Culture  /  Book Excerpt

The Birth of a New Brand of Exercise Fetish

From Bikram yoga to Tae Bo, the 1990s exploded with exoticized consumer fitness products.

Inspired by the fitness industry, Choudhury set the standard for the “ultimate commodification” of transnational yoga by establishing its most recognizable brand, making it inextricable from commercial fitness culture and defining yoga as a consumer product.

Choudhury attributed his “yoga mogul” status—a phrase that became a fixture of his frequent media coverage—to his unapologetic embrace of aggressive American capitalism and his astute understanding of a certain sort of consumer’s willingness to hand over large sums to self-styled experts and showmen, who promised, as Choudhury did, both enlightenment and the elimination of “cottage cheese thighs.” But unlike P. T. Barnum or Norman Vincent Peale, Choudhury’s popularity stemmed in part from the tendency to invest “exotic” figures with authority and even otherworldly power. This subtle sort of racism has deep American roots, especially as directed toward Asia, but it took on new forms in the 1990s, when a broad if often superficial celebration of ethnic and cultural diversity germinated first in education and politics, but soon also informed popular culture and the fitness worlds it encompassed.

Bikram Yoga was hardly the only exercise business that benefited from this shift. In 1993, The New York Times commented that Americans put off by yoga as “weird and painful and elitist” or even boring—if not “writhing around with all your pierced buddies down at Jivamukti”—were embracing a more accessible and cathartic program, one also inspired by an Eastern movement practice: “Tae Bo.” Developed by African American martial-arts champion Billy Blanks in the basement of his suburban Boston home, this program combined cardiovascular training with martial arts. When he started out in the early 1980s, Blanks found little interest in the program, which he first styled “karobics”—before learning the name had been patented—at the karate dojo he ran. But a decade later, having relocated to southern California, Blanks discovered an enthusiastic audience for the program he repackaged as “Tae Bo,” a portmanteau fusing Tae Kwon Do and boxing. Effusive endorsements from celebrities as diverse as pop star Paula Abdul and welterweight boxer Carlos Palomino soon followed.