Photo by <a href="">Dave Whelan</a> (<a href="">CC</a>).
Photo by Dave Whelan (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: Yoga Bends the Globalization Stereotype

Sep 19, 2008

Are you stressed out? Do you suffer from psoriasis? Think you might be pregnant? Depressed? Overweight?

If you answered yes to any (or all) of these questions, perhaps you should try yoga.

Yes, yoga—the consensus cure-all prescribed by experts, neighbors, doctors, online magazines, and strangers the world over. At a time when no one seems to agree on anything, yoga has emerged as a rare counterpoint to globalization's tarnished image.

According to its critics, globalization is a homogenizer of cultures, reducing their rich diversity to profane consumerism. Political scientist Benjamin Barber famously termed the phenomenon "McWorld," after the seeming ubiquity of McDonald's restaurants.

Globalization can sometimes seem like a one-way street. But goods, services, and cultural trends actually flow in every direction. Think of sushi, reggaeton, silk, Kabbalah, paper, Bollywood, coffee, the limbo, Tae Kwon Do, chess, hummus, and Hello Kitty!. The popular energy drink Red Bull originated in Thailand as Krating Daeng. And, of course, there is yoga.

An Internet search on yoga yields upwards of 10 million results—more than George W. Bush gets. The word itself is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning "union." Physical exercise, coupled with structured breathing and meditation, allows the yoga practitioner to transcend the mundane world, achieving peaceful communion with the spiritual realm. If you take a yoga class, you're practicing an ancient form of exercise that originated in India about 5,000 years ago.

Yoga was introduced to the United States in the 1890s. But it wasn't until the middle of the twentieth century that interest really bloomed.

"Probably the person we'd consider the first 'real' yoga teacher in this country was a woman by the name of Indra Devi, who opened the first public yoga school in Hollywood in the late 1940s. She was the first yoga teacher to the stars," said Richard Rosen, Director of Piedmont Yoga Studios in Oakland, Calif., in a recent interview with Policy Innovations. Screen legends Gloria Swanson and Robert Ryan were among her students.

Devi herself was a case study in globalization. Born Eugenie Petersen in 1899 in Riga, Latvia, she became an actress and dancer in Germany before moving to India in the late 1920s. There she adopted her stage name and performed in films before landing in Los Angeles in 1947.

But Devi's influence as a yoga ambassador was confined to the clubby world of Tinseltown. Richard Hittleman, on the other hand, figured out a way to bring yoga to the masses. He put it in a place where Americans were sure to find it: television.

Dubbed "America's leading yoga expert," Hittleman's Yoga for Health series debuted on Los Angles public television in 1961. His 1969 book Yoga: 28 Day Exercise Plan, filled with photos of healthy-looking women demonstrating basic asanas (poses), became a fixture on the bookshelf of what today might be called the "Oprah demographic." Day 1 features poses designed to "develop and firm your chest and bust."

There are, in fact, broad similarities between the annual "Yoga in America" market survey performed by Yoga Journal and Nielsen Media Research's survey data of the audience for Oprah Winfrey's television show. Seventy two percent of yoga practitioners, and 75 percent of Oprah watchers, are women. The majority in both groups is 35 or older and earns more than $40,000 per year.

While selling a lot of books to future members of Oprah's book club, Hittleman may have inadvertently set yoga on the path to becoming the quasi-medical remedy that it is today. According to his instructions for the 14th day, "If housework is continual drudgery and without meaning, [a housewife] becomes irritable, frustrated and depressed and these feelings are passed on to other members of the family." The answer to these and other spiritual dilemmas? Yoga, of course.

That yoga can give meaning to your life is the persistent refrain of its most vocal cheerleaders in the West. For some, however, yoga is no more meaningful (or powerful) than Red Bull. With the actual number of Americans practicing yoga holding steady at about 15 million, some are predicting that the boom has peaked. Yoga, they say, will soon be on the way out.

Funny. That's what we always hear about globalization.

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