Most days when I look around the room at the yoga students I’m teaching, I wonder: Why don’t more of my students look like me? Most of the faces looking back at me are younger than 30 years old. This same demographic dominates the local studios I teach in as well as studios I’ve traveled to throughout the United States.
I’m female and 51 years old. I’ve raised a family, had multiple careers, built an amazing marriage and, generally speaking, lived a life. Yoga has transformed my health, the way I age, the way I think of myself, and the way I interact with the world. Thanks to my practice, and my teaching, my body is strong and I have a deep sense of personal power and confidence. Women transitioning from their 40s into their 50s could make good use of these benefits, so why aren’t they streaming, en masse, into yoga studios?
Bringing yoga into the mainstream of American culture necessitated shifting its public face away from the one we became familiar with from the 1960s through the 1980s — that of an older, Eastern man with leathered skin and shining eyes. Most product marketing in the U.S. likes to focus its lens on whatever is young and pretty. It sells.
Not surprisingly, the mass marketing of yoga has fallen in step with this approach. The result has been a great boon for yoga. Studios in most downtown areas have made yoga accessible. There is a depth and breadth of styles, information and training easily available to anyone interested. “Spirituality and Yoga” is a common Google search string. Western medicine has put a scientific stamp of approval onto the practice and the lifestyle. The net result is that we’ve all benefited from the creation of a profitable, and therefore sustainable, industry that’s also healthy and life enhancing.
Unfortunately for the American woman, the new face of yoga — which tends toward young, slender, lycra-clad (or under-clad) gymnasts — may be as un-relatable as the old face of yoga. However, the advertisers, magazines and social networks are not at fault. It’s not the commercialization or mainstreaming of yoga that prevents my contemporaries from enjoying the benefits inherent in a yogic lifestyle. It’s the mindset of the typical 40-year-old woman that keeps her from opening the door to the yoga studio.
We’ve created a culture in which women over 40 don’t know where they fit. They don’t know who they are, or what they’re supposed to be. Often when these women come to me, they’ve stopped believing they can build muscle, so they stop trying. They think having constant pain is to be expected at their age. They’ve developed a fear of failure that prevents them from pursuing risks or adventure. As their lives and bodies changed, they became so used to feeling helpless that they gave up their sense of power along with their skinny jeans.
I believe there’s a light that exists inside every woman over 40 years old, but it must be reignited so they don’t spend the rest of their lives on the sidelines. Promoters and brand builders can’t give them that spark, and they shouldn’t be accused of taking it away. It’s my hope, and actually my anticipation that as yoga becomes more commonplace through the promotion of yoga-lebrities, pretty pictures, creative products and increased profits, more people will become curious enough to step up to the threshold of significant life change through yoga.