Breathing, Stretching, Selling

A class at Yoga House in the District. According to a recent survey, 16 million Americans practice yoga.
A class at Yoga House in the District. According to a recent survey, 16 million Americans practice yoga. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 6, 2006

The evidence is everywhere: women toting colorful yoga mats like fashionable accessories, yoga DVDs prominently displayed at health-conscious grocery stores, new lines of yoga-inspired clothes peddled by companies from Nike to L.L. Bean.

Yoga has become more than a popular spiritual and physical exercise. It's also a booming business.

The latest example is the sale of Yoga Journal, a magazine that helped transform the practice of yoga from its early associations with hippies and New Age beliefs into a mainstream experience.

It was purchased yesterday by Active Interest Media, a privately held firm that also owns Vegetarian Times, Southwest Art and American Cowboy magazines. Terms of the sale were not disclosed.

John Abbott, who bought Yoga Journal in 1998 and served as its chief executive, said he wanted the publication to help take the form of exercise into the mainstream, "not something alternative or something housed in Berkeley, California"

In the past six years, the magazine's revenue has quadrupled and its circulation has tripled, to 331,000. Yoga Journal is one of the most popular magazines bought at Whole Foods grocery stores, the magazine said.

According to a Harris Interactive survey from 2005, more than 16 million Americans say they practice yoga. Many are women in their thirties and forties who are juggling the stresses of a family, career and commute. They use yoga to relieve stress, get a workout and explore their spirituality.

"It was impossible to see how fast yoga was growing at precisely the time I bought it," said Abbott, who will become the magazine's executive director.

Although there are many forms of yoga, they share a focus on breathing and using the body to form challenging poses to build strength and flexibility.

"It's not just a physical pursuit, although even in the physical aspect of yoga, there's a significant therapeutic dimension to it," Abbott said. "There's the breathing dimension. Yoga represents a set of practices that are extremely useful in learning how to relax, how to deal with stress in very explicit means."

Hansa Knox Johnson, president emeritus of the Yoga Alliance, a nonprofit group that sets standards for yoga instructors, and a subscriber to Yoga Journal for more than 10 years, said there were slightly more than 2,000 registered yoga instructors in the United States five years ago, according to her organization.

Today, there are more than 14,000. Knox Johnson, also a yoga instructor, said resources such as Yoga Journal have helped introduce beginners to it.

As Yoga Journal grew, it capitalized on yoga's popularity, shepherded by celebrities such as Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow. The magazine expanded the number of conferences it put on annually and products it sold, such as DVDs and videos. The Web site expanded. More than a quarter of the company's revenue now comes from products and conferences.

The magazine no longer offers articles about New Age therapy, such as crystals. Today, the articles are lighter in tone and targeted at the consumer, the working person looking for a stress reliever.

Efrem "Skip" Zimbalist III, chief executive of Active Interest Media, said he plans to expand Yoga Journal's online presence and cross-promote the magazine with the media company's other offerings, such as Vegetarian Times. He said he does not plan to tinker with the magazine's editorial content.

He also said he intends to use the magazines to build a platform to attract more national advertisers, such as hybrid-car manufacturers and health-conscious brands.

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