Yoga, an ancient meditative practice that traces its philosophical and spiritual roots to Hinduism in India, is no stranger to controversy in the United States. Ever since it emerged as the “wellness practice-of-choice” for aging baby-boomers and work-stressed yuppies, critics have cited the high number of injuries sustained by yoga students as a sign that the practice, for all its therapeutic potential, may not be the healing balm it’s cracked up to be.
And that’s not all: in recent years, there are growing charges that some self-styled yoga organizations and their high-profile teachers are preying on their students – replacing spiritual enlightenment with psychological manipulation, New Age “hucksterism,” and even cultic worship.
These charges, including the highly-publicized “outing” of yoga celebrities like Rodney Yee – who was accused in 2004 of having serial affairs with students, and has since withdrawn into semi-exile – have led to calls from public authorities to impose new business regulations on the nation’s estimated 5,000 yoga “studios.”
Thus far, the new regulatory movement has focused on yoga “teacher training” programs – programs offered by some of the larger studios that give their advanced yoga students an opportunity to become full-time instructors and help propagate the yoga “faith.”
But other movements are afoot to ban yoga from being taught in public schools, or on any publically financed property, on the assumption that yoga constitutes a de facto religious view – and teaching it there would violate the principle of separation of church from state.
Yoga, in fact, is not the quiet esoteric practice of yore, but a boisterous and bustling – and some would say, rapacious – big business. The “industry” grosses an estimated $6 billion annually – and not just for classes, but for a dizzying array of yoga-related products (mats, videos, clothing, etc) and services (special yoga workshops and yoga “vacations,” retreats and tours) that yoga devotees – 78% of them women – use to “accessorize” their lives.
In fact, at least 18 million Americans practice some form of yoga regularly, according to recent surveys, and another 25 million say they plan to in the coming year. That’s more than double the number who claimed to practice in 2002 – and nearly 15% of all US adults.
And by all accounts, the growth trend is continuing, hampered only by the onset of the US recession, and by steadily rising prices for yoga classes.
To some, it may seem harsh to want to criticize the new yoga trend. After all, with materialism so rampant in North American culture, isn’t any spiritually reflective practice to be welcomed, not condemned?
In theory, perhaps. But a closer look at yoga as it’s actually practiced and promoted in the US suggests that the movement’s evangelical zeal, drive for commercial acceptance, and lack of professional accountability, are leaving the yoga public vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, while compromising some of yoga’s time-honored principles.
Take, for example, the issue of injuries. Ask any yoga teacher today if injuries are a problem and most will simply shrug, and say the problem’s “exaggerated.” But leading orthopedic surgeons and physical therapists have reported a steady increase in yoga injuries as the practice has gained more adherents. And not just minor sprains, but serious and often incapacitating knee, shoulder, neck and back injuries.
Dr. Jeffrey Halbrecht, a board-certified surgeon specializing in arthroscopic surgery and sports medicine and former medical director for the Women’s World Pro Ski Tour, has called on the fitness industry to take action.
“We’re starting to see the types of injuries from yoga that we usually see in high-impact sports such as basketball,” Halbrecht told the online business publication, Market Wire, back in 2005. “These are senseless and totally preventable. And it’s not just beginners who are suffering these debilitating injuries. It’s experienced yoga clients who are being advised to perform in ways that are clearly counter to good fitness and the wisdom of traditional yoga.”
Traditional yoga teachers have also weighed in, suggesting that young, poorly-trained yoga teachers and a market imperative to pack yoga studios to the brim with students who can’t be properly supervised are chiefly to blame for the current injury trend.
“Many of these [teachers] haven’t received adequate training,” says Arkady Shirin, who teaches yoga and lifestyle workshops in San Francisco and says he prefers to train his clients one-on-one. “Anyone can offer a ‘yoga teachers’ training certification course’ without a license or certification of their own. They hand out these phony pieces of paper, calling them official certificates, and the quality control is nonexistent.”
Experts like Halbrehct and Shirin are especially concerned about the growing number of yoga-exercise “hybrids” such as “Power Yoga” and “Hot Yoga” that de-emphasize the spiritual dimensions of yoga to make it more acceptable to the fitness “mainstream.” Often these classes are taught by traditional fitness instructors in athletic clubs rather than by trained yoga teachers with somewhat greater knowledge of the practice and its risks.
According to the International Health, Racquet & Sports Club Association, just 35% of US fitness centers offered yoga in 1993. However, by 2000 that percentage had more than doubled to 75%, and by 2003, it was 85%.
Faced with growing criticism, yoga studios have sought, with mixed success, to stave off efforts at government regulation. The Virginia-based Yoga Alliance, which has emerged as a national clearinghouse and lobby for the yoga industry, has asked studios nationwide to agree to comply voluntarily with its own suggested teacher training guidelines, which include a minimum of 200 hours of closely supervised instruction in yoga techniques as well as anatomy and related topics, usually spread out over a year or more.
Nevertheless, a dozen states, including Massachusetts and most recently, Virginia, have already moved to compel yoga studios to demonstrate compliance with state vocational training guidelines, and to pay state taxes and annual fees. That’s already caused a backlash among some yoga advocates who say that yoga studios and their training programs should simply be exempt from state guidelines because of their special “spiritual” mission, and because yoga consumers, despite evidence to the contrary, are not in real danger.
Last year, for example, yoga advocates in New York succeeded in temporarily blocking implementation of the state’s planned regulatory guidelines, after they lobbied state officials and threatened to launch a publicity campaign. And in perhaps the biggest yoga “push back” to date, earlier this year, yoga instructors in Virginia filed a lawsuit against the Commonwealth, charging that its new teacher training guidelines violated their First Amendment rights.
While residents of major metropolitan areas seem increasingly – and rather naively – sympathetic to the new yoga trend, the reaction elsewhere has ranged from contempt to suspicion. Bible Belt conservatives have charged that yoga’s foundation in the Hindu religious cosmos – with its pantheon of gods and rejection of monotheism – cannot be reconciled with Christianity. Some Christian leaders have even urged their fellow Christians to speak out against yoga.
Religious hysteria aside, some mainline religious denominations have also raised questions about how quickly – and uncritically – Americans have embraced the new yoga trend. And there have been a growing number of incidents in which attempts by local elementary schools to allow yoga to be incorporated into “gym classes” led to angry complaints and protests from parents, usually but not always Christians.
More recently, concerns are being expressed about the appearance of yoga “cults” like Dahn Yoga and other yoga “franchises” such as Bikram Yoga that seem to be taking the yoga movement in spooky and even dangerous directions – and not all of them legal.
Dahn Yoga, founded by self-proclaimed South Korean “guru” Inchil Lee in 1985, appears to little more than a New Age version of a Moonie cult – with much the same profit motive. The group disparages classical yoga poses such as “Salute to the Sun” and “Downward Facing Dog” while promoting a highly idiosyncratic meditative technique that it calls “brain respiration.” Lee claims to have 500,000 devotees practicing this technique in over 1,000 “health centers” in nine different countries. If true, that would make Lee’s growing empire one of the largest and most popular yoga movements in the world.
Dahn’s largest US following appears to be among college students at elite universities – impressionable youth with wealthy parents. The group’s “campus recruiters” typically invite students to Dahn-sponsored musical events which end with a free initiation into brain respiration. Before long, many of these students have maxed out their parents’ credit cards to support Lee and his organization, in exchange for little more than the promise of “eternal bliss.” Last year, in the US alone, Dahn Yoga grossed an estimated $30 million in revenue.
Lee’s own bliss may not prove so eternal. Last June, 26 former members of Dahn Yoga in Arizona filed a lawsuit against him and Dahn Yoga claiming the group had bilked them out of their personal fortunes and regularly subjected them to physical hardship and abuse, including, in some cases, sexual abuse. One former member, 21-year-old Jessica Harrelson, provided a graphic account of being summoned by Lee to a private “audience” – an enormous honor, apparently – and then “consensually” raped by Lee over several days. Despite efforts by Lee’s lieutenants to hush her into silence, Harrelson eventually realized that she’d been abused and reported Lee to the authorities.
Similar suits against Dahn Yoga have been filed in several other jurisdictions – the latest, in Washington, DC, charging Lee with violations of federal racketeering laws as well as civil fraud. But Lee and Dahn Yoga remain completely unfazed by the controversy. In a series of television and print interviews, Lee has attacked his critics, branding them “liars” and confidently predicting that his movement would be vindicated. And thus far, nearly all of his US centers remain open.
The same air of arrogant defiance surrounds Bikram Choudhury, another self-styled guru based in Beverly Hills, CA whose “Bikram Yoga” centers – “franchises,” in fact – are even more popular than Dahn’s. Choudury, a multi-millionaire who prides himself on his collection of 35 antique Rolls Royces and Bentleys, claims to have 500 million adherents – a preposterous claim, even on its face – and 6,000 Bikram teachers worldwide. He is especially fond of being carried into class on a special raised platform and treated like a Sultan. In public interviews he has compared himself to Buddha and Christ, while criticizing other US-based yoga movements as “frauds” and ridiculing their teachers as “circus clowns.”
Several years ago, Choudury caused a stir in yoga circles by moving to patent the sequence of 86 yoga postures that are taught in his Bikram franchises. Critics noted that nearly all of these postures are 5,000 years old and disputed the idea that anyone could try to “own” them, legally or spiritually. Choudury, with characteristic élan, has dismissed his critics as “jealous” and has even threatened to sue other yoga movements if they try to copy “his” ideas.
And then there’s the case of Rodney Yee, the infamous “yogi to the stars” whom Time magazine once dubbed the “perfect stud muffin.” Yee spent years extolling the virtues of marital fidelity and has earned a small fortune promoting his fast-selling yoga videos – now 30 in all. But in 2004, after a bitter business dispute with his long-time aide, word leaked out that Yee had engaged in serial affairs with his female students. Yee’s wife, who apparently had a different view of marital fidelity, quickly divorced Yee and took their three kids.
It wasn’t just the affairs, which Yee admitted to, that seemed so alarming to some – it was Yee’s suggestion that because of the “sense of love” that “naturally develops” between teachers and their students, he really couldn’t be expected to abide by traditional professional boundaries. The California Yoga Association, one of yoga’s few self-regulating bodies, disagrees. It explicitly recommends against yoga teachers and students establishing close personal and sexual relationships. But many long-established yoga teachers – and therapists – have admitted in published interviews (usually without attribution) that such relationships are rampant in the new yoga culture – and frequently quite damaging.
In fact, there seems to be something at the very core of the new yoga movement – a spiritual defiance bordering on narcissism – that prevents its most ardent promoters from honestly examining themselves and their motives, let alone holding their organizations and teachers to account.
Some yogis complain that they are being held to a different standard than martial arts instructors, who are usually exempt from state vocational guidelines also. But martial arts schools and instructors are subject to strict credentialing standards, and private martial arts associations are often licensed by states to decertify martial arts organizations and instructors that fail to meet the grade. No such standards are in place for yoga.
There’s also the age factor. While some of the highly-publicized yoga controversies involve adult men, the vast majority of the new yoga teachers are young women, many of them still in their 20s, highly impressionable, and without much “seasoning” in life, let alone yoga. For every yogi who thinks of himself as a “demigod,” there are probably 10-15 “yoginis” who fancy themselves up-and-coming “goddesses” and “priestesses.” Having two dozen students, most of them a generation older than you, seeking your “guidance,” and hanging on your every word, can be a powerful “head trip.”
It can also be lucrative. Some full-time teachers haul in $8-10,000 a month teaching yoga, a tidy sum for someone with – at most – a B.A., who might otherwise be pet walking or waitressing, or toiling away in an office for a meager salary. Veteran teachers who also run workshops and tours, or like Rodney Yee, become nationally-known yoga celebrities, can easily make 2-3 times that amount.
How much of the new yoga movement is actually concerned with spiritual enlightenment? By appearances at least, not that much. In the old days, yoga traditions and practices – and the life wisdom that went with them – were handed down slowly over many years, usually from men to other men.
But in today’s instant culture, no one’s prepared to wait that long for Nirvana. Moreover, much of the growing consumer base for yoga is mainstream women who are not only deeply materialistic – but also deeply conscious of their age. While seeking a measure of sanity in their fast-paced lives, yoga’s promise of youthful vigor, flexibility, weight loss, and even beauty, can be highly appealing – even addictive. And yoga’s also a highly feminized culture – it’s primarily women teaching women. For some that holds an added, unspoken benefit: “Sisterhood.”
In the final analysis, women of leisure – and of course, men, too – will spend their time and money as they see fit. And the growing efforts of state governments to bring yoga under state vocational training guidelines are unlikely to create the kind of public accountability that the yoga business still needs. But the push for state regulation is surely a step in the right direction. If nothing else, it may lead the yoga industry to take stronger steps to regulate itself, rather than acting as if everything it does is somehow “Divinely inspired” – and therefore, spiritually “exempt.”
In the meantime, for consumers at least, it’s still “buyer beware.”
STEWART J. LAWRENCE is a Washington, DC-based freelance writer who has practiced yoga for many years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.