Thursday, August 5, 2010

Yoga in Mainstream Media

Perhaps you've noticed there's been a lot of yoga coverage in the media recently, in major journalism outlets covering "serious" news.  Typically, yoga in the news largely consists of Yoga Journal,  the defining voice of yoga in print media, or glossy celebrity and fitness magazines occasionally featuring worthwhile yoga stories but often falling prey to crafty publicists touting "celebrity yoga gurus."  You might recall from the OmGal.com Facebook Fan Page that I received a press release pitching a "celebrity yoga guru" earlier this summer and can assure you the teacher was neither a celebrity, nor a guru . . . Conjoining these words (along with a dash of ignorance) makes serious yogis think only one thing: This person just doesn't get it.

Thankfully, mainstream media is starting to get it.  Sometimes.  And, their focus on yoga is both expanding and improving.

The New York Times, for example, carried three articles about yoga in last Sunday's paper alone, and none of them caused the involuntary eye rolls that can strike when food or travel or beauty editors are assigned yoga stories-- resulting in ho-hum coverage if we're lucky and drivel if we're not.  The most ballyhooed piece in the Times, featuring founder of anusara yoga John Friend and his grand plans for the future of one of the newest and fastest growing styles of yoga in the world, was written by Mimi Shwartz, whose experience with yoga seemed apparent and appreciated by the yoga community following the article.  Not only does she claim several years of asana practice, but she also tempered "The Yoga Mogul" with insight from Judith Lasater as an expert source.  You may recall Lasater as a seasoned teacher, author, and the founder of Yoga Journal.  I recently recommended her book Living Your Yoga and shared a short excerpt from it, here.

At the crux of the article lies a conversation we often have on OmGal.com: What is lost when yoga and capitalism converge?  In other words, as yoga evolves from a centuries old (5,000+ years) spiritual practice in Buddhist and Hindu cultures to a fashionable and fitness-oriented pursuit around the world, how do we preserve its tradition . . . or do we care?

The answer, of course, is that some care, and some don't.

Chronicling both camps (yoga purists who care deeply about its roots and the yoga populous who cares less) and the progression from one to the other are The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America and The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America, two new books recently reviewed in- yes, you guessed it- the New York Times by Pankaj Mishra.  Mishra trains a critical eye on both, which I appreciate.  However, he appears quick to lump all American yogis into one shallow, spiritually bereft bunch.

To which, blogger Paul Raeburn wondered aloud later this week, Why is the New York Times Obsessed with Yoga? and provided his assessment of the latest yoga media blitz:

For about $15 or $20, anybody can sign up for a yoga class, and spend 60-90 minutes bending, twisting, and sometimes chanting.  Some like it; some don’t. For some, it’s exercise. For others, the exercise is a prelude to meditation, and perhaps even part of a voyage of self-discovery or a spiritual search. I’ve practiced yoga for 10 years, and I’m pretty sure I figured this out after my first few classes. It’s not that complicated.  For the New York Times, however, yoga seems to be something of an occult art, riddled with danger and badly contaminated by greed and corruption, more about fashion and fads than fitness.

He makes an excellent point.  Put simply, yoga means different things to different people, and that's OK.

It means a lot to yoga bloggers, like Yoga Dork, for example.  The Times also ran a piece on this New York based blog, which you may recall seeing nominated for Best Yoga & Fitness Site in the 2010 Intent Web Awards, along with Elephant Journal, Tara Stiles, Living Room Yoga, and yours truly.   (With your gracious support, OmGal.com won).  The Yoga Dork coverage brings to the fore the fact that bloggers (good ones, anyway) provide expert insight and spark informed conversations on niche subjects.      

Let's review, shall we?  The New York Times, one of the world's most respected media outlets has been bitten by the yoga bug.  In one week, they've given us a "yoga mogul" in John Friend, an informed and acerbic review of two new yoga books, and featured a charming "dork" who digs yoga.  Are they obsessed or earnest?  Joining a movement or jumping on a bandwagon?  Shedding new light on an ancient art or diluting something sacred?

As people who belong to the camp that cares the most about yoga and its future (that's you, readers), what do you think about all this attention?

2 comments:

Ellejae said...

Great post. There is always a struggle when an exercise discipline goes main stream. There is a watering down effect, or even worse ... The marketers get a hold of it and gawd knows what you get.

Thanks for raising the issue. :-)

Jenn said...

**Not a short answer!**

This is very interesting because lately when I tell people I "do yoga", I cringe a little. I also feel a bit loser-ish when I am walking around Boston with my mat.

I took my first yoga class ten years ago (eventually taking your classes at Baptiste, which was a turning point for me! It was around then, and certainly partly because of your example, that my casual curiosity solidified into a devoted practice). Only in the last year or so have I resisted talking about how much I love it, or felt mat-carrying embarrassment.

Your post is inspiring me to think more about why now... I think probably because my practice has shifted from mostly physical to equally physical and meditative, and the more I read and sit, and breathe, and "do yoga"... chant, pray, read and sit... and so on, the more bewildered I am by its message. It's pretty massive!

So before, when it was simply the asanas, I could match breath to movement, and love the great sweat and toned muscles, and that was it. Now that I am starting to learn the real vision behind the philosophy, I think I am humbled by it, and feel less comfortable in the busyness of its commercialization.

It will be very interesting to see where this all goes - If Western yoga is just a passing fad, or if all of the activity - both on the sweet, sacred levels, and on the sexy Billboard, yoga mogul level - is actually part of a history making push toward greater freedom and peace.

I imagine it will be another 1,000 years at least before any historian could really take a crack at that. But if it's true, as I am reading now in some of my yoga books, and we are reborn... maybe some of us, having lived through the movement, will also get to document it. That would be cool!