In a surefire marker of the “before times,” there was no more room to sit on the hardwood floor of the Ra Ma Institute’s New York outpost one unseasonably warm, sunny Sunday in January 2020. More than a hundred followers of Ra Ma founder Guru Jagat — mostly women, mostly white, mostly wearing layers of white cotton garments — huddled together, hips brushing against hips, waiting for the Los Angeles-based Kundalini yoga practitioner to lead them in nearly two hours of ritual. Open one eye and you might recognise a face or two: a creative director of a fashion label, a beauty entrepreneur.
Over the past few years, Kundalini yoga — an age-old practice that involves chanting, singing and breathwork, often in repetition — has become popular with fashionable types as more and more consumers search for spiritual meaning, even transformation, and open their wallets for goods, services and experiences that transcend the everyday. In Paris, for instance, the former model Caroline Benezet, author of “Kundalini and Me,” teaches Kundalini to industry insiders at cool studios like Le Tigre Yoga. Ra Ma, which has studios in Los Angeles, New York and Majorca, has attracted a large cohort of notable followers, including Alicia Keys and Moon Juice founder Amanda Chantal Bacon.
Little did the organisers behind Ra Ma know that this meeting at their Lower East Side location would be one of their last major in-person events before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time, Guru Jagat — whose given name is Katie Day, according to reports — projected that the business would generate $5 million a year from in-person retreats and a live-streaming service, but also from retail in the group’s centres and e-commerce site, where it sells spiritual tchotchkes as well as multiple apparel lines, which range from upscale dresses to athleisure, described as “meditative streetwear.” Many of those plans went awry, but Ra Ma’s streaming service took off. Its site now attracts two million unique visits a month, 20,000 of whom pay at least $19 a month to access a video library, not to mention additional fees for access to video of one-off sessions that took place throughout the year.
While the pandemic may have put a stop to group gatherings along with other physical experiences, especially in the West, it has done nothing to dampen the growing appetite for some kind of spiritual — or quasi-spiritual — guidance. People under intermittent lockdowns were often searching for hope, purpose and, sometimes, the meaning of life.
In fact, nearly a quarter of Americans said their spiritual faith grew stronger in the first few months of the pandemic, while only two percent said it grew weaker, according to an April 2020 study from Pew Research. And for many, the pandemic has triggered an existential reckoning that has not only changed their outlook on life but their behaviour as consumers.
The Art of Selling Meaning
The development of the consumer economy can be broken down by stages, according to B. Joseph Pine II, co-founder of the consultancy Strategic Horizons LLP and co-author of “The Experience Economy: Work Is Theatre & Every Business a Stage.” First, consumers sought need-based commodities, then distinctive goods, followed by services, experiences and, more recently, physical transformations.
“When we have nothing, it’s the only thing that can get us through. When we have everything, we ask, ‘Is that all there is?’”
Now, they’re also often seeking something less tangible. The bifurcated nature of today’s economy, where millions of people remain unemployed, while others are making more money than ever, may be heightening demand for brands to show a purpose beneath the surface.
People seek meaning “when we have nothing and when we have everything,” Pine said. “When we have nothing, it’s the only thing that can get us through. When we have everything, we ask, ‘Is that all there is?’”
Brands that can answer with, “No, there’s more,” may have an advantage.
“My generation is interested in a kind-of revised version of the counterculture from the ’60s and ’70s,” said Will Welch, the global editorial director of GQ, whose publication has covered everything from the renewed interest in the work of spiritual teacher Ram Dass to “creativity inside faith” with Kanye West, whose Sunday Services in Los Angeles, Paris and beyond drew major crowds pre-Covid.
“If we are interested in something we express that through commerce,” Welch said. “Which is funny and ironic as it relates to spirituality, but is there nonetheless.”
Pre-pandemic, brands already understood that fostering a community of loyal believers, who lived and breathed their product, could be beneficial not only for short-term hype but long-term success. From Nike to Levi’s to Hermès, brand devotion is widespread. In recent years, however, devotion has been increasingly earned not only from selling meaningful products but by what these products say about the person buying it.
Everlane, for instance, sells similar versions of basic garments that can be found at many retailers. However, the company’s commitment to “radical transparency” — sharing information about its supply chain, pricing and production — is what distinguishes it. At Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow established her brand’s sometimes woo-woo, often-contrarian, yet still-polished point of view through a newsletter that offered recommendations and ideas of how the reader could, too, live a life similar to that of its founder. But what makes these companies similar is the way that buying into them doesn’t simply say something about one’s taste, it says something about one’s beliefs. Goop customers are enlightened; Everlane shoppers are caring.
Yet few fashion brands have come close to offering consumers a full-blown spiritual experience. Instead, it’s entities like Ra Ma or Hillsong — a Christian megachurch famous for its celebrity followers, including Justin Bieber — that have best capitalised on the opportunity. They sell spirituality first, product second.
Community or Cult?
Brands can also go too far, however. When meaning enters the realm of dogma, when the community becomes a cult, not only is a brand exposing itself to scrutiny from outsiders, but it also becomes vulnerable to criticisms from its loyal followers.
From Goop to Everlane to Hillsong, brands that sell meaning have often faced pushback from those inside and outside of their communities. Consider Lululemon, which went through years of turmoil after its founder, Chip Wilson, was criticised for comments he made about women’s bodies. What followed was a years-long interrogation of the company’s culture and values, many of which were originally cribbed from the Landmark Forum, a controversial self-help programme that Wilson at one point required every employee to attend.
After several management changes, Lululemon was able to distance itself from Wilson’s dogma and rebound on the back of its best-in-class product.
The Ra Ma Institute has recently faced its own set of challenges, starting with a July 2020 Los Angeles magazine article detailing accusations of sexual assault brought forth against the late Yogi Bhajan, widely credited with popularising the practice in Hollywood. Around the time the story was published, an anonymous Instagram handle, @ramawrong, began posting accounts accusing founder Guru Jagat of everything from Covid denial to appropriation of Sikhism to emotional abuse. They also criticised her refusal to comment on the allegations against Yogi Bhajan.
Guru Jagat said that she “completely ignores” @ramawrong, although she is aware of the allegations and did address some of them publicly, even creating an apparel collection, “Cancel Cancel Culture,” in response to the backlash. The practitioner refused to comment regarding the Yogi Bhajan allegations — she told BoF she never met him, despite the fact that she often mentions him in her teachings.
“Consumers should not be pulled in so far that they start to forsake other things that are good to them.”
Whether or not the accusations against Guru Jagat have long-term implications for the Ra Ma brand or Kundalini yoga at large remains to be seen. To Pine, however, the broader cautionary tale is that brands must not cross the line between meaning something to the consumer and meaning everything to the consumer.
“Brands should enhance how you act with others,” he said. “Consumers should not be pulled in so far that they start to forsake other things that are good to them.”