06/16/2011 12:08 pm ET | Updated Aug 16, 2011

It's a Woman Thing

Anyone reading the headlines about Lady Gaga taking up yoga and Jennifer Aniston committing to downward dogs for life and Michelle Obama advocating yoga for health would have to conclude that Americans heart yoga. But the sheer volume of headlines, the constant bleating of yoga's benefits -- "Yoga for Stress Relief in Infertility," "Yoga for Hangovers,‎" "Yoga: More Reasons To Do It" -- belie a gnawing skepticism. It's as if we keep having to defend yoga against an invisible army of unbelievers. These are in fact real ghosts. Until quite recently, yoga boosters and critics were equally matched. As it turns out, our ambivalence about yoga has been as tenacious as the fad, and the reason is pretty simple: it's a woman thing.

When Indian yoga teachers first arrived in America at the turn of the 20th century, wealthy American women became their earliest fans and benefactors. Not only that, a good number of these prominent women very actively helped build the Swamis' organizations -- which functioned much like any other religious organization, offering both instruction in yoga and yoga philosophy, and a place to practice. People like Sara Bull, a Cambridge widow whose moves were tracked in the society pages, helped finance the Vedanta Society and played an active role in connecting Swami Vivekananda to the professors and intellectuals who might legitimize him. On her death, Bull bequeathed much of her wealth to the Vedanta Society (though that version of her will was later nullified).

The early involvement of women in American yoga has had a couple of tenacious effects. The first is that Americans were not sure whether or not to take it seriously. Often yoga has been dismissed as merely a past-time of middle-class wives. The moments when the discipline has surged in popularity, the late 1940s, the late 1960s, and the mid-1990s (when the current boom began), are moments when men have taken an interest in yoga again; often the very fact of their interest is an occasion for a report about yoga, which sets of a chain reaction of reconsideration and experimentation. You can find plenty of examples of this today, but my favorite is from 1994, when one Mike Tharp testified to the rigors of Bikram yoga: "By the time we had finished four postures and begun the 'standing-head-knee' pose, I was drenched in sweat. And I was scared -- the way I used to be at the end of a three-hour basketball practice in college, just before we ran wind sprints... Forget peaceful, this was serious."

The other main effect of women's early association with yoga and the Swamis who brought it here has been to intensify fear Americans already harbored toward yogis and their strange rites. There was no question that Americans' first brush with yoga was laden with Christian disapprobation, not to mention the ambivalence many Swamis, themselves educated in British run institutions, carried toward their own tradition. For a long time, yoga was synonymous with fire walking, hanging from hooks, and other mortifications of the flesh. And yogis were mountebanks, plain and simple.

Those American women who developed friendships with and became students of the first Swamis to come here met with much disapproval. It's fair to say that when the details of Sara Bull's will were made public, these caused a moral panic, with much inked spilled about the corrupting influence of yoga and its purveyors. Racism was at the root of this aversion to yoga, but so was misogyny. (The men who took up the practice -- and not mistreating their students -- were met with a wary admiration.) And the women who took up yoga as something akin to a career spurred the most virulent reactions. What most threatened observers was the possibility that yoga might be more than a hobby, like embroidery, that fit around women's familial duties.

Now the biggest objections to the practice tend, at least explicitly, to center around how yoga has become an industry. Those 16 million American yoga students, it's often suggested, have lost sight of the discipline's real purpose. But here I again, I wonder how much of this critique has to do with contemporary forms of yoga or misgivings about women's role within the yoga world. If yoga is an industry, it's one dominated by women, and it's growing. (Though appearances are deceiving; among the most visible yoga teachers, only a minority have attained substantial wealth, and those who have are, you guessed it, mostly male!)

Next time you see a headline like this one -- "Tara Stiles, Yoga Rebel, Draws Claims of Heresy" -- keep in mind that those eight words are carrying the freight of more than a century. We still don't know quite what do with yoga because we have yet to fully reckon with women and power.