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.