According to New York magazine, yoga studios in the city “have become as common and competitive as yellow cabs.”
What’s true of New York is true of large cities all around the country. The number of Americans practicing yoga quintupled between 2001 and 2011: from 4 to 20 million.
Yoga has become so commonplace that the U.K. Telegraph recently ran a story that, only a few years ago, would have only run in the satirical publication The Onion. The link to the story read “How yoga with snakes cured my phobia.” In it, a woman told readers about a “Kumara Serpent Healing Class,” which she summed up as being “a bit like traditional yoga but ... you get to handle real snakes at the end of the class.”
As the Weekly Standard likes to say: “not a parody.”
Between stories like this one and a recent New York Times article about the rising number of yoga-related emergency room visits, there’s plenty of comic fodder in the West’s love affair with yoga.
But you know who isn’t smiling: the Hindu American Foundation. A year or so ago, the group launched a “Take Yoga Back” campaign. Its leaders got tired of seeing advertisers and business use words like “yoga,” “Vedic,” and other Hindu words in yoga publications without any acknowledgement that they were, well, Hindu.
One of the publications justified the omission by saying that the word “Hindu” has “a lot of baggage.” The understandable reply was “Excuse me?”
It is isn’t only Hindus: many Buddhists are also fed up with the way their religion is being “dumbed down” and marketed as a lifestyle. They are especially annoyed at the way the word “Zen” has been transformed into an interior decorating concept.
While I sympathize with their complaints, it’s not hard to understand why this is happening. First of all, contrary to what some noisy atheists would have you believe, America is not becoming a more “disbelieving” society, at least not as many define “disbelieving.”
On the contrary, Americans are every bit the believers they’ve always been. What has changed, at least in some parts of the country, is that we are less willing to identify with established faiths, especially Christianity. Hence, the “spiritual but not religious” identification.
As Chuck often noted, people identifying themselves as “spiritual” would build “god kits” for themselves, borrowing bits and pieces from various religions. This “borrowing” rarely, if ever, gave any consideration to what the ideas and concepts meant in their original context.
Thus, we got a “Jesus” who bears little resemblance to the one of Scripture and the Creeds. People like the author Elizabeth Gilbert “prayed,” in effect, to themselves, who, not surprisingly, told them to do what they wanted.
Globalization means that “spiritual” people have an even wider selection from which to pick and choose. You can mimic an Indian holy man, a Sadhu, without worrying about being reborn as a vole. Your expensive arm chair can be more than something to sit in – it can be and expression of your chic Zen minimalism.
In the end, these “god kits” are parodies of the real thing, except that the participants aren’t in on the joke. Only the snake is, and he isn’t talking.
Publication date: May 10, 2012