You don’t have to look much further than the end of the block to see a yoga studio in many cities these days. Celebrity practitioners like Lady Gaga, Dr. Oz, Robert Downey Jr. and Russell Simmons have lent buzz to the ancient practice, and doctors, researchers and the rest of us increasingly believe in its benefits for body and mind.
About 20 million Americans over the age of 18 practiced yoga last year, or 8.7% of the adult population, up from 15.8 million in 2008, according to a 2012 study by Sports Marketing Surveys on behalf of Yoga Journal. Of those polled who didn’t currently practice, 44% said they’d like to, making them “aspirational yogis.”
The business of yoga is growing fast, too. Americans are spending $10.7 billion a year on yoga classes and gear (pants, mats, bags, blocks), up 88% from 2008, the study found.
Almost 4 in 10 of those polled said they’d only been practicing a year or less, which underlines the quick rise in the popularity of yoga. Another 30% have practiced for one to three years, and the other third has practiced for more than 3 years.
Not surprisingly, women outnumber men by about 4:1 among yoga devotees.
The measurable benefits of yoga and meditation are pretty hard to argue with, as research studies continue to roll in from major universities. Yoga, including meditation, appears to have profound effects on the nervous system, likely by affecting the body’s stress response via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic (flight-or-flight) nervous system. Meditation has been shown to increase cortical gray matter density in people who learn to practice, and to reduce activity in certain areas of the brain, most notably those related to stress, to mind-wandering, and to self-centric inward chatter (the “monkey mind”). And yoga, even separate from meditation, has recently been shown to improve symptoms of psychiatric disorders like depression, anxiety, sleep disorders and even schizophrenia.
To determine the top U.S. cities for yoga, we turned to data from the marketing firm GfK MRI, which conducted surveys in 205 markets last year, asking participants whether they practiced yoga, and if so, how frequently and for how long. The most yoga-mad metro area in the nation: San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, Calif., where residents are 59% more likely to practice yoga than the general U.S. population. The Bay Area has long been at the forefront of the American yoga scene — San Francisco was, after all, the first city to set up a yoga room at its airport.
Seattle, home of all things alternative and progressive, ranks second, with its residents 46% more likely to do yoga than the general population. One surprise among the top cities for yoga is Boise, Idaho, which ties for ninth place with San Diego. Boise residents are 21% more likely to practice yoga than the general population. But with burgeoning technology employment (The city comes in at No. 15 on Forbes’ 20 Fastest-Growing Cities list and No. 40 on our list of the Best Places for Business and Careers) and a vibrant arts scene, perhaps it’s not so surprising after all that the city has so many yogis.
Full List: Top 10 Yoga-Friendly Cities In The U.S.
While some instructors have lamented the fact that yoga has become more a sport than practice in the U.S., others say yoga – in any form – still benefits the practitioner, and helps open one to its original aims: heightened awareness, focus, oneness with the outside world. Whichever way you slice it, yoga is fast growing and not likely to slow down, which is probably a good thing for our collective consciousness.
Follow me @alicewalton or find me on Facebook. Thanks to NAMASTA – the North American Studio Alliance.