I once had a yoga teacher who was openly contemptuous of my boot-cut workout pants. "I can't see your calves!" she used to holler, annoyed that my penchant for fashion eclipsed any concerns about her ability to check my stance. She was of the Iyengar school, which is on the rigid side, and she often wore an ensemble close to that favored by Mr. Iyengar himself. In his classic book, Light On Yoga, Iyengar wears nothing but some jet-black underpants—not a very flattering look for most people, especially women in the cellulite years. The best you can say about it (and my teacher said it, often) is that the style is practical: The more uncovered the body, the easier it is to judge proper alignment. Begrudgingly, I switched to biking shorts, and eventually, to Anusara, another style of yoga that's more, well, flexible about fashion.
Yoga is all about becoming centered, whole, and at peace; it trains the mind to dispense with extraneous thoughts, such as how you look in your yoga clothes. Unfortunately, this admirable internal quest has lately been complicated by the fact that yoga has become cool and fashionable. In fact, with the possible exception of Pilates, it has become the coolest, most fashionable form of exercise in the country, practiced by people who seem to care a great deal about how they look.
Sportswear companies quickly realized that there was a new market to exploit. Along with the inevitable tops and bottoms, there are skidless towels for yoga mats; meditation cushions (or "zafus"), timers, beads, and gongs; yoga gloves, shoes, bags, eye pillows, and myriad other accoutrements deemed crucial to a proper yoga practice. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, the money spent on tai chi and yoga clothing (the categories are combined) in 2004 was $138 million, up from $79 million just two years ago.
I'll be the first to admit I'm a sucker for this stuff. I am addicted to the back pages of Yoga Journal,which are full of ads for every conceivable yoga aid. But I also know that caring about yoga style is a little like thinking about stock prices in church—off point, if not downright improper. Wouldn't a true yogi find such adornments unnecessary? Or is any of this stuff actually useful?
Yoga, like dance or tennis, can be helped or hindered by what you wear. Clothes should cling but not bind; you don't want to find your too-loose shirt pooling around your neck when you finally risk a headstand. Tight, tiny tops and shorts also enable teachers to check your alignment without asking you to roll up baggy sleeves or pants legs. (Taking this principle to its extreme, some yogis are now practicing nude yoga, though I, for one, will pass.) And all those new materials that wick away sweat are beneficial, particularly for Bikram (or "hot yoga"). As for the accessories, I love the extra-thick, jet-black Manduka mat—at $74 the yoga equivalent of understated Armani couture—which can preserve aging hips and knees, and I pine for the $12 rubber-studded "ToeSox" that would make traveling with a mat unnecessary.
But, as my Iyengar teacher knew, you don't really need any of this stuff. A rubber mat, body-hugging T-shirt, and pair of running shorts will suffice. Why, then, are there so many yoga products for sale? It might have something to do with the fact that manufacturers have begun to exploit yoga's spiritual underpinnings along with its health benefits. The sales pitches are usually short on substance and peppered with New Age buzzwords like "lotus," "prana," and "Nepal." There are a lot of T-shirts emblazoned with "Om" and smiling Buddhas. Healthandyoga.com offers an orange "chakra" T-shirt that supposedly strengthens "the immune system, sex organs and lower pelvis." All this and machine washable, too.
One of the earliest and shrewdest advocates of merging fashion, practicality, and yogic philosophy is Christy Turlington, the '90s supermodel and a longtime yoga student. (She said it kept her sane at the height of her fame; if only she'd taken Linda and Naomi to class with her.) In 2000, she teamed up with Puma for her first line of yogawear and gave it the Sanskrit-sounding name "Nuala," an acronym for "Natural-Universal-Limitless-Authentic." (According to the Web site, "The goal of Nuala is to create a symbiosis between the outer and inner being, the individual and the collective experience.") Mahanuala, Turlington's latest Puma line, adds another heady acronym: Movement Affords Higher Aspirations. This line is created for what Turlington calls "Contemplative Sports," which, along with yoga and meditation, perhaps include shoe-shopping, opera-going, daydreaming, and napping.
Pseudo-philosophy aside, Turlington's high-end line and others like it make it clear why people want to buy yogawear: It just looks better. What self-improving American can resist that? This close-fitting "fleece low back top" evokes the best old-fashioned scapula-exposing leotards, while also being made of softer material (and it comes in earth tones like cinder, pond, and pebble). The lightweight, baby-blanket-soft Krija shoe—coffee-colored leather on top, hot pink and orange rubber on the soles—will inspire the showoff in anyone to do a shoulder stand. Despite being more expensive than the Target variety (lots of things start at three digits), Nuala clothes are so good-looking that they can go straight from the studio to the street, a selling point at a time when exercise-wear has become streetwear.
In truth, most people start practicing yoga to tone sagging muscles, and they discover the mental and spiritual benefits later, if at all. If it makes women happy to ease into downward-facing dog in pricey Nuala capris, so be it—one way or another, they are finding a semblance of peace. A few Indians seem to have learned that lesson from us. The last time my current teacher went to Mumbai, she practiced next to a local wearing a nifty velour sweat suit.