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We Are Yoga

On airports, breathing, and the commodification of an ancient spiritual practice.

We Are Yoga

I didn’t notice the sign until the second-to-last day of 2013. I was waiting to board a flight from San Francisco to New York, and throughout the fall months I had read countless articles on how the city of my birth had changed, due to rent wars, tech takeovers, and an influx of twenty-first century pioneers in North Face fleece and sandals. I was under the impression–confirmed just that week by the sight of the newly arrived and quite conspicuous wealth in the city’s formerly down at heels downtown–that Northern California was a center of industry. That this had also been the case when I was growing up was beside the point; something about this bubble was different, worth paying attention to, and I was prepared to notice every slight difference in narcissism between the city I was from and the one I had moved to. It was in this state of mind, as if on cue, that the sign in SFO’s Terminal 2 revealed itself to me, plainly announcing that there was a room, over there, specifically for doing yoga in the airport.

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There it was: San Francisco, as presumptuous, health-conscious, and at my service as ever. Later I learned that, while it was the first to open a yoga room, SFO was not the only airport with this amenity. Dallas-Fort Worth, O’Hare, and Burlington International all had yoga rooms; San Diego had commissioned a mediation space designed by a Seattle-based artist; and Helsinki and Dubai had Zen gardens, all for the purpose of bringing some relaxation to the harried, traveling masses. Yoga and meditation, taken out of the context of the home or a private studio, were now starting to be like Wi-Fi and electrical outlets: a given. These are rights, not privileges.

I’m not the kind of person who would get excited about this. I am the kind of person who would mock those rooms and the people using them, and who would later worry while airborne about the effect sitting in a tight space for so many hours will have on her spine, which she was once told was abnormally curved by a doctor who accepted a Groupon.

Yoga studio signage at SFO airportPhoto: Flickr user Mike Procario

That is, I’m probably part of what some people would pejoratively call the “worried well.” My stress finds ways to manifest itself physically; I have weeklong migraines and unexplained lower back pain, and my leg spasms five minutes before I fall asleep, without fail. This creates more stress, which creates more pain, and the cycle seems like it could kill me. I asked my doctor years ago, when the pain in my back was acute and I did not have the insurance to go to a chiropractor, what I could do. I liked my doctor. He was a short, gentle person, who seemed to think I was doing just fine. “Have you done yoga?” he asked genuinely. “Well, yeah,” I said. “Do more of it,” he replied.

I am part of the problem of yoga being a Western commodity, treated less like a practice and more like a pill. Yoga has a profound, multi-faceted identity, with centuries of religious and spiritual history behind it. But my engagement with it has been the result of reading magazine articles advising me to use it as a supplement to my running routine. I did Bikram four times a week for a few years, which I don’t know how I afforded, and I did vinyasa yoga at a spa for another few years, which was slightly better for my wallet until I had to move. Then I did the classes offered at my gym for a while, until a remarkably undermining massage therapist told me that I was “too flexible” to do yoga in an environment where the emphasis was on cardio and I was probably overextending myself. She’s mean, but I like her.

I have also purchased several items from Lululemon Athletica, also when I really could not afford them. Lululemon reportedly brought in $1.37 billion in 2013, thanks to those of us who enjoy stretchy pants and racer-back tank tops. In 2011, they started printing “Who Is John Galt?” on their bags, referring to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as a sort of shorthand, I guess, for how the company views achievement. That this runs contra the Bhaghavad Gita’s philosophy of yoga as the pursuit of action without desire for its fruits doesn’t seem to have had any effect on the company’s revenues. In fact, none of the unappealing beliefs that the founder, Dennis “Chip” Wilson, has professed have diminished Lululemon’s success. Wilson has said publicly that birth control pills and women adopting too much stress in the workplace caused more instances of breast cancer; that his company is named because it’s amusing to him when Japanese people cannot pronounce the letter L; that children should be able to work in factories in the third world; and he list goes on. The cognitive dissonance between the product and the lifestyle it’s meant to furnish is staggering.

But let’s be forgiving and centered and give the guy some credit. He spotted the trendiness of yoga as a beacon of modern wellness, and he capitalized on it at the right time. If you talked to a 1995 businessperson about what they do to manage their stress, you might hear about racquetball or a squishy toy that they squeeze while on important phone calls. But talk to a person of that stature now and you are more likely to hear about meditation apps than steam rooms. Executive workshops now include meditation and mindfulness on their curricula, and companies like Google and McKinsey are teaching employees breathing techniques to manage stress. Clearer minds lead to smarter captains of industry, or so goes the prevailing thought. And Wilson agrees: his foray into the meditation game is “whil,” a startup that isn’t so much a company as it is a piece of advice with a web presence.

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Whil means to assist those who want to become more productive, with a 60-second breathing technique concocted by Wilson and his wife. “If I look back at where yoga started in 1998,” Wilson told Business Insider when whil.com launched, “it was never in a hotel, never in a workplace, no one ever talked about it. And where it is now, I think we can see the same growth rate for meditation.” One study, the site claims, put people who had taken an eight-week meditation course and people who had not in a situation where they had the chance to give up their seat to someone on crutches. “50% of those who had attended meditation classes gave up their seat compared with just 15% of people who had not.” Not only does meditation earn you more money and make you smarter, but it also makes you a better person.

The strange part in all of this, besides the apparent ingenuity of breathing in and out, is the absence of a profit. Whil.com doesn’t have anything for sale. It seems fairly obvious that I’m not going to buy pants specifically to meditate in. And the yoga rooms in SFO and elsewhere are free as well. There are no fancy instructors with headsets. It’s simply a small space with mats, where cell phones aren’t allowed and patrons are instructed to take off their shoes.

It’s how these activities are qualified that remains Western and weird. Meditation is not for communicating with a personal deity; it’s for honing your ability to absorb data. Yoga is not for erasing ego and self-interest; it’s for preparing to get on an airplane and travel for business, pleasure, or both. That these pitches sell the practices is not surprising. But the ways in which the practices have evolved, how they influence our public spaces and our dwindling store of time, still surprise me. What will be normal next?