Re-imagining American spirituality through rise of yoga practices

via flickr/matthewphotography

“Big toes touch. Knees wide,” the instructor says. “Crawl your hands forward. Rest your forehead.”

Simultaneously, the class comes into child’s pose. Bowing their heads, they breathe deeply as one—just as yogis have done for the past 5,000 years.

But unlike 5,000 years ago, the mats are made of a new material called thermoplastic elastomer (some cost up to $58), and many of the students in this class are likely wearing $112 yoga pants and $68 sports bras. They either hold a 10-class pass to this studio for $95, or they paid $10 to drop in. They are an essential part of a $27 billion industry.

“I think the reason that [yoga] persists and is becoming more and more popular—20 million people in the U.S., more than 200 million worldwide—is because people have found a way to make it relevant to people today,” said Meghan Lucas, who teaches nidra yoga at the CU Boulder student recreation center. “But I do think that the branding establishes this unquestioning authority that comes with this facade of ancientness and tradition.”

Although yoga has been around for thousands of years, it didn’t actually reach the U.S. until the early 20th century. And in the years since, yoga has evolved into an industry complete with apparel, retreats, cleanses and more.

“In 1920, Paramahansa Yogananda came to address a conference of religious liberals in Boston,” said Holly Hammond for Yoga Journal. “He had been sent by his guru, the ageless Babaji, to ‘spread the message of kriya yoga to the West.’”

With that, yoga became a small droplet in the pool of emerging physical conditioning practices in the Western world. By the 1970s, you could find at least one yoga class anywhere from New York to Los Angeles.

Today, a plethora of yoga classes has emerged, ranging from acro yoga (acrobatic yoga) to hot yoga (yoga in a 92 degree F room) and even yogalates (a combination of Pilates and yoga). At CU Boulder alone, the number of different yoga classes offered went from six in the spring of 2014 to 14 just two years later.

“When I started here we basically were looking at Iyengar, Kundalini and Vinyasa yoga,” said Denise Adelsen, Assistant Director of Fitness and Wellness at CU, “and then if there was a special event or they wanted to dive a little bit deeper they would do that. When we had the opportunity of moving into [the student recreation center] and having a lot more space and ability to schedule, we were able to expand our program.”

Eric Lee, a fifth year mechanical engineering major at CU, has been working at the rec center front desk for three years and has observed a clear growth in yoga class attendance during that time.

“We do have a wide variety of everything,” Lee said, “yoga just seems to be one of our more popular sections.”

And popular it is.

As a multi-billion dollar industry, yoga has gone from an ancient spiritual practice to a big business that goes hand-in-hand with a premium lifestyle. According to a Huffington Post article, 30 percent of Yoga Journal’s readership has a household income of over $100,000.

“There are parts of the yoga world that are very ego-driven right now, which is ironic because yoga is meant to dissolve your ego,” said Caitlin Rose Kenney, who teaches at the Little Yoga Studio and Yoga Pod in Boulder.

Last March, USA Today found that in a 2013 survey from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, more than 24 million U.S. adults practiced yoga—up from 17 million just five years earlier. In fact, yoga is now as popular a sport as golf.

While yoga’s growth in mainstream culture has some yogis doing backbends and sun salutations, some question whether the practice’s booming popularity and the commercial industry surrounding it compromises its authenticity.

In Boulder, however, some of the most popular types of new-age yoga are paying homage to the practice’s ancient roots and early practitioners, with studios promoting classes like bhakti yoga, Kundalini yoga and Ivengar yoga—all of which focus on an aspect of spirituality and sanctity originally linked to yoga. In Kenney’s words, these age-old practices are being reinfused with a modern energy.

“Boulder is a mecca in that there’s tons of yoga here and it’s widely represented,” Kenney said. “I think you see a little bit of everything in this town, from the really traditional to the really contemporary.”

You can learn more about what yoga classes CU has to offer at the rec center here, and check out a list of studios in Boulder while you’re at it.

“I think eventually everybody’s gonna circle around and find teachers that are really doing good work and teaching the core values of yoga,” Kenney said. “The most important thing is that yoga being in the mainstream culture means more people are practicing, and that’s a good thing.”


Take a glimpse into Boulder yoga instructor Caitlin Rose Kenney’s life:

Audio transcription:

[Yoga instruction]

Go ahead and come into child’s pose, big toes touch, knees wide. Crawl your hands forward, rest your forehead […]


Caitlin Rose Kenney has been practicing yoga for 12 years and teaching for five.


Yeah, I started off for physical reasons, I found the mental benefit, and then down the line it became an emotional thing, and a spiritual thing, and now it’s pretty much all of those things and it’s just kind of like, it’s what I do for self care and self awareness.


Kenney teaches alignment rich vinyasa flow woven with aspects of Iyengar, forest, and yin yoga.


Well, at this point yoga is something I just can’t imagine not being in my life. It’s definitely transformed me and healed me in a variety of ways, whether that’s through physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual, and I feel like I’ve kind of been through iterations of it being a huge healer and kind of catalyst for me to change into the next thing that I’m supposed to change into.

[Yoga instruction]

And as you rest here, notice and feel the parts of your body that are touching your mat and you can relax your elbows […]


Her influences include Gina Kaputo, Kathryn Budig, Rachel Hull, Lauren Allard, and Kate Mulheron, all of which she has studied with.


Yeah, I just want to share it with other people because I think that it makes me feel like I have a resource. Like when things get crazy or really hard in life I feel like I have something to turn to that helps me calm myself, kind of listen to what’s going on and then come out the other end and find the light again, so I know that it’s always there for me if I’m having a hard time.


You can listen to Kenney’s podcast, YogaSesh, on iTunes and on Soundcloud. YogaSesh podcast delivers shor (30-45 minutes) and long (60-75 minutes) yoga classes for experienced yogis.

[Yoga instruction]


My thing about yoga is like don’t go in with the mindset of like oh I should be doing yoga because I should be good at yoga and I should be flexible and this and that and the other. It’s more like let me go in and do something that I know will help me take care of myself in order to be better in all the other realms of my life.


You can find Kenney at the Little Yoga Studio Sundays from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. and Mondays from 7:45 to 8:45 p.m. Find her at the Yoga Pod in Boulder on Mondays from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. and Saturdays from 12:30 to 1:45 p.m.


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