May 19, 2011

Yoga Fills a Hole for Americans that Doesn’t Exist for Brazilians.

In the early 2000s, people started to speculate that yoga was going to be a fitness trend in the US that came and went like step aerobics or jazzercise. To the contrary, yoga in North America continues to grow steadily and continues to diversify into more styles and hybrids.  It appears that yoga in the US and Canada will not fall by the wayside as a trend, but will continue to increase in popularity and diversity.

Is Yoga on the Decline in Brazil?

The same thing cannot be said here in Brazil.  The first wave of yoga here reached its peak about 5 years ago, held steady for a couple of years and seems to be on the decline.  The syndicated Yoga Journal here in Brazil has recently gone from monthly to bi-monthly publication.  The biggest studio in São Paulo, which is a 3-story house, with 3 beautiful and big practice spaces, and additional treatment rooms as well as a boutique, Yoga Flow, recently merged with another high profile yoga studio and treatment center, CIYMAM, Center for Yoga and ayurveda.  The yoga teachers who travel throughout Brazil report lower turnout at workshops, and several studios are not offering teacher trainings that they formerly offered annually.

While there are thriving yoga studios and dedicated students here in Brazil, on the whole, yoga has not taken its hold in mainstream culture like it has in the States.

Here’s Why:

FACT: Yoga in Brazil is expensive! In the US a yoga class can vary from donation to 20$ with the average being 15$ per class. Here in Brazil, drop-in classes are rarely offered. If you want to drop in, it is 50 Rs, which right now is worth about 35 USD.  To take one class per month, it is about 150 Rs, which is about 105 USD, so depending on whether there are four or five weeks in the month, class costs between 20 and 25 dollars. That makes classes more expensive, and Brazilians earn less on the whole so that makes the cost even more expensive.  But I don’t actually think this is that big a factor in why less Brazilians are interested in yoga.

OPINION: In my experience from teaching yoga and practicing Structural Integration for the past five years, Brazilians have laxer ligaments than Americans, therefore yoga with bad alignment and focus on flexibility has negative effects faster. And the sum effect of yoga can be overextension of ligaments, so just at the physical level, Pilates might be a better solution for Brazilians.

FACT: Physical Therapy is an undergraduate degree in Brazil. After graduation, it is a pretty poorly paying profession (not that much higher than minimum wage) so people specialize. Physical therapists can take weekend courses in Pilates and then offer Pilates and be covered by insurance. There is also another form of postural therapy, imported from France, called RPG-, that is covered by physical therapy. Therefore, people are exposed to Pilates and RPG and don’t have to pay for it. Yoga is an out-of-pocket expense.

OPINION: Overall Brazilians are more embodied than Americans, and able to express the emotions they feel. There is a much wider vocabulary for emotion in Portuguese and people use the descriptive language on a regular basis. The first time someone told me they were filled with raiva “rage,” I was like “Holy Sh*t, rage?”  That’s a word I would use for serial killer-type anger.  Then the next day I saw the that person conversing with the target of that rage. That is when I learned that Brazilians express themselves descriptively, sometimes dramatically, and then they let things go.

OPINION: There is practically no shame embedded in Brazilian culture.

FACT: There is no Victorian legacy here. The colonizers in Brazil were primarily Portuguese. (as opposed to Northern Europeans in the US and Canada) Portuguese were unique as colonizers. They were the most brutal, because they were relying much more on the riches of their colonies to sustain their country than England, France or Spain. Portugal was a poorer country.  And they were the least prude in terms of intermixing with the native populations and slaves. There is an incredible wide range of racial mixture in Brazil. Race itself is not viewed in the same way, as many factors other than color play into how one is perceived and named in terms of race. **There is racism here, just not based on the one drop rule.

FACT: The longest legacy of yoga in Brazil comes from Hermogenes. The yoga asana that is taught in the Hermogenes system is most similar to a Sivananda style.  No use of alignment or props.  And some unsuspected, and suspect, moves like wrist and ankle circling.

OPINION:  In a lot of places in Brazil, the yoga hasn’t changed from a kind of 1970s vibe. Take a trip back in time to folks learning yoga from books, practicing mostly on their own, and relatively little sophistication in terms of asana.  (That said , there are exceptions, with flawless Iyengar practitioners, an excellent Ashtanga certified teacher, left-handed Tantric practitioners, many many bhaktis, and the most progressive yoga therapy studio I have seen in the world)

FACT: Brazil has its own version of Bikram. Practitioners are advised not to study any other form of yoga and have strict rules of conduct. I don’t know much more because it is kind of a cult.

FACT: India is really far from Brazil. Technically I am not sure if it is that much farther than the US is. However you do have to cross the equator and the plane ticket is almost double. Overall there are less Brazilians with the ability to make such a big trip.  (this is changing)

OPINION: Where yoga in US has flourished through the insemination of the human potential movement, somatic psychology and modern dance, the yoga asana here in Brazil hasn’t gone through the same hybridization.

FACT: Homeopathy is a respected and frequently used form of health care here. There are homeopathic pharmacies in most neighborhoods that make your compounds for you. (No Boiron pellet tubes here) A lot of MDs here are also homeopaths and it is wasy to find doctors who practice both allopathy and homeopathy and are covered by insurance (private insurance).

FACT: Ayurveda is hugely popular in Brazil, possibly as popular or more popular than yoga asana. Bhakti yoga, in the form of kirtan is also super popular.

FACT: Brazilians regard Sundays and holidays as sacred. There are a lot of holidays. Recently on the day before a four-day weekend for Semana Santa, celebrating the days leading to Easter, one of my daughter’s teachers was freaking out ,“Imagine this, conjunctivitis on the eve of a holiday!” As if any day is a great day to get pink eye.  But it made sense to the other people, because holidays receive different, special treatment.  On that note, whereas in the US, Saturdays and Sundays are the best days attendance-wise at yoga studios, they are the worst here.  Most studios are either closed both Sat. and Sun., or just Sunday.  When I teach weekend workshops, they always finish before 1pm- why? Hora de almoço. Lunch- Sunday lunch is time that you spend with your family. It is sacred and even if you are not going to spend it with family, you are not going to schedule something.  Trust me- I’ve tried to buck the trend.  It doesn’t work.  Brazilians don’t want to practice yoga on Sundays or holidays.

But I don’t actually think it is money and scarce access, varied physical therapy options, nor holidays and Sundays that has created the gap in yoga popularity between the US and Brazil.

Here’s the real reason:

I think.

Yoga Fills a Hole for Americans that Doesn’t Exist for Brazilians. (special thanks to Coaracy Nunes for the expression)

Basically I think Brazilians are less miserable.  Brazilians have strong social networks, value social time, eat meals sitting down together, often live very close to their family, and have lived through very volatile political and financial periods. (dictatorshop, rapid deflation of currency, high threat of violence)  The bureaucracy here is impressive and therefore, people learn patience. No one expects to really get all her errands done.  (almost impossible that errands don’t generate more errands- based on lines, unexpected strikes, general apathy and incompetence, or traffic) So you learn to talk to the people in line next to you.

Brazilians like to celebrate and enjoy life and have learned how to do that despite adverse challenges (like the time in the 1980s when everyone woke up and had 10,000 or less in their bank accounts- the government had taken the rest) Encountering optional discomfort is not really high on the list of things to do.  This last opinion is corroborated by 85% and higher Cesarean rates in Brazil. Brazilian women associate birth and pain, and therefore schedule Cesareans at an alarmingly high rate.

On the same note, I wouldn’t count discipline or punctuality as Brazilian strengths. Rain, having slept in, and not having eaten lunch are all legitimate excuses here for not coming to class, or doing anything for that reason. You can call your teacher and say “hey I couldn’t wake up.” [my internal response-“that’s what an alarm clock is for.”  I have also been passive/aggressive with students who couldn’t come because it was drizzling]

Americans have re-connected to spirituality through yoga. Brazilians on the other hand have never been disconnected. Brazilians believe in spirits and the spirit world.  No need to whisper or lower your voice here. Brazilians are noteably pluralistic.  Catholic roots blended early on with the African religion (notable Yoruba) of the slaves and indigenous culture.  For example, Yemaya became Iemanja and her image here is mixed with the Virgin Mary, so the goddess of the sea has long hair and white skin.


Spiritism is another popular faith here that includes the laying on of hands and spirit healing.  Whether or not a person goes to church here in Brazil, which in my circle of friends is definitely a not, Brazilians believe and are connected to a higher power.  This also reveals itself in everday language like “se Deus quiser”- if God wishes, and Graças a Deus, thanks to God.  When you ask someone how they are “Tudo bem?” A common response is “tudo bom, graças a Deus.” Everything’s good, by the graces of God. And it is not just religious people who respond this way.

Brazilians give themselves a lot of leeway in terms of identity. I have a friend whose mom has been Catholic, Buddhist, Taoist, Spiritist, and a few other I can’t remember. And no one is bothered by it. As an American, that makes me laugh. It’s like if I am going to adopt a religion, I better be pretty sure. I can’t imagine then deciding to change a few more times.

My opinion is that the first wave of yoga here is on the decline; my prediction is that there will be a second wave.

Unfortunately, as the Brazilian economy is flourishing, so is consumerism. The emerging middle class wants more. One car instead of none; two cars instead of one. Bigger apartment, more space. More traffic, less time, more meals on the run, and you have yourself a recipe for the same health problems caused by stress and emptiness that have driven so many Americans to practice yoga.

Sundays in the plaza

I hope I am wrong. I hope that Brazilians fiercely protect the social rituals (sitting in the plaça, watching futebol games, Sunday lunch) and the exuberant natural landscape that make them uniquely happy people.

I’d rather become outdated and lose my job, than be busy in a nation full of stressed out people.

Read 49 Comments and Reply

Read 49 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Kimberly Johnson  |  Contribution: 2,300