Fake, Evil, Spiritual, Commodified; What’s the Truth About Popular Yoga?

What inspired you to write Selling Yoga?

Near the beginning of my graduate school career, I had the opportunity to travel to Rajasthan to research Jain traditions and came upon the Jain Shvetambara Terapanth (a Jain sectarian tradition) and its guru at the time, Mahaprajna, who was famous for having introduced a new form of “Jain yoga” called preksha dhyana. My inability to grasp the contrast between the world-, society-, and body-negating ascetic ideology of traditional Jain monastic thought and Mahaprajna’s active advocacy for modern conceptions of universal peace, physical health, and psychological well-being, led to many years of research, which culminated in the publication of Selling Yoga.

Upon my return home to Houston, I explored the Terapanth center in my own city and realized that preksha dhyana, in many ways, reflected a larger transnational pattern. In its propagation I was certain I was witnessing an attempt to establish continuity with a global yoga industry in which popularized varieties of postural yoga reflect dominant consumer demands and desires.

In order to understand preksha dhyana’s relationship to the larger yoga market, I found myself trying to account for postural yoga’s popularization in urban areas across the world. As I broadened the scope of my study to include postural yoga generally, from Rajasthan and Houston, I set out to follow postural yoga through a series of associations and relationships to physical sites in London and throughout the United States and India, on websites and in publications, and to other contemporary areas of cultural production, such as yoga studios and public parks.

The result was a comparative study of modern yoga, its popularization, and its intersections with consumer culture.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

Unfortunately, pop culture varieties of postural yoga are often dismissed from any serious consideration of what yoga is. Many have even implicitly and explicitly criticized popularized yoga as illegitimate or a corruption of yoga orthodoxies. But their portraits of postural yoga are misleading.

The key message for Selling Yoga’s readers is that yoga has been perpetually context-sensitive, so there is no “legitimate,” “authentic,” “orthodox,” or “original” tradition, only contextualized ideas and practices organized around the term yoga. In other words, the innovations unique to pop culture yoga do not de-authenticate them simply because they represent products of consumer culture.

Postural yoga is a transnational product of yoga’s encounter with global processes, particularly the rise and dominance of market capitalism, industrialization, globalization, and the consequent diffusion of consumer culture. To reduce its innovations to borrowings from, or the mere commodification of, otherwise authentic religious wares, however, would undermine the narrative and ritual functions and meanings of yoga for many of the practitioners I engage with in my study—the insiders to modern postural yoga.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

This book is a study on the popularization of yoga, but it is not an exhaustive history or survey of popularized yoga systems. Contemporary popular culture defies the ability to locate any cultural object at one site or sites. And in the case of postural yoga, we cannot locate it in my chosen sites alone.

However, as a practical move, this study uses them as windows into the incalculable sites of the construction, dissemination, and practice of yoga. I had to carefully select from case studies in my effort to demonstrate that the postural practice we most associate with yoga today underwent global popularization as it coincided with transnational cultural developments.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

Given that we see yoga practically every­where, from strip-mall studios to advertisements for The Gap, one frequent misconception is that there is a blanket acceptance of yoga as an acceptable consumer choice. Yet, Selling Yoga illuminates a number of growing movements that oppose popularized yoga and even sometimes court fear of it.

Some Christians, including Albert Mohler (President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), Pat Robertson (television evangelist and founder of the Christian Coalition of America), and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Roman Catholic Church, warn about the dangers of yoga given the perceived incompatibility between what they believe is its Hindu essence and Christianity. I call their position the Christian yogaphobic position.

Some well-known Americans, such as Mohler, add that yoga’s popularization threatens the Christian essence of American culture. Hindu protesters, most notably the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), criticize yoga insiders for failing to recognize yoga’s so-called Hindu origins and illegitimately co-opting yoga for the sake of profit. I call this the Hindu origins position.

The two are strikingly similar, most significantly insofar as they lean on the misconception that yoga is definitively Hindu. This idea is based on revisionist histories that essentialize yoga’s identity, ignoring its historical and lived heterogeneity. By the end of the first millennium C.E., yoga systems were widespread in South Asia as Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and others prescribed them. Throughout its premodern history, yoga was culturally South Asian but did not belong to any single religious tradition.

The history of modern postural yoga also problematizes the identification of yoga as Hindu. That history is a paragon of cultural encounters in the process of constructing something new in response to transnational ideas and movements, including military calisthenics, modern medicine, and the Western European and North American physical culture of gymnasts, bodybuilders, martial experts, and contortionists. Yoga proponents constructed new postural yoga systems in the twentieth century, and nothing like them appeared in the historical record up to that time.

Another unfortunate but common misconception is that yoga is a mere commodity of global market capitalism or, at best, “spiritual, not religious.” On the one hand, many outsiders to popularized yoga profoundly trivialize it by reducing it to mere commodities and impotent borrowings from or “rebrandings” of traditional, authentic religious products. On the other hand, many insiders frequently avoid categorizing yoga as religion, preferring to call it spiritual or to invoke other non-explicitly religious terms to describe it.

If one closely evaluates examples from popularized yoga, it becomes apparent that it can have robust religious qualities. Pop culture yoga can serve as a body of religious practice in the sense of a set of behaviors that are treated as sacred, as set apart from the ordinary or mundane dimensions of everyday life; that are grounded in a shared ontology or world­view; that are grounded in a shared axiology or set of values or goals concerned with resolving weakness, suffering, or death; and that are reinforced through myth and ritual.

In the postural yoga context, for example, when Iyengar’s students repeat their teacher’s famous mantra—“The body is my temple, [postures] are my prayers”—or read in one of his monographs—“Health is religious. Ill-health is irreligious” (Iyengar 1988: 10)—they testify to experiencing the mundane flesh, bones, and physical movements and even yoga accessories as sacred.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

In an attempt to speak to a wider audience that includes the wide variety of those who do yoga, I deliberately wrote Selling Yoga in a more accessible style and raise a series of questions that speak to wider cultural concerns and constituencies than are usually appealed to in academia.

I hoped to speak to many audiences about why so many people across the world, including many who I hope will read this book, are choosing yoga as a part of their everyday regimens, but I also hoped to engage those who reject it outright, sometimes with great hostility.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?

I hoped to inform all of Selling Yoga’s readers and to offend some of them. In fact, if this book does not offend at least some readers, it is not properly communicating its main arguments.

I suppose the best way to convey what I mean is to point to Selling Yoga’s epigraph by Aldous Huxley: “Orthodoxy is the diehard of the world of thought. It learns not, neither can it forget.” Orthodoxy’s rejection of critical thinking, especially with regard to its own historical contingency, is problematic for many reasons but primarily because it has violent consequences for living people, especially those located outside of the so-called straight and right path.

In Selling Yoga, I seek to inform readers that yoga is nonstable, ever-adaptive, and never monolithic. In other words, it is always historically contingent, so it changes form as it enters new social contexts. Yoga underwent popularization when its advocates constructed new forms that intersected with contemporary consumer culture, though it’s meant to serve as a case study of a much larger phenomenon: yoga, like religion generally, is a human product that has undergone assimilation to the emergent and dominant consumer culture, and products that intersect with the contemporary context of consumer culture cannot always be reduced to mere commodities of market capitalism.

Recent articulations of yoga are not necessarily more or less religious and are not more or less authentic than earlier ones. In fact, there is no “authentic” or “original” yoga as there is no “authentic” or “original” Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, or any other religious complex.

Unsurprisingly, this lesson is offensive to both yoga insiders and outsiders who prefer to deny the historical contingencies of their own orthodoxies, which they believe transcend human agency.

What alternative title would you give the book?

Another title I considered was Consuming Yoga because it captured my argument that yoga, like food, has become a consumable product marketed and chosen based on individual preferences and desires, and that certain yoga brands, like brand images generally, serve as signifiers of better product quality.

How do you feel about the cover?

The cover sends an intentionally ambiguous message that yes, contemporary popularized varieties of yoga are products of consumer culture and contain within them many commodities; but no, that does not mean we can reduce them to mere commodities of market capitalism. When yoga insiders claim they experience yoga as transformative, extraordinarily powerful, or “spiritual,” we should take those claims seriously and evaluate yoga (even in its popularized varieties) as a body of religious practice.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

I would like to have written Heaven’s Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman, by Leigh Eric Schmidt. Heaven’s Bride tells the important story of a modern hero, Ida C. Craddock (1857-1902), whose life, though tragic, reveals important themes in the early history of modern yoga and an important lesson on the dangers of clinging to orthodoxy for real, living people.

Craddock was an American social radical and early mod­ern yogi in a period characterized by attempts to legally enforce narrow interpretations of what it meant to be a “Christian nation.” Most nota­ble were the attempts of U.S. Postal Inspector Anthony Comstock, who founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and used his position in the postal service to censor whatever he deemed a threat to the Christian orthodoxy he identified as American.

When Craddock’s teachings on yoga conflicted with Comstock’s ideals, he sought to enforce laws that would qualify them as illegal. In 1902, after being convicted on charges of obscenity, Craddock spent three torturous months in prison and, with the threat of more prison time, eventually killed herself.

Craddock’s life reveals a few important themes in the early history of modern yoga. The first has to do with the role of the human body. Craddock sacralized sexual intercourse, which is not radical by today’s popular American standards and, in Schmidt’s words, may even seem “mundane” to the contemporary reader. However, for the mainstream turn-of-the-century American, it was antisocial heterodoxy. This demonstrates that not only was the sacralization of the body present in this early system of modern yoga, but it was also so significant to that system that martyrdom occurred on its behalf. In many articulations of modern yoga, body practices were censored for the same reasons Craddock had to sac­rifice her life for them.

Craddock’s story also reveals the extent to which turn-of-the-century mainstream populations feared modern yoga, especially when it emphasized body practices. Modern yoga was often deemed a threat to prevailing orthodoxies. Although many countercultural movements that embraced the psychological and intel­lectual components of yoga—or what was often termed raja yoga—were also disliked by many mainstream populations from India to the United States, those who were interested in and engaged in physical techniques faced the harshest criticisms.

Finally, Craddock’s construction of yoga is consistent with the history of modern yoga’s adaptation, assimilation, and syncretism. Craddock identified as a Unitarian but also as the pastor of the Church of Yoga. The fact that a woman could be so polymorphously religious reflects the realities of modernity and its pluralizing processes, but it also reflects yoga’s malleability.

What’s your next book?

My research has turned to the use of yoga among incarcerated and formerly incarcerated populations as a rehabilitative method and as an initiative to empower this socially- and economically-marginalized and disenfranchised subculture.

Today there are over two million incarcerated people in the United States, and the criminal justice system, in combination with social stigma, serve to relegate incarcerated people to the status of second-class citizens and confine them, not only in the prison industrial complex, but also in a marginalized subculture where they are denied access to mainstream society and its economy.

  • golden_valley

    I go to yoga classes. I don’t care about its origins, its philosophy (if there even is one), or the implications of yoga in terms of Christianity or any other organized religion. If someone wants to discuss any of that in class I would simply ignore the discussion. I go because it helps keep my spine in alignment and improves flexibility. I suspect that I am not alone in this.

  • still i read this artical, i only think that yoga are exercise good for heath
    ___________________________
    Halong bay cruises in vietnam

  • Northern_Witness

    As someone who has practiced and taught Hatha Yoga and Mantra meditation for 30 years, my only comment on the article is that the author has presented no evidence that she actually knows what Yoga does or how does it does what it does.

    In the first paragraph she said that she could not “grasp the contrast between the world-, society-, and body-negating ascetic ideology of traditional Jain monastic thought and Mahaprajna’s active advocacy for” yoga. She presents no evidence that she came to understand that there is no contrast between the two orientations and that the two, in fact, are complimentary ways of attaining the same result.

  • You attend a school and want to attain what you want to attain and then call it a day. Your progress shall be blocked or marked upto that standard only, no more, no less. But those who progressed beyond ur level, you can’t just dismiss them by ur limitation just because you have a fixed mindset., Same applies to other philosophy. Yoga is a Great philosophy discovered by Great Ancient Indian Saints. The problem lie in the White Western society that think others as inferior. Please get rid of this mindset and try to learn the truth. You will benefit more than you ever imagined. This has dragged the world retrograde.

  • golden_valley

    In explaining why I do yoga I am dismissing no one, nor am I criticizing anyone.

  • I know but by such irresponsible observation of doing it just for flexibility alone is saying that I make money but not knowing “why I make money”. What’s the aim of making money? Yoga to you is, unfortunately, only flexibility but it goes far beyond. I just attempted to caution on it. Nothing against you personally. Kindly understand it.

  • Please continue enjoying it for whatever it confers you benefit. Thi philosophy has vast potentials. It depends upon you to explore its dimension. Thank you.

  • Cristina

    Remember this article is only an interview of the author about her book. In her book, she provides many historical and contemporary examples of what the term “yoga” means to different individuals, peoples, religions, and cultures. Her main argument, as the article states, is that “yoga” is and has been malleable to historical and cultural contexts, thus the answer to the question of “knowing what yoga does or how it does what it does” is based solely on the historical and cultural context of the person answering it.

  • Northern_Witness

    Not so, yoga has the same function in any historical or cultural context and it works the same way in those contexts. What may be different is the level of understanding of what it does and how it does it.

  • swami

    From the interview it sounds like the book goes to far in underscoring the adaptability of yoga and thereby claiming that yoga as a commercial enterprise is not a misrepresentation of what yoga is. Traditionally yoga has been employed and adapted by any number of sects to serve as a methodology for transcending our present state of imperfection and realizing the true nature of being, of God, and so on. So while it is highly adaptive—from monistic to theistic—to remove its core objective from it and replace it with arguably its antithesis and say that is par for the course seems to go too far, as far as “Yoga is whatever you want it to be.” But I have not read the book.

  • classyoga

    So, in other words, you are simply a very superficial person who does not care who they hurt.

  • classyoga

    So, you are a Hindu teaching Hatha Yoga in its Hindu context? You “obviously” do not realize that Hatha Yoga is suppose to be kept rather secret.

  • classyoga

    You are simply stating the “obvious” that anyone can distort something. How cowardly. Call a thief, a thief.

  • classyoga

    The Sanskrit/Hindu word “yoga” has nothing to do with physical exercise!

  • Northern_Witness

    Define “rather secret”.

  • Northern_Witness

    Your “distortion” is someone else’s “adaptation”. FYI: You use “obvious” a lot. Not a good idea as it demonstrates egoism, intransigence, and denigration which is not Yogic.

  • Northern_Witness

    Au contraire, mon frere. The asanas of Hatha Yoga do indeed create yoga or union/uniting in that they combine the ha and tha pranas to form kundalini which eventually brings the aspirant into union with Brahman.

  • classyoga

    Yes, Hatha Yoga (not simply “Yoga”) are the Hindu devotional postures meant to connect with Atman and Brahman. And, this is all deeply into the Hindu religion which is the point! The so-called “yoga” of today is totally misleading.

  • Northern_Witness

    You are judging all “yoga” of today with the behaviour and lack of knowledge of some – an elementary logical error. You need to do more work in Jnana Yoga.

  • classyoga

    You “obviously” do not understand the difference between adaptation and distortion 🙂 You are “obviously” not a teacher, yet pretend to know what is “Yogic.” The ego of the modern phony yoga is the blindness to overcome.

  • classyoga

    Hatha vidya bhaveda yavateguhya, Nivedas tu prakasanam. H.Y.P. sutra 11.
    Yogasastramidam gopyamasmabhih paribhasitam, Subhaktaya pradatavyam trailokye ca mahatmane. Siva Samhita Sutra 19.
    Samyag etat na janati sa yogi nama0dharakah. (S.S.P. II.31.)

  • classyoga

    You “obviously” do not realize the extent of the phony yoga of today. So, you are a Hindu, teaching Yoga within a Hindu context? Explain.

  • classyoga

    Since you think you know something about yoga, why not carry on an e-mail discussion? E-mail me at classyoga@aol.com

  • Northern_Witness

    Your saying so, doesn’t make it so. Try being less egotistical. In the words of Confucius,”“He who learns but does not think, is lost! He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.”

  • classyoga

    Just as I thought, silly clichés with no real discussion. So, now you are a Confusionist or just confused? Why not dialogue. What is your religion or are you just all talk?

  • classyoga

    I defined “rather secret” to you, so what is the reply?

  • Northern_Witness

    You are not dialoguing. You are haranguing. All opinion no justification. Not even any indication that you know what you rave about.

  • golden_valley

    I might be superficial, but I don’t see how my reasons for going to yoga classes in a commercial gym setting hurts anyone.

  • classyoga

    Ok, let us dialogue, let us see if you know what you are talking about. E-mail classyoga@aol.com.

  • classyoga

    Because that “yoga” is phony. Rea Yoga is Hinduism. To deny the Hindu/Yoga connection hurts everyone involved. As a Hindu, we constantly suffer from this distortion. Imagine someone teaching “Baptism” as underwater therapy and denouncing any Christian connection. Think of how a Christian minister or priest would feel if someone asked about “Baptism” and they only thought it was some kind of spa treatment. Ridiculous as this sounds, this is really the state of so-called “yoga” today. If one wants to stretch and relax, why not be honest and respectful and call it that? The Sanskrit/Hindu word “yoga” actually has nothing to do with the physical body.

  • golden_valley

    I didn’t chose the name of the class. If someone were to change the name of the class I would continue to attend. I don’t claim any link to the Hindu/Yoga connection.

  • classyoga

    ? How can someone pretend to teach a class and they do not even understand the title of the class??

  • golden_valley

    You’d have to ask that question of the thousands of commercial gyms that offer “yoga” classes all over the country. I suspect it has something to do with the poses used.