WASHINGTON, Aug. 6 (UPI) -- It used to be the person next door sporting Birkenstocks, but now yoga has hit the American popular bigtime, and along with the millions of new practitioners is the millions of dollars that are being made in a formerly niche industry.
According to at least one recent study, more than 7 percent of the U.S. adult population, or 15 million persons, practice yoga. Of those polled, one in six respondents, around 35 million people, expressed the intention of trying yoga within the next 12 months.
Perhaps, soon everyone will be twisting.
From McDonald's advertising featuring a meditating woman in the lotus position to yoga-related products in Wal-Mart and Target, yoga suddenly seems to be everywhere. It's social, hip and has its own language and fashions, with lines of clothing designed for yoga practice -- in many ways similar to standard exercise clothing -- and with products such as mats, "yoga mittens," videos, DVDs, and if you check out Amazon, quite a few books.
Some yoga instructors have achieved rock-star like status.
Well-known yoga practitioners range from pop star Madonna to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
And to think, all this from an ancient Indian practice -- some say as old as 5,000 years -- that slowly made its inroads into the West, changing as it went. According to the Kaivalyadhama Yoga Institute in India, "the literal meaning of the word Yoga in Sanskrit is 'integration.' In this sense Yoga represents a process through which one can learn how to live in the most integrated way."
Yoga is most familiar on the American scene for its "asanas" or postures, such as the famous lotus position, a.k.a. "the pretzel," or others with name like the "Reclining Hero Pose" and the "Upward Bow Pose." Often practitioners will perform such movements as the "Sun Salutation" which is a series of positions. The positions are also accompanied by breathing exercises.
"For me, as a teacher, the biggest challenge is broadening the scope of yoga for Americans, who tend to view yoga as simply a physical practice or as calisthenics with an Eastern tinge," said Cassandra Metzger, a Washington, D.C.-based yoga instructor. "The popularity of yoga is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, many are venturing in who would never before consider yoga. On the other, many often have misconceptions about the broad basics of yoga -- from the approach, the benefits, the history to the fundamentals."
Noting that the interest in yoga has "just exploded," Metzger added that teaching yoga requires a great deal of training.
"I practiced yoga for eight years before training to be a teacher. The training was the hardest thing I've ever done," she said.
Among the top examples of the burgeoning recent success of yoga in America is Yoga Journal magazine. Founded in California in 1975, the magazine has tripled its paid circulation in the past few years, to 310,000, and estimates it has more than 1 million readers.
Yoga Journal first started in the '70s as a stapled circular that slowly grew, but by the mid-'90s it found itself falling on hard times. In Fall 1998 John Abbott, a former investment banker at Citicorp and an avid yoga practitioner ever since suffering a marathon injury, bought the magazine, beginning an ongoing process of revamping. He now serves as YJ's publisher and chief executive officer.
"It looked like it was going under," said Abbott. He added that the emphasis wasn't solely on yoga but that the magazine was "an alternative, 'new age-y' publication."
He said the first changes were editorial ones. "I discovered that this was the critical variable." From there, circulation began to rise.
And change is continuing at the magazine.
Wednesday the magazine announced a cover-to-cover redesign, commencing with the September/October 2004 issue, in order to reach an even broader audience.
Dayna Macy, communications director for Yoga Journal, told UPI that many of the changes are based on the rapid growth and "mainstreaming of yoga."
Of the expansion of Yoga Journal over the last decade into conferences, books and DVDs, Macy noted, "In terms of the yoga universe, YJ is a well trusted brand. People who do yoga are not only interested in doing yoga but in going to conferences, reading books and watching DVDs."
On the question of how large the total industry is, Macy cited a 2002 article in YJ that reported individual yoga participants spend an estimated $1,500 yearly on classes, exercise clothing, mats, attending conferences, buying books, and other yoga-related expenses.
Based on this formula, if one multiplies the $1,500 average by the estimated 15 million yoga practitioners (reported by a Yoga Journal study), the yoga business is a $22.5 billion-a-year industry.
YJ also announced Wednesday that national advertising in the September/October issue is up 35 percent from the year prior. New advertisers this year include Target, Ford, Kellogg, Kia, General Mills, Clairol, Pfizer, Sutter Home, Volvic, Johnson & Johnson and Fiji Water, according to Macy.
Abbott said: "Our national advertising is up significantly because advertisers see that both the yoga market and Yoga Journal readers deliver a highly prized and targeted audience. We expect that as the yoga market continues to mature, we will see even more national brands advertising in the magazine."
While declining to reveal any details of Yoga Journal's balance sheet -- the company is privately held -- Abbott said that for 2002 and 2003 the company made a "strong profit."
The magazine's overall redesign includes new type treatment and brighter, bolder colors and cover lines. Macy said that each issue now has a theme (the September/October theme is "flexibility"). She added that the front of the magazine has been completely redesigned to include more lifestyle coverage, and the design has more white space, a broader use of color and more original photography.
Kathryn Arnold, editorial director of Yoga Journal, noted: "According to our recent 'Yoga in America' study, more than 8 million of the 15 million people who practice yoga have studied for two years or less. Our redesign, both in terms of our editorial and our art direction, reflects our decision to reach out to a broader readership of newcomers to yoga."
In Yoga Journal's study, released June 2003, the magazine found that beyond the 15 million adults who were active practitioners, more than half the general population, or nearly 110 million Americans, have at least a casual interest in the practice.
Also, the magazine's poll found that yoga fans are overwhelmingly women -- 76.9 percent -- and that yoga practitioners earn fairly decent incomes -- over 30 percent of those polled reported annual household incomes of $75,000 or more, with a full 15 percent reporting earnings of over $100,000.
For Fiona Clem, a 36-year-old Washingtonian who works like many in town for a trade association, yoga is both a way to relax and to exercise. Clem said she first started attending yoga classes at her nearby YMCA in Raleigh, N.C., and then picked it back up about a year after moving to Washington, an admittedly stressful town.
"Yoga is an excellent way to relax and focus on your body and mind together. You'd be amazed how much concentration, strength and focus a seemingly simple balance pose like (the) 'tree' takes. It's easy to be in class and be so focused on what you are doing that an hour easily slips by," Clem said.
"I walk to work and usually run and bike for outdoor exercise. Yoga practice helps me slow down and focus my energy on me. It is also great for maintaining flexibility. Yoga is one of my favorite forms of exercise."
She added that it's like taking all the best elements of exercise "and combining them -- focus, balance, strength training and meditation -- all in one session."
Clem said classes at her local neighborhood studio are almost always full, and she knows of at least three new studios that have opened recently in the nation's capital.
Asked about the meaning of America's exploding interest in yoga, YJ's Abbott conjectured that the ancient art has become nothing less than "a cultural phenomenon and an integral part of the wellness trend in this country."
"It's all about a desire to have a more balanced life," Abbott said.
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