Yoga is the Survivor of the culture wars: unbloodied, unmuddied, unbothered by the media’s slings and arrows, its leotard still as pristine as its reputation. Everybody loves yoga; sixteen and a half million Americans practice it regularly, and twenty-five million more say they will try it this year. If you’ve been awake and breathing air in the twenty-first century, you already know that this Hindu practice of health and spirituality has long ago moved on from the toe-ring set. Yoga is American; it has graced the cover of Time twice, acquired the approval of A-list celebrities like Madonna, Sting, and Jennifer Aniston, and is still the go-to trend story for editors and reporters, who produce an average of eight yoga stories a day in the English-speaking world.
Journalists love yoga because it fits perfectly into the narratives of everyday life. “Yoga Joins the Treatments for Kids with Disabilities,” reported the Evansville Courier & Press this summer. “Yoga Helps Pregnant Women Prepare for Delivery,” according to WNCN in North Carolina, an NBC affiliate, which recently broadcast a report about a prenatal yoga class offered by Healthy Moms in Raleigh. “Soldiers Shape up with Peaceful Yoga,” an AP-bylined piece about how they are using yoga to both prepare for and recover from combat, ran in the Bradenton [Florida] Herald about the same time.
But wait, there’s more: Tribune Media syndicates a strip called Gangsta Yoga with DJ Dog, which appears in newspapers all over the nation from the Detroit Free Press to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Then there’s yoga to relax sex workers! from the Hindustan Times; and the revelation from Fort Worth, Texas, that yoga is replacing kickball in the city’s high school gym classes. Still not convinced? How about yoga skin care, Christian yoga, iPod yoga, golf yoga, tennis yoga … well, you get the picture.
Down the hall in marketing, this kind of press is the stuff of dreams. Yoga has now ascended to the category of “platform agnostic,” the highest praise marketers can conjure for any kind of content, trend, or person. Translation? Consumers drop $3 billion every year on yoga classes, books, videos, CDs, DVDs, mats, clothing, and other necessities.
But that’s all surface noise. What’s more interesting to consider is how yoga arrived at its present bulletproof status in the media. After all, it’s foreign-born, liberal by association, and inclusive to its philosophical marrow. Yoga not only survived its 1960s revival, but has somehow managed to embed itself in the great mall of the mainstream — and not like a rusty old peace sign, either, but as a replicating strand of our national DNA. (Memo to Lou Dobbs: Relax! We’re exporting American-style Bikram yoga franchises all over the world.) And I’ll venture that it says something good about our character as a nation that we’ve managed to get over our fears of otherness to master a few words of Sanskrit, yoga’s original language. Yoga means yoke, as in union, shorthand for the theory and practice of forging a link to the divine. And hatha yoga — physical yoga, with or without a spiritual attachment — is what reporters talk about when they talk about yoga in the twenty-first century.
The scent of patchouli has left the room; yoga now smells like money. We knew it had arrived when it assembled its own constellation of superstar circuit riders like Rodney Yee and Cyndi Lee, teachers who have become as famous to the yogaratti as rap stars are to kids. And yoga classes are even provided by corporations and covered by some health plans, for good reasons: nearly every day, news of another study reaches us, confirming yoga’s benefits for arthritics, asthmatics, dyspeptics, depressives, people with HIV or cancer — literally whatever ails us. I bet that even red-meat culture warriors like Bill O’Reilly or Ann Coulter couldn’t Swift-boat yoga’s progress now. That ship has sailed.
But yoga’s American dream is of a fairly recent vintage, as I discovered during a few years of research into its media past. In a journey through two centuries of our cultural history, yoga has endured something of a bumpy ride. It has been feared, loathed, mocked, kicked to the fringes of society, associated with sexual promiscuity, criminal fraud, and runaway immigration. Really. Which make its recent media beatification all the more surprising, as we’ll learn. But first, a thumbnail history.