Is Yoga Becoming Just Another Consumer Machine?

Via on Jun 16, 2010

Yogi Stuff!

As fast as yoga grows in popularity in the west, yoga brands are exploding on the scene with equal intensity to satisfy our cravings for yogi stuff.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Americans are now spending a staggering $5.7 billion a year on yoga classes and products, according to a 2008 survey by Yoga Journal. That’s an 87% increase from 2004.

The growth of yoga and yoga classes is great, beautiful, inspired. The idea of more and more Americans getting off the couch, getting in an hour of yoga, reducing stress, finding balance, is a fantastic shoulder-width sized step in the right direction for so much of what ails us as a largely sedate nation.

But what about all the new brands? What about the fad factor? Yoga is very trendy. It’s also cool and hip, and that scares the hell out me. Could yoga simply become another expensive hobby for snobby rich people driving SUVs and Swagger Wagons?

When I attend my $15 Ashtanga class at the local shala, you know the cool one with great chai, gorgeous wooden floors, high ceilings and the giant dancing Shiva statue at the entrance…I see affluence everywhere. From the chic bags and mats to the growing range of really sexy, expensive yoga clothing, yoga is a sacrificial cash cow of opportunity for enterprising yoga companies.

Selling The American Yoga Dream

Flip through any popular yoga mag and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The slick ads and gorgeous products are on seemingly every other page. They reflect a dreamy yoga lifestyle of well-being and bliss. These ads are overwhelmingly aspirational—and they compliment perfectly the promise yoga offers to so many experienced and aspiring yogis.

But, is this really what yoga is all about? The truth is that yoga is hard work. The rewards reflected in the branding are the fruit of dedication and practice.

So let’s just hope yoga doesn’t become drowned in consumerism. I like my Manduka Black Mat Pro as much as anyone. I use the occasional prop sometimes. But how much yoga stuff do we really need? I see some yogis and all of their branded stuff and I can’t help but think of that scene in Caddyshack where Rodney Dangerfield is going through the pro shop buying up everything he sees. I’ve seen that same scene play out at the local yoga store. The narrative follows something like this:

“I’m new to yoga and need some stuff.”

“Okay, well you’ll need a mat, a bag, a water bottle, some blocks, a strap, some of these new spring yoga pants, actually two pair, at least, and a couple of these stretchy, breathy new shirts. They’re perfect for yoga or running around town.”

An imaginary Visa spot runs in my head while I write this. 

All new yoga gear: $395 dollars.

Looking the part of the perfectly branded little yogi: priceless.

The Marketing Middle Way

This begs a question. How do we find that very yogic concept of balance when it comes to yoga and the yoga brands we buy? How do avoid the pitfalls of excess? It’s easy to fall.

Most of us work hard for what we have and we have a right to buy whatever we want. I get that. Great. Enjoy. It’s just that the gear and clothing are just coverings. Yoga should be about what’s going on inside our hearts and minds. Use the stuff; just don’t let the stuff use you.

Sometimes I feel like what we really need to do is find a park, endure the people looking at us strangely, and commence with our morning Surya Namaskara routines, Hatha practices, or whatever else we’re practicing. That would be closer to the source anyway, closer to the true spirit of yoga, right?

Either way, yoga is for everyone. Let’s make sure we keep it that way.

What does everyone else think?

About Coe Douglas

Coe Douglas is a recovering ad agency creative director. He currently works as a freelance writer, brand strategist and occasional music video director. Whenever possible he tries to use his creative powers for good. This fall he’ll be returning to school to immerse himself in books and journals with the intention of emerging after a few years with a graduate degree in psychology. Coe teaches yoga and thinks everyone should meditate and go veggie. He blogs and lives online at coedouglas.com.

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27 Responses to “Is Yoga Becoming Just Another Consumer Machine?”

  1. Another great post from you, Coe. I couldn't agree more and I couldn't have said it better.

    • We've done a bunch of blogs with similar questions… http://www.elephantjournal.com/2010/02/yoga-to-th… a few on Lululemon specifically, though we've made up and are tight friends now. A bunch more here: http://www.elephantjournal.com/?s=yoga+materialis… and perhaps the funniest all-time is http://www.elephantjournal.com/2009/12/sickest-bu

      My main question is, is the commodification of yoga possibly a good thing? It means that it's succeeding in the marketplace that is our society? Or are we dumbing down, watering down, the teachings of yoga? What will yoga look like in 100 years, when all the best studios (success-wise) tend to be less about spirituality (though they're full of good people living good lives) and more about getting in shape, community, and a sort of general kind of peace?

      • Andy says:

        The implication here is that we're on some sort of slippery slope. But are we really? I've seen the Pattabi Jois lineage referred to on here as more of the 'pure' yoga and studios like Corepower as being 'disco yoga.' Yet, both teach asana and pranayama first and foremost. Both have a boutique up front. (Although Richard's is smaller and sans cash register) I think CPY just plays music, shortens the class and doesn't say the word 'perenium' as much.

      • Coe Douglas coe douglas says:

        Great question. That's what I struggle with the most. Granted, I'm a bit jaded after spending a bunch of years working in advertising. Bikram classes near where I live are jam packed with people. Yet, the Ashtanga studio struggles to stay afloat and has to expand their offerings and get creative with generating revenue.

        I wonder about the commodification of anything and wonder if mainstreaming has to come with the collateral baggage of commodification or corporate underwriting, if you will, to succeed on a larger scale? Maybe so.

        • kpID says:

          We are indeed on a slippery slope. Im not a guru or a professional, but the teachings of yoga in South Asian, as yoga has no mainstream religious background, is the duality of getting away from the material principle and possessions, into the principle of self-awareness
          Yoga is performed with nothing more than loincloth and a mat. Accepted that we aren't going to wear a loincloth, and mat can be a simple bed sheet, simply to separate us from the floor, are 100$ pants necessary?
          Great article!

    • summer says:

      People are the consuming machines. I think one really has to sincerely inquire and apply discrimination to discern between true yoga and this watered down shite we get here in the west….and it's not easy with a studio on every corner. Smells like capitalism too me. I mean who's gonna make a buck calling some of these classes what they are " stretch class", but you put a buzz word like "yoga" on your sign and you might just be "successful". I'm so turned off by it all…and thats coming from a yoga teacher.

  2. Thank you. I've been thinking about this a long time and presented at several Sociology conferences in 2003 on this topic: Consuming spirituality & spiritual consumption.

  3. Andy says:

    I guess it really depends on the individual. Yoga was never going to become popular in America and not intersect with capitalism. I actually like yoga because it does NOT require a lot of gear. And the little gear you do buy can last a lifetime. (Manduka mat) Personally I do not have a problem with the girls getting excited about the cute new yoga clothes. It really does not matter. If the person goes in there and practices every day with positive intention, what more can you ask for really?

  4. I read an article just a few days back that Yoga accessories are still selling hot even during recession. $300+ yoga mats sales were never affected at all, even increased! I guess with all the stress we all are facing with the economy, anger at BP for the oil spill – people need the mental and spiritual peace that Yoga promises, and thus the reason of it's skyrocketing today.

    • The one interesting thing about the Yoga Journal study, if you look more closely, is that spending on yoga has gone up, while the numbers of people doing yoga has gone down slightly. So we're doing yoa less, or less of us are doing yoga…while spending more on it. Not a great development, perhaps…or perhaps it's just the inevitable consolidation of something that was, 10 years ago, a hot fad.

      The other thing I find questionable is the source: Yoga Journal is awesome…but they do that study themselves. Kind of unethical if that's the only study…they use their findings to sell ads, of course. If we were asking an oil company, say, how many gallons of oil they were spilling/losing, we might want a second, less-biased source, yes?

  5. Bridget says:

    Hey, people buy stuff to feel better about themselves. If they act the part, maybe they will be the part.

  6. Hippie Pride says:

    I buy your conclusion.

  7. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    Great article, Coe. There are two issues: the commodification of yoga and what yoga is all about. The materialization or commodification of yoga did not really start in the West, it started in India with some of its modern teachers, such as the great Krishnamacharya and later through Iyengar, who brought hatha yoga to the West. Both of these eminent teachers mainly focused on the physical aspects of yoga. They overwhelmingly favored hatha yoga over raja yoga, physical and mental fitness over spiritual growth. There is nothing wrong with that per se. I have nothing against this. But this trend, which is not American or Western, as it actually started in India, presents a limited and reductionist version of yoga. Yoga is a practical path of body-mind-spirit transformation, but the overwhelming focus on hatha yoga today reduces yoga to a fitness routine rather than a spiritual discipline or path. If we go to the roots of yoga, we quickly realize yoga is a spiritual path that uses the body and mind to access inner states of awakening and enlightenment. However, in the past hundred years or so, yoga has been reduced to a practice of body/mind health and fitness. It is this conscious trend that initiated the commodification of yoga. In the US market place, this trend has been pushed further and become the primary expression of yoga. Sexy bodies are for sure easier to package and sell than enlightened spirits.

    Since yoga is so much more than hatha yoga, and since real, holistic body/mind/spirit yoga is not so easy to sell and market, one will often have to seek out real yoga outside the market place. Just like people in the old days had to find teachers and gurus in jungles and in caves.

    So, back to my initial point: if yoga's focus is on the body, the external commodification and materialization follows naturally in its wake. But if the focus of yoga is primarily spiritual, it will be more difficult to commodify and commercialize. It's simply harder to sell spirituality. We see that in Buddhism–it is much less commercial, because the focus is less flesh, more spirit.
    But, the good news is that yoga is becoming more holistic and spiritual here in the US. Yoga is slowly going back to its roots, in part because yoga students experience the limits of the physical and sensual realm and now long for the commercial free sacredness of limitless spirituality.
    The return to meditation practice and kirtan and ayurveda and the study of sutras in many yoga studios are all good signs of this new awakening and trend towards going back to basics.

  8. Coe Douglas coe douglas says:

    Ramesh- Thank you for your comments. That makes a lot of sense to me. Put this way, the struggle then becomes one of material versus spiritual. Inner vs. Outer. We cover a number of familiar dualities here, don't we?

    When friends ask me about yoga, I always tell them that it has changed my mind far more than it could ever change my body, which has limitations, versus the limitlessness of mind.

    Your comments serve as a nice capping verse to this post. :)

  9. omiya says:

    after 8 years of being a slave to expensive yoga clothes and Lululemon, i started wearing cheap cotton yoga clothes from Target and Old Navy (not sustainable, but…) — it does not matter what you wear. the price of yoga classes continues to increase, people throw a fit when their favorite teacher's class is full, the opulence is out of control. great article, i totally agree.

    and cotton is more comfortable!! free from the tyranny of expensive yoga clothes!!

    • Andy says:

      I'll be totally honest here, from a male's perspective; I've tried a ton of different kinds of yoga shorts, and Lulolemon actually are the best. The way they handle lots of sweat, the complete freedom of movement—they're unparallel'd. I would choose them in a blind taste test no doubt. I don't really care if it is uncool to like them because they are a big company.

  10. Coe Douglas coe douglas says:

    Andy- It's not uncool to like Lululemon. Not at all. And I agree about male yoga clothes – there are few options out there, at least as far as I know, compared to the mountain of stuff for women.

    I was making more of an observation about how inevitably everything becomes commodified and kind of gets gobbled up by branding, advertising, ubiquitous marketing messages and I wonder if something essential gets lost along the way?

    Side note: If you know of any other cool yoga clothes for guys please share. :)

  11. awshuckss says:

    Kalyug,Baby !!!!!!!!!!!!

  12. Doreen Hing Doreen Hing says:

    AAAaaahhhh…

    This conversation drives me barmy & pet peeve…
    if it wasn’t for the SUV driving, Yuppies, Artsy Fartsy hippies, and the like, there wouldn’t be yoga studios popping up on nearly every corner of the neighbourhood or being included as part of the scheduling in your block standard basic, grunt & run gym.

    With that mainstream acceptance and dissimualation of different styles of yogas comes the products & accessories to support it. If you’re a yoga instructor & this is your life, are they not allowed to have access to different products that reflect their taste, style or perspective & likewise for the participants.

    Business and commercialism is not a bad thing if the intetntion is to get more people to practice yoga. Business’s are all about sharing a perspective, whether you be the a noodle shop, wanting to tell your audience that you are the only noodle shop that knows how to make perfect noodles and I would like you to discover what a perfect noodle should taste like or that a pair of LLL Groove pants will really help elevate your yoga experience, with its ability to not only lift your spirits and feel a bit more confident about your butt. As a Branded Yoga Product Company Owner, i.e. Plank, I am very proud of the mission & message I want to share with my audience… My products are not cheap, because they are drenched in my background of Art & Design and this stuff is not cheap to conceive, produce or execute. Everything in life can do with an upgrade, the minds that can make this happen well and with integrity are rare…

    There is still a lot for me to learn about yoga, but the more opportunities for entry to yoga, whether it be thru’ aliterations of style or products, the better…

    For me & Plank, I use the yoga mat to display my art, it is my perspective of my journey into yoga. I can document this from a novice’s perspective and I vow as best I can, not go in as the holier-than-thou long time practioner.

    Yoga is for ALL and yes in an ideal world it should be free for ALL… but it’s not and neither is education.

    Those who love yoga are honoured to be part of the growth of the Yoga Business because it means that more people are getting to the mat.

    I love the business of yoga and the message it inspires.

    Doreen Hing, the Well-Heeled Guru
    http://www.thewell-heeledguru.com

  13. Daniel says:

    I am a yoga outsider. I have never been to a class and certainly don't practice everyday. Once a week for a serious routine such as the primary series or arm holds, though I might throw in the occasional stretch. Yoga is an addition to an already established exercise regimen that includes bicycling, weight training, speed bag workouts, tai chi, etc. My Zen moments come on the bicycle.

    I don't look to yoga to provide a philosophical system for my beliefs, thus it is not sacred to me. I don't aspire to be an ascetic. In fact, one night my wife an I were laughing about sex only being allowed while manifesting the breath through the left nostral (no disrespect intended, just my own ignorance). I have been struck by the parallels between yogic development and monks.

    It is probably true that without the commodification of the yoga industry I would never have been introduced to it. Surfing the web I came across Gaiam. Through further exploitation of online resources I found my way to the primary series and am now exploring other aspects of yoga. Only possible through the business of selling yoga. I am not bothered by the morality of commercialism. It might be looked at another way: casting of seeds. One seed was cast and happened to drop on fertile ground.

    Whatever yoga is to you, I wish you well. As for me I will take this new knowledge and apply it as I see fit.

  14. Jayney says:

    It’s definitely inspiring that more people are being drawn to Yoga, and I guess that the flip side to this is commercialism. However I don’t think that this will prevent everyone from finding out what yoga is truly about. Anyone who wants to take their practice will deeper will seek to do so. It’s up to teachers to promote yoga in a way that their students realise that yoga isn’t about products. I don’t buy any special clothing for yoga, I don’t have a mat I practice on my wooden floor (sticky mats weren’t around 1000’s of years ago but yoga was.) and none of this lack of equipment prevents me from practicing everyday. Its easy to become attached to objects and become comfortable with those objects – such as your mat / block, special incense that you burn during practice, allowing this attachment will only cause resistance.

    I would love to do morning practice in the park, I do it in the garden when the weather is nice!

  15. Why would anyone want to weigh a thousand pounds. Have you recognized that lady? Would you please gift wrap this for her.

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  17. Jelefant says:

    Where is your blog, Linda-Sama?

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