The windows are steamy and the air is strangely yeasty sweet, like a beer brewery. Another big snow has hit the valley, so you’re excited for a tropical-like experience and ignore the smell. You strip to skimpy running shorts—joining others wearing sports bras and skimpier shorts—and walk into the 105-degree room; the smell is stronger now, the humidity like being back in the womb—but hotter. You pause because your balance weakens for a second. You think of turning back, but press on, and lay your mat flat under your towel, which soon will be soaked with your sweat. “This must be what it was like when the first primordial organism came to life,” you think while pondering a moist patch of carpet. You’re in a yoga class, though, so mysterious emergence of life and energy seems appropriate.
This isn’t just any yoga, however. This is Bikram, a series of 26 “asanas,” or positions, done in a super-heated room. Leave your oms at home.
Sometimes referred to as the McDonald’s of yoga, Bikram’s heat makes “the Starbucks of yoga” a more apt description because it’s like being surrounded by the vapor rising from a foamy latte. Like McDonald’s and Starbucks, what may help explain Bikram’s success is its reliably consistent product in a yoga world that’s filled with variety and unpredictability. “Yoga” is diversified. Vinyasa, flow, ashtanga, power, hatha, anti-gravity, kundilini and pranayama are varieties seen on local yoga studios’ class schedules, and the list of mysterious names grows each year. It’s easy to research the descriptions of what one will experience in a class, but variety still exists beneath most labels.
But like a Starbucks’ cappuccino, Bikram is the same steamy experience from Sugar House to Jakarta, right down to the cues or instructions given by the teacher to students on the same series of poses.
Watch time-lapse video of a 90-minute Bikram session compressed into less than four minutes.
Both riding and helping create the wave of a more mainstream Western yoga, Bikram was started by Bikram Choudhury, of Los Angeles, a firebrand entrepreneur and yoga superstar who tanked his reputation with much of the yoga world when he copyrighted his system of physical-fitness-focused feel-the-burn yoga, even though it’s derived from philosophy older than Christianity. Rankled by the preponderance of misinformation found on Websites of Bikram studios, Bikram the founder is now organizing the studios into franchise agreements—and one umbrella Website.
To be sure, Choudhury is just one of many yoga professionals—famous and obscure—who have trademarked a “system” that they promise will bring special results, perhaps because he has filed complaints against studios treading too close to his rigid system of 26 poses. Despite concerns about big-business, copyrighted, superstar-led yoga, the trend is also credited with bringing yoga to more people and, perhaps, a more-reliable path to a living wage for yoga teachers. “Most of us have to have two jobs,” says longtime Salt Lake City yoga teacher and orchestra musician Charlotte Bell (pictured left), who says brand names like Bikram definitely attract students. But at what cost?
“There are people trademarking their names and styles of yoga they’ve developed. It’s kind of a little crazy. Yoga belongs to everybody,” Bell says. “I think there’s a bit of a frenzy because it’s gotten so popular. To some extent, it might be some yoga teachers struggled for a long time, and didn’t make any money; now, suddenly, there’s this opportunity, and they jump on it. I can understand that. I’d like to make a decent living after 24 years, but I’m not willing to compromise yoga, at least the way that I see it.”
The possibility to make a fortune—not just living wages—also seems to be driving yoga into the American mainstream, as Choudhury’s legendary fleet of Rolls Royces well demonstrates (no one knows his actual net worth, but he charges $5,000 to certify an official Bikram studio).
Likewise, retailer LuluLemon, the corporate entity that claims to be “the authority on yoga,” peddles $45 T-shirts and $68 yoga mats. In 2009, the yoga-themed clothing and accessory retailer, which recently opened branches in Kimball Junction and near 9th and 9th in Salt Lake City, cleared $452 million in revenue worldwide, up 9 percent from 2008 despite the Great Recession. Recent controversies in the yoga community—for example, LuluLemon’s use of naked models in advertising—have underscored the trepidation some have about yoga’s newfound commercialism—and its future.
As yoga businesses continue the quest for financial success, Bell stands as a oracle, wondering, “At what point do we change yoga so much that it’s no longer yoga?” In particular, she has concerns that yoga’s reputation as a workout separated from its philosophical underpinnings—and its increasing usefulness in making profits—may be undermining yoga’s mission. “If the yoga that people are coming to is something that basically mirrors our own cultural neuroses about image and weight and all those things, then it’s not really transforming us, it’s just letting us be more of what we are, not pointing us in the direction of something else, which is what it’s supposed to do.”
Amid the mainstreaming and corporatization, several in the Wasatch Front are hoping to popularize yoga, make a living wage from it and keep it real. Any step away from the donation-only “beggar's bowl” model, however, seems to adapt yoga to America, not the other way around. Between corporate control and beggar’s bowls, however, there is a legion of yoga teachers navigating the tricky lessons and trade-offs of yoganomics.
Yoga is Union
The first mentions of yoga were written nearly 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, in ancient Indian texts of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and others. It’s not a religion—yoga per se neither promotes nor discourages belief in God—though it does teach morality, mindfulness and compassion. Its history overlaps and intersects with Hinduism, Buddhism and Tantra, although it’s distinct from all of those, also.
Northern Utah Yoga studio Directory
Bikram Yoga Sandy
Bikram Yoga College of India-Ogden
Centered City Yoga
Charlotte Bell Yoga
Imagination Place Antigravity Yoga
Infusion Yoga & Pilates Studio
Lifted Life Yoga Center
Lotus Leaf Yoga
Park City Yoga Studio
Salt Lake City Bikram Yoga
The Yoga Center
Yoga Jo’s Studio
But physical fitness is only one-prong of the “Eight Limbs” of yoga. The change in yoga’s reputation came about 20 years ago, as yoga businesses began to pop up.
“In order to make yoga popular, it has had to be packaged in a different way. ... [Yoga] includes things like ethical precepts of nonviolence, truthfulness, not stealing, nongreed, and includes personal practices like simplicity, contentment and study,” Bell says. “It includes the asanas, the physical practice, the yoga poses … but they’re just one limb of eight.” The others include breathing practice, meditation, “letting go of the addiction to the senses,” and samadi, “the completely settled mind.”
Bell has arguably the deepest roots in yoga of any teacher in Utah. The author of Mindful Yoga, Mindul Life: A Guide For Everyday Practice, she began practice in 1982 and taught her first class in 1986. Since her start, yoga has changed. "I think of a lot of people are going to class to get a workout, and that works for some, but it doesn’t work for everybody.”
Underscoring her commitment to simplicity, Bell teaches classes outside the yoga-studio circuit and instead uses a multipurpose room at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City. And, like many local teachers, she wishes that yogis could be introduced to yoga in a more complete form.
Gailis emigrated to Utah from Latvia one year ago. The Shiva Centre, located in the old Flow Yoga studio, is an outcropping of what Gailis describes as a veritable university of yoga in Latvia of the same name. The Shiva Centre distinguishes itself in Utah, Gailis says, by offering many lecture-style classes tangential to the practice of yoga as a lifestyle, including chanting, astrology, literature and even tantric sex (coming this month).
Yoga, Gailis says, means “a union or something that unites.”
But, Bell and Gailis’s holistic adherence and teaching of yoga is rare. Many yoga instructors pay homage to all limbs of yoga by voicing traditional aphorisms during an asana practice, but not much more. And it’s the physical-fitness portion—not the philosophy—that is so commercialized. Is this bad for yoga? Or, is the physical practice so enticing that yogis naturally strive for more yogic wisdom after that initial taste?
The yoga asanas are still a large part of the offering at Shiva Centre, Gailis says, “because you can’t have a healthy mind if the body is suffering.” With Americans being the fattest people in the world—30 percent of the population is obese—it seems fitting perhaps that the physical-fitness lessons of yoga reached the mainstream first. “[Physical practice] is a good gateway for people,” Bell says. “Most people don’t want to learn about other parts of it, at least not at first.”
Denise Druce directed her own yoga studio for 15 years and now works for 24 Hour Fitness. She’s a master instructor who trains other teachers to lead group fitness classes like spin, step and yoga. She embraces many aspects of yoga in her life, but is a little glib about others’ concerns that yoga has been corrupted in America.
“Yoga insiders fight over this … but while we fight, people die,” she says, before laughing and apologizing for being so dramatic. “But it’s true,” she adds, still laughing. Druce says she wants yoga to be “holistic” in the sense that all will be welcome, and feel welcome, regardless of fitness level, religion or age. Though she sprinkles nonphysical yoga wisdom into her classes, her primary concern is health and fitness, people’s deadly waistlines and sedentary lifestyles.
But fights over what is real yoga can get in the way of that. The Hindu American Foundation’s call to respect yoga’s Hindu roots, for example, plays into the criticisms of two Southern preachers who recently created waves in yoga circles by denouncing the practice as unChristian. Mormon family members, Druce says, sometimes raise concerns that yoga is not entirely compatible with Christianity. Druce thinks those concerns are unfounded, but she’s pragmatic in honoring those concerns rather than trying to eliminate them in the name of real yoga. Christian yogis, she says, might feel more comfortable with tree pose renamed Jesus pose, and who cares if they do? “I don’t want to do anything exclusive.”
Her position at the gym, she says, helps her democratize yoga. If the philosophical aspects of the class are a minor part of what she teaches, that’s OK, because she’s planting seeds. Druce has bigger classes, and more turnover from students, many of whom, she says, progress away from her gym-yoga class to more specialized classes at studios.
That’s good for yoga, Druce says, and America’s bulging waist lines. If people get healthier and have the opportunity to advance to more traditional yoga practices, how can that be bad for yoga? Well, perhaps a majority of yoga’s students (known as yogis) can afford it—a 2008 Harris Interactive/Yoga Journal survey found 71 percent of American yogis have a college degree and 68 percent have household incomes over $75,000—but not everyone can.
Part of gym-yoga’s popularity is economics: Yoga classes at the gym are included in a monthly fee, sometimes as low as $25 per month; studios charge anywhere from $12 to $16 per class, or more than $100 for monthly unlimited passes.
That price tag for students at studios, however, doesn’t ensure big paydays for yoga teachers, which could confine yoga, for some, to gyms and celebrity-led DVDs. It’s an economic situation that threatens to cement yoga in Americans’ minds as just a workout, but teachers are trying to find ways to make more traditional practice more economically accessible, and that will require more students.