A few years before the yoga explosion hit, market research conducted by Management Decisions Inc. pointed out that yoga and meditation practitioners tend to be urbane and worldly, college educated and female. They were health-conscious professionals who loved natural foods, hung out in bookstores and coffee shops, participated in the arts and tended to be politically liberal. In other words, they were what sociologists call cosmopolites - or "cosmos" for short - young or empty-nesting city folk who appreciated diversity, were open to cultural alternatives, more sophisticated in their tastes and willing to experiment.
Today, I would guess big city yoga teachers can confirm much of the portrait painted by that dated market research. Students in larger urban centers hail from all over the United States as well as from Western and Central Europe, Canada, Asia and Australia. They are of all ages and walks of life, many working in medical, university and corporate fields.
Yoga Storm Hits the Coasts
Twenty-five years ago, city yoga in much of America seemed tucked away in funky neighborhoods, often near downtown or college campuses. It had an early association with things natural - bean sprouts, neti pots, massage therapy and vegetarianism - and many things on America's spiritual fringe- chanting "Om," New Age crystals, sitar-influenced music, bad-behaving Asian gurus. Yoga seemed more than slightly effeminate and definitely a fringe experience. Then something happened - first on the coasts, next in the mountain areas, later in the Heartland and the South. Yoga became popular to the mainstream and faddish to the health and beauty conscious. Still female-oriented, yoga seemed to explode by 2000 among what one marketing firm describes as America's "experiential consumers." These Gen Xers and Gen Yers followed the Hollywood glitterati and rock stars, models and mavens, the chic and the sleek, to the new studios expanding to meet the growing market demand. Others followed the advice of the growing number of health practitioners touting its benefits. This didn't happen by coincidence. Yoga seemed to be all over the national Pop Culture, from daytime talk shows and film star biographies to movies and magazines. Yoga practice had become the hottest fitness and wellness regimen, with its own star power. It was the latest high. The sweat, smiles and scented oils. The way one felt after a good workout and the way one looked. Books proliferated to meet market segments drawn to the practice - pre-natal women, folks over 50, those recovering from injury, cross training athletes, even people too busy to find the time to practice.
Today, more than just cosmos do yoga. Yoga Group, Inc., claims that since 2003 alone, there has been a 41 percent increase in yoga practitioners in the United States and a 45 percent increase in Canada, according to separate nationwide surveys. The Yoga Journal's paid circulation tripled between 1998 and 2005 and at least two-thirds of American health and fitness facilities now offer yoga, with its proportion doubling in six years. National research pegs the average practitioner as a thirty-something female. Did something get lost in this popularizing frenzy? Those tens of thousands drawn to the Eastern traditions back in the 1970s - college-educated young adults who explored their spiritual practices and some who spent years dedicated to them - no doubt feel the slow erosion of yoga's wisdom center, maybe not personally but on a societal level. At the same time, they may feel satisfaction as so many more have the ability to now experience its magic.
Mysticism as Transformation
Yoga is essentially about energy, the spiritual energy of love, light and vibration that pervades everything. This sounds so distressingly "New Agey," yet it is true. Some refer to the energy as prana, the life force. Others speak of its potent, rarified form Kundalini, the primordial energy resting at the base of the spine. It is real, experienced by those committed to the yogic path as a spiritual discipline and lucky enough to know a gifted teacher. It can be understood and integrated with one's daily life, and be transformative in its outcome. Otherwise, life can seem dull, deadened and holds little intrinsic meaning. This is yoga's liberating offer to us - the "super sale" - to its new consumers.
Dr. Lilian Silburn from Paris' Centre National de la Recherche Scientique has written scholarly works on yoga and Buddhism. In Kundalini: Energy of the Depths - a book on ancient, esoteric Indian texts and translated by Jacques Gontier - she points out that "only an initiated master having a comprehensive view is able to penetrate the mystery and work accordingly upon the Kundalini energy of a true and devoted disciple." This isn't the yoga done to a rock beat waffling through fitness clubs.
My friend Ted O'Malley knows these truths first hand. A Baby Boom professional, he is a cosmo yogi and spiritual shopper from the 1970s who checked into Hindu gurus crisscrossing North America. He settled down to practice Buddhist sitting meditation for two decades while taking up yoga. Practicing daily for 12 years, he occasionally took a class here or there. Then six years ago, at a time when yoga was taking off as the next hot product among fellow cosmopolites, he met a teacher who would change his life.
"I never met anyone like her. She seemed so powerful and other-worldly, so unconcerned with the trivialities of the day, yet so focused on what is essential, on love. And it didn't hurt that she's beautiful." Natalie grew up in California and Nevada and lived in ashrams (spiritual communities) in India and Canada studying with Hindu masters. She settled in a medium-sized Midwestern city in 1989 and began teaching yoga: "The yoga scene was relatively nonexistent back then," she said. "There were one or two studios that I was aware of. Not many people knew much about yoga."
Her classes are an eclectic mix of philosophy and meditation, asana or poses and pranayama or breath work, chanting and visualization. Having practiced yoga spirituality for 20 years, she says students often discover yoga gives them a "self-awareness which makes them curious to know more. They develop a keener awareness of the deeper truths about life, the beauty of life and their part in it." She is definitely not the spandex version of the yoga explosion. After two years of yoga practice with her three times a week, and beginning to feel his energy centers open through the poses, breath work, chanting and visualizations she taught, Ted began to have mystical experiences that he intuitively knew were associated with his yoga practice and with her.
"One evening I felt as if my mind was being pulled right out of my head. Maybe like that Vulcan mind-meld on the old Star Trek series. My first reaction was 'wo, hold on!' because it was scary and so I started chanting a mantra to calm and protect myself. Another night, I awoke to feel my chakras, my energy centers, being cleansed from bottom to top. A subtle but real experience. A Tibetan monk acquaintance of mine would tell me later that was how it was described in Buddhist tantric texts - from bottom to top."
On yet another, he awoke out of a dream to feel heat and then a burning sensation at his gut - what yogis call tapas - which spread over his chest. "In closing my eyes, I had a vision. I was a baby in diapers seated on the floor. My pudgy legs and hands extended out before me, with a block and a ball in front of me. This wasn't a dream. That was me, way back when."
With time and further reflection, Ted considered all these experiences yogic purifications written about in the ancient texts. "They are all preparations, all deep signposts to go even deeper." Deeper in a direction that popularized workout yoga cannot take us.
Demystifying the Mystified
Perhaps most profound was Ted's Kundalini experience that took place in his corporate office on an early November morning in 2002. "I was sitting in front of my PC, when I felt a slow-growing sensation that blossomed into the most intense pleasure that I have ever experienced in my body. It was nothing short of a spiritual orgasm, without erection or ejaculation or an object of pleasure." Just the pure energy of non-dual pleasure at his second chakra, those swirling energy vortices of human beings' subtle bodies, according to yoga physiology. But there is always an object of pleasure, he thought. But why not with this experience? "I jokingly thought to myself afterward, 'Well, excuse me, might I close the office door and light a cigarette?'" Ringing Natalie, she picked up the phone with an enigmatic "Ted, I hope you have something juicy to tell me."
These are aspects of yoga that remain on the fringe of the current boom. As Silburn describes it, the ancient Indian texts of the Kaula, Trika and Krana schools preserve the teachings and practices of its esoteric core. To serious practitioners, Kundalini energy is the universal, conscious energy manifested as rhythmic vibration, ungraspable and indescribable by our minds. It is source for both prana or the expansive and vital life force energy and virya or the virile and potent aspect of energetic intensity. Kundalini flows up the central energy channel (nadi) through the energy centers of the subtle body to the crown cakra at the top of the head. But that is a very rare achievement, even for those devoted to it over a lifetime.
Calling it "the ultimate achievement on the path of energy," Silburn explains that "a prerequisite is for the yogi to be naturally centered in the heart." It calls for authentic cultivation of Sahrdaya, a vibrant heart. One may be hard-pressed to find fitness yoga classes that give primacy to centering one's attention in the tender, open heart.
Through initiations known as vedhadiksa, spiritual teachers of particular yogic lineages, with clear intention and knowledge use their own Kundalini to enter the student's body, to pierce its energy centers, and to allow him to experience some of the effects of the ascent of Kundalini. Given its potency, this yoga remains secretive and is reserved for truly dedicated students while preserving yoga's essential nature and transformative power. In the wrong hands, it can have dangerous psychological consequences. But how does it operate? According to Silburn, ancient texts explain how "all along the nadis there are centers, placed one above the other, which the Kundalini has to pierce during her ascent. In ordinary persons these wheels neither revolve nor vibrate, they form inextricable tangles of coils, called accordingly "knots (granthi), because they knot spirit and matter, thus strengthening the sense of ego." She explains the knots near the base of the spine: "Some of these knots of energy, muladhara and bhru, are not easily loosened. Together they constitute the unconscious complexes (samskara) woven by illusion, and the weight and rigidity of the past offers a strong opposition to the passage of the spiritual force. Each knot, being an obstruction, must be loosened so that the energy released by the centers can be absorbed by Kundalini and thus regain its universality."
Intrinsic, Energetic Logic
This is Kundalini's natural and conscious propensity. Therefore, according to the yogic path, it is also the built-in human aspiration to seek liberation from ignorance, illusion and attachment. The skillful action of compassion, reflected in the open and vulnerable heart, is a key prerequisite to the unfolding of this process of transformation.
The same day that Ted's Kundalini awakened at work, he was healed physically in yoga class. Were the two experiences related? "I believe so," he surmises. In his evening yoga class with Natalie, he went into full wheel pose or Mandalasana only to experience an auditory crackling with the opening of his left palm as it flattened to the ground for the first time in 15 years. The woman next to him exclaimed, "What was that?"
The bones in his palm, including of his ring finger, had fused together years earlier. He had always associated that deformed palm with an intense but ill-fated love relationship. A tantric yoga teacher with a national reputation would tell him years later at Kripalu that it portended a love relationship that was "mis-hand-led." He never forgot the physiologic symbolism. Natalie approached him, "Let me see." Studying his now flattened palm, she shrugged and said, "This happens sometimes." Mystified by it all, Ted thanked her. But at the same time, he wasn't sure why.
So what do Ted's experiences mean and why are they important for us? They point toward the more expansive possibilities for self transformation tied to yoga as a spiritual practice, to its subtle geography of the body and an ethereal storehouse of memory not recognized by mainstream medicine or psychiatry. The healing here is a pleasurable rooting-out at a deep level beyond the physical body but manifested in it. Here we find emotional trauma solidified in deformity but released through a liberating elixir. Here too is energetic communication between human beings transcending speech where focused attention, will, determination and love by a teacher trigger a potent energy transmission that acts as seeds for change. This embodies the wondrous but wholly pragmatic yogic worldview where much more of human experience is first made plausible and then possible for us to attain. Unfortunately, Ted's experience - his humble rendition of An Autobiography of a Yogi - is countered by so many seemingly comic book versions of fitness yogis portrayed in the mass media. Spiritual experience is trivialized and vaguely understood or neglected altogether.
Yoga's Ordinary Magic
It is easy then to juxtapose yoga as spiritual path with the yoga of the superficial - the glitz and hype of a physical approach associated with exercise workouts. Could it be otherwise? Can a competitive electronic media, and the American public it seduces, grasp yoga's promise of real transformation without "dumbing it down?" Or must it trivialize authentic spiritual experience like Ted's into a 15-minute tell-all on NBC Primetime entitled: Esoterica: Yoga's Hidden World? "It would be doomed to fail and only scratch the surface," Ted laughs, "while placing it in the same category of supernatural sensationalism with ghosts, near-death experience and UFOs in the public mind."
Despite yoga's packaged superficiality today, it can manifest as magic in our lives - as an unfolding whenever we open the body, mind and heart. There are many teachers across the country that can aid in this process. They may not be able to trigger the fundamental yet subtle change in their students as Natalie can. Such spiritual yoga teachers are a precious few, a "wish-fulfilling gem" for those lucky enough to discover one.
But many can and do authentically help their students begin to explore how they treat themselves as physical, social and spiritual beings. In this sense, the recent expansion and popularizing of yoga - first among the cosmos and then among many others - provides hope for us all. Its gift to the world can continue to be shared and opened by those who seek its hidden and real benefits on their own path of transformation.