Yoga’s Growing Pains … And Ours

by STEWART J. LAWRENCE

They seem to be everywhere these days:  Academics in their Birkenstocks and white lab coats on a mission to “prove” that yoga “works.”   At the National Center on Complementary and Alternative Medicine, they’re conducting “bio-mechanical” tests to document how major yoga poses, known as asanas, affect different joints and muscle groups.  At Harvard, “brain-imaging” scans to reveal how yoga affects your “neurotransmitters” are the rage.  There’s even a new yoga medical journal. The list goes on and on.  It’s not enough anymore to ask people why they do yoga, or how they actually feel about it anymore.  Now, it seems, you’ve got to have “data.”  Hard data.

Why all this emphasis on “scientific” legitimation?   In part, it’s yoga’s own fault.  For decades, if not centuries, yogis, even the great Hindu sages of old, have made far-flung – and often dubious – claims about the health benefits of their practice that have never actually been validated.   And now, with yoga no longer confined to dingy ashrams – and public interest at an all-time high – government regulators and consumer protection advocates are sniffing around in earnest.

The list of false or exaggerated health claims is rather long, in fact.  “Weight loss” is one that’s received a lot of attention of late.  Yoga superstars like Tara Stiles, who counts Deepak Chopra and Madonna among her students, claims she can get her students “bikini-ready” by summer – but the evidence is scant.  There are other, far more outrageous, and potentially dangerous, fibs: for example, that yoga’s deep breathing techniques can help stave off asthma attacks by pumping more air into your lungs.   In fact, yoga may not kill you – though physical injury is a real danger, many studies show – but throwing away your trusty asthma inhaler very well might.

If the disjuncture between “science” and yoga isn’t exactly new – the push to do something about it is.  And that’s probably because the $6 billion yoga industry, after a decade of rapid and unregulated commercialization, is poised for either take-off or decline.  Even before the current steep recession, there was a significant fall-off recorded in the number of adult yoga consumers.  The industry, it appears, has exhausted its supply of aging female baby-boomers with enough disposable income to finance the pricey all-day yoga workshops and exotic retreats to Third World get-a-ways, to say nothing of $25 classes and the attendant yoga accessories deemed necessary for a trendy and fashionable yoga practice.

That hasn’t kept yoga marketers from looking elsewhere, of course:  to prisoners, war veterans, dope-smokers, teenage gang-bangers, hip-hop enthusiasts, and nudists– all of whom have niche yoga practices specifically “branded” for them now.  But add them all up and their numbers still pale by comparison to the high-end yoga stretch pant shoppers.  The fact is, there are only so many small and eccentric consumer niches that yoga’s marketing gurus can try to tap to compensate for the decline – or stagnation – of their core upscale market.

So in the spirit of turning crisis into opportunity, some yogis are looking to “mainstream’ yoga still further.   And so, it seems, are elements of the Western medical establishment, including a number of leading federal agencies, including HHS.   Together they’re taking yoga out of the realm of esoteric Hindu-inflected spirituality – and pop commercialism – and placing it squarely in the arena of public health, including the $2 trillion a year “wellness” market – home to the American middle class.  These are ordinary Americans who are mostly turning to drugs and psychotherapy for relief from a wide range of physical and psychological ailments, everything from arthritis and lower back pain to depression and substance abuse.   And many have never set foot in a yoga studio – and probably never will.   But like good mass consumers, at least the “informed” ones, they want to see a “good housekeeping seal” from the AMA before they plunk down their hard-earned cash.

We’re talking mega-bucks here.  Even the portion of the wellness market that deals with “alternative” medicine – including acupuncture and massage – is estimated at roughly $120 billion – or 20 times the size of the current yoga market.   A big enough market for a professional yoga “therapist” with a private practice to think about putting his or her kids through college one day.

But who in yoga wants to give up the flash mobs, rave parties, cults, and celebrity glitz that make the practice – give or take a sexually predatory guru or two – so hip and fun?    Especially since any move toward the medical mainstream could well lead to renewed pressure on yoga to commit to more rigorous credentialing and licensing — not the fly-by-night “teacher certification” programs that are keeping so many yoga studios afloat, financially, and giving hordes of impressionable 20-somethings the hope of a “career” beyond the doldrums of waitressing or the office pool.  So, if the current yoga science push continues, expect a grassroots backlash, and possibly a growing split – not between “corporate” yogis and yoga ”purists” – but between highly-trained yoga physicians likes of Dr. Timothy McCall and Dr. Loren Fishman on the one hand, and the unschooled yoga-yahoos like Stiles and the lesser goddesses so anxious to emulate them.  It’s something like the age-old rivalry between male obstetricians and nurse-midwives – with the same implied gender inflection – only this time it’s over who gets the big money to treat – and exploit – the yoga “body.”

Hold on to your magic yoni.  Here come the clipboard-wielding ”geeks.”  And yoga – at least in America – may never be the same.

Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at stewartlawrence81147@gmail.com

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