I open up my Instagram account to see my screen splashed with ‘insta-famous’ yoga models, posing in admirable yoga (or calisthenics OR gymnastics) postures.
The yoga models with their unbelievably toned and graceful bodies post an inspirational quote underneath. Below this caption, there is also usually a mention of her chosen brand of yogawear (@aloyoga) and a number of yoga-related hashtags : #yogapants” “#yogalife” #beagoddess”.
The revenue of the yoga industry in 2018 was $9.09 billion in the US alone. An estimate suggests there 300 million ‘yoga practitioners’ worldwide.
Till the mid-19th century, yoga was understood mainly as a profound philosophy or a meditation-based spiritual practice and ‘yoga practitioners’ were perceived with suspicious looks and even disgust.
How, then, did yoga come to be the incredibly popular, primarily postural, well-being and recreational practice that is today?
This article explores just that. We see how, across time, the discourse around ‘yoga’ and ‘yogis’ (aka yoga practitioners) has evolved into its current model which is defined by capitalist consumerism, commodification of the body and a “post-perennial” trend of picking and choosing spiritual practices from different religions to create a unique self-religiosity. This back and forth evolution and creation of yoga and ‘yogas’ poses a potential policy question regarding intellectual and property rights – what elements can and cannot be patented in an evolving technique that is constantly being discovered, re-invented and re-internalized by different facets of society?
During the 18th and 19th centuries, yoga was perceived strictly as an Eastern or Vedic philosophy concerning the non-dual nature of creation called Advaita. In contrast, ‘yogis’ or ‘yoga practitioners’ who practiced postures were clubbed into a dizzying variety of renouncers, hermits, warrior ascetics, marketers, beggars and even imposters – evinced in the accounts Muslim rulers and British travelers who visited India , as well as in the accounts of colonialists and postmodern Indian nationalists.These accounts describe yogis who practice traditional yoga postures and asanas as “pestful beggars” and “panhandling entertainers” (White 2009). This condescending description of yogis was well cemented by print media and ethnographic journalism and made asana or posture-practicing yogis “the laughing stock of the world by spotlighting their cheapness and vulgarity”. Who we consider as agile, calm and balanced yoga practitioners today were historically linked with supernatural powers and practices of self-mortification and low-entertainment rather than with self-realization, inner-growth or other integrated yogic practices of pranayama (breath-work) or dhyana (meditation).
However these descriptions of yoga served a purpose. The prejudiced and incendiary descriptions of yoga practitioners documented by the British were used by the colonialists to justify their rule over the ‘savage’ and ‘inferior’ people of the East and convey the logic of the imperial power as a ‘savior’ that would reform India by bringing it under the moral, scientific, rational and civilized rule of the British.
Ironically, ‘neo-hindu’ liberalists such as Swami Vivekananda and Raja Ram Mohan Roy in the 19th century attempted to redeem the sullied notion of Hinduism held by Orientalists by internalizing the colonialist notion of asana-based yoga as inferior.
They propounded a ‘Neo-Hinduism’, which concretized and scientized non-dual Advaita philosophy through discoveries in quantum physics, and urged a return to ‘true’ Hinduism, focused on the yogic philosophy of the Vedas and the Upanishads. Vivekananda’s view was well received in the West due to America’s fascination for yoga and advaita philosophy and yogic philosophy’s compatibility with the popular New-Thought and Transcendentalism movements, which emphasized a divinized self-hood and individualized-renaissance. Thus, New Thought provided yogis like Swami Vivekananda or Paramhansa Yogananda a convenient and familiar spiritual lexicon with which to convey the arcane truths of yoga to Europeans, Americans and (increasingly) modern Hindus (Singleton 2010).
This resulted in a new understanding of yoga as a cult of positive thinking, personal power and affluence, and health through perfect harmony with the universe. Although Vivekananda and other similar neoliberal proponents lauded yoga philosophy as a noble school of thought and proposed a ‘canon’ of yogic texts for the first time, they still perceived posture-based Hatha Yoga as inferior and did not consider it to be ‘ true yoga’.
It was actually growing capitalism in the West that redeemed the reputation of posture-based Hatha Yoga and made it the mainstream concept of yoga as we know it today.
The interest in Hatha Yoga—which dealt more directly with postures and the mind-body relationship than with yoga philosophy—arose with the advent of the third phase of capitalism. Also known as Late Capitalism, this phase of capitalism displays features such as Western de-industrialization, sub-urbanization, and a dramatic increase in flexible capital accumulation leading to the development of globalized markets (Mandal 1975). The decline of heavy manufacturing industries and the growth in service sector industries in Late Capitalism increased the salience of leisure and consumption activities. Sources of identity and a sense of self now became less derived from work and production than from consumption and leisure (Hughes 2000).
With this, increasing attention was placed on well-being, health, the physical body and preventive rather than curative medicine, which shifted efforts towards what is known as biopsychosocial medicine. Biopsychosocial medicine brought the medicalization of lifestyle, consumption and the social space and began including behavioral prescriptions to encourage populations to adopt healthy habits and actively practice self-care (Bunton et al. 1995; Lyon 1993).
Biopsychosocial medicine, consumerism and a heavy use of media led to a commodification of the body. The body played a deliberate role between consumer activities and cultural constitution of the self, becoming a medium through which messages of self-identity were transmitted (Jagger 2000). To practice healthy behavior and possess a desired body type became a way to improve one’s “physical capital” and enhance one’s social and mental value (Bourdieu 1984). The way to be healthy, look good and feel good was to purchase products and service and market oneself as moving towards a better lifestyle. “The market around healthy living” had started (Jagger).
As a result, a growing trend towards lean and well-being fitness activities emerged. Eugenie V. Peterson, who called herself Indira Devi and is now known as the Mother of Modern Yoga, was a student of yoga teacher T. Krishmacharya. Observing the growing trend in the ‘market of healthy living’ when she first moved to the US, Devi seized the opportunity and opened a Hatha Yoga studio at Sunset Boulevard of Western Hollywood. Devi introduced yoga as a purely physical activity and focused on purifying and promoting a youthful and healthy body. She was soon met with a flurry of Hollywood stars and enjoyed great popularity among Hollywood Celebrities like Gloria Swanson, Susan Hayward, Bette Davis, Joan Bennet and Marilyn Monroe. Celebrities had no interest on learning about the philosophical or spiritual aspect of yoga but wanted its physical and mental benefits. “Marilyn Monroe’s practiced Yoga not for its philosophy but to improve her legs she says” (Washington Post; 1956)
As these celebrities propounded the benefits of yoga for energy and beauty in the media to the public, yoga increasingly became a popular choice for physical well-bring and the trend has move upward ever since. As mentioned previously, we now have 300 million ‘yogis’ worldwide and a yoga market now worth $90bn globally. We even have an International Day of Yoga (which turns out to be today actually).
Practicing yoga now consists not only of asanas, but also buying the right yoga mats, props, toe socks and even having an Instagram account dedicated to sharing your “yoga journey”. It consists of mantras—not for self-realization, but for self-affirmation—to attain material wealth. Currently, yoga has become a spiritual medium to achieve ’mind-body balance’, mental peace, emotional stability and “aligning” oneself with the universe of greater prosperity.
But yoga is just one of the many similar ‘spiritual’ phenomena and practices becoming mainstream. Others include zen living, mindfulness meditation, tai-chi, Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, Celtic nature-alignment.
In our current hyper capitalistic world, where everything is globalized, media-mediated, purchase-driven and instantly gratified, we pursue our spirituality through the consumption of consumer goods, believe that the universe is integrated , pursue our life with the purpose of personal growth, and unconsciously act as if authentic spirituality should be assembled from all possible religious traditions. This is what Watkins, a sociologist called ‘post-perennialism’. Post-perennialism, capitalist consumerism’s birth child, relies on one fundamental assumption: that spirituality is not limited to a particular tradition. Instead, each individual’s personal religious practice should be assembled—” like a trip through the supermarket—from those religious myths, practices, and symbols that work best for oneself” (Watkins 2008).
As Adam Possamai argues, this leads to a religious bricolage à la carte, “in which people no longer accept religious ‘set menus’ offered by traditional religions” but are more interested in constructing personal subjective mythologies (2003). Such spiritual re-packaging might take the form of the appropriation of indigenous cultures, historical periods, or popular culture. Using this spiritual logic, practitioners describe their spirituality as a unique, personalized collage that consists of bits and pieces of a seemingly infinite number of religious traditions (Watkins 2008).
The ‘à la carte’ repacking and commodification of spiritual practices for self-religiosity in the age of individualism has led to question what constitutes a ‘real practice’ now. The answer might be “It’s real as long as it’s true to oneself”. As Watkins (2008) notes, post-perennialism only strengthens capitalism but re-enforces the notion of a globalized, consuming self.
Post-perennialism and the consumeristic notion of ‘picking and choosing’ from different practices has led to the invention, re-invention, consumption and re-consumption – of new forms of yoga. Forms of yoga now have patents, which are often battled between apparently rightful owners, and ‘newbies’ to yoga can choose from gentle restorative to rigorous ashtanga-vinyasa, to hot yoga or even bear, puppy and beer yoga on a retreat.
The Indian government’s Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy) was formed with the main objective of preventing the current patent trend of new forms of yoga and promoting the ‘true authentic form of yoga’ from its ‘origin country’. However, determining what is ‘authentic yoga’ might not be so straightforward. Scholars note that even current hatha yoga – established by T. Krishmacharya – is a combination of not only a mélange of yogic asanas but also has elements of Indian Wresting and Western gymnastics used in British military training exercises (Sjoma1996 ; Singleton 2010). This suggests that ‘traditional’ yoga-asana schools were also evolving in history and were adapted and re-created differently by each teacher, a phenomena we witness and too-often erroneously consider as novel today. As re-adaptation and re-internalization of spiritual practices and forms continue, to ascertain what is yoga and who owns yoga may be increasingly difficult.
As the world celebrates the ‘International Day of Yoga’ today (commemorated by the UN in 2015) and remember the benefits – whether physical, emotional, mental, spiritual – of ‘yoga practice’, perhaps thinking about the power-politics associated with the origins of the definitions and the practices of yoga(s) could be worth considering.
Hughes , Bill. “Medicalized Bodies”. The Body, Culture and Society. Open University Press. New York 2000. Print
Jagger, Elizabeth. “Consumer Bodies”. The Body, Culture and Society. Open University Press. New York 2000. Print
Possamai Adam, Alternative Spiritualities and the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” Culture and Religion 4(1). 2003. Print
Sjoman, N.E. The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace. Abhinav Publications. New Delhi. 1996. Print
Singleton, Mark. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Yoga Practice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print
Singleton, Mark and Goldberg, Ellen. “Manufacturing Yogis: Swami Vivekananda as a Yoga Teacher”. Gurus of Modern Yoga. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. p.17-33. Print
Singleton, Mark , Suggestive Therapeutics: New Thought’s Relationship to Modern Yoga. Journal of Asia Medicine Vol 3. 2007. Print
Singleton, Mark. The Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford University Press. New York. 2010. Print
White, David Gordon. Sinister Yogis. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2009. Print
Walter Winchell, ‘Of New York”, Washington Post , March 1, 1956, 47.
Watkins, Gregory. “ There is No Spoon?”., Teaching Religion and Film. Oxford Scholarship Online. 2008. Print
Feature image: https://bit.ly/2Ks8zU9
Isha Sharma is a second year MPA student at the LSE. Born near the world’s yoga capital, Rishikesh, Isha started studying yoga at an early age and continued to practice it as an integral part of her journey while growing up in the Middle East. Isha studied Comparative Literature and Religious Studies with a focus on yoga and mindfulness at New York University before going back to India after 19 years of living abroad to work at the grassroots. Her grassroots experience in Indian villages drew her to international development and public policy – arenas she is currently exploring as part of her MPA degree.