It took a few thousand years, but the art of yoga finally achieved a goal worthy of the Kardashians: It became a bona fide American fad. Riding a wave of green economics and globalism, the practice — a series of poses and breathing exercises meant to calm, restore, and sculpt a healthy (and, yes, beach-ready) bod — seems to have shaken its New Age stigma and caught on with the great unwashed. Many gyms offer yoga or hybridized “yoga fit” classes; Bikram Choudhry, the first instructor ever to franchise a style, has banked millions with his Bikram Yoga studios, charging teachers a $10,000 fee and drawing in curious folks with his über-stretchy “hot yoga.” According to The Huffington Post, the ancient Indian tradition now nets seven billion dollars annually. Origins aside, yoga has become a lucrative industry.
Still, success breeds scandal, and yoga — long the province of spiritual seekers looking to unite mind and body — has seen an unseemly share of litigation of late. Just last month, Choudhry aggressively sued a New York yogi who borrowed his steamy studios and patented sequence of poses; in 2010, Korean Dahn Yoga exemplar Iche Lee was sued for running a “cult.”
For Baltimore’s longtime yogis, the surge in moneyed interest has been confusing.
“About eight years ago, I suddenly looked up and realized there were more than three local yoga studios,” says Suzy Pennington, owner of Timonium’s Susquehanna Yoga. A longtime practitioner of the tough Iyengar style (the “Harvard of yoga,” she opines), Pennington opened her studio 15 years ago for utilitarian reasons: There were only about two serious instructors in the area, including Greater Baltimore Yoga’s Stan Andrzewski and now retired Columbia yogi Bob Glickstein. Though she has an MBA from Johns Hopkins, Pennington claims she was shocked by other studios’ approach to the practice.
“I called them up and tried to make friends because, in my opinion, it wasn’t a competitive thing,” she says. “We were all in it together. It was never a business for me, more of a personal quest. But a couple of them approached it from a business end. ‘We’re in it for the money, honey.’ People were starting out with business plans and bank accounts.”
Jayne Bernasconi, co-owner of the recently opened Yoga on York, sympathizes. Splitting the difference between her day jobs teaching yoga at Towson University and directing the local Air Dance Bernasconi dance troupe, she helped developed a style of “aerial yoga” circa 2002. When a former student trademarked her work, she felt uneasy and a little burned. “I don’t believe in franchising,” she says. “[But] one of my students started doing teacher trainings and getting credit for being [aerial yoga’s] inventor.” The student, Laura Camp, said she hadn’t trademarked the practice, just a name: “flying yoga.” But it still shook Bernasconi. “I didn’t know how it was going to grow and expand. I feel like it should just be out there for anybody, like yoga is out there for anybody.”
While most locals tend to write off intellectual property concerns as theater, though, other criticisms have stuck further in their respective craws — particularly the growing sense that yoga, for all its benefits, may be dangerous. A week ago, the New York Times Magazine published a piece titled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” featuring a seasoned yogi, Omega Institute teacher Glenn Black, claiming “the vast majority of people” should drop yoga because of its health risks.
Kim Manfredi, owner of Charm City Yoga’s five studios and a 20-plus year instructor, blanches at the criticism.
“Every teacher in my studio is anatomy-based,” she says, noting the yoga world’s stringent self-regulation. Beyond the base-level efforts of the Yoga Alliance, a nationwide coalition that enforces competence among working yoga teachers, Manfredi suggests that individual studios necessarily avoid negligence to avoid lawsuits. “Ramadan Patel, a famous Iyengar teacher, once said, ‘I’ve been to the floor and back and God is not there,’” she says. “For a younger population, a more vigorous yoga is applicable. As you get older, it’s less so. A teacher needs to be flexible in their teaching to serve a larger population.”
Manfredi, who runs five studios, seems built for the new landscape; holding no loyalty to a particular tradition, she admits it’s easy to feel sanguine about the flexibility demanded by a new market. But Pennington, who started her teaching career serving a late-80s mélange of health food store attics and (no kidding) Mexican expat towns, has long refused even to offer liability waivers, instead asking personal responsibility from her students. An “old style” yoga teacher, she says the rise of a yoga-industrial complex worries her.
“We’re getting the injuries from ‘yoga’ fit and Bikram,” she says. “You heat up the room, anybody can do those strange poses, even if they’re not ready. It’s become dangerous out there.” Pennington attributes the new injuries to a fundamental misunderstanding of the art. “The new yoga teacher is a 20-something, beautiful woman with yoga bod and she’s doing a very nice-looking handstand on a beer keg,” she says. “They’re not getting the true meaning of yoga.”
But despite the dangers within and -out of using the practice as a glorified exercise routine, local yoga teachers believe its long-lived spiritual foundations will survive any current notoriety.
“People don’t seem to want the spiritual side of it,” Bernasconi says. “But what yoga releases is not only your muscles, but your emotions, layers of toxins and crap built up in your body. Eventually they will come in through the backdoor, go deeper inside their bodies. It’s just your mindfulness in how you approach things. You get what you put into it.”