1990s to Now: From 1 to 37 Million Practitioners, and a $17BN annual industry.
As of 2018, 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 downward-facing 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. And it 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?
Sources: Yoga Journal, Chapman, Statistic Brain, NFO Research.
Chart: C. Mason
But what is this “yoga” they are doing, exactly?
This yoga isn’t a simple breathing practice under a Banyan Tree. Like anything that grows quickly and broadly, yoga in the United States runs a vast continuum of styles, accuracy of anatomical offerings, quality, contents, approaches, lineages and logics. It might include or exclude Hinduism or the practice’s Indian cultural roots. It might include the resonant chanting of OM, or headbanging metal music. It might or might not include vital elements in a truly whole body mastery practice, such as breathing techniques, spinal alignment, energy management, meditative intent, and principles of optimal living. Or it might be taught as striving gymnastics or a self-improvement program, rather than a program of self -love and acceptance. It might include or exclude the celebration of the feminine or divine sexuality, or demonstrate a repetition compulsion of the guru mindset, the manipulative patriarchy. It might be taught with beer, goats or chocolate. One thing that’s certain: anywhere there’s yoga, there will be great, body conscious fashion on display.
An explosion of styles and brands.
If you go to any randomized class, you might find yourself doing slow stretching at the Y, or 75 minutes of modified 8-count burpees in a heated room. The more standardized styles of practice are incredibly different in the demands and moods they set. For example, yin yoga will have you lay for 10 minutes in a supported pose to ease open the fascia, joints and muscles in an incredibly relaxing way. Power yoga will have you dripping in sweat and give you abs of steel, if that’s what you’re looking for. Kundalini yoga will fire up your energy body and make you more attuned and integrated. Iyengar will mindfully align the skeleton and correct imbalances, and has a studious feel to it. Therapeutic yoga, viniyoga….oy vey. So many. There are some brand name yoga forms with standard sequences (Baptiste yoga, Bikram yoga and Ashtanga come to mind). These work the whole body, and are well designed in terms of the poses being in a good order to progressively open the tissues.
Little Quality Control
However, when you go to a group class that isn’t standardized along one of these lines, it’s hard to know what you’re going to get- it’s dependent on the teachers’ personality, knowledge and skills, and who’s showing up in the room on that day. It’s also dependent on the hybridization of a given teacher’s unique experiences and complementary trainings (Real hybrid examples: Yoga and Dance, Yoga and Martial Arts, Yoga and Zen Buddhism, Yoga and Reiki, Yoga and Poetry, Yoga and Psychology).
I’ve dropped into studios from Iceland to India, from Boston to Bangkok- and seen so many great vibrant communities and the joy of the practice everywhere, but there are also many things being taught that aren’t healthy. Teachers teach the wrong breathing, the wrong alignment, they lead class from the front but don’t observe the bodies of their students, they are in rote formulation mode, not in response to to the needs of the bodies in the room, they perform but don’t attend, their scholarship is shallow, they know how to teach the capable students but not the struggling ones.
The diffusion of yoga has been accompanied by a dissipation in the expertise and quality of teaching, and an increase in injuries. Acute yoga injuries (measured by ER visits) doubled per 100K practitioners between 2004 and 2012. Chronic injuries also rose, largely from repetitive misalignment over what for many people is now decades of practice, specifically in the hips, lumber spine and shoulders- the body’s most vulnerable points.
Capital Influx of the Late 1990s and 00s:
The same study that showed the increase in practitioners also shows a parallel jump in money being spent. From 2004 to 2016, the dollars being spent on yoga went from 3.4 billion to 16 billion. The numbers almost doubling in the 4-year time period from 2012 (10.3 billion) to 2016. In 2018, yoga is a 17 billion dollar industry in North America. When there’s a lot of people doing a thing, there’s also a lot of money flowing in that direction. This means that all the elements of capitalism inherent in building a business, such as market making, business model refinement, product refinement, lifetime customer value, financial returns to investors, messaging, branding, and the like are now present in the yoga world.
While sometimes well intentioned, the objectives of capitalism are at odds with the individual liberation of yogic philosophy.
In the late 90s and early 00s, the rising interest in yoga practice, coupled with environmentalism and sustainability, led smart marketers to segment off a percentage of the population they called “LOHAS”, or lifestyles of health and sustainability. And just like kicking a marketing and business engine in gear to target retirees or children watching cartoons, the machine went into overdrive creating demand.
Investment capital began to flow into the yoga world. For example, in 2004, the people who backed 24-hour fitness, backed the acquisition of Yogaworks, which, at the time, was the highest quality studio in America, to build a franchise model. In 2006, financiers acquired Yoga Journal. Many of the original homespun yoga clothing and lifestyle companies were acquired also.
For those not familiar to business, once external shareholders are in the picture, the mandate of a company changes. Financial investors are interested in financial returns: growth, profits, and keeping more of the pie for themselves. They won’t measure their success by the number of people they’ve liberated, healed or diminished the level of their suffering in a material and self-denying world. They won’t take their offerings into low income populations, who can’t pay $100 for yoga pants or $600 for a weekend conference.
In order for a yoga business to work at the scale of capitalism, they have to organize themselves in the following ways:
Repeat customers: They have to keep people coming back in order to lower the customer acquisition cost, which is the opposite of freeing them via expertly developing a home practice, developing self and mind mastery or loving themselves just as they are.
Upsells: They have to get the average market basket up, which means workshops instead of regular classes, or having students be sold on the idea of becoming teachers, even if that isn’t their calling. In my view, having teachers pay to train in a sort of Ponzi scheme. We could be investing in dedicated students and creating masterful practitioners.
One to Many: To lower cost relative to revenue, business has to leverage methods of scale that depersonalize the teaching. Produce a class once, and put it on an online platform, where a lot of future revenue can be booked against that one investment in production. This however, makes the teaching one-directional, where the teacher can’t see the student and give feedback, which would actually be teaching, assessing progress and prescribing next steps.
Create demand for lifestyle products, aka more stuff: Enrolling the customer in buying items to support their practice, whether they are needed or unneeded for liberation or movement, including clothing, jewelry, accoutrements,etc.
Sell a Promise, Keep people on the hedonic treadmill: Capitalism invests itself in selling spiritual materialism as a lifestyle, progressive achievement and self improvement and other models of a patriarchal, extractive system. You feel a little bit better, but it wears off, and you have to do something new to feel better again.
The rise of the business of yoga, with all the corporate structural scaffolding that turned it into an Industry, in my opinion, has occluded the powerful liberation technology ever created, the thing that made the yoga so compelling in the first place, and in fact flies in the face of liberation.
In the coming pages, I’ll look at the unique combination of business systems that converged in the 90’s to manifest as the business of yoga. We’ll examine the keiretsu of the hot, hip and holy lifestyle purveyors, and the critical mass of commercial endeavors involved in selling yoga, including studio chains, examples of clothing makers, content providers, associations, press, yoga celebrities, Instagram yogis and yegos.