Nailing a headstand in yoga class is already pretty difficult—it’s a balancing act that takes many people years to master. But if one of India’s recent initiatives is realized, perfecting the pose might become that much harder: The nation’s government is quietly wondering if someday it will be able to dictate what can be called “yoga” and what can’t.
Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched an effort to have yoga become recognized first and foremost as an Indian practice grounded in the Hindu tradition. Modi created a new cabinet post for what has been called a “Minister of Yoga,” and picked Shripad Yesso Naik—former member of India’s parliament, career politician, and lifelong yogi—for the position.
Already, yoga is being incorporated into India’s schools, hospitals, and police academies, and the government is also pitching in to help create a library of videos documenting the “correct” ways to strike more than 1,500 poses—which represents a centralized response to “unofficial” guides. These efforts are part of Modi’s larger Make in India campaign, which includes plans to improve the country’s public infrastructure and manufacturing sector. The end goal of Naik’s appointment might be to get a slice of what has become a multi-billion-dollar industry in the U.S. by establishing yoga’s Indian-ness.
For India to effectively claim to own yoga, Modi would need to secure what’s called a “geographical indication.” A geographical indication is a formal acknowledgement of location’s importance to a specific product—in the European Union, it’s what protects a fizzy beverage made in the Champagne region of France from imitators produced elsewhere. Geographical indications are bestowed by a country’s government trade office, but there isn’t a U.N.-like body to resolve international disputes.
The U.S. Patent and Trade Office acknowledges this vagueness, and as a result there’s a lot of champagne sold in the U.S. that’s not from Champagne, and there’s nothing that France can do about it. Similarly, the E.U. has squabbled with the U.S. for selling cheeses labeled “Rocquefort” and “Mozzarella” without verifying their origins.
What’s working against Modi, in the case of yoga, is that it’d be difficult to establish a concrete geographical connection. Unlike champagne—which is made from grapes grown in a particular region with distinct weather conditions and soil content—yoga can’t be held in your hand.
Practically speaking, securing a geographical indication for yoga would be nearly impossible. “While yoga certainly originated in India,” says Sonia Katyal, a law professor at Fordham University who specializes in intellectual property, “its widespread adoption in the West—including the hundreds of types of yogas created by enterprising westerners like mommy-and-me yoga, nude yoga, dog yoga—makes it a little harder to explain how its Indian origins are always essential the practice or characteristics of yoga today.”
On top of that, enforcement would be a logistical nightmare. “India can protect [a geographical indication] within the country easily,” says May T. Yeung of the Estey Centre for Law and Economics and International Trade. “But what about country to country? You have to watch every yoga studio in the world.”
That said, a geographical indication may not be entirely out of the question. “What’s working on India’s side is the government wants to do this,” Yeung says. “The government is providing significant resources and they have clout.” Still, even with governmental might, Yeung says, forming an effective bureaucracy to regulate yoga most likely won’t happen.
So, ultimately, it looks like little will change anytime soon for the U.S. yoga industry and its 20 million customers. But it’s easy to understand why Modi would explore the possibility: Yoga classes and the accompanying products (think retreats and Lululemon pants) are a $10 billion-a-year industry.
With all that money and cultural influence at stake, it’s not surprising that there’s a debate about where yoga owes its origins, and who, if anyone, it “belongs” to. “There is something about the United States that makes it a particularly booming hotspot for the contemporary yoga market,” says Andrea R. Jain, author of the book Selling Yoga and a professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
Jain traces the Western fascination with yoga back to the 1960s, when a generation was hungry for a spirituality that was cleanly different from their parents’ more rigid religious beliefs. “Metaphysical religion is at least as important as evangelicism in shaping American religious history and in identifying what makes it distinctive,” she says, referring to studies by the religious scholar Catherine Albanese that found yoga to be a means by which traditional Christian thought could be blended with Eastern philosophy.
Today, many Americans view yoga simply as a workout, which means that the practice has more or less been broken off from its millennia-old Hindu roots. A few years ago, yoga’s near-complete transition from spiritual practice to trendy fitness activity was marked by a spirited debate. Upset by yoga’s lack of religious connotation, Sheetal Shah, a senior director at the Hindu American Foundation, contacted the publication Yoga Journal asking why it had never linked yoga to Hinduism. She was told that Yoga Journal avoided the connection “because it carries baggage,” which prompted her to launch an initiative, called Take Back Yoga, to highlight yoga’s Hindu roots.
In response to Shah’s campaign, groups across the religious spectrum questioned whether there was a place in the ancient practice for yogis of other faiths and whether it was possible for any religion to “own” yoga. Others wondered if religious twists on yoga were contrary to the vision of Swami Vivekananda, the wildly popular monk who introduced yoga to the west and preached interfaith acceptance.
The Washington Post published a series of back-and-forths between one of Shah’s colleagues at the Hindu American Foundation and the physician Deepak Chopra. HAF board member, Dr. Aseem Shukla, and Chopra argued over yoga’s provenance. While the HAF maintained that the West ignores the connection between Hinduism and yoga, Chopra and many yoga instructors have pointed to the Sanskrit invocations peppered throughout a typical yoga practice as evidence that proper dues were being paid. Moreover, Chopra argued that the connection to Hinduism might be weaker than it is often presumed to be, seeing as the archaeological record suggests that yoga predates early Hindu scriptures.
Today, Shah says that “Take Back Yoga” is a misnomer. “We aren’t taking yoga ‘back’ from anyone,” she insists. She says she was simply interested in highlighting yoga’s Hindu roots without insisting that it must be practiced by people of a certain religion. That said, she still cares deeply about the distinction between “true” yoga’s respect for the past and American yoga’s relatively superficial concerns.
For Shah, the ultimate goal of yoga remains that of moksha, or spiritual liberation. But for many, apparently, there’s a very different angle from which to approach the issues of cultural ownership and geographical origins: As May Yeung asks with respect to obtaining a geographical indication, “For India, the question really is, ‘How much money are you willing to throw at it?’”