Yoga and Fitness, or Yoga vs. Fitness? – Jen Cronan Corley


Yoga is a huge and growing business in the United States, in part because many Americans have come to view it first and foremost it as a means for attaining physical fitness. Yoga is a regular fixture on gym class schedules and provides the foundation for countless workout DVDs. Many celebrities attribute their physiques to a regular yoga practice, and one local Bikram yoga studio – where practitioners sweat it out in a 105-degree room – promises “fit into your skinny jeans…from high school!” In 2012, yoga and pilates studios accounted for 15.2% of total fitness sector revenue, up from 11.7% in 2007, representing a 7.7% average year-over-year growth rate.[i]


Yoga’s current place in the fitness-conscious American psyche is somewhat ironic given its historical and spiritual roots. Hatha yoga, or that which we associate with physical postures (asana), was originally developed to condition the body for meditation. Other traditional yoga practices are concerned only with the practice of meditation, or other “higher” pursuits including attainment of wisdom, devotion to the divine, or service to others. Hatha yoga does not play a meaningful role in foundational yogic texts such as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, often described as the “Bible” of yoga. In the Yoga Sutras, asana is considered a tool in the yogi’s cultivation of awareness, but is one of the “outer” observances, along with personal discipline and right conduct. The “inner” observances (including control of the senses, concentration, meditation, and super-consciousness) are viewed as the more profound expressions of yoga. The much later Hatha Yoga Pradipika, dating from the 15th century CE, is generally considered the first treatise on the practice of asana. It sets forth the mechanics and benefits of many of the postures we practice today, including Padmasana (lotus pose), Kurmasana (tortoise pose), Matsyasana (fish pose), and Dhanurasana (bow pose), among others.


So, how did a practice based largely on a 600-year-old Indian text become one of the most popular and fastest-growing segments of the American fitness industry? Fast forward from the 15th century to 1893, the year Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda traveled to Chicago to participate in a Parliament of Religions at the World’s Fair. During the decade following the fair and preceding his death, he toured the United States and Europe, speaking publicly about Hinduism and the philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga. Today, he is frequently credited with introducing Yoga to the West.


Vivekananda set the stage by introducing Americans to yogic philosophy, but a yogi known as Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya is the teacher considered the “grandfather” of American yoga. One of his most well-known disciples was Indra Devi, the daughter of a Russian noblewoman who rose to fame as an actress in India and later opened a studio in Hollywood. She counted Greta Garbo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek as students and taught yoga at Elizabeth Arden’s spas in Maine and Arizona.[ii]


Krishnamacharya also taught the hugely influential yogis T.K.V Deiskachar (1888-1989), Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009), and B.K.S. Iyengar (1918- ). These three giants of American yoga developed the Viniyoga, Ashtanga, and Iyengar methods of yoga, respectively. Viniyoga, a system further developed by the Oakland-based American Viniyoga Institute, is differentiated from other systems by its linking of breath and repetitive movement as well as its focus on the experience of asana rather than attainment of perfect form.[iii]  Ashtanga yoga also places great emphasis on the linking of breath and movement, but is a faster-moving, more physically demanding fixed set of postures. It provides the inspiration for many classes billed as “power,” “flow,” or “Vinyasa” yoga. Finally, Iyengar yoga is characterized by its precise alignment principles, focus on long holds of standing postures, careful (but varied) sequencing, and individually-tailored use of props and posture modifications.


As the 20th century progressed, yoga slowly adapted itself to American sensibilities, finding progressively wider acceptance and appeal. At first, yoga was associated with the counterculture and “New Age” thinking. Swami Satchidananda, a well-known teacher and the author of a best-selling translation of the Yoga Sutras, opened the Woodstock festival in 1969. Throughout the 1970s, ashrams (residential yoga centers), institutes, and studios cropped up throughout the United States, and particularly on the West Coast. At the beginning, yoga retained much of its orientation toward introspection and spiritual development. However, with the increasing popularity of more physically-demanding styles such as Ashtanga yoga in the later decades of the 20th century, the practice became closely linked with health and fitness. Undoubtedly this phenomenon was influenced by the American exercise craze of the 1970s and 1980s, when jogging, bodybuilding, and Jane Fonda DVDs exploded in popularity.


Today, roughly 30% of Americans do no weekly exercise; however, they are the minority compared to the 19% who exercise one or two days a week and the 52% who exercise three or more days a week.[iv] Yogis make up a significant percentage of fitness devotees – 9% of American adults practice some form of yoga, and of those who don’t currently practice, 44% are interested in trying yoga in the future. Physical fitness benefits are among the major motivators for starting a yoga practice, with 78% of respondents citing a desire for greater flexibility and 62% seeking general conditioning. [v]


While these figures suggest that most Americans consider yoga a vehicle for physical fitness (e.g., strength, flexibility, weight loss, muscle tone), many see the practice as more broadly beneficial. In the study cited above, respondents were also drawn to yoga’s potential for stress reduction (60%) and ability to improve overall health (59%). Others value it as a tool for coping with physical pain, anxiety, depression, chronic illness, or injury. Of course, many yogis also remain drawn to the introspective, spiritual nature of hatha yoga, something it shares with all other forms of yoga.


I have taught and taken classes with many yogis for whom yoga initially represented a form of exercise, but eventually became an integral part of their physical as well as mental, emotional, and spiritual health. The yogic tradition has endured through the centuries, adapting to time and place by continuing to promote wellness in a variety of contexts. For you, that may mean fitting into your skinny jeans or meditating your way to enlightenment, or anything in between. Whatever your motivation for getting on your mat, and whichever style of hatha yoga speaks to you, the important thing is to come back to it regularly.


Jen Cronan Corley, RYT-200 hour (500 pending), is an Oakland-based YogaAlliance certified yoga instructor teaching classes, workshops, and private clients throughout the Bay Area. Jen has studied under a variety of yogic traditions over the last 12 years and is trained as a teacher of the YogaWorks method, which blends the principles of Iyengar, Ashtanga, and Viniyoga. Her approach emphasizes injury prevention through proper alignment and sequencing, the linking of breath and movement, and respect for both the power and limitations of human bodies. She is passionate about working with special populations including students suffering from chronic stress, anxiety, or depression; expectant and new mothers; kids; and those interested in learning how to incorporate both yoga and nutritional education into their wellness regimens.


[iii] American Viniyoga Institue article, “What is Viniyoga?”

[v] 2012 YogaJournal “Yoga in America” market study,