From Hot Yoga to Tae Bo: How American Fitness Trends Went GlobalRoundup
tags: cultural history, consumer culture, Fitness, exercise
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela teaches history at the New School. This article has been adapted from her Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession, forthcoming from Chicago University Press in January 2023.
Remember “being in your body”? In the 1960s and ’70s, a crop of counterculturalists argued that corporeal awareness was crucial not only to self-actualization but also to social transformation. Flocking to an expanding network of retreats, New Age bookstores, and organic food stands, they embraced “embodied practices”—as they began to be called—as a means of liberation from the inauthentic, technocratic, and spiritually bankrupt modern world. The yoga mat was considered one such experimental and even revolutionary space, thanks, in part, to how yoga married non-Western spirituality with physical work that could be positively transcendent.
Within a decade, yoga was beginning to converge with a mainstream fitness culture focused on physical beauty and individualistic self-improvement that some of its more radical acolytes rejected outright. Whether through “Hatha for Stretching” courses at the local YMCA or a Slimming With Yoga paperback shelved next to jogging manuals, entrepreneurs began to capitalize on a growing appetite for “exotic” antidotes to the inauthenticity and excess of American life. Such unapologetically inner-focused seeking sparked ridicule from social critics like Christopher Lasch and Tom Wolfe, who derided yoga and other such pursuits as symptomatic of a “culture of narcissism” typical of the “Me Generation.”
American yoga participation stalled during the 1980s while aerobics classes boomed, but the ’90s saw its resurgence and transformation from esoteric spiritual practice to a commercial juggernaut. By the end of the decade, a solidly established fitness industry was powered by enthusiastic consumers, many of whom had injuries from years of high-impact exercise. Beyond the gym, a cultural moment that prized—and commodified—both the pursuit of health and a moderate form of multiculturalism provided fertile soil for the rise of Bikram Choudhury.
Choudhury, an Indian immigrant who favored loincloths, Rolex watches, and luxury cars, most famously and lucratively blended intense physical fitness and yoga. Accused in 2013 of rape, intimidation, and displays of general misanthropy—such as publicly yelling at a student to “suck in your fat fucking stomach”—Choudhury has since come to be inextricably associated with such abuse. But a certain grandiosity was always indispensable to the rigorous, heated yoga program that propelled him to fame. Choudhury fancied himself a “human blacksmith” who fashioned flesh instead of metal, boasting that his cures lasted a lifetime whereas doctors’ waiting rooms were always filled with patients battling the same unresolved afflictions. Typical coverage mentioned his blissed-out followers, who overcame physical ills and “traded their shrink for yoga class.” One journalist admiringly relayed Choudhury’s belief that no one in top physical shape needs more than four hours’ sleep a night and described him, in between sips of Coca-Cola, yelling at a student who missed one day of class that “24 hours without me, it’s no wonder you can’t sleep and are having a bad day.”
In Choudhury’s version of his life story, he had emigrated to California, by way of Japan, in the early 1970s after a successful career as a bodybuilder and competitive yoga champion—a discipline he discovered after an accident with a barbell shattered his femur. Believing that only “false yogis” charged money for their wisdom, he began teaching yoga for free at Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel and at weight-loss spas. But by 1974, realizing that wealth signified status in his adopted country, he opened studios in Hawaii and Beverly Hills. With the heat turned up to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, Choudhury sat atop a red plush barstool he called his “throne,” guiding students through his signature series of 26 postures and breathing exercises over 90 minutes. He wrote a 1978 mass-market book, Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class, and appeared on The Tonight Show. By the ’80s, his Beverly Hills studio was reportedly bringing in $1,000 a day. Celebrities such as Shirley MacLaine, Raquel Welch, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sang his praises. Choudhury credited this ascent to fame and fortune to his most prominent pupil, Richard Nixon, who helped him get a green card after his yoga therapies saved the president from a leg amputation due to thrombosis. Choudhury’s narrative is unsubstantiated—from the yoga championships, which did not commence in India until the mid-’70s, to the Nixon anecdote—but its uncritical repetition contributed to his material success, which was undeniable.