ABC reporter David Wright has a point in this newscast on Bikram’s “hot yoga”; there is a strange obsession with exercise in North America. When I was studying anthropology, we were often asked by our professors to think about social practices, patterns, and behaviours from a Martian’s perspective; what would someone completely unfamiliar with your culture, state, or society think about a life which seems normal to you?
You don’t need to go as far as another planet to understand how Western exercise practices might be construed as odd. The very notion of people gathering in buildings (gyms) to perform repetitive movements for no other obvious productive purpose than to improve upon their bodies seems like something out of a science fiction novel. Looking objectively at people lifting weights in various sequences, tossing medicine balls, and contorting their bodies into unnatural poses, I get the sense that someone from a different country where this is not common would think we were extremely strange, laughable even.
What is striking about many popular exercise classes in North America is not only that they originate mostly from other countries (particularly Asia), but also that they have been, as Wright says, MacDonaldized. Exercises like hot yoga are created so that classes can be squeezed in to the busy, middle-class worker’s schedule and delivered in the most efficient, time-saving, cost-effective way possible. In this way ancient practices such as Tai Chi and yoga have been appropriated by the capitalist culture of North America and rendered a consumer product.
Practices which are thousands of years old have even been patented, like “Bikram’s” hot yoga, in order to maximize all possible revenue from any one particular exercise. Not only is it highly contestable whether or not you can patent a set of movements, but the mere act of charging people to learn and practice ancient practices is questionable. To what extent should capitalist systems be allowed to facilitate the appropriation and transformation of spiritual and physical exercise? Is the sky the limit in a free market economy where value is placed on the maximization of profit?
For example, speaking on the value of meditation, Andy Puddicombe recounts how he dropped everything in the middle of his degree to go to the Himalayas and become a Buddhist monk. If we contrast his experience of being mentored as a monk and his practice of meditation with that of 40 people who paid $60 a month to come every Tuesday at 5pm after dinner and before they have to put the kids to bed, what differences do we see and are they important? If both Puddicombe and the 40 people get something positive out of their experience does it matter, or has the business portion of the class robbed its clients of a greater experience?