Pirates, spies, soul stealers: the spiritual and economic transformation of yoga

In the past decade the worldwide yoga industry has become a multibillion- dollar business. Yet, ironically, the one country where yoga does not yet thrive commercially is the very place from which yoga is thought to originate: India. Why should this be?

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This paradox emerges, in part, because the practice known as ‘yoga’ around the world is a modern invention of the globalised and capitalist 20th century. A brief look at the history of yoga may help to explain why this industry has not had a straightforward development in India.

"[Yoga’s] current configuration as a staple of globalised consumer culture is not exactly an ancient Indian tradition."
Shaheem Black, Fellow at The Australian National University

Yoga in India has never represented an unbroken historical tradition. Indeed, as scholars are beginning to show, the very meaning of ‘yoga’ has varied widely from text to text and from period to period. While we’re likely to think of yoga today as a set of distinctive postural practices, perhaps accompanied by breath control or meditation, ‘yoga’ has been variously understood in different parts of Indian history as a search to separate the spirit from bodily matter, as a quest to unite with the divine, as a tool to strengthen the nation, as a means of magic, and as a form of military training. Although many of the postures, breath practices and meditations have their roots in classical and medieval Indian texts, their current configuration as a staple of globalised consumer culture is not exactly an ancient Indian tradition.

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Until the middle of the 20th century, Indian yogis were often looked upon as scary, dreadlocked men who were more like pirates than Pilates instructors. Sects of yogis such as the Naths, for instance, raided colonial trade routes and created formidable armies of young ascetic men. When the religious studies scholar David Gordon White looked to India’s long tradition of stories about yogis he found that, before the 20th century, yogis were usually depicted as sorcerers, spies and soul-stealers. They did not do very many lotus poses.

In the early 20th century Indian innovators like Krishnamacharya, teaching young elites in the Mysore Palace, began to rehabilitate yoga as a modern physical pursuit that laid important foundations for the commercially successful global yoga industry we see today. These innovative and experimental yogis drew upon Indian textual lineages of yogaInfluential students of Krishnamacharya, such as Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar, continued to sow the seeds for a commercial yoga industry by ‘branding’ these emergent forms of postural yoga in the mid-20th century. They created formal institutions, named styles of yoga and authorised new generations of students to teach their particular lineages. Many (though not all) of today’s yoga institutions trace some path back to these figures.

Ironically, this new postural yoga was often most appealing to students coming from outside India. Lucy Edge’s 2005 memoir Yoga School Dropout, an account of a British woman visiting many celebrated yoga schools in India, registers surprise: having come halfway around the world to India, Edge instead finds herself surrounded by Westerners. Sensitive to this phenomenon, Indian tourist boards in the 21st century have explicitly marketed yoga to foreigners, with regions associated with yoga promoted as Destination Wellness.

Indians have often perceived yoga in ways that are slightly at odds with the energetic commercial industry that began to flourish worldwide in the 1990s. When Lucy Edge’s memoir records conversations with Indians about yoga, her anecdotes are telling. In contrast to the idealised body emphasised in many globalised commercial yoga studios—the foundation for a yoga industry that not only teaches practices but also sells mats, clothes, food and lifestyle products—Edge finds something different. Her Indian interlocutors tend to think of yoga as something undramatic they do at home, usually with a focus on breath control or meditation rather than on poses, like having a glass of whiskey after a hard day’s work.

This mundane perception of yoga resonates with a 2010 Wall Street Journal blog post that encouraged Indians to challenge their conceptions of yoga as a sedate grandmotherly pursuit. ‘Practicing yoga [in India] is largely reserved for sweet old aunts and pot-bellied uncles’, the post bemoans. ‘And the “practice” here is generally limited to pranayama (breathing) in the wee hours of the morning, often with the guidance of self-appointed guru Baba Ramdev on the TV in the living room’. The assumption seems to be that sweet old aunts and pot-bellied uncles don’t care too much about shaping an idealised body, don’t need to pay for classes and probably don’t have a lot of disposable income to put into yoga pants anyway.

Religious organisations have sometimes turned to yoga as a way to make themselves relevant to ordinary people, as in the case of the Jain Svetambara Terapanth. In the late 20th century, the Terapanth reconstructed a lost ancient form of Jain yoga and began to offer classes in this practice to lay people. Such religiously-sponsored forms of yoga are often much more affordable than commercial studios. For example, a camp run by the Jain Terapanth in Delhi costs only 300 rupees (US$5) to attend two 12-hour days, while a single class at the commercial Yoga Studio in New Delhi requires 600 rupees ($US10) for 75 minutes.

In another irony, the Indian state has been reluctant to commercialise yoga to its fullest extent because it wants to maintain yoga as an icon of Indian cultural heritage. When yoga entrepreneurs, some Indian, began to be awarded copyrights for yoga sequences in other countries (most famously Bikram Choudhury’s ‘hot yoga’ in the United States), the Indian government fought back. In 2011, it developed an online database of traditional knowledge designed to contain images of 1300 yoga poses from traditional Indian texts, along with video demonstrations of some poses and citations to the first source in which each pose appears. The Indian state argued that this database could serve as a first point of reference for patent offices worldwide, so that nothing in the database could be claimed as a modern innovation. In protecting yoga as the traditional property of India, the state thus also prevents potential Indian yoga entrepreneurs from making money in particular ways.

Given the rapid growth of yoga across the world, the current situation in India is likely to change. Many major Indian cities already have their own commercial yoga studios, and as India’s middle class grows, the combination of stressful lifestyles, chronic illnesses and increased disposable income is apt to produce a new generation of Indians who seek the same respite in yoga as their counterparts in the United States, Singapore or Germany. The seemingly sedate yoga guided by television-savvy Indian gurus like Baba Ramdev is also becoming increasingly entrepreneurial.

Yoga is also, through its promotion by Bollywood stars, beginning to appeal to an Indian youth culture. As standards of beauty and health in India shift from the plump ideal of a century ago to slender flexible figures, globalised yoga embodies that ideal for both young and middle-aged. And the quirky innovations that have occurred in yoga’s peregrinations around the globe—hip-hop yoga, yoga for pets, circus yoga—may appeal to young Indians precisely because of their distance from stodgy stereotypes of ancient Indian tradition.

Will developing yoga commercially in India destroy precisely what makes yoga powerful, and even what makes it Indian? Perhaps. There is no doubt that the race to make money from yoga, to create branded forms, lifestyle signifiers and a vast range of imaginative (and unnecessary?) products, has shifted the kind of cultural work that yoga does. But this doesn’t mean that yoga necessarily ceases to be a transformative pursuit.

Scholars have begun to discover that globalised yoga, for some, has enhanced rather than destroyed the ‘Indianness’ of the practice. As Indians have begun to import commercial forms of globalising yoga, and to develop their own creative responses that invoke both tradition and modernity, they are not just making new kinds of money: they are making new kinds of cultural meaning. In the end, this may be the most valuable development of all.

Dr Shameem Black is a Fellow in the Department of Gender, Media and Cultural Studies at the School of Culture, History and Language in the College of Asia and the Pacific at The Australian National University.

This is an edited excerpt from the East Asia Forum Quarterly (EAFQ): The state and economic enterprise.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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