Rochelle Livingstone was eight when a “hippie” school teacher introduced her to yoga.
Eastern spiritual practices were scant in her suburb of Highbury, north London. But by her mid-teens, Ms Livingstone had joined up with “old ladies in a village hall” to perform sun salutes.
Then, in her 20s, she moved to Sydney, fell in love with the eastern suburbs, and found a yoga studio in which to develop her practice.
Now 37, Ms Livingstone has undergone teacher training three times and specialises in hatha. She also takes meditation and “breathwork” classes.
But her day job is in marketing and communications — an industry that conjures stereotypes of busy schedules, big personalities and a “work hard, play harder” mentality.
It’s also inherently linked with consumerism, an economic ideology that feels far removed from the Hindu roots of yoga and the Buddhist origins of meditation and mindfulness.
Increasingly, this ideology is becoming entwined with spiritual practices, particularly in the West.
And for Ms Livingstone, the melding of marketing, meditation and yoga isn’t a clash of values.
“I put on a music, arts and yoga camping event and it ties in all the things I’m passionate about, so it’s very easy for me to market something that I believe in,” she says.
“I think once you find it as a passion you’re probably more likely to go off and find your own preferred method of practice that isn’t necessarily led by consumerism.”
Style over substance?
But at what point does the commodification of something dilute its substance?
Yoga student Lauren Anseline’s practice began as a concerted effort to avoid consumerist fitness programs.
“I was never one of those people who liked the gym,” she says.
“I’d been to one in my life and it just seemed really consumerist — you’re working on your body, and you want to look really good, you wear all the freshest new clothes, and have this lifestyle of ‘going to the gym’.”
She says that image-focussed mentality is filtering into yoga practice, too.
“Yoga has become something in Western culture that’s a bit more material-based, with all the ridiculous yoga clothes and that culture you can buy into,” she says.
“The idea that enlightenment can be sold as a consumerist thing, it’s maybe indicative of the society we live in. People want to pay money for a membership to a yoga studio to achieve some kind of happiness.
“Maybe that just shows we’re always searching for something because in our growing secular society we don’t have that spirituality to focus on anymore.”
Removing religion from the equation
Monima Chadha, the head of philosophy at Monash University, says the secularisation of these spiritual practices began in 1970s America.
“There are two pioneers in America: one is Jon Kabat-Zinn, who started what is called the ‘mindfulness-based stress reduction’ movement, and the other pioneer was Alan Wallace,” she says.
“Both of them were very keen on keeping away from the Buddhist roots … they didn’t want to bring in the religion, as people would be suspicious about it.”
As psychologists and neuroscientists could scientifically prove the efficacy of mindfulness, practitioners like Kabat-Zinn and Wallace were successful in separating the physical act from its religious origins. They also laid the foundations for a multi-billion-dollar industry.
In 2015, market researcher IBISWorld estimated that meditation-based companies generated a revenue of $US984 million in the United States, while Australia’s yoga and pilates industry was worth $1 billion.
According to Roy Morgan data from 2016, yoga is the country’s fastest-growing sport or fitness activity, with more than 2 million Australians taking part.
Dr Chadha says that putting a price tag on meditation and yoga isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“If [meditation] practices are efficacious and they can help a lot of people, I don’t think the Buddhists, in principle, would worry about this because the main aim of Buddhist philosophy is to reduce the suffering of all people,” she explains.
Dr Chadha adds that even in ancient India, financial backing was required for meditation classes to take place.
“Buddhist schools had to be run, and so they needed the ‘King’s favour’ — it was basically a way of getting grants, rather than commercialisation of their products,” she says.
From mindfulness to beer or hip-hop yoga
Nowadays, if the sheer quantity of available products is anything to go by, mindfulness can be obtained through colouring books, meditation can be mastered through an app, and yogic tranquillity may be garnered through a “namaste” — or even “namaslay” — T-shirt.
Ms Livingstone says students enticed by the trendiness of yoga shouldn’t be met with “spiritual snobbery” or judgment.
“If you’re trying yoga the same way you might try ‘Booty Bar’ or F45 [fitness program], it’s more of a passing thing. But at least you’ve had exposure to it, and you might not have had that 25, 30 years ago,” she says.
“The physical practice of yoga, which I guess is the most relatable to the masses, is just an access point.”
Dr Chadha agrees that the physical act can lead to deeper levels of engagement.
“Yoga is ultimately a mental discipline, the physical part of the regime that’s meant to be an entry into controlling the mental,” she says.
But she warns gimmicky offerings, like beer or hip-hop yoga, detract from the practice and its purpose.
“The mind is a thing, according to the Hindus, which keeps going in different directions all the time and you have to keep it under control,” she explains.
“[Gimmicky classes] are using a distraction and that just misses the point of the whole enterprise, as far as I understand it.”