Published: Sept. 1, 2016 By

Inquiry: Lori Hunter 

Lori Hunter In spring 2016 CU Boulder sociologist Lori Hunter introduced a course on the sociology of yoga. Here she discusses the commercialization of yoga in the U.S., its cultural impact and mastering the art of mindfulness.

What motivated you to create a class on yoga and society? 

I’ve long been a committed yoga practitioner and, about two years ago, became certified to be a yoga teacher. It was during this training that I began thinking about a sociology course on yoga as practiced in our modern culture. As a sociologist, I always look at the world around us with a critical lens and I’d thought about the obvious increase in the commercialization of yoga in our culture — with the proliferation of chain studios, increasingly high-priced yoga ‘gear’ and more athletic companies getting into the yoga game. During teacher training I realized my teaching  expertise isn’t actually in the yoga classroom, it’s in the sociology classroom. I’ve been teaching sociology for more than 20 years. 

Much of your class focused on how yoga has manifested in the West. What should we know about yoga in the U.S. today? 

There is so much about yoga in the U.S. today that is fascinating! For example, it’s widely practiced, female-dominated, privileged and crosses age boundaries. Yoga is now over a $10 billion industry. All of these facts raise questions related to its appeal — Why so popular? Is it a respite from our busy lives? — its gendered nature — Do modern male gender roles make yoga less appealing for men? — and its privilege — In what ways is this privilege perpetuated by commercialization? One discussion point we visited a lot in class relates to authenticity. Since yoga in modern Western culture emerged primarily as a physical fitness pursuit, is this version of yoga ‘authentic’? Does it matter? It’s also interesting to me that the physical practice is what comes to mind when people hear/use the word ‘yoga’ — although yoga actually encompasses much more. 

Your students kept a yoga journal throughout the course. What sort of things did they start to notice in their yoga practices?  

All of the students kept journals, although they didn’t necessarily engage in a physical practice like we think of as ‘yoga.’ Yoga is historically an ‘eight-limbed’ practice which includes ‘asana’ — the physical practice our culture mostly considers ‘yoga’— but yoga is broader and includes compassion, truthfulness, contentment — in general, mindfulness. I asked students to spend at least five minutes daily, six days a week, engaged in a mindfulness activity. For many students, this simply meant taking off their headphones while walking to class to be more attentive to their surroundings. For some students who practice yoga in studios, they took notice of the demographics of their fellow students, what they were wearing, and they began reflecting on the privilege associated with studio practice — for instance, the price of memberships. All of these insights reflect students’ use of critical thinking skills to reflect on the world around them. To be honest, the students were the most engaged of any class I’ve taught during my time at CU Boulder! 

Will you teach the course again? 

Possibly in spring 2017.

How often do you practice yoga? 

My practice has been up and down over the past decade due to personal circumstances — but at the most, I practiced five days a week, although I’ve also had months where I’ve not practiced at all. Typically, I try to practice two to three times weekly in a studio and at least another day at home. 

What role does yoga play in your personal life? 

I’m fortunate to travel a lot for work, as my research on climate change, migration and natural resource-based livelihoods is of interest and importance to a variety of organizations across the globe. During my travels, I often try to practice yoga at local studios to get a flavor for local culture and differences (and similarities) in yoga practices across contexts. 

What other things are you interested in?

I’m also a gardener, and I find tremendous joy in crafting lovely combinations of colors and textures in my flower beds, and growing yummy produce in my fruit and vegetable beds. I have a great raspberry patch! 

Condensed and edited by Christie Sounart (Jour’12). 

Photo by Glenn Asakawa