a brief history of yoga
in America since 1965
by Christine Marie Mason
How did we get the yoga we have?
As of 2019, about 37 million Americans practice some form of yoga. That number has almost doubled in the last 3 years. 1 in 10 people nationwide (or 1 in 5 on the coasts) are doing down-dog on a regular basis at home, in the gym, in yoga studios or with their local parks and recreation department. They mostly practice for flexibility, stress relief, general fitness and overall health. Yoga works as expected for many people: In a recent Yoga Journal survey, 86% of practitioners said that they experienced a strong sense of mental clarity, and 90% said they somewhat or strongly agreed that yoga is a form of meditation. In addition, more men and more kids are on the mat in 2017, with more racially and economically diverse base (proportionally), than ever before.
What I wanted to know was: what happened in the 1990s to cause the hockey stick?
And if so many people are practicing this liberating, freeing, centering practice, why hasn’t it had more of a transformative impact on the overall culture? How did we get the yoga we have?
This paper examines the interplay between east-west mobility, capitalism and the rapid expansion of yoga in the United States. It begins with a broad overview of yoga’s arrival to the United States, and its gradual expansion from 1965 to 1990. It then dives into the explosion of yoga as a mass-market phenomenon from 1990 until today, looking specifically at how the intersection of money, media, and a mass production and franchise mindset helped yoga shift into something that would be unrecognizable to an Indian practitioner of a hundred years ago.
Yoga in America investigates how the benefits of this miraculous full body practice and philosophy met American cultural wounds and predilections, shifted and adapted, and gave us the yoga we have now- a yoga that often keeps people on a hedonic treadmill rather than offering liberation. I include some commentary on meta-trends for the west to reckon with (including the tendency to spiritual materialism and cultural appropriation).
It ends with some musings on yoga as medicine- the real healing and awakening that has happened for many, many practitioners, and the gifts that are still available if we can claim them.
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