Millions of Americans are practicing yoga to improve flexibility, strengthen muscles and relieve stress. But they also are co-opting an...

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Millions of Americans are practicing yoga to improve flexibility, strengthen muscles and relieve stress.

But they also are co-opting an ancient spiritual philosophy, some yoga experts contend. A sacred practice, they complain, is increasingly being debased and commercialized.

Yoga is a lucrative and growing business. About 16.5 million Americans spend nearly $3 billion annually on classes and products, a February poll by Harris Interactive and Yoga Journal magazine revealed.

Compare that with two basic tenets of yoga — it is unethical to charge money to teach it, and you need nothing but your body to learn it.

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What Americans are doing — practicing everything from hip-hop yoga to yoga with pets, using Hindu deities as knickknacks — is “hurtful and insulting” to the 5,000-year-old tradition, said Swami Param of the Classical Yoga Hindu Academy and Dharma Yoga Ashram in Manahawkin, N.J.

While the debate continues to intensify among yoga scholars and teachers, an array of Seattle yoga purists contends that the mainstreaming of yoga is helping more people than harming them.

“It’s about a practice, not a belief,” said Terry McGilloway, director of the Ananda Church of Self-Realization of Seattle. The church is part of the Ananda Meditation and Yoga Center that focuses on the kriya, raja and hatha methods of yoga.

McGilloway, who was raised Catholic, and his wife Padma, who was raised Jewish, established their nonsectarian center in 1987 after practicing group meditations for several years in private homes. He said each person has their own spiritual path that they must discover on their own, something he said is a basic tenet of Hinduism itself. He said regulating what forms of yoga can be taught could hinder a person’s spiritual journey.

“It’s a front door for people to find us,” McGilloway said of mainstreamed forms of yoga.

The bikram controversy

Richard Schachtel, founder and director of The Center for Yoga of Seattle, expressed similar sentiments. He said the mainstreaming of yoga has helped bring an acceptance of the practice that previously had been shunned by a large part of the public. Schachtel established his traditional hatha yoga center in 1979 after studying with its master, B.K.S. Iyengar.

“Yoga is not just in the domain of Hindus, it’s a world culture,” he said.

However, he added, the “vulgarization of yoga” through mass marketing is causing it to lose some of its philosophical meaning and practice as a way of life.

Todd Jones, senior editor of the 30-year-old Yoga Journal, explained the evolution. Yoga “did start primarily as a meditative-spiritual practice. But it’s gone in so many different directions.” There are so many styles practiced in America, he said, it’s nearly impossible to describe a “typical” yoga class. Now there are yoga cruises, yoga book clubs, yoga dating services, yoga snacks (“created specifically for yoga”) …

The most recent controversy has been over the bikram method, involving a sequence of 26 asanas (positions) and two breathing exercises in a room heated to 105 degrees. Its founder, Bikram Choudhury, is trying to copyright the method. The resulting possibility of franchising a specific form of yoga would be the first of its kind in the world.

Laura Culberg, co-owner of The SweatBox, a bikram yoga studio established four years ago in Seattle, said she supports Choudhury’s efforts. Protecting the integrity of the bikram method amid a sea of hot yoga studios is necessary because they are two different things, she said. While many hot yoga studios and their instructors have roots in the bikram method, they often mix in others to form their own style.

Linda Burch, founder of Hot Yoga of Kirkland, said yoga is something fluid that adapts to the times and to what feels right for each individual.

“I don’t believe, and we don’t believe, that there is only one yoga,” she said about her studio established in 2004.

Although there is contention between bikram and hot yoga studios, Burch and Culberg said their forms of yoga being painted as nonspiritual is an inaccurate assumption.

“It’s your definition of spirituality,” Culberg said, practiced by reaching levels of stillness within one’s own mind

Uniting with the universe

When Swami Param, now 56, said he first became interested in yoga as a 16-year-old in New Jersey, he turned to a dictionary for a definition.

“I still keep that Webster’s with me,” he said. “I looked up yoga and it said, ‘Sanskrit, Hinduism.’ That’s what it is. Just look at the facts.”

Sanskrit is the language of sacred Hindu writings. “Every Sanskrit word these teachers are saying in yoga classes, they are using a religious language,” he said.

The word yoga is most often defined as a yoking, or union. Its practice strives to unite the individual soul with the “greater soul” of the universe, traditionally through four main paths: karma (action), bhakti (devotion), jnana (wisdom) and raja or ashtanga (mental and physical control).

Americans tend to focus on fitness alone, perhaps because “as a culture we are extremely physically oriented,” said Subhas Rampersaud Tiwari, professor of yoga philosophy and meditation at Hindu University of America in Orlando, Fla.

Everyone agrees that yoga is physically beneficial.

“It improves muscle strength and endurance levels, joint range of motion and flexibility, and balance,” said Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise in San Diego.

Anne Green, the Seattle area group exercise manager for 24 Hour Fitness, echoed those sentiments, adding that yoga gym classes are an opportunity to introduce a new spectrum of people to the practice.

Regardless of why a person starts practicing yoga, Kirsten Elfendahl, manager of Yoga Centers in Seattle, said those who find physical alignment would most likely carry that over into other aspects of their life consciously or subconsciously.

The center opened in 1992 and practices purna yoga, what its founder Aadil Palkhivala calls the whole of yoga by incorporating different forms of meditation and nutrition into the hatha practice.

“Yoga is everywhere, yet nowhere at all,” Palkhivala said in reference to the many yoga studios and classes. He believes that although the mainstreaming of yoga has brought in those seeking only the physical benefits, they eventually appreciate its other aspects as well.

Seattle Times reporter Vanessa Renée Casavant contributed to this report.