Yoga, a modern practice rooted in over 5000 years of ancient Indian texts and traditions, continues to gain popularity in the United States. A new survey conducted by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal reports that the number of Americans doing yoga has grown by over 50% in the last four years to over 36 million as of 2016, up from 20.4 million in 2012. In addition, nine out of 10 Americans have heard of yoga, one in three Americans has tried yoga at least once, and more than 15% of Americans have done yoga in the last 6 months.
More than a third of Americans say they are very likely to try yoga in the next year. While the majority of yoga practitioners are women (70%), the number of American men doing yoga has more than doubled, going from 4 million in 2012 to 10 million in 2016. The number of American adults over 50 doing yoga has tripled over the last four years to reach 14 million.
A look at the benefits all these new yogis can enjoy
Three out of four Americans believe that “yoga is good for you,” and medical science backs them up: Yoga has been shown to improve health. Several studies have found that yoga can help improve cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, balance, and overall quality of life — and it can even reduce stress, anxiety, and pain. In addition, people who do yoga are 20% more likely to have a positive image of their own physical and mental health, including a stronger sense of mental clarity, physical fitness, flexibility, and strength.
Yoga can usher you towards a healthier lifestyle as well. The survey found that people who do yoga are far more physically active than those who don’t — 75% of yogis participate in sports or other fitness activities. Yoga practitioners are also more likely to “live green” and eat sustainably. This is consistent with results from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey, which found that yoga motivated nearly two-thirds of people to exercise more and 40% of people to eat healthier. Of course, it’s possible that people drawn to yoga may be more likely to be more active already. But yoga has been shown to improve physical and mental health and overall quality of life in those who are new to yoga and are not typically physically active.
Even though many people in the West get into yoga for physical fitness and stress relief, their initial motivations can change. While contemporary Western yoga tends to focus on yoga as physical exercise, yoga is actually much broader than physical poses alone and includes a rich history of philosophical and ethical principles, breathing exercises, and meditation. Many yoga teachers integrate lessons on important principles, such as kindness, truthfulness, and self-discipline. Many people stay in yoga for a sense of community, purpose, and self-actualization. Yoga practitioners are also more likely to volunteer — nearly 50% of yoga practitioners report that they donate time to the community.
Why some people aren’t jumping on the bandwagon — and what the yoga community can do about it
One of the survey’s most interesting results reveals the most common reason people don’t try yoga. Often, people see yoga as exclusive — designed primarily for young women or for those who are already flexible, athletic, or spiritual. This finding can hopefully inspire the yoga community to work on making yoga more accessible and inclusive, regardless of a person’s gender, age, current level of flexibility or fitness, or relationship with spirituality.
The fundamental philosophy of yoga encourages being non-judgmental and compassionate to others and ourselves. Yoga is not about perfection or performing a beautiful pose to show other people on Instagram. It’s not a competition of flexibility, nor is it about comparing yourself to the person next to you in yoga class or achieving a challenging pose found on the cover of Yoga Journal.
Yoga is about becoming attuned to our individual self — body and mind — and making room for exactly where we are, while letting go of judgment. The more we do yoga, the more we can recognize that even our own states can change day to day, moment to moment. As just one example, in yoga practice, poses can be modified based on your own body, including your degree of flexibility or how you’re feeling that day. While there are alignment guidelines to help keep postures safe, poses can and should be tailored to the individual. You can use props like blocks, chairs, straps, blankets, or even the wall to find a version of the pose that feels right for you.
As yoga continues to become more popular in the U.S., we must not lose the true spirit of yoga as one of compassion, awareness, and acceptance. With this message of inclusivity, yoga and its benefits can become more accessible.