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Have we reached peak yoga in the U.S.? The CDC wants to know

People participate in a mass yoga session on International Yoga Day in Times Square on June 21, 2023 in New York City. The CDC finds about 17% of adults in the U.S. practice yoga.
Spencer Platt
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People participate in a mass yoga session on International Yoga Day in Times Square on June 21, 2023 in New York City. The CDC finds about 17% of adults in the U.S. practice yoga.

In the U.S., about 1 out of 6 adults say they practice yoga, according to new survey data published Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 80% are practicing to improve their health, and some 30% are using it to treat and manage pain.

“Yoga is a complementary health approach used to promote health and well-being,” says Nazik Elgaddal, an IT specialist at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics who co-authored a data brief on the topic.” The stretching and strengthening exercise has been shown to reduce stress and help with some types of neck and back pain.

The survey also found that women are twice as likely to do yoga than men – with more than 23% of U.S. women practicing it. Yoga is most popular among people who are Asian or White, though there are plenty of people who are Black, Hispanic or of other races doing yoga too. People with higher incomes were more likely to do yoga.

The survey did not distinguish between yoga done in person or online, notes Elgaddal, who takes yoga classes offered by her workplace on Zoom. It found that more than half of the respondents also meditate as a part of their practice.

The data comes from the 2022 National Health Interview Survey, and is published in a June 2024 data brief. Every five years, the NHIS includes questions on complementary health, including yoga.

A previous analysis showed that complementary approaches in the U.S. have grown in popularity over the past twenty years. Yoga experienced the largest increase in that time, going from being practiced by 5% of the adult population in 2002 to 16% in 2022.

In that time, yoga has become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to parse, says Ophelia Yeung, a senior research fellow at the Global Wellness Institute, which studies the economics of the $5.6 trillion global wellness industry. “There are lots of people doing [yoga] on different online platforms – Peloton, Apple Fitness, Netflix, Youtube” to name a few, Yeung says, “If you ask a consumer which part of their [subscription] spending is for fitness and which part is for entertainment, it’s all bundled,” she says.

It has also become more accessible over time, Yeung says, noting that there's now versions adapted for back injury, for inflexibility, for practicing with goats and dogs. There are also yoga classes designed to be welcoming for larger bodies, for those with disabilities and for populations such as school kids and veterans.

Yoga’s mainstream popularity has spawned yoga-influenced offshoots, such as mobility workouts and mindfulness, which are so evolved from its roots that the people who practice them may not realize they are related, says Rebecca D’Orsogna, a high school social studies teacher in New York who wrote a doctoral dissertation on the history of yoga in the U.S.

“Parts of the yoga practice are taken out of the context of yoga and put somewhere else…to the point where people are almost unwittingly doing it,” she says.

D’Orsogna traces the current yoga wave to the late 1960’s, when The Beatles brought an explosion of interest to the work of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his Transcendental Meditation after a trip to India.

“[Western adopters] considered it to be ‘more authentic’ yoga because it is connected directly to India, as opposed to what had been cobbled together within the United States [before that],” she says, noting a periodic cropping up of interest in yoga in U.S. pop culture that stretches back to the naturalist philosophers of the 1800’s.

That thread of interest waxed with the new age movement in the 1970’s, and waned with the aerobics fitness trend in the 80’s, but it’s since gained a firm foothold in U.S. mainstream culture, D’Orsogna says. She says the practice is linked with women’s empowerment and self-actualization. “The overarching history of yoga in the United States is that people who popularize it use it for whatever the cultural moment calls for,” she says.

Yoga has become big business – the largest contributor to the “mindful movement” market, which also includes practices such as pilates and tai chi, worth $12.7 billion in the U.S. in 2022, according to data from the Global Wellness Institute. Mindful movement soared in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic – spending increased by 17% from 2019 to 2022 on things like classes, equipment and retreats – as people looked to it as a way to maintain fitness and alleviate stress, says Yeung.

Still, the benefits of yoga – stress relief, pain relief and cultivating a connection between the mind and the body – can be obtained for little to no money, Yeung says.

“There are tons of free opportunities online and in communities,” she says, such as videos on Youtube that offer high quality instruction. At its core, practicing yoga postures requires a clear surface and a willingness to stretch.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Pien Huang
Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.