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YOGA, INC. Where dollars meet divinity 

Is the bustling business of yoga good karma?

According to the latest polls, about 18 million Americans now practice yoga. The average yoga practitioner's yearly expenditure on all things yoga -- instruction, mats, props, clothing, weekend workshops, books, CDs -- comes to ballpark $1,500, conservatively speaking. That amount, times 18 million equals $27 billion. To put that into perspective, if the yoga business were consolidated, the resulting corporation (Yoga-Mart?) would be slightly larger than Dow Chemical, slightly smaller than Microsoft. That's big. And it's getting bigger. Mainstream retailers like J. Crew and Puma have been selling their own lines of yoga gear for some time now, and Nike is just introducing its first yoga shoe (the Kyoto, $55 retail).

Some people (granted, not many) are getting rich off yoga. One executive we spoke with, whose company is one of the largest sellers of yoga paraphernalia, makes a quarter-million per year in salary. That's in addition to the manager's stock options, which over the last several years have totaled $1.4 million. When asked by a YJ reporter to comment on such good fortune, this executive responded testily, "To take this [discussion] into my salary is to trivialize what we do here. I feel compromised by your asking me that question. People are expected to make a living. And besides, you have no clue what I do with my worldly goods -- what, for instance, I give to charity. I'm very upset with you."

A touch of soul-scraping ambivalence? Perhaps. If so, our executive is far from alone. Throughout the yoga community, people are wondering whether the bustling business of yoga is good karma. Is it OK to make big money off a practice that has its roots in renunciation and asceticism? Is the commercialization of yoga messing with its very essence? And what's next for the yoga biz, now that we've already seen the marketing of yogatards, yoga shoes, yogi pillows (stuffed with buckwheat hulls), the $1200 "tantric bedroom set" (for adults only), and a battery-operated, inflatable "Chi machine"?

Where dollars meet divinity Yoga isn't the only spiritual practice to become commercialized. Far from it. Just name a church. Any church. There's a store that goes with it. Christianity is huge business, from the selling of Christmas spirit and the ($1.8 billion) Bible and book trade, to the thriving market for Christian pop music and weight-loss classes. Apparel is the latest wrinkle in New Testament merchandising, with the recent advent of companies such as God's Gear Gospel Wear, Living Epistles, and Exodus. In a 2001 survey done by the Christian Booksellers Association, 34 percent of adults say they have shopped in a store that specializes in Christian products in the past six months.

You can be sure that other religions have their own shops. Just cruise the Web. Go to www.jewjew.com, and you can buy a gentleman's 14-karat Star of David ring for $1100. Or go to www.judaica-online.com to buy a stuffed Torah for the kids. Looking for a Quran baseball cap, jersey, coffee mug or perhaps a nice tote bag? Check out www.my-muslim.com. If you are into Transcendental Meditation, buy TM-approved beverages, nutritional supplements, books and CDs at www.maharishi.co.uk. Even E-bay has opened itself to the spiritual marketplace. One man from Des Moines recently offered his soul for sale. The bidding rose from $1 up to $400 before E-bay pulled the item down.

The marketing of spirituality began long, long before there was a worldwide web, says Chava Weissler, PhD, professor of religion studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. She remarks that during the Middle Ages, it was not uncommon for ragged vendors along dirt roads to hawk souvenirs such as pieces of earth from the Holy Land, chunks of the Holy Cross, and shreds of bone or garments from the body of some popular saint.

Protestantism was in part born in reaction to what was seen as over-commercialization in the Catholic Church, specifically the selling of indulgences -- "get-out-of-hell-free cards" -- by the Vatican. Pope Leo X began selling them to pay back the money borrowed to build St. Peter's Basilica, and Martin Luther was outraged. "I grieve over the wholly false impressions which the people have conceived. . .they are sure of their salvation; again, that so soon as they cast their contributions into the money-box, should fly out of purgatory," wrote Luther in 1517.

Several centuries later, with the founding of the New World, despite Luther's earlier protestations, religious marketing was still growing, and suddenly got a boost.

"America was founded largely by people who sought religious and economic freedoms. Here came the opening of the world's first free market for spirituality," says Laurence R. Iannaccone, PhD, professor of economics at Santa Clara University in California. Here people could practice whatever religion they wished, and they were also free to capitalize on it. One of the earliest Americans to do so was Benjamin Franklin who, while no Sunday churchgoer himself, made good money selling religious pamphlets.

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