In a two bedroom cabin located in an Inuit hamlet at the southwestern tip of Cornwallis Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, Yuki is holding Trikonasana; a yoga pose known as Triangle pose in a cleared space in the corner of the family room. Yuki’s kids are at school and this is her time to practise. Yuki lives with her husband Craig in Resolute Bay; population 229. Resolute Bay has only one school, grocery store and gym – a meagreness consistent with its barren periglacial terrain. Back in 2014, school got cancelled because 8 polar bears roamed the streets in a storm. It’s that kind of a place.
Across the other side of the world, on the balcony of the 31 st floor of a condominium in Orchard Rd in Singapore, a nubile young woman in hot pink Lululemon tights is lying in Savasana, a well-earned recovery after a good 90 minutes of hard Ashtanga practise. Ming Lee is a second year medical student and loves yoga as a way of finding balance in her very busy and demanding university course. As she can never seem to find the time to fit in the gym, yoga home practise is her only way to maintain a fitness regime in between lectures and assignments.
These two women could not be more different in terms of their lifestyles, where and how they live. Yet, they share one thing in common – a home yoga practise that stems from their engagement with social media. There are examples of practitioners like Yuki and Ming Lee all over the world. From the populated urban centres of the world like New York and Dubai through to remote villages in India, social media is revolutionising and bringing about a renaissance in the yoga home practise. Still, there are many who view this as an uncomfortable partnership. Yoga is a 5,000 year old tradition steeped in spiritual teachings and originating from the Vedic texts; the oldest sacred texts known to human civilisation relied upon by the Brahmans. How could something so rarefied co-exist alongside the internet and its instant gratification applications? Despite the value conflicts, the pervasiveness of social media and the booming popularity of yoga in the modern world have made the two very obvious bedfellows. The Kodak worthy image of the long-limbed bikini-clad blonde yogi performing a handstand on a sandy white beach is all too familiar with the tag #beachyoga alone turning up close to 400,000 posts daily on Instagram.
Let’s consider the growth of the popularity of yoga in recent times. Yoga as an indoor recreational fitness discipline has been the golden child and performer in terms of dollar value growth, as well as when measured by practitioner numbers since 2008. In this regard, it has outstripped activities such as Pilates, TRX, Kettlebell and Tai Chi. Here are some valuable statistics:
- In a 2016 “Yoga in America” study by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, the number of yoga practitioners in the US alone was found to have increased from 20.4 million to 36 million in just over a period of 4 years. This 80% increase dwarfs the already impressive increase of 29% in yoga practitioner numbers between 2008 and 2012;
- Yoga generated revenue is up to $16 billion a year compared to $10 billion in 2012;
- 34% of Americans say they are somewhat or very likely to practise yoga in the next 12 months. This equates to approximately 80 million Americans. Why is this statistic significant? Because it relates to projection and forecasting of future growth;
- This next statistic also bodes well for future growth: for every current yoga teacher, there are two people interested in becoming a yoga teacher;
What can the popularity and rise of yoga be attributed to? There are many clues that suggest why this might be the case in the “Yoga in America” study. Here are some interesting statistics:
- 79% of yoga practitioners are involved in other exercise disciplines. “Other” disciplines include running, cycling and weight-lifting. This would seem to suggest that yoga is seen as a complementary fitness discipline capable of bringing additional mental and physical benefits boosting sporting performance. Developments in the world of professional sports such as the NBA and NFL that have seen the integration of yoga within the standard fitness routines of elite athletes are also worth noting. Yoga is now mandatory as part of the Seattle Seahawks fitness plan under the stewardship of head coach Pete Carroll, according to a report by ESPN’s Alyssa Roenigk. The LA Clippers have been kept in good yoga shape by Ken Katich for many years now, the only yoga instructor reported to be working full-time for an NBA team. What this means is that yoga is increasingly perceived to be a fitness discipline that can co-exist alongside other sporting disciplines. A football player or serious runner will still make time for yoga but this type of symbiosis could not exist for say tennis or football as the two might conflict from the point of view of potential injuries;
- 81% of practitioners are 30+ years old. Again a very telling statistic as it suggests the longevity of yoga as a fitness routine well after either basketball and tennis has taken its toll on the knees. According to ACL (a branch of the US Department of Health and Human Services), the 65+ years and over represent 14.5% of the US population but this is expected to grow to 21.7% by 2040. A UN report on World Population Aging released in 2015 states that these US trends are in keeping with global trends on aging population. The report suggests that between 2015 and 2030, the number of people aged 60+ is expected to grow by 56% from 901 million to 1.4 billion by 2050. Yoga as a fitness discipline that can serve the needs of an ageing population is going to be very much in demand if the statistics continue to evolve in a similar direction;
Statistics aside, the mainstream co-opting of this ancient practise into popular culture, which had led to the watering down of some of its religious and spiritual stigma, has allowed yoga to expand its appeal even more. Yoga is now offered in gymnasiums of most urban city centres. Entrepreneurial fitness centres have continued to evolve the shape and form of the type of yoga offered to the public integrating modern themes. The Equinox in the Flatiron District dazzle with an array of yoga classes with names such as “Hot Athletic Yoga”, “Yoga Chisel” and “Sweat and Surrender” attracting practitioners from all walks of life and religious denominations. The fusion of yoga and surf culture, SUP, appears to have taken the world by storm with many younger practitioners flocking to their local beaches in summer to get their best selfie whilst attempting a Downward Dog on their paddleboard. Even the alcohol industry has identified the potential market in yoga with many yoga centres now offering happy hour yoga where practitioners can unwind with a glass of wine after Savasana. Less chanting, more selfies.
The rapid growth in the popularity of yoga whilst exciting for those in the industry has, however, seen its share of problems. In a 2013 article in the Huffington Post called “How Yoga Became a $27 Billion Industry – And Reinvented American Spirituality”, the author identified “yoga’s journey from ancient spiritual practise to big business and premium lifestyle – complete with designer yogawear, mats, towels, luxury retreats and $100 a day juice cleanses”. The trend has some devotees worrying that something has been lost along the way. At this juncture, it is worthwhile pointing out that more than 30% of Yoga Journal’s readership has a household income of over $100,000. By comparison, USA Today in November 2016 reported that the average US household income sits at $64,819 with the median significantly lower at $53,719. It appears that nirvana does not come cheap. Yet reports of overcrowded yoga studios with no more than an inch or two in between mats, (most notoriously the incident reported by the Huffington Post in 2013 about a class at Yoga Vida in Union Square where a student fell through a glass window whilst attempting a headstand allegedly due to overcrowding) would seem to suggest that there is no shortage of practitioners eager to try their hand at yoga, even at its premium price tag.
So has Western yoga sold its soul? This is a debate you often hear raised by yoga-dabbling journalists since it’s always a sensationalist angle capable of provoking cleavages between old school versus new school cultures and good versus bad guys stereotypes. It’s a great talking point and a fun one to raise at the water – cooler break. However the question which I find much more interesting and compelling is where does yoga go from here?
Stay tuned for Part II of “How Social Media is Revolutionising the Yoga Home Practise” where I explore the prevalence of yoga on the internet and how this changing paradigm is revolutionizing the future of yoga. If you are a fitness industry advocate, a yoga practitioner or a social media influencer, subscribe to this blog so you get notified of Part 2 of this article in the next post as this concerns you and you won’t want to miss it.