I was out of my wheelhouse. Far out. Specifically, I was at the Wanderlust Yoga Festival: a touring, four-day celebration of all things mindful, beautiful and spiritually well-aligned that had settled this weekend at the slope-side village of Snowmass, Colorado. Festival organizers had transformed the village into a sort of crunchy paradise – vendors hawked clothes, granola, and healing crystals from brightly colored tents, and speakers piped out a rhythmic but nonthreatening variety of hip-hop.
My fellow attendees were fit, flexible, and overwhelmingly female. They were wealthy and lithe – the sort of people who can afford to shell out $525 for four days of spiritual communion (and God only knows how much for lodging). Even the men radiated the sort of soft glow that comes along with fastidious skin care and a diet rich in leafy greens. They were beautiful.
I was — and remain — a yoga novice, a 200-pound bald man with a blotchy face and a borrowed yoga mat clutched to my chest like an emergency flotation device. This wasn’t my scene. But I had a press pass. And an assignment. And, like any self-respecting journalist, I had some questions.
Like: how the hell did this all get here? How did a pre-Vedic Indian spiritual practice become the big-ticket attraction in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley? What was the connection between enlightenment and butt-lifting compression pants? What, if anything, could this movement teach a slob like me?
And make no mistake, it is a movement. More than 20 million people in the U.S. practice yoga, and spending estimates on yoga classes, equipment, and apparel range from $10 to $27 billion. (To put that in perspective, the NFL brought in just $9.5 billion in revenue in 2012.) The practice has steadily gained traction in the U.S. since the 1980s, and it shows no immediate signs of stopping. Practitioners and (some) medical researches alike describe yoga as a panacea of sorts, offering a cure for everything from hypertension to joint pain to ennui.
Practitioners and (some) medical researches alike describe yoga as a panacea of sorts, offering a cure for everything from hypertension to joint pain to ennui.
Why all of this has taken place, of course, is harder to know for sure. The core principles of yoga have been known to Western thinkers for centuries (many claim Henry David Thoreau as the first practicing American yogi), and meditation has been practiced by mindful, enlightenment-seeking types in the U.S. since Emerson. But the physical practice of stretching into a pretzel on a padded mat didn’t find its way into the mainstream until sometime in the 1980s.
That was the home fitness revolution, when the VCR beamed Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda and their ilk into millions of living rooms across the US. It was the era of aerobics and American Gladiators and Buns of Steel. It was probably the first time in American history that the “perfect body” was held up as an attainable ideal, and it changed the shape and the scope of American health and wellness forever.
In my classes at Wanderlust (the festivals are set up sort of like trade shows, where participants choose from dozens of classes or seminars over the course of the weekend), the mark of aerobics was obvious. Yoga students take their places in rows facing the instructor, and follow her (or him) through a serious of poses designed to stretch, relax or stress various parts of the body. The clothing is looser and the movements take longer, but the organizational structure is more or less the same.
There is a mental and spiritual component as well, of course. And while the commitment of modern yogis to meditation varies widely by style and by teacher, almost every yoga class ends with a savasana session — in which participants lay still, with eyes closed, and focus on their breathing for up to half an hour.
This deep relaxation is considered an essential part of the practice, and is the component of yoga thought to help improve concentration, boost confidence, and alleviate anxiety. It’s equal parts Stuart Smalley and Bruce Lee — and is considered as much a respite for the mind as for the body. And, in this humble journalist’s opinion, it’s really the best part.
Yoga is tough — surprisingly tough, for an activity apparently founded on the value of moving slowly or standing still. What I had always thought of as an exercise in relaxation and fart suppression proved instead to be a pretty brutal workout. After just two 90-minute classes, my shoulders, hips and neck were on the verge of giving out. And that was before I even unrolled my mat in “Yoga for Dudes”.
I’d been waiting for this class all weekend. A longtime weight lifter, I was frustrated and more than a little emasculated by the difficulty I experienced in seemingly innocuous poses like “downward-facing dog” and “seal pose”. I was ready to flex. To use my biceps and triceps for…anything at all. And, after two days of struggling to keep my eyes to myself, I figured it would actually be sort of a relief to share a room with a bunch of dudes.
As instructed, I placed my hands and feet on the floor and waved my butt in the air as if it had a tail attached.
But it wasn’t a room full of dudes, of course. More than 80 percent of yoga practitioners in the United States are women, and the balance of Wanderlust attendees is probably even more skewed. So my “Yoga for Dudes” class — the only class all weekend advertised exclusively to men — was actually about half full of women.
For whatever reason, men just haven’t flocked to yoga studios in the same numbers or at the same rate that women have. In fact, as the number of American yogis has grown, that population has also gotten significantly more female (about 30 percent of yogis six years ago were men). And while that hasn’t seemed to stop or even slow the yoga juggernaut, it does leave billions of potential dollars on the table.
Was it just a marketing problem, I wondered? Was the idea of mind-body connection just too flowery? Too feminine? Had yoga reached one of Gladwell’s tipping points, sending it irreversibly toward feminization?
I dropped down to my hands and knees and followed the rest of the group in a “hip opening” exercise that felt a lot like slow-motion twerking. It became clear that we were not going to flex anything. I repeatedly popped my buttocks up into the air behind me, tried to avoid watching the dude six inches in front of me do the same, and continued to mull over my $10 billion question. I still didn’t know exactly why men weren’t comfortable in the yoga world — but I was starting to get some idea.