yoga canva 3
yoga canva 3

Just as Christian-based cults find a widespread audience in America, so do yoga spin-off cults. Often using trends such as applying the word “Ancient” as a describer to almost anything, Himalayan salt crystals, chanting mantras, and meditation as a scientifically proven form of spirituality.  However, while yoga and meditation may be a “scientifically proven ancient method” to access spirituality, reduce stress, increase exercise, and everything else- it is also a very successful business model.

What Americans have often gotten out of Vedic philosophy is that spiritual enlightenment can be attained very efficiently without much earthly sacrifice. Instead of combatting capitalism, meditation and yoga can be worked into capitalism very fluidly with “scientifically proven” health benefits like lower stress, lower cortisol, and less back pain, than Western religions have never tried to prove their usefulness in this way. The American fascination with yoga is that behind the relaxed front, it’s a results-driven culture. The brilliance of the American Yoga business model is that it requires no equipment, but it’s easily monetized as a mind-body silver bullet wellness technique.

Vinyasa Flow:

The vast majority of Americans who pick up a yoga practice experience something called Fitness Yoga. This is a mat-based workout that combines stretches with some core exercises with usually some attention to breath, and instructor who often wants to make a few life observations while they have the mic, and a deep bow at the end where everyone says “namaste”. End of class. While most of the early gurus in the States in the 1960s were teaching Hatha Yoga (which does have a legitimate legacy line in Hindu and Buddhist traditions) most classes today are Vinyasa Flow.

Vinyasa has always purported to have a similar “ancient history” to Hatha, however, these claims are under scrutiny and it’s more likely it was patched together in the 1930s. The word Vinyasa means “transition” and repeats the most familiar sequence of poses (downward dog etc.) as it transitions between segments that increase the number and speed of poses into a fitness duration. As a business model, Vinyasa is a smart type of yoga in that novice instructors only have to learn a handful of positions that repeat in order before they can lead a class. In American fashion, it is the Model T Ford of yoga ready for mass replication.

Hot Yoga:

The Hot Yoga or Bikram trend has seen its day come and go – but like Vinyasa it is another specifically American “fitness yoga”. Unlike most studios running basic Vinyasa Flow classes, Hot Yoga is one of the many “new yogas” that grow into cults fraught with physical and sexual abuse.

Despite the perception of yoga somehow being both a fitness and relaxation practice, hot yoga is one of many examples that the standard Western yoga is often a stressful, extremist, and not a healthy environment. More than ten years ago when Bikram Yoga was at its height, I recall attending sweaty classes at 103 degrees where the instructor yelled at a middle-aged man for trying to leave the room because he was worried about passing out. Bikram himself was trained by “American Gurus” who had arrived during the first wave of yoga fascination and had built tremendous financial wealth off of American’s eagerness for yoga. Bikram created the oftentimes dangerous “hot yoga” concept and built of cult of instructors who worked in a tightly controlled cult-like corporation. This began a new Western yoga that shifted from “use meditation instead of LSD to open your mind” instead to “push yourself beyond your limits to discover what you are capable of”.

In 2016 nine women pressed charges against Bikram persistent sexual harassment and assault, all of them instructors or tightly controlled in the Bikram business. After a 17 million dollar legal battle and fleeing to India to open studios there, Bikram’s seized car collection included, “a dozen Rolls-Royces (including a 1937 Rolls-Royce Phantom III), five Bentleys, a 1971 Pontiac Lemans, a 1973 Ford Mustang Mach 1, a Ford GT40, and several other cars. A number of vehicles belonging to Choudhury are reportedly still hidden from the public eye, including at least three Ferraris and six Mercedes-Benzs. A lawsuit filed against Choudhury’s wife and children by Jafa-Bodden’s lawyer suggests that the other vehicles could be somewhere in Nevada or Florida.” He is running teacher-training seminars in Mexico and Canada. The Netflix documentary covers the allegations and the hot yoga empire in depth.

Unfortunately, Bikram is only one of many gurus running from a list of sexual assault cases, some of them incredibly financially lucrative and others just basic cult leaders putting “their spin” on yoga and Ayurveda. In the yoga finale next week, we will look at other fraudulent gurus, those who make a fortune selling yoga culture, and how much scientific merit yoga, ayurveda, and meditation carry.