Art & Commerce: Ohm No!

Nike is counting on the “yoga nistas.” You know the type: upwardly mobile women who practice yoga in order to attain inner peace and firmer buns. The athletic-wear company wants to convince this group that its new cross-training shoe, the Kyoto, is just what they need for their next yoga session.

So convince me. I can’t boast that I’ve practiced yoga for 15 years, as Christy Turlington does in her new book, Living Yoga. But I have dabbled enough to know that I don’t need shoes for it.

Nike admits as much on its Web site. “Yes, we know you don’t wear shoes during yoga,” the site says before cutting to the chase. “Snatch this stretchy upper that molds to your foot to create a seamless line when paired with yoga pants.” Yes, the sales strategy is based on the hunch that I want to be fashionable yet comfortable on my way to class. Nike also sells pants, tops and a yoga stretching kit (mat included) at its Nike Goddess stores.

But the company’s marketing gurus haven’t met my yoga teacher. She teaches class in her suburban apartment, where she lives without any furniture in her living room or dining room. Any adornments, including jewelry, are forbidden during class. She even tells us what color clothes to wear: white. The Kyoto comes in black or light gray. Oh well.

I’m also not sure what Kyoto, a city in Japan, has to do with yoga’s rich Hindu tradition, but maybe Nike is just pitching a general Zen concept.

Whatever the case, Nike doesn’t care that its product is at odds with yoga’s selfless, nonmaterialistic ethos. It’s just trying to cash in on the growing commercialization of yoga. Yoga Journal, a Berkeley, Calif., publication that has become something of a small-time marketing powerhouse in its own right, with ads for everything from yoga vacations to books and clothing, recently pointed out that the average practitioner spends about $1,500 a year on all things yoga. With 18 million such people in America, that adds up to lots of cash.

Companies are tuning in to all things Eastern, as they feel the good karma seeping right into their coffers. Kohler, a leading bath-fixtures company, has a controversial ad showing a scantily clad woman holding different fixtures in her many arms—a depiction that Hindu groups have protested as indecent. A Hyun dai ad shows a woman in several yoga poses, the last one being “the Sonata,” along with the tagline, “Suggested daily routine for achieving inner peace.”

Sadly, commercialization breeds excess. Take Rodney Yee, one of America’s top yoga instructors. He once preached that yoga helped him achieve a solid marriage. That was before Time named him the “stud muffin” of yoga in 2001 and a former teacher at his Oakland, Calif., studio hit him with a breach-of-contract lawsuit after two students alleged they had sexual relationships with him. (Yee has denied the claims.)

California yoganistas now wear tie-dyed lacy camisole yoga tops while their instructors spend their earnings on Mercedes-Benzes. What could possibly be next?

It’s time to Zen out a bit. As we say at the end of each class: Be at peace. Take it with you. Namaste.