Modern Yoga in the Place of Yogis

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 in India has never represented an unbroken historical tradition. Although many of the postures, breath practices and meditations have their roots in classical and medieval Indian texts, the very meaning of ‘yoga’ has varied widely across texts and periods. ‘Yoga’ has been variously understood 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. 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, 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 yoga, as well as the Western physical culture movement of the early 20th century. Ideas about the moral value of cultivating one’s body appealed to an Indian nationalism looking to combat colonial stereotypes of Indians as weak and effeminate.

Influential 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. Training spaces were often populated by students from the Western counterculture who transmitted these practices back to Europe and America. 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.

In her memoir Yoga School Dropout, when Lucy Edge records conversations with Indians about yoga, her anecdotes are telling. In contrast to the idealised body emphasised in many globalised commercial yoga studios, Edge’s Indian interlocutors tend to think of yoga as something undramatic they do at home, like having a glass of whiskey after a hard day’s work. Usually there is a focus on breath control or meditation rather than on poses. These practices are often done for free at home, rather than in an expensive studio.

Yoga in India has also been historically promoted through robust alternatives to commercial studios. Nationalist Hindu groups have frequently run camps to introduce yoga techniques to middle-class Indians. In these camps, learning yoga is often only one first step in a larger project of religious nation-building. 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. Such religiously-sponsored forms of yoga are often much more affordable than commercial studios.

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. For example, the Indian government fought against yoga entrepreneurs, some Indian, being awarded copyrights for yoga sequences in other countries.

Given the rapid growth of yoga across the world, the current situation in India is likely to change. 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 abroad. Even the seemingly sedate yoga guided by television-savvy Indian gurus like Baba Ramdev is becoming increasingly entrepreneurial.

Yoga is also, through its promotion by Bollywood stars, beginning to appeal to an Indian youth culture. Standards of beauty and health in India are shifting from the plump ideal of a century ago to slender flexible figures. This ideal is embodied in globalised yoga and appeals to young Indians precisely because of its distance from stodgy stereotypes of ancient Indian tradition.

Yet, even though the Indian yoga industry is almost certainly set to grow, one key question lurks: are yoga studios actually all that lucrative? In the West, commercial yoga’s immersion within a rent economy makes studios very vulnerable. When rents rise, longstanding yoga studios can disappear overnight. Yoga in India is backed by religious organisations and has much more institutional stability to draw upon. But as yoga in India moves beyond religious institutions into secular commercial ones, it is likely to confront similar challenges.

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 has shifted the kind of cultural work that yoga does. But this doesn’t mean that yoga necessarily ceases to be a transformative pursuit.

For some, globalised yoga has enhanced rather than destroyed the ‘Indianness’ of the practice. As Indians develop their own creative responses to globalising yoga 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.

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