- American Yoga:The Shaping of Modern Body Culture in the United States
In a recent issue of The Baffler, cultural critic Jorian Polis Schutz points out the unfortunate truth that “yoga,” translated from Sanskrit to mean the “union” of body and spirit, has taken hold on a mass scale in America just as labor unions are newly beleaguered politically and economically. While the public idea of uniting the laboring body and spirit to a social warrant of corporate responsibility has weakened, the private investment in an individual union of body and psychic harmony has increased exponentially.1 Yoga Journal’s widely cited 2012 market study reports that over twenty million Americans practice yoga regularly and spend $10 billion a year on related classes, clothing, travel, and equipment.2
The popularity and profitability of yoga’s inward focus reflects other related trends such as a national obsession with obesity that, public advisories about caloric content aside, ultimately defines health as a private concern tied to individual responsibility and personal consumer choices.3 Even as we move toward a kinder and more inclusive healthcare system in the United States, its application still emphasizes individual behavior and cost-cutting, such as pushing employees in employer-paid plans to lower their blood pressure and lose weight; the most progressive insurance plans in fact prescribe yoga for heart health. Add to this a market for yoga-related jewelry, scents, and furniture and one could make the case that the capitalization on American illness has utterly reshaped an ancient system of Indian spiritual meditation, ripping it from its complex historical roots and replanting it in the shallow earth of corporate profit-sharing. Yet, amid the new studio franchises and Lululemon outlets, there are also organized efforts to move yoga out of the marketplace through donation-only studios, free classes, and community service. These are growing rapidly in Southern California, where I live and practice yoga, and Schutz pins his hopes for a new social movement on this emergent union between yoga’s physical practice and a sense of collective responsibility.4 Given the malleability of yoga as an American cultural form, we should not be surprised that it can be molded to a neoliberal ethos of individualism and an equally powerful urge to collectively transcend crass materialism.
This enormous yoga growth industry has spawned an equally large interest in the history of yoga, its healing potential, and our cultural connection to India, nowhere better showcased than in the Smithsonian’s upcoming exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation.5 This interest is not new; the study of the foundational Hindu spiritual text, the Bhagavad Gita, for example, was a source of intrigue for nineteenth-century American intellectuals, most famously Ralph Waldo Emerson, [End Page 170] who wrote in 1831 that “it was the first of books; it was as if an empire spake to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.”6 In American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation—How Indian Spirituality Changed the West, Philip Goldberg draws a direct line from Emerson’s transcendentalism and vast intellectual curiosity to contemporary yoga practice in the United States. For...