Business is booming at Kaia Yoga in the posh Connecticut suburb of Westport.
Enrollment at the five-year-old yoga and juice bar chain has jumped each year during the economic downturn, even as students have cut spending in other areas of their lives. Many of the new students are men who are trying to reduce the stress, says co-owner Gina Norman.
"In these economic times people either go to yoga studios or bars," says Norman, only half-joking. Classes in calming types of yoga, such as yin yoga, are especially popular she says. "It's mostly about the stress reduction."
Yoga has seen a sharp jump in the past three years, and now has about 14 million practitioners, compared with just 11 million followers three years ago, according to market research firm GfK-MRI.
Bill Harper, Yoga Journal's publisher, says the ancient practice has been gaining traction steadily over the past decade, but that the financial crisis offered a bit of a boost.
"When we get into shaky financial times and people are feeling bad about themselves, they seem to turn to yoga for a bit of solace," he says. The magazine is now able to attract mainstream advertisers, such as Procter & Gamble and Ford Motors, who in the past may have avoided associating themselves with "downward dogs."
Dozens of companies have piled on for a slice of the market.
Lulu Lemon, a Canadian company founded just 12 years ago, now makes $500 million a year selling lycra pants and rubber mats that are "yoga inspired," according to its tagline. Colorado-based Gaiam now sells $285 million a year worth of balance balls and sanitizing wands to yoga devotees. Clothing giant Gap bought yoga wear maker Athleta a few years ago, and upscale gym chain Equinox is about to launch yoga teacher training.
Recent numbers on revenue growth are not available, but Yoga Journal reported in 2008 that Americans spent $5.7 billion on yoga classes and equipment (including clothing, DVDs and mats), almost twice as much as they did in 2004.
Most of the growth, however, isn't coming from large corporations. It's coming from small businesses, like Kaia, which have sprouted across the country. Many of the entrepreneurs who have opened yoga studios – often with training centers, health-food bars and retail sections that sell clothing, equipment and jewelry – are yoga devotees who have left behind other careers.
Lizzie Clark, owner of Bikram Yoga in Charlottesville, part of a national franchise founded by yoga mogul Bikram Choudhury, worked as a legislative assistant for a US senator before deciding that she wanted a career with a healthier lifestyle.
"It's a great business opportunity," she says. "You're not going to become a millionaire doing it, but you're going to live a lifestyle you believe in."
As the industry grows, however, more business owners are finding a way to earn millions. Bikram Choudhury, who popularized so-called "hot yoga" in the US, is considered one of the country's most successful yoga entrepreneurs.
In 2003, Choudhury caused an uproar when he copyrighted the 26 sequences that make up his distinctive form of yoga, practiced in 105 degree heat. Over the years, courts have sided in his favor when the copyright was challenged. Choudhury has also set up a franchise that now oversees hundreds of studios around the world and whose owners must each be re-certified every three years.