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The Intersection of Colonialism, Capitalism, and Yoga

Updated: Sep 15, 2021

Yoga has moved from a spiritual philosophy originating in India to a multi-billion-dollar global industry (Allied Market Research, 2020) associated with exercise. While India has been reclaiming its national identity (which includes yoga), U.S. yoga teachers and studios continue to veer away from the roots of yoga to appeal to more consumers to drive profits and appease consumers. Although some might argue that yoga can be anything for anyone, yoga has been divorced from its origin and intent in the U.S. due to the capitalism, colonialism, and unconscious bias present in the U.S., along with a lack of education in the yoga community.


Photo Left. Kiskis, S. Satsang with Puyja Swami Ji at Kumbh Mela. 2019. JPEG file. This image shows Puyja Swami Ji in India who is teaching students yoga philosophy. A traditional student in India would learn and be under the direction of one teacher for most of their life. That teacher, or guru, might send them to other teachers to learn, but will help the student clearly follow one of the paths of yoga best suited to them.


Photo Right. Mr. Yoga. (Photographer). (2016 November 27). Mr Yoga Stretched Out Scorpion [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0 This image is showing yoga primarily done in the U.S., as well as pointing to the wardrobe differences. This form of dress would not be permitted in (yoga) ashrams in India. The physical asana practice is primarily done in the U.S. and students move from teacher to teacher with no lifelong guidance.



There is no shortage of descriptions of yoga in the U.S. If we look at how yoga is described in the “Bhagavad Gita,” we have three paths of yoga. Karma yoga is the yoga of action where we focus on living our dharma which is in harmony with the world. Jnana yoga is the path of knowledge where we immerse ourselves in ancient spiritual texts to discover God. Bhakti yoga is living a life in devotion to God. Raj yoga, the path of meditation, is also mentioned, but not in such a full way as the other paths. Each path is meant for one thing – moksha - liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth.



Kiskis, S. Kirtan at Aarti. 2020. JPEG file. Kirtan is part of the path of Bhakti Yoga, one of four paths of yoga as laid out in the Bhagavad Gita. Kirtan is employed frequently throughout India using traditional melodies, instruments, and sounds to invoke bhav.


In 2005, R. Alexander Medin interviewed Prashant Iyengar, son of the late master yogi, B.K.S. Iyengar, about yoga. In discussing what he learned from his father about yoga, Iyengar said “We cannot expect that millions are practicing real yoga just because millions of people claim to be doing yoga all over the globe. What has spread all over the world is not yoga. It is not even non-yoga; it is un-yoga” (Medin, 2005, p. 32)

The Hindu American Foundation agrees with Iyengar’s statement. They note the transformation of yoga from an Indian spiritual path to a stripped down, commercialized form of exercise marketed as yoga (Hindu American Foundation, n.d.). Aravind Swami from the Hindu University of America reflects how he learned yoga as a child in India, which he calls by its original Sanskrit name, Bharat. “In all my yoga experiences in Bharat, there was unhesitant and natural acceptance of it as a Hindu practice by everyone involved. There was no conscious avoidance of any Hindu aspects of the practice - whether they be mantra / shloka chants, references to Hindu gods and goddesses, Hindu spiritual concepts such as karma, dharma, punarjanma (reincarnation), etc.” (A. Swami, personal communication, May 28, 2021).

Nikunj Trivedi, President of the Coalition of Hindus of North America (CoHNA), believes that one reason yoga has been divorced from its Hindu roots is due to religious beliefs. “It's very unfortunate because what they're trying to do is slowly, slowly, remove the cultural aspect of it…there's this sort of intolerance against Hinduism” (N. Tridevi, personal communication, May 28, 2021). And to prove his point, in Suzanne Newcombe’s “The Development of Modern Yoga: A Survey of the Field. Religion Compass,” she shares how while some Christians have steered away from yoga due to a conflict in belief, others have taken it and modified it to align with their own belief system (2009, p. 988).

Yoga Alliance, “the largest nonprofit association representing the yoga community” (2020), was developed in 1997 to meet the growth of yoga in the U.S. and now provides standards for teaching future teachers (2020). In their equity statement, Yoga Alliance reflects on the awareness of inequity in the yoga community and the harm it is causing (2020). In their statement, they reflect their active role in addressing this. Yet, inequity in yoga is growing and alienating the Indian community.

Rina Deshpande shares how she with one other Indian and thirteen non-Indians at a meeting to discuss bringing yoga into universities (2019). One of the administrators was open to yoga if it didn’t contain any traces of its origin culture (Deshpande, 2019). She shares “Invisible oppression is something many Indians have been forced to endure in quiet pain for centuries” (Deshpande, 2019).

This intolerance has another name – colonialism. Colonialism can be very blatant like when the British took over India, forbid yoga, and instituted cultural changes. Colonialism can also be subtle like one country trying to influence another country’s politics and relationship. It can be using another as a means of profit, religious influence, and moving one’s population into the area. Many times, it is done with the belief that one culture or country is better than the other.

We often seen colonialism in conjunction with capitalism. Capitalism is an economic system where private individuals and businesses create profit from goods and services based on supply and demand. So, we can see already how when we import a cultural aspect from another country, monetize it, and strip away the culture, we are in a cycle of colonialism and capitalism. And yoga went global through the marriage of these two (Gandhi, 2011, p. 1396).

“Let's take this and let's take that,” says Sreedevi Bringi, retired professor of Religious Studies at Naropa University (personal communication, May 29, 2021). “And so it's done for convenience, as a commodity, based on the audience, and there is a complete unconscious, lack of awareness” (S. Bringi, personal communication, May 29, 2021). A child of a Brahmin family, Sreedevi Bringi, first learned yoga first at her home in Bangalore. Her father was a teacher of Raja Yoga and her family was filled with yoga and scholars. She saw yoga at the Mysore palace and her family were close with Swami Satchidananda, Pattabhi Jois, and Swami Vishnudevananda (S. Bringi, personal communication, May 29, 2021).


Kiskis, S. Aarti, Parmarth Niketan Ashram, Rishikesh. 2020. JPEG file.

This image shows aarti on the banks of the Ganges River during the International Yoga Festival. Aarti is performed each morning and evening to dispel the darkness. Kirtan is offered. We can see a devotee performing classical Indian dance with a tower of candles on his head.


Aravind Swami describes cultural appropriation as stealing and causing harm to another culture (A. Swami, personal communication, May 28, 2021). If yoga is a practice that combines Sanskrit, ancient texts, mantras, kirtan, puja, asana, pranayama, meditation, the food we eat, the clothing we wear, how we treat each other, ourselves, and the planet we life on, how we live our life, does that sound like the yoga you see in the U.S.?

Tridevi says that when we take things from other cultures and selectively remove cultural aspects of it, we are creating conflict and another expression of the relationship of the oppressor and the oppressed. (N. Tridevi, personal communication, May 28, 2021). Aravind Swami says “people who have picked a very narrow practice, removed all connection to the original tradition, decontextualized it, not even acknowledged the origin, and then distorted it for good measure. Beer yoga is one such deplorable example” (A. Swami, personal communication, May 28, 2021).

Justin Stanley’s article “Yoga + Beer” explores this new trend and points to the intersection of both the beer industry and yoga industry looking for another way to grow their revenue (Stanley, 2019, pp. 18-19). Yoga teacher, Noble, believes that beer after class is fine. “If a beer is consumed after in celebration, then I think that's as beautiful as the yoga practice” (Stanley, 2019, pp. 18-19). However, what both the author, breweries, and instructor prove is that they do not understand yoga. The “Hatha Yoga Pradipika,” one traditional yoga book clearly states that when following the yogic path, intoxicants are not permitted.

Bringi finds that one of the hardest parts of being a Hindu leader in the yoga community is hearing more stories of Hindus being marginalized and seeing what is happening to their culture. “Every few weeks I’ll get a question. Every few weeks I’ll get, a kind of, a note of despair or helplessness of how to handle a situation. Or from young Indian women who go to yoga studios and feel offended or feel tokenized or really feel, you know, feel the condescension” (S. Bringi, personal communication, May 29, 2021).

Yoga studio owner, Anjali Sunita sees this many times as unconscious behavior and the way many yoga students and teachers were introduced to yoga. She finds that Americans approach yoga from a results-oriented perspective seeking credentials and credits or health benefits. “That's the context in which yoga is situated in the U.S. It's in a capitalist context, right? And so people are coming with a capitalist agenda, whether they know it or not” (A. Sunita, personal communication, May 28, 2021).

She believes it’s because of this results-oriented culture and capitalism that drives studios and teachers to tailor yoga to consumers to make it more appealing in order to grow one’s roster and finances. Aravind Swami says that this is part of colonialism and capitalism. “What capitalism does is to consider this resource as nothing but a source of monetary wealth, and what colonialism does is to steal this resource from its origin, while disconnecting it from the larger context of the source civilization. By looking at it as this decontextualized resource, the colonial capitalist fails to recognize the greater potential of the yogic tradition and uses it for shallow benefits like generating monetary profit” (A. Swami, personal communication, May 28, 2021). And he believes that even the sincere seeker in the U.S. is strapped by this context and therefore only seeks the superficial aspects.

Meanwhile, there are those in India who are looking to protect the “crown jewel of Hinduism” as Trivedia calls yoga (N. Tridevi, personal communication, May 28, 2021). There is a focus on moving away from the consumerism in the U.S. that has infiltrated India and shift back towards yoga and Hinduism’s focus on dharma (Gupta, 2019, p. 8). While the U.S. sleeps on their eighty-dollar yoga mat, in a twenty-five-dollar class, wearing synthetic yoga clothes that cost them upwards of one hundred dollars, and will feel relaxed for perhaps a half hour after class, across the globe Indians will continue to use yoga, free of capitalism and colonialism to find liberation.


 


Reference

Deshpande, R. (2019). Honoring the Roots of Yoga. Yoga Journal, 309, 106–110.

Gandhi, S. (2011). Yoga. In Encyclopedia of Global Religions (Vol. 2), 1396.

Gupta, B & Copeman, J. (2019). Awakening Hindu Nationalism Through Yoga: Swami Ramdev and the Bharat Swabhiman Movement. Contemporary South Asia. 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1080/09584935.2019.1587386

The Hindu Roots of Yoga. Hindu American Foundation. (n.d.). https://www.hinduamerican.org/projects/hindu-roots-of-yoga.

Medin, R. A. (2005). Next Generation. Namarupa, (4), 30–39.

Newcombe, S. (2009). The Development of Modern Yoga: A Survey of the Field. Religion Compass, 3(6), 986–1002. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00171.x

Stanley, J. (2019). Yoga + Beer. Reader (Chicago, Ill.), 48(45).

About. Yoga Alliance. (2020, June 29). https://www.yogaalliance.org/about.

Equity in Yoga. Yoga Alliance. (n.d.). https://www.yogaalliance.org/Our_Standards/The_Ethical_Commitment/Equity_Position_Statement.

History. Yoga Alliance. (2020, November 24). https://www.yogaalliance.org/About_Us/Our_History.

What is The Jesus Mantra? - Definition from Yogapedia. Yogapedia.com. (n.d.). https://www.yogapedia.com/definition/11071/the-jesus-mantra.

Yoga Market Size, Share & Growth: Research Report 2027. Allied Market Research. (2020, September). https://www.alliedmarketresearch.com/yoga-market-A06967.



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