Yoga Gets Trendier — But Is It Losing Its Roots?

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In the era of disco yoga and pole-dancing yoga, are we losing sight of what the ancient practice is really about? (Illustration: Erik Mace for Yahoo Health)

There’s no doubt about it: Yoga is huge in the U.S., and it’s only getting bigger — 24 million American adults practiced in 2013, up from 17 million in 2008.

So it’s no surprise that asana (the movement part of yoga) and meditation are becoming big business. But as yoga becomes commercialized and corporatized, how much of what we practice — at independent studios, gym chains, and corporate retreats — can really be considered yoga, in its truest sense, especially considering its ancient ties to Hinduism? After all, it seems unlikely that new studios popping up nationwide — teaching everything from pole-dancing yoga to disco yoga to fantasy costume yoga — are helping connect practitioners with any form of higher truth.

Take the meditation aspect of yoga, for instance. The Washington Post recently called attention to the Meditation Museum in Silver Spring, Md., which aims to remind visitors of the connection between meditation and a higher being — particularly as meditation becomes increasingly mainstream. The article states:

Hindu and Buddhist leaders in particular have raised concerns that meditation may be going the route yoga has in the West, where it has largely morphed from being a tool for enlightenment to one for a firmer tush.

But “I wouldn’t agree that yoga and meditation have religious roots in the way we normally think about religion,” says Carol Horton, PhD, a thought leader on contemporary North America yoga. “Whatever ties yoga has to Hinduism — and other traditions of yoga have ties to other faiths — the modern yoga tradition is bound up in a universal notion of spiritual practice and is designed to be available to people of any religion or no religion.”

Can religion be separated from yoga?

The modernization of yoga that took place in the early 20th century in Southeast Asia was focused on a shift to universalize the practice and to root it in a general spirituality, rather than one religion, Horton says.

Yet conversations about cultural appropriation are important to have. “When we don’t acknowledge where yoga and meditation came from, when we completely cut ourselves off in the West from its heritage and traditions, it’s disrespectful,” Horton tells Yahoo Health. “It makes for a loss of experiences available to learn from. Acknowledging the non-Western source and non-Western culture [that are part of yoga’s roots] … can then open up into a world of exploring that makes [the practice] more rich for us today.”

Related: Ways Spirituality Can Make You Healthier

According to Alanna Kaivalya, a “teacher of teachers” in the yoga community and founder of the Kaivalya Method, “yoga and Hinduism grew up together,” emerging at the same time in the same place. “But like two siblings growing up in the same house, they’re still different,” she notes.

According to Kaivalya, yoga is the mystical arm of Hinduism. However, it serves a different purpose than the religion itself. “A yoga practice brings someone inward, while religious practices typically turn us outward, praying to God for help,” she explains. With yoga, practitioners spend time in their own minds, in turn asking themselves for help.

But Kaivalya wonders what the problem is to begin with in recognizing yoga’s religious roots. “Just because it’s not your religion doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have something beneficial or inspirational to offer you,” she says.

Yoga as a trend (and moneymaker)

The more pressing issue, Kaivalya thinks, is the commodification of yoga. “Any time we try to capitalize on something with a spiritual tradition, it’s not fair or accurate to the tradition itself,” she says. Yoga without spirituality — and historical context — is really just “stealing [yoga] for our own purposes.”

When “the word ‘yoga’ is used to sell something — I’m not a fan of that,” she adds. “The purpose of yoga is to point you to something higher and more peaceful. Yoga is a spiritual practice. That’s what its history is.”

Related: A 1-Minute Yoga Sequence to Improve Balance and Focus

And then there’s the differentiation between true yoga — where you’re being taught to find your center, work on your breath, and think about where your mind is going — and yoga done to pop music at full blast, where you’re moving super fast to get a “bikini body,” Horton adds. “There’s obviously the pull of consumerism and the idealized beautiful body and promises of quick fixes to happiness,” she says. But these “take away from what [these practices] have to offer: a more spiritual, rooted-deeper alternative to the rest of the culture.”

According to Horton, commodification and secularization are not the same when it comes to yoga. “Secularization is necessary to do things like teach yoga in schools and prisons and VA hospitals,” she says. “We’ve been seeing stunningly good results with offering yoga to veterans who suffer from PTSD, and there is some really exciting work being done to understand scientifically why this can be helpful.”

However, Elizabeth Rowan, an Atlanta-based yoga teacher and writer, warns that there’s a fine line between making yoga accessible and changing the heart of the practice. 

“Dumbing down yoga and meditation does us no favors,” Rowan tells Yahoo Health. “The challenge is to find the balance between acknowledging the origin of the practices and the necessary evil that is today’s commercialization and commodification. Secularization of yoga undermines the entire principle that is the practice.” 

Indeed, when you practice without the spiritual aspects, you’re missing out on yoga’s “incredible psychological and spiritual benefits,” Kaivalya says.

The popularization of yoga has made certification easier, teacher trainings more readily available, and the option of yoga as a career palatable to those who might not have committed to it as a vocation if it involved more years of study and work. And with all this inevitably comes less emphasis on the spiritual side, Horton says. 

“In the past, you would maybe practice for 10 years before you would even think about becoming a teacher,” Horton says. “Making the practice easier to experience — Look good! Be more efficient! Lose weight! — is taking away from yoga’s spiritual hidden depth.” 

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