Sunday morning means different things to different people. For generations of Americans and others, Sunday was a religiously prescribed day of rest, or at least the day your parents made you wash your face, put on something nice, and go to church.
If you play a word association game with many modern weekend athletes, Sunday would prompt the response: long run or long ride. The road is the new church.
I like to think I manage to experience both sides of this. I’m a regular, Catholic churchgoer. To get to Mass on Sundays, I actually drive past the high school where my weekend running group congregates. It has struck me many times that the purposes, and the results, aren’t so different. (Hopefully the liberal Jesuits who taught me in college would be mildly amused by this comparison.) To that end, I point out a piece about a religious scholar named Stephen Bullivant, who made good on a promise to complete a marathon while reciting the rosary the entire way.
In the piece, he explained: “As readers of The Canterbury Tales will be well aware, the motivations for such ‘spiritual exercises’ are often decidedly mixed. Mine are no exception. A large part of it is simply the desire to have done a marathon. . . . This was one last try to satisfy that ambition and I called—frivolously and selfishly, perhaps—on the patronage of Mary, Our Mother of Perpetual Help, to keep me injury-free.”1
This mind–body connection, with the spiritual acting as the connective tissue, comes up time and again in interviews and writings about why we hit the road. There’s no doubt that, as Bullivant alludes to, some of it is rather narcissistic. But it’s socially acceptable—as illustrated above, a priest can get away with it, for goodness sake.
Connecting the body with the mind and soul is a strong driver of the current fitness obsession and the similarities between what’s happening in that high school parking lot and my church up the street abound. Spirituality is at once both intensely personal and naturally communal. In a place of worship, we are alone and together simultaneously. While a group run or ride is somewhat more boisterous, any runner will attest to quiet moments of introspection even amid the chatter of the group. The community aspects of running and cycling clubs are in some cases replacing the shared purpose once found in the pews of a church.
There’s a documented modern tendency to eschew formal religion and religious institutions while maintaining some sort of informal spiritual life. Research from the Pew Research Center in 2012 pointed out that roughly a fifth of all U.S. adults are “religiously unaffiliated,” the highest figure ever in its polling.2
The research found “that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. . . . More than half say they feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%).3
“Young people are looking for anchors,” says author and Millennial expert Nadira Hira. “A lot of this is about connecting with people who are at your stage and phase of life. Millennials are looking for sources of stability and support and are generally skittish about the old model of doing that, particularly religion. This is a generation that resists restriction, and religion feels restrictive.”
Organizations and institutions, some religious in nature, have laid claim to the spiritual benefits of running, and as an antidote to the craziness of everyday life. In his book, Running with the Mind of Meditation, Sakyong Mipham writes:
In the modern culture of speed, we seem to not do anything fully. We are half watching television and half using the computer; we are driving while talking on the phone; we have a hard time having even one conversation; when we sit down to eat, we are reading a newspaper and watching television, and even when we watch television, we are flipping through channels. This quality of speed gives life a superficial feeling; we never experience anything fully. . . . When we are running . . . we are engaged in one of the most intimate and meaningful acts that might occur during the day.4
Ascribing such heady notions to exercise makes it feel, and seem, more important. Now it’s not just about getting fit for swimsuit season or to make oneself generally more attractive. It’s not even about following your doctor’s orders to get your cholesterol levels down. It’s about connecting with your very being.
Robin Harvie, in his book The Lure of Long Distances, echoes Mipham’s theory about running as an escape: “In those hours when we are cut off from telephone calls and the nagging reminders of our daily responsibilities, we enjoy an illusion of complete self-sufficiency in which we want for nothing.”5
Inherent to both men’s argument is the idea that running takes place outside; it’s hard to capture that illusion of self-sufficiency on a treadmill. Harvie’s view of running is heavily informed by Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who found deep meaning in nature.
Running marketers have seized on the idea of running as an escape to a more primal feeling. Flip through the pages of Runner’s World or more specialized magazines like Trail Runner, and you find runners pictured in sweeping vistas, often alone, a small figure in a vast swath of nature.
It’s human counterprogramming, a physical escape from an unrelenting virtual world. I felt it one time on a trip to Northern California. I’d spent three days preparing for and hosting a high-tech conference, on a tricked out stage with video cues, wireless microphones, and producers in my ear giving direction.
The morning after the conference ended, I woke up with a few hours before my flight. After dispatching with a few emails, I broke away and soon found myself on a thin ridge high above Marin County, the fog rolling across and filling in the valley on either side. I was completely alone and went the better part of an hour without seeing another human being. Faced with a turn that would take me back to my hotel, and questions, and phone calls, and work, I kept running. I wasn’t tired, but I stopped occasionally to just soak in the view. After a few miles navigating rocks and roots, and an occasional fleeting concern that I could fall to my death, I turned to go back.
I emerged from the clouds to a sweeping view of San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge. Harvie and Mipham were ringing in my ears.
So was Fred DeVito.
I turned to him several months earlier to learn about his New York fitness studio, which had drawn a following largely based on its ability to connect mind and body.
DeVito created the exhale and the Core Fusion workout. Core Fusion has a yoga derivative and its general philosophy sits at the nexus of mind and body, an ethos reflected in DeVito’s calm manner.
I first spoke with him by phone on a spring Friday, while he was sitting in his car on the way out to East Hampton, where he and his wife/business partner, Elizabeth Halfpapp, have a home, near one of their exhale studios. The location attests to the clientele, which moves en masse during the summer from the sticky concrete Manhattan jungle to the Hamptons out on Long Island.
Our conversation moved quickly from the physical to the metaphysical and back. DeVito has the ambition of an entrepreneur but the sensibilities and grounding of someone who thinks about the body and mind a lot. “I look at exercise as a moving meditation,” he says. “Our entire society is trying to reach a higher level of consciousness. We’re trying to see the world from a higher vibration.”
DeVito and Halfpapp have been married for more than three decades. They chose not to have children, he told me, to spend time teaching. “This is my life, and my wife’s,” he said. “We can reach a lot of people in a transformational way.”
The pair met in high school in central New Jersey, and after college, DeVito played bass in a jazz band while Halfpapp went to ballet school. She got a job at a then-new exercise studio on the Upper East Side of Manhattan run by Lotte Berk, a London-based instructor. Berk had created an eponymous method of exercise that used a ballet barre.
As the business grew, Halfpapp became a manager, and then moved to Los Angeles with DeVito, where she opened a Lotte Berk studio. A year later, they returned and DeVito became an instructor, encouraging men to practice at the studio. He taught six classes a day, and he and Halfpapp began to draw a loyal following of people who came to the studio regularly, for years. “Our student body went from single to married to married with children,” he says. “We lived all that with our clients.”
As the 1990s came to a close, the couple saw a chance to evolve beyond the Lotte Berk method and open their own studio. A student named Annbeth Eschbach joined them, as a co-founder and the CEO, to form the basis of what’s now exhale.
DeVito points to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as a pivotal point in the evolution not only of his own business, but in the movement toward mind–body wellness overall. “Post-9/11 was when people changed,” he said. People started to think about their well-being “on a day-to-day basis.”
In the months after 9/11, in fact, was when exhale won its first funding, from a group of investors who saw the same thing DeVito did. In an age of increasing physical and economic uncertainty, people were turning inward and looking for something to cling to, at least for a time.
That shift meant wellness became an all-in lifestyle instead of an existence where exercise is ghettoized on the schedule—a morning jog or a dreaded trip to the gym. “It’s a lifestyle,” DeVito says. “People want to live longer and start thinking a lot about what they need to do. They start to find restaurants that serve healthy food. They go on active vacations instead of going on a cruise and overindulging.”
Wanting to embrace the lifestyle fully offers opportunities for expansion geographically (locations in summer vacation spots so clients don’t have to leave their routine back home) and technologically. Two decades into teaching, DeVito and Halfpapp created their first DVD, and now they have produced a dozen. The pair has also written a book (Barre Fitness: Barre Exercises You Can Do Anywhere for Flexibility, Core Strength, and a Lean Body) and has explored whether to offer streaming video of its classes.
DeVito isn’t alone in appealing to the soul, body, and mind simultaneously, aiming to scratch a deep existential itch.
Other forms of exercise are pointed about their spiritual component. SoulCycle—the New York-based spinning juggernaut—promotes the idea right in its name and in its classes, right down to the candles in the room. Its marketing materials are filled with notions of using exercise to connect with ourselves on a deeper level.
Part of this pivots back to the generational elements mentioned earlier. Author Daniel H. Pink, who writes often about how our minds work, discussed this in his book A Whole New Mind. He noted that “[p]ursuits devoted to meaning and transcendence, for instance, are now as mainstream as a double tall latte.” Pinning it squarely on Baby Boomers, he goes on: “[A]s individuals age, they place greater emphasis in their own lives on qualities they might have neglected in the rush to build careers and raise families: purpose, intrinsic motivation, and meaning.”6
The sway that the Baby Boomers hold is notable here. The sheer size of the generation makes them a powerful commercial force that has a deep impact on the rest of the marketplace. Generation X picked up the mind–body thread with gusto and forty-somethings have flooded yoga studios during the last decade. This cohort, as young adults, lived through the late 1990s tech boom as well as the subsequent bust, then watched the cycle repeat itself to some extent with the economic fervor of 2004 to 2007 and its requisite crash. All that macroeconomic and personal drama has sent us toward new solutions to calm our crazed minds.
Millennials have largely grown up in a world where whatever tensions Generation X held onto—between being a good corporate soldier and seeking work/life balance—don’t exist. Millennials are straightforward about their priorities, placing less emphasis on making money, and more on Pink’s “purpose, intrinsic motivation, and meaning.”
All three groups, for those different yet overlapping reasons, are flocking to a centuries-old practice that more obviously than just about anything else, seeks to connect mind and body: yoga. The activity holds a place in the modern affluent world as antidote to modern life.
Yoga, despite some of its trappings—perfectly designed studios stocked with bricks and designer water—is a stripped-down exercise, one that comes with not just permission to, but an insistence on, cutting off. There is no technology that can make you a more accomplished yogi. You can’t be better than the person three feet away by shelling out more for a mat or a towel (though my modern, consumer self did wonder a few times about the fancy, yoga-specific towels that fit just so on a yoga mat, versus my bath towel grabbed from the linen closet).
There’s also the elimination of outside influence. No studio I know of allows anyone to check email or take a call during a class, which is exactly how we want it. In fact, most of us in that studio would gladly pay $25, or a lot more, for 90 minutes to ourselves, silent and undistracted.
Yoga sits, quietly, at an intersection of postmodern angst, narcissism, and spiritual longing. Its appeal derives largely from the fact that it’s generally good for you, and because participating is a way to say something about you to the rest of the world. It imparts a worldliness and perceived serenity on the practitioner. It feels like a vestige from yoga’s roots on the fringe, and an inherent mysticism that pervades both historical and current practice.
Yoga instructors and practitioners speak in words and phrases that, inside and outside the studio, likely would sound ridiculous in any other context (and probably do in this context, to some): “I feel centered,” “I’m listening to my body.” The social scientists would note the singular personal pronoun in both of those sentences—while a group activity, yoga is not a team sport, and plays hard to our individualist streak. The perception of worldliness and serenity helps explain why so many who practice yoga, especially only occasionally, manage to drop it into cocktail conversation. It also helps explain the popularity of yoga pants—a socially acceptable piece of apparel that gives the impression you are a yogi.
Roughly 20 million Americans regularly practiced yoga as of 2012, a 29 percent jump in four years, according to Yoga Journal. It’s a population that’s overwhelmingly female (upwards of 80 percent, according to the survey). Like the other sports, practicing yoga (and to be clear, you practice yoga, you don’t just do yoga) has come to mean more than going to a room and bending yourself into weird positions once or twice a week. Like the other exercises and activities described earlier, doing it on a regular basis begins to define who you are, even when you’re not contorted.
But for many, it’s intimidating to start, for a variety of reasons. The writer Claire Dederer, in a memoir called Poser that used yoga as a way to tell her life story, writes it this way: “I thought yoga was done by self-indulgent middle-aged ladies with a lot of time on their hands, or by skinny fanatical 22-year-old vegetarian former gymnasts. I was also unsettled by the notion of white people seeking transformation through the customs of brown-skinned people—basically, to my mind, a suspect dynamic.”7 Spoiler alert: Yoga changes Dederer’s life and allows her to survive and contextualize a whole series of dramatic life changes.
Later in the book, she’s still mulling the appeal to people like her: “I still wondered what yoga was, exactly. In America, was it just a gentle way for dorks like me to get in shape? These poses, honed and refined over thousands of years, were like a safe harbor.”8
Trying to explain yoga’s popularity requires an exploration of what yoga actually does, and what it’s become. Science writer William J. Broad wrote an excellent book, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards, that sought to find the answers.
Part of its increased appeal is the increasing number of variations, especially those that focus on the physical benefits akin to other more obvious workouts like running, cycling, and weight lifting. Broad writes: “[M]odern yoga, by accident or design, has lost much of its contemplative nature and adopted some of the sweatiness of contemporary exercise.”9
Culturally, yoga pivoted around the turn of the twenty-first century into something normal people felt comfortable doing and talking about. Once limited to hippies huddled in not-well-advertised studios, it’s a breakout sport of the past decade. Most every gym offers it. Cruise ships and resorts feature classes at several levels. Women (and men) who you think would not even entertain the idea of showing up for yoga roll out a mat.
While men haven’t flocked to yoga the same way women have swarmed running, the phenomena are similar. Getting men interested in yoga unlocks the other half of the population, and helps spread some more macho variations like Bikram—a type of yoga practice in a very hot room—and even DDP Yoga, which was discussed earlier. Broad and others noted that this was in fact taking yoga back, way back, to its own roots. For centuries, yoga was a practice for warriors, who were exclusively male. Women were, in fact, forbidden to participate. Now that women are dominant, classes meant to attract men spring up now and again. A neighborhood buddy of mine told me about a class he and some pals were going to, branded unofficially as Bro-ga.
Once the numbers started growing, misconceptions faded, which begat bigger numbers. “It’s become demystified,” says Colleen Saidman, who with her husband Rodney Yee is one of the most influential and popular yoga instructors and personalities. “It’s always been incredible for mind, body, and spirit. But it was perceived as a cult or a religion.”
Yee said that for many, yoga is a replacement for organized religion, at a time when many are asking the Big Questions, and very publicly. “Even though it’s a material world, we all have a deeper impulse,” he says.
Celebrity has played a major role, and just as she did with marathons in the mid-1990s, Oprah played a role in shaping public opinion around yoga. Yee and Saidman both appeared on her show, and Oprah was an early strong voice about recognizing the importance of one’s spiritual side.
In 2011, celebrity yoga collided on one of Oprah’s television shows, when Jennifer Aniston—while telling Oprah that yoga had changed her life—presented Oprah with a personalized yoga mat.10 At that point, Oprah had been talking yoga for more than a decade, and like she did for books and many of her so-called favorite things, her attention and support moved product. Yee appeared on Oprah’s show in 2001. That year, one of his DVDs became Amazon.com’s second-best selling video for the year.11
A growing number of celebrities, some obnoxiously, have boasted of their yoga prowess. Sting was among the first and most vocal about it, to the point that Buzzfeed wrote a story in 2014 titled “43 Celebrities Who Swear By Yoga. Besides Sting.” Their list included Julia Roberts, Madonna, and Woody Harrelson, as well as younger stars like Russell Brand and Reese Witherspoon.12 “The celebrity world has had an incredible effect,” Yee says.
Saidman and Yee both note that many of the celebrities chose to attend classes, underscoring the community component of the practice and echoing much of the sentiment around the boutique fitness classes (some of which also benefited from implicit celebrity endorsement). Many or all of the stars could afford private yoga instruction, safely within the walls of their Hollywood Hills compounds or sprawling Tribeca lofts. “We have desires to huddle together,” Yee says. “It’s just like milk and cookies in your kindergarten class.”
Says Saidman: “As animals, we’re drawn to that setting. It’s very natural to our beings.”
The balance between the personal and the communal has informed Yee and Saidman’s practices and businesses from the beginning. Their ability to marry the two has formed a growing and profitable empire. While yoga has thrived in the social setting of the studio, it’s also found a thriving business through books and DVDs that allow would-be yogis to work out in their homes.
Yee and Saideman were among the key architects of moving it from fringe to mainstream. The ubiquity of Yee’s DVDs, along with a rugged travel schedule that puts both of them in a place to personally interact with students has spread both their brand and yoga. My first conversation with them took place over the phone during a brief summer lull. I called their Long Island home and talked to them together. They each picked up a receiver, almost like I was calling home from college and talking to my parents.
After talking through the why, we started talking about the what. In particular, about Yee’s videos, which arguably are the most visible of all yoga videos. Through a partnership with Gaiam, his ponytailed, trim (and often shirtless) form sits on sporting goods and bookstore shelves around the world.
The videos, Yee says, are something of a gateway to practicing yoga. Even with its growing popularity and the natural comfort of being around other people, picking up yoga is intimidating. As it’s become more popular, more and more people have gotten really good at it, which in a way makes it even more intimidating to be a beginner. “There is a great social aspect to class, but there [are] a lot of people who are shy,” Yee says.
“Especially men,” Saidman says.
The first video was produced in 1989, followed by three more in 1992. That kicked off the series, which now numbers around 30 videos, some of which now feature or include Saidman. The videos are relatively simple in their form—calming and straightforward, with Yee leading a session in his soothing voice, often with a lovely background.
A former student who became Yee’s wife, Saidman started Yoga Shanti in 1999 and, even though she started her studio more than a decade after Yee, the technology and business acumen was basically the same. She and the other instructors constituted the whole staff and the initial investment for the studio was $1,500. “We’d run to the bank to make change,” she says. “We wrote everyone’s name down on a piece of paper and used index cards.”
Yee’s experience was similar: “We had a basket that people dumped money in.”
In both of their cases, it was in part because they didn’t set out to build big businesses. Yee says early on, people who didn’t practice yoga weren’t even sure what he did. “People thought we were talking about ‘yogurt,’” he says. “You did it because you wanted to share knowledge. It wasn’t going to be a livelihood.”
As a business, Yee says yoga is in its infancy. “I feel like it’s just getting its feet wet,” he says.
The growing modern popularity is largely tied to physical benefits that put yoga alongside more obvious cardio activities, Broad wrote. While some of the research about the physiological benefits were dicey, he says, it was enough to kick-start a wave that’s only gaining momentum. “From a business angle, the claim was pure gold. It could turn a simple form of exercise requiring no costly equipment or investment into a dazzling profit center.13”
Those profits are what attracted investors to back yoga studios, yoga apparel makers, and other companies selling goods and services to yogis and would-be yogis. CorePower Yoga, a Denver-based operator of studios, had $60 million of revenue and 74 studios in nine states when it sought private equity money in 2013.
CorePower won an investment from Catterton Partners, a private-equity firm focused on consumer and retail products. Catterton had backed the likes of Bloomin’ Brands (operator of restaurants including Outback Steakhouse) and Baccarat, a home luxury brand. Catterton had identified the fitness trend and also invested in Flywheel, the indoor cycling studio, as well as Pure Barre, the Spartanburg, South Carolina–based company backed by WJ Partners. The firm also backed Protein Bar, a restaurant chain offering healthy food options like quinoa bowls and protein drinks, and Sweaty Betty, an activewear company. In early 2016, Catterton combined with the private equity arm of fashion giant LVMH to form L Catterton.
Yoga has also become popular with athletes, an increasing number of whom—female and male—tout its ability to help them recover from, or avoid, injury.
That’s how it was pitched to me, and how I ended up at my local yoga studio on a frigid January morning.
My previous yoga adventures had made me feel somewhat geriatric—lots of gentle stretching and soft voices. Here, the voices were soft, but it was in service of kicking my butt. I dropped two pounds in class that day, sweating profusely, wiping my mat so I didn’t slip in a puddle of my own making. And yet the music was soothing, the room mostly dark, and the tone encouraging.
One thing that struck me was that despite a friendly teacher who made sure she knew each of our names, there was essentially zero chitchat among the students in class. I wasn’t complaining, but I was surprised, having guessed that a midmorning yoga class might be a bit more like a coffee klatch. This was about the business of ourselves, individually. We could chitchat another time.
Throughout most of the class, my heart rate was up and my breath was short. My sweat was prolific. The instructor that day was in a relatively kind mode, encouraging us to make a silent intention at the beginning of class, to use the time away from the world to really disconnect from it. The intensity of the workout makes that easier than I thought. I couldn’t spend a lot of time ruminating on a missed deadline given how much I was struggling to keep my balance. Our instructor used the word yummy several times to describe certain postures, a questionable word choice, at least to me. Very little beyond the couple of minutes devoted to corpse pose—lying still in the dark, finished with the workout and actually just breathing—fit that description.
And yet, the sum of the parts was simultaneously exhilarating and, in the end, relaxing. My muscles felt loose and tested. I found myself in the subsequent days striking an occasional pose (out of sight of anyone else, mind you) in order to clear my mind, or deal with an especially stressful moment at work.
A few weeks later, I went back with a different instructor who was more rigid, even a bit snappy. She chided one of the students for taking a sip of water, noting that we would come to a break soon. Instead of a gentle instruction to shift positions, she clapped to signal a change in the pose. It felt more mission than meditation, a little bit of Navy SEAL mixed in with our namaste. I started to understand why this style of yoga—hot, fast-paced—was the one drawing more and more Type-A athletes to studios.
The athlete/yoga connection led me, via a mutual friend, to a former Nike account executive named Ellen Bain. She left the comforts of the corporate world to start Train with Yoga. It’s geared toward the high-octane athlete—professional and otherwise—who wants to integrate yoga into their routine and lifestyle.
She started as a yoga skeptic, a successful executive-cum-athlete who couldn’t shake injuries. Tired of going to the chiropractor, she was constantly looking for solutions. “I read an article that said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar partially attributed his longevity in the NBA to yoga,” Bain told me. “I initially thought it was incense and chanting. He played in the NBA until he was 42. That got my attention. It was the beginning of my love affair with yoga.”
As she dug in, she read Power Yoga by Beryl Burch, and later got to know her personally. Power Yoga as a concept helped Bain relate to ashtanga yoga, then relatively obscure. Bain was interested in a system that built strength, flexibility, and concentration, while also helping heal injuries. Here was an activity that both challenged the body and calmed the mind, and brought her into a welcoming and tight group that only seemed to grow.
“For me, it was initially just from the physical realm, but I learned it was so much more,” Bain says. “It became a way of life to train my mind and body. I moved a lot in my business career and it was a great source of community in the various places I had the opportunity to live. It slowly became my main social conduit. It was spiritual but not religious. Some of the best friends of my life post high school and college I’ve met on the mat.”
Emboldened, she turned yoga into her full-time work, creating Train with Yoga to serve athletes who also took a cue, most unwittingly, from Abdul-Jabbar. She worked in New York, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara, California, at Equinox and a California company called P3, helping enhance the performance of athletes through yoga.
Her job was in part to spread the message to the pro athletes, many of whom weren’t immediately into yoga. But it was working. And history was on her side. “Yoga’s been around for 2,000 years and this train isn’t turning around any time soon,” Bain says. “It will only get bigger as we make it more acceptable.”
It’s getting there, if the business world is any indication.
According to author and journalist Laura Schadler, “Today health insurance companies cover yoga as a therapy for heart disease, schools teach meditation, nonprofits use yoga as a means to serve disadvantaged youth, and soldiers use it to manage combat stress.”14 Her conclusion: “Yoga, despite how dramatically different it might look [now versus centuries ago], is still about that truth. And therein lies its appeal.”15
But what is it that makes the truth so much more appealing today than, say, 20 years ago, when people were practicing yoga in far fewer numbers? Society right now has a growing obsession with authenticity—a fancier way of talking about truth. Social science provides some additional answers. Jennifer Smith Maguire, a lecturer in mass communications at the University of Leicester, tells me that yoga underwent a transformation as it got more popular and moved into the mainstream. Newer instructors “stripped out the selfless notion and turned it into an individualized exercise.”
This observation is fleshed out in her fascinating book, Fit for Consumption: Sociology and the Business of Fitness that was first published in 2008. The book was the ultimate byproduct of a research project that began almost by accident. Several years earlier, pressed for a graduate course topic at the turn of the new year, Maguire noted the tendency of herself and friends to join health clubs in a flurry of good New Year’s intentions. She saw a prime opportunity to explore modern consumption in a new way.
What she discovered goes to the heart of this new economy of fitness: we are not just allowed, but encouraged and expected to work on our body and our self. To thread it into the larger economy, where the majority of the middle, and certainly upper, classes are engaged in a white-collar service economy, our relationship to our bodies and leisure changes.
Maguire writes: “[R]ising living standards and the mass production of consumers transformed self-improvement into a mass, middle-class project.” She quotes none other than the author Tom Wolfe, who saw this coming in 1982: “The new alchemical dream is: changing one’s personality—remaking, remodeling, elevating and polishing one’s very self . . . and observing, studying and doing on it. (Me!)”16
Another social scientist named Lisa Wade, a prolific researcher and blogger, puts it this way in a conversation: “This idea of us being individuals and having identities that we need to explore and discover, let alone is difficult to discover, is a foreign idea before the 60s and 70s,” she says. “The idea of working on one’s self is a completely new idea.”
Many of the latest and greatest exercises skew expensive, especially the studio-based activities that require either special equipment, high-level instruction, or both. Yoga is an activity where some feel it’s gone far enough beyond its roots to require a correction.
Because of its long history, yoga poses an interesting conundrum as it expands. While its jump to the mainstream was driven largely by an affluent segment of the population—clad in Lululemon and able to afford both the time and money required for steady, serious practice—there have emerged backlashes that seek to take it back to its roots. Take, for instance, Yoga to the People, meant to appeal and attract a set that’s turned off by the commercialization of practicing yoga.
With locations in Millennial progressive hotbeds like Seattle and Berkeley, California, the Yoga to the People mantra, posted on its website, captures it well. Its spirit and practice—no set fees—call to mind the November Project. Here’s the mantra:
There will be no correct clothes
There will be no proper payment
There will be no right answers
No glorified teachers
No ego no script no pedestals
No you’re not good enough or rich enough
This yoga is for everyone
This sweating and breathing and becoming
This knowing glowing feeling
Is for the big small weak and strong
Able and crazy
Brothers sisters grandmothers
The mighty and meek
Bones that creak
Those who seek
This power is for everyone17
The mantra recalls a sort of religious creed, and one that’s meant not to separate, but embrace. And that ethos seems increasingly important at a time when exercise is used as a way to set apart the more successful.
Access to health and fitness shouldn’t be limited to those with the resources of both money and time, though Wade paints a disturbing social portrait of healthy bodies developing as a show of power. “People seek to distinguish themselves from the less powerful groups,” she says, and historically physical presentation has been the easiest way. “When everyone worked outside, it was considered beautiful to be pale. When food is scarce, it’s beautiful to be fat…The more obesity is a signal of being lower class, the more aggressively people will try to be thin.”
Wade points to her own experience as a successful academic who’s unable to afford what many in affluent urban centers commit to their fitness regimes. “I’m a college professor and this is out of my reach,” she says. “Doing cardio plus yoga can easily get you to $100 a week and it’s not unreasonable for some to spend $200 a week. Who is doing this? This isn’t just ‘not poor’ Millennials. It’s people on the other side of a shrinking middle class.”
With that in mind, there’s room for efforts like the November Project and Yoga to the People to thrive. There’s also hope in the trend that fitness becomes more integrated into a lifestyle that manages to blend individualism with a sense of broader social good. Here, technology is again providing assistance, by making it easier to use one’s fitness prowess to raise money for charity.