachers.” There’s some irony to that, she says, because yoga is about real self-help; that is, the self helping the self.
It’s not that Baptiste is critical of any yoga commercial giant in particular, but their time of outsized-influence on the ancient philosophy, she says, may be ending. “The way I see it evolving, because of those yoga names bringing yoga to the masses, now we have a lot of incredible yoga teachers who are in it, quietly authentic and humble about what they’re doing,” she says. “ ‘Follow me,’ is happening less, and more teachers are saying, ‘This is really about you.’ ”
Bell wants yoga to change yogis, not the other way around. In consumerist America, however, that’s a tricky balance—perhaps a balance that only a philosophy bent on centering and balancing human bodies—and spirits—can accomplish.
“Yoga was originally meant to be against the grain,” Bell says. "It was not meant to be something where let’s pick and choose what we like out of it, and we’ll make it look like us and then we’ll be comfortable in it. Transformation doesn’t happen that way. It happens when you are challenged in your beliefs and in your world, and your way of being is challenged.”