Has yoga become too popular for its own good?

By: Autumn Ladouceur
Photos by Kerry Gallagher

Close your eyes and clear your mind. Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth, and stretch.

Widely known and practised in the western world since the 1960s, yoga was introduced by various spiritual leaders from the east. Today, it’s hotter than ever.
According to a recent article in The New York Times, there are approximately 75,000 yoga instructors across North America.

Each June, thousands of yoga practitioners take part in Solstice in Times Square. A series of mass yoga sessions are held in one of the most fabled and frenetic places on earth.

Retail stores such as Lululemon, which has 13 outlets in the Greater Toronto Area sell mats, yoga props and athletic wear, as do Old Navy and American Eagle. Many of the products geared to young people. Yoga Journal, which boasts more than a million readers a month, estimates the United States yoga market to be valued in the billions of dollars.

Ashley McEachern, a 26-year-old assistant manager at Lululemon on Toronto’s Queen St. and professional yoga teacher, says that the retailer’s mission is to help clients live a life beyond mediocrity.

“It’s about taking care of one’s body, community, and embracing healthy and happy living,” she says.

Lululemon provides shoppers with advice and supplies for yoga practice, and other forms of exercise. Staff members are referred to as “educators” rather than sales people. The Queen St. location even offers free community classes five days a week.

Some criticize Lululemon because of high prices and its having joined in the commercialization of yoga, but McEachern says critics are just misinformed.
Before she worked for Lululemon, McEachern says the thought of yoga’s commercialization frequently crossed her mind, but she now thinks it’s a good thing.

“No matter how they get there, the more people doing yoga, the better the world,” she says.

There are numerous variations of yoga practice. Nude hot yoga classes are held in in Los Angeles and New York, aimed primarily at gay men. There’s also yoga for dogs, and ball yoga.

A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, influential to yoga, was the first to translate the Hindu spiritual text Bhagavad Gita into English. He spread the tradition of “Bhakti yoga,” a type of practice based on reaching spiritual fulfillment through connecting with internal consciousness and developing a connection with the Hindu God, Krishna. In North America, his influence brought forth the “Hare Krishna” movement.

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois introduced North America to“Ashtanga yoga,” better known as “Power yoga”, consisting of a combination of deep breathing and movement. These and other types of yoga practice have since mushroomed into a multi-billion dollar industry.

Some question whether yoga’s popularity, with its emphasis on physicality and attendant commercialization, has succeeded in drawing people away from its true essence and spirituality.

Yoga was made widely known in North America in the 1960s, after it was embraced by celebrities like The Beatles, who were directly influenced by their experiences speaking with Prudhapada.

Songs such as John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” and “Give Peace a Chance” were inspired by Bakti yoga. George Harrison produced two songs about the movement entitled, “The Hare Krishna Mantra” and “My Sweet Lord” as well.

Madonna has been practising Ashtanga yoga for 15 years, having started in a bid to get into shape following the birth of her daughter, Lourdes. Madonna says she continues to do it because she believes it has positive effects on her body and mind.

Other notables who practise are Sting and Trudie Skyler, who are said to have been doing yoga for 20 years. Jennifer Aniston says it has helped her quit smoking.

You might imagine a certain unease and disapproval from old-time practitioners and spiritual leaders of traditional yoga at its many manifestations. But that’s not the case, according to Mangalarti Devidasi, who leads the Kirtan yoga classes at the Bhakti Lounge in downtown Toronto.

Kirtan yoga is an ancient practice that involves physical yoga, as well as chanting a “mantra”, a word in Sanskrit meaning to “free your mind.”

Devidasi grew up in India where yoga was as common as eating breakfast, but ironically she didn’t discover her passion for it until she moved to Australia. She says the minute she walked into her first Kirtan class and heard her first Hare Krishna mantra, she was brought to tears, and fell in love.

“I don’t think much about these things. We have to focus on the positive. We have to focus on the people who have genuine yoga,” she says when asked how she feels about the Kardashians doing naked yoga on their reality TV show.

Devidasi believes our society is based upon commercialism, and therefore commercializes everything. But she also says she doesn’t think yoga is just a passing fad.

“I think there is a future for genuine yoga,” Devidasi says. “I don’t think commercialism stays because it has no basis. I think more and more places like Bhakti Lounge will open up in every town and every city, where people can come and experience genuine yoga.”

Anne-Lise Dugas, a young Toronto-based singer-songwriter and volunteer at the Bhakti Lounge, is more critical.

“It’s very contradictory that someone would utilize the yogic practice, no doubt looking for some sort of sexual satisfaction. What we’re actually doing is letting go of our material desires, so we’re not actually seeking to satisfy ourselves,” Dugas explains. “This is how we achieve true inner peace.”

Shawna Clark, a naturopath at the Forces of Nature wellness clinic at Yonge St. and Eglinton Ave., believes that some are just misinformed about yoga.

“For most of the people I know, they are aware of the physical benefits but the spiritual ones are ignored. Yoga was made to prep for meditation. People don’t realize that and so they don’t get the benefits of that aspect,” Clark says.

Clark also says the yogic meditation brings the consciousness into the body, clearing the mind, allowing for relaxation and a better understanding of the body.
Despite this, Clark remarks that she doesn’t think the separation between the yogic tradition and its religious roots is a bad one.

“If it helps somebody be more one with themselves, what does it matter what religion they’re from? Mediation is inherent in our nature,” Clark says.

About half of Clark’s clients practice yoga and she recommends it to all those for whom it is appropriate. She says she is passionate about the way it works in the healing process and helps prevent sickness.

“The deep breathing in yoga is a really excellent way to get in ‘rest and digest’ mode. Especially in the western world, where things like heart disease are so prevalent, these kinds of stress relief are really important,” says Clark.

Like her, McEarchern believes that yoga is perfect for a society like ours.

“We live in world where we are busy, busy, busy and yoga gives us time to slow down and connect our body and mind and it feels good,” McEarchern says.
Clark doesn’t think the yoga phenomenon is over, and she isn’t upset by its commercialization.

“I hope that [yoga] has a long future. I hope it becomes part of more people’s everyday lives. If yoga as a fad lets people gain health benefits, I don’t have a problem with that.”

Hatha Yoga:

Primarily based on the alignment of the body, this practice enforces balance physically through strength and flexibility, as well as balancing the mind. There are many offshoots of Hatha yoga, stemming from these key elements, but Hatha is generally slow and relaxing, where others are more physically demanding.

Ansuara Yoga:

Ansuara Yoga is a type of Hatha Yoga that involves the Shiva Shakti Tantric philosophy of looking for good in all things and people. It is rooted in the idea that everything in existence is based on the divine creator’s blissful nature. Like Bakti Yoga and many others, the goal of Ansuara Yoga is to connect with the divine. Because the teachers look for the good in everything, they are taught not to criticize their students’ alignment, but to look for their positive characteristics and encourage their personal growth.

Vinyasa Yoga:

Called “Flow yoga,” it’s based on the concept of matching movement with breath. The popular “Sun Salutation” sequence of poses is a good example of this, wherin each move is paired up with an inhale or an exhale. This type of yoga is faster paced for those who want to work hard and break a sweat.

Bikram Yoga:

“Hot yoga,” traditionally called “Bikram yoga,” is a type of Hatha done in a room heated to 105 degrees. It consists of 26 postures that founder, Yogiraj Bikram Choudhury says, if done properly, are the key to a healthy, happy peaceful life.

Kundalini Yoga:

This practice is comprised of a series of postures, mantras and breathing exercises, an important aspect being embracing the “supreme energy” in the universe. The postures are based on angles that put pressure on the glands and promote secretion and flow through the body, that is said to help balance brain and gland function.

Iyengar Yoga:

What makes this type of yoga different from the others is the use of props like belts and ropes, where most yoga relies on the weight of the body. This type of yoga is said to aid in physical therapy.

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