Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture. By Andrea Jain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Indeed, Jain seems to have overlooked some key features of contemporary yoga culture that do set it distinctly apart from past eras. The most obvious, perhaps, is the mass entry of women into what was traditionally an exclusive “male” preserve. Industry data suggest that some 90% of yoga teachers and nearly 85% of yoga students are female, which helps explain the proliferation of yoga-related accessories, not only clothing and DVDs but also yoga “retreats” in exotic Third World get-a-ways that resemble high-priced leisure tours. But the idea isn’t just to sell yoga, but to link the experience of yoga to a much wider range of unrelated goods and services.
Marketers sometimes call this the “halo” effect — and it’s already showing up in television spots in which actors appear in yoga clothes hawking insurance, food, electronics, and even automobiles. In other words, yoga hasn’t just entered popular culture; it’s increasingly become subject to aggressive mass marketing. And this amped-up “consumerism” seems to be bending and twisting the yoga ethos just a bit too far.
There’s another big change in today’s yoga: the death, or the decline, of the male guru, the omniscient priest-like religious figure who traditionally endowed his small circle of yoga disciples – sometimes through his touch alone –with Divine inspiration. Busy Americans typically want a “do-it-yourself” practice — one they can even learn online, in a pinch, without submitting to outside guidance or even a live teacher. Old-style yoga was slow and patient and required and accumulation of experience and wisdom.
But today’s consumers are seeking a fast-track to Nirvana. In place of the old yoga patriarchy, a new, more collective, female-based transmission-system has emerged. It’s not just the teacher corps or the students; the entire ethos surrounding yoga has become “feminized.” It’s as if yoga for women has become an essential psychic “accessory” – eager students don’t go anywhere without their iPhone — or their yoga mat, and catching a yoga class is as de rigeur as the caramel mocha they purchase at Starbucks.
Selling Yoga is an uneven, at times sprawling, book. It sometimes reads like an awkwardly adapted PhD dissertation, with unnecessary academic jargon and pedantic exposition. In fact, a good part of Jain’s historical argument seems cribbed from an earlier work, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, by Mark Singleton, published in 2010. Like Singleton, Jain shows clearly that most of what we now call and recognize as yoga – the highly calisthenic, technically demanding posture practice- — is less than 200 years old, and reflects an earlier generation’s attempts to market yoga to the West in the context of the then-emerging global fitness culture of the 1920s.
However, Jain also argues — more compellingly than Singleton does — that even postural yoga contains hidden spiritual mysteries that are not so easily dismissed, or reduced to their purely callisthenic dimensions. Much of today’s postural yoga retains an esoteric Eastern mysticism, and though no longer highlighted or delved into deeply in most commercial classes, these subtle energies continue to influence the way practitioners experience yoga as a living and breathing system.
In the end, Jain probably minimizes the far-reaching changes – both good and bad — that derive from Western capitalism and Eastern spirituality becoming so closely intertwined. Some writers, like Pulitzer-winner William Broad, have called for industry regulation — including the introduction of formal licensing standards for teachers — to bring yoga into the medical mainstream. It wouldn’t hurt if blatantly deceptive advertising practices were reined in so that consumers were better protected. And yoga’s “patent wars” and other legal disputes, which have led to further market distortions and damaged reputations, need not be so ugly or self-defeating.
But if Jain’s right, no amount of outside intervention is likely to make much difference in how yoga unfolds in the marketplace. The consumer reigns supreme, defying Gods of medicine and religion alike, and leaving government regulators in the dust.