Is yoga a lifestyle or an exercise routine? Ever since America’s first yogi was arrested on suspicion of running an anti-Christian cult in 1910, yoga’s appeal in the West has been linked to its image as an Eastern spiritual practice. Unlike exercise systems that promise only physical fitness and health, yoga emphasizes spiritual improvement, and its tenets are expected to be followed both inside and outside the studio. And while yoga’s slight “counterculture” bend has attracted an extremely dedicated group of followers, it has also turned off many potential practitioners who are looking for some good exercise with no strings attached.
The original question stands at the heart of yoga as a business. What pays more: increasing spending among the group of core followers, or increasing the number of casual participants, even if all they spend is the small per-class fee?
The answer to this either-or question is probably “yes”; both groups are important, and, as markets, will be developed equally. Working in yoga’s favor is the diversity of its offerings. Already, the yoga typically offered in the West is an imperfect imitation of the original Indian tradition, and there is little consensus as to what yoga should be. This kind of flexibility will allow yoga as an industry to continually rebrand itself as demand changes over time.
Ultimately, the teacher-student relationship will be crucial to determining the future direction of yoga. Unlike other exercise routines, yoga thrives not on a codified set of principles or movements, but rather on a relationship between the guru and the practitioner. This relationship can take almost any form, from personal trainer to spiritual guide. Because each teacher has to build their own niche and brand, they have to define for themselves and for their clients what yoga actually is. For now, this niche development has been happening only in big cities that support large yoga populations, but with online tools (such as Muuyu) developing and eventually bringing yoga to web 2.0, the range of available yoga will increase exponentially.
It remains to be seen whether the explosion of yoga options will create problems for the yoga brand. How many different types of yoga can there be before the term itself loses all meaning? Will the spiritual wing become disillusioned and switch to the next big Eastern fad? Or will some new exercise system catch on among yoga’s potential non-spiritual potential users before yoga can re-brand itself to meet their needs?