It’s been 5,000 years, but yoga just can’t be stopped
Every yoga class shares a guiding principle: Listen to your body. And clearly, there’s something to this golden rule that resonates with yogis, because it’s been 5,000 years since the practice’s inception, and it has a larger following than ever before. The number of American yogis rose by 50 percent between 2012 and 2016, and in 2019, the Global Wellness Institute crowned yoga the world’s most popular workout. Take a quick glance at a chart showing the climb of Google searches for “yoga near me” over the past decade, and you’ll notice it looks more like a handstand than a plank pose.
The versatility of the practice is a major contributor to its spike in popularity. After all, yoga isn’t one thing—and there’s a style for everyone. Hatha-style classes focus on breathwork, meditation, and foundational poses, while hot vinyasa classes raise your heart rate and offer the sweaty satisfaction of a HIIT workout. As we enter a new decade, and yoga tacks another 10 years onto its five-century track record, we asked some of the biggest names in yoga today to talk about why the mindful practice has such staying power and why so many of us will keep asana-ing our way into the future.
The history of yoga—and why it just keeps growing in popularity
Before the mid-20th century, the physical practice of asana (or the body postures associated with yoga) hadn’t arrived in the United States. While the exact history of yoga in America isn’t well-recorded, many sources credit Richard Hittleman for making the workout widely accessible. Hittleman studied yoga in India in the 1940s before returning Stateside and premiering one of the first yoga television series, Yoga for Health, in 1961. His version of yoga cut out the spiritual aspects to make it more palatable to people who didn’t want to mix their workouts with religion.
Flash forward 60 years, and there are currently over 6,000 yoga studios in the U.S. alone. Add that figure to the classes available on YouTube and streaming services—not to mention the great wide world of yoga retreats—and you find that yoga has gained mass acceptance and is available at every price point.
Elena Brower, world-famous yoga teacher and best-selling author of Practice You and Art of Attention, says that yoga owes its popularity to accessibility. “There have been a series of micro-movements that have contributed to this rise in popularity: the academics, the online platforms, the Instagram phenomena, the local studios, the rise of the chain studios,” she says. Yoga’s on our smartphones, in our local strip malls, and even the inspiration behind our favorite wardrobe staples (hello, leggings).
A diverse group of Instagram influencers has spearheaded yoga’s continual push to become more inclusive and accessible for a range of income levels and body types. Rachel Brathen, one of the first Instagram yogis (whose Instagram following numbers 2.1 million and counting) offers online classes taught by world-acclaimed teachers for $14 per month—less than the price of one studio class. Jessamyn Stanley‘s Every Body Yoga, released in 2017, challenged the many stereotypes of what someone who practices yoga “should” look like. (Notably: white, blonde, and thin.) In that same year, journalist Lauren Lipton and photographer Jaimie Baird released Yoga Bodies, a vibrant photo collection featuring a kaleidoscope of people who all found yoga—and let it change them. Nicole Cardoza, founder of Yoga Foster and Reclamation Ventures, is teaching yoga to kids in city schools while also raising money for wellness initiatives that are headed by people in overlooked communities.
“Right now, our culture is looking for ways to unplug—from technology, from tense socio-political conversations, from increasing demands in the workplace and the burden of rising inequities.” —Nicole Cardoza, founder of Yoga Foster and Reclamation Ventures
Even though the practice has very much found its way into the mainstream (one in three Americans have tried it at least once, according to Harvard Health), Cardoza says that yoga endures because of something less tangible than sales figures and class attendance. “Right now, our culture is looking for ways to unplug—from technology, from tense socio-political conversations, from increasing demands in the workplace and the burden of rising inequities. This, paired with an inaccessible healthcare system and more conversations on preventative health, is sending people to the practice,” she argues. Lara Heimann, a physical therapist and founder of LYT yoga, agrees that yoga offers a pause button in time when they are few and far between. “It naturally invites you to pay attention. And even if you don’t consciously know you’re doing it, the practice itself is doing that for you,” says Heimann.
Over the past 20 years, early scientific studies have linked yoga with mental benefits. It has been found to decrease anxiety, improve overall well-being in older adults (who make up 38 percent of the yoga population), improve memory, and even boost body image. These health-boosting perks (that go way beyond “toning” your muscles) are a big part of why the industry is expected to grow by another two billion dollars in 2020. And keeping with the theme of the last 5,000 years, experts say the practice will evolve even more to meet the needs of those who meet on the mat.
What’s next for yoga’s U.S. domination?
As we look into our fitness crystal balls, expect yoga to get the “harder, better, faster, stronger” treatment. According to Heimann, yoga classes used to stretch far into the 90-minute range, but they didn’t necessarily use their time wisely. “When I started teaching 20 years ago, people were doing hour-and-a-half yoga classes and then they’d have to go for a run because they really missed the cardiovascular aspects of exercise. It was one of the reasons I started changing my practice,” she says. Now, Heimann’s method focuses on functional movement that lasts less than an hour, and translates effortlessly into your daily life. She’s far from alone on this mission.
Sarah Larson Levey, founder and CEO of fast-expanding yoga studio Y7, says that she’s on a mission to make yoga adopt the best parts of strength training and cardio. “No one’s making up any new poses; it’s just a different way of practicing,” says Levey. “We’re incorporating the heat, incorporating the flow, and bringing in an elevated breath.”
“No one’s making up any new poses; it’s just a different way of practicing.” —Sarah Larson Levey, founder of Y7
Apart from revolutionizing how asanas can make a workout, Heather Peterson, chief yoga officer at CorePower Yoga—the largest chain of yoga studios in the U.S.—says that she expects class times to become more accommodating to diverse schedules. And thus, more efficient. “We see that people are asking for more availability of classes so they can fit it into their schedule on a consistent basis,” she says. With more studios than ever offering lunch-break classes, and short-but-sweet flows on platforms like Playbook, your workout’s never been an easier to fit into your Google Calendar.
As the yoga industry takes a modern approach to a timeless practice, however, Heimann points out that properly educating instructors will be key. In recent years, yoga teacher training programs—including CorePower’s—have received flack for prioritizing profit above knowledge. Since 2011, injury rates of yoga participants have been on the rise, primarily due to unqualified teachers. It’s not true that all teacher training programs skimp on teaching the importance of anatomy and safety (and this statistic certainly highlights the importance of properly vetting your classes before you hit the mat), but Heimann predicts that more rigorous education for instructors will become the norm in the years to come. “I think more and more teachers are craving a higher level of education, of understanding the body,” she says.
Amidst all this change, the north star of yoga remains the same: finding physical and mental freedom through movement. Fifty-six percent of those who practice yoga say they turn to it again and again (and again) for stress relief, while 49 percent do it to improve their overall health. We may be turning the corner on a new decade, but yoga’s really just hitting its stride.