Yoga Stretches into the South
The Yoga Alliance’s Chief Yoga Advancement Officer Andrew Tanner made the above quip, citing the 2016 presidential debates in which Cruz told then-presidential candidate Donald Trump to breathe, and yoga jokes started to fly on stage.
“I don’t know of any major fitness chain that doesn’t have yoga classes,” Tanner says. “Yoga is transcending cultural norms. It’s becoming a deep part of Americana.”
Nine out of 10 Americans say they know what yoga is, according to the Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal’s “2016 Yoga in America Study,” polling more than 3,700 Americans. This is up from seven people out of 10, reported in 2012.
Across the nation, practitioners, defined as people who have practiced yoga within the last six months, are 70 percent women, and come from all age groups, though the 30 to 39-year-old group is largest at 23 percent of the practicing population, followed by the 60-plus group at 21 percent.
The largest concentrations of yoga practitioners in the United States are still on the coasts. In August 2017, the city of New York was home to 3,958 registered teachers and Los Angeles hosted 2,030 teachers. These numbers are likely half the reality, as Tanner said the Yoga Alliance estimates 50 percent of practicing teachers register with the organization.
In the study, the South—encompassing Texas and Oklahoma in the west eastward to Florida and North Carolina —makes up 37 percent of the nation’s total population, and 32 percent of the nation’s yoga practitioners. But those numbers are due to the way the regions are drawn on the map—with the south being larger than either coasts.
“The reality is the state of California alone is 10 percent of all yoga practitioners in the country,” said Tanner. “In the South, most of the yoga is isolated to particular city pockets.”
Tanner sites Houston, Dallas and Austin, Texas, as southern cities where yoga is popular, though the entire state of Texas has 2,563 registered teachers, less than the city of LA.
“I wouldn’t say the South is that far behind,” Tanner says. “Nowadays, I wouldn’t’ say that anyone is that far behind.”
According to the Yoga Alliance study, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia lead the southern region in percent of population practicing yoga, 15 to 20 percent. That’s the second highest category of participation, following some of the coastal states that have 20 percent or more of their populations practicing yoga.
One way that the South at large could be distinguishing itself from the rest of the nation in yoga is a burgeoning proliferation of Christian yoga practitioners.
When the Yoga Alliance’s Andrew Tanner searched the Yoga Alliance database for Christian yoga teacher training schools, he found six schools, five of which were in Georgia, Arizona, New Mexico and Tennessee. Two were in Greater Atlanta; Kennesaw’s New Day Yoga and Christ Centered Yoga in Norcross.
Renee Prymus, managing editor for ChristiansPracticingYoga.com, defined Christians practicing yoga—she and fellow practitioners prefer that exact term to “Christian Yoga,” out of respect for the origins of yoga—as standard yoga poses with Christian music, the reading of biblical passages, prayers, or simply the intent a person holds as they practice. She had no hard numbers to back up a statement that the Christians practicing yoga movement was more popular in the South, but anecdotally she said it may be.
“Susan Bordenkircher, from Alabama, published ‘Yoga for Christians’ in 2006, a book that I consider to be one of the best Christian how-to manuals for yoga out there. Also in 2006, Dayna Gelinas, of Kennesaw, Georgia, started her studio New Day Yoga, yoga from a Christian perspective, which is now a teacher training school as well,” writes Prymus. “So, yes, I think it is safe to say that Christian yoga teacher certification is on the rise, and that two pieces of that movement come directly from the south.”
Another distinguishing feature for Southern yoga could be the geographic benefits the South has to offer yoga practitioners.
Melissa Katz, along with co-organizer Nicole Jurovics, runs Southeast Yoga Retreats. She and Jurovics take students on one or two trips a year in locations around the Southeast. Previous destinations include Hilton Head, South Carolina, and Jeckyll Island, Georgia.
“We just think there’s so many wonderful places to retreat to in the Southeast. You’ve got the mountains, you’ve got the beach, and you’ve got most of the year that you can go on yoga retreat without being in 10 feet of snow,” Katz says.
Swami Jaya Devi Bhagavati founded urban ashram Kashi Atlanta in 1998. The ashram houses residential students and teachers who practice yoga physically, philanthropically and philosophically. Devi studied at the Kashi ashram in Florida, which has other extensions in Los Angeles and New York.
“I think across the United States there’s been a whole transformation in the yoga scene, especially in the last 20 years,” says Devi. “When I opened my first yoga studio in 1997-98 there were only two other yoga studios in Atlanta. Yoga was relatively fringe at that time. Now I think there are 20 studios within two miles of my studio. You know, they’re everywhere. I think there’s something about yoga that quenches a thirst people have for something that’s spiritual but not religious.”
Kashi ashram offers yoga and meditation classes, cleanse workshops and philanthropic programs such as yoga for incarcerated women. The ashram is also a school for training teachers.
“I think because yoga has existed in New York and LA, because they’ve had a longer tradition, I think they may have more seasoned teachers. They’re in their 50s and 60s and 70s, so they’ve lived it for a longer time. I think that you accrue wisdom over the years,” Devi says. “Atlanta and the South might be a little younger in those things, but I think the depth seeking is there.”