The Cultural Politics of Yoga

Dr Shameem Black is a Fellow in the School of Culture, History and Language at the ANU, where her research focuses on the literary and cultural studies of contemporary India and its diaspora.

Yoga seems to be everywhere these days. You can study in the tradition of B.K.S. Iyengar, take a class paid for by your corporate boss, or do postures with goats. What was once seen as a demanding practice for Indian ascetics has now become a great global industry of branded studios, bright pink props, and hipster websites. Something has changed in the course of a century, and it’s not just the increased number of people saluting the sun. Through the major transformation of this cultural practice, we can watch new ideas of ‘India’ taking shape.

For much of the early 20th century, India was seen by both Westerners and Indians as a uniquely spiritual land. For some in the British colonial administration, stereotypes about the fundamental otherworldliness of India justified why the British should run it. Yet this stereotype was also sometimes upheld by Indians themselves. For some 20th-century intellectuals, spiritual power offered a way for India to look strong even when it was politically weak. Yoga – seen as a spiritual discipline as well as a postural practice – became one new face of this claim to power.

Yoga helped to perpetuate a fantasy of ‘India’ that spoke to anxieties in the modern West. By the 1960s and 1970s, a steady stream of Westerners came to India in search of an alternative to industrial modernity. Many of them sought in yoga a connection to an ancient tradition that seemed conspicuously missing in their own countries. The actual postural practice they learned from Indian masters, as a wealth of recent scholarship has begun to show, reflected a complex mix of Indian meditative techniques, Indian and Western physical culture, and 20th-century experimentation. Yoga appeared quintessentially ‘Indian’ in a stereotypical sense as an emblem of ancient spirituality. But it was also ‘Indian’ in a less stereotypical way – a testament to Indian traditions of cosmopolitan exchange and curiosity.

By the late 1990s and 2000s, yoga began to lose some of its intimate connections to the idea of ‘India’. In places like the United States, 20th-century yoga was often taught by elite Indians who found ways to enter the country in an era when most Indians were excluded under racist immigration laws. Their students – who were usually non-Indian – became the next generation of mass yoga teachers who brought the practice into cultural spaces often dominated by Westerners. Though some studios sought to honour lineages of yoga leading back to India, and others hoped to trade on longstanding images of Indian spirituality, many others saw more money to be made by evading and even conspicuously rejecting connections to a supposedly foreign India. I’m willing to bet that at the ANU, more people have heard of Lululemon, where you can buy yoga pants, than of Krishnamacharya, who set in motion many of the practices popular today.

The rise of this multibillion-dollar global industry, coupled with a diminishing sense that yoga has anything to do with India, has given the Indian government pause. In 2014, the Indian government made international headlines for its ministry of yoga. Since then, the Indian government has embarked on a high-profile campaign to reassociate ‘yoga’ with ‘India’. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has become known for his personal practice of the tradition, for his successful bid for a United National International Day of Yoga, and for his discussions of yoga with world leaders.

While yoga is promoted by the state because there is good money to be made and spiritual tourism is widely promoted in India, it is also compelling because it neatly encapsulates one broader self-image that the 21st Indian state wants to project.  Yoga can be presented as both ancient and fresh, Indian and global, sacred and secular. It is this flexibility that makes it an appealing face for a New India. Through yoga, India can present itself as both powerful and peaceful – and in doing so, it can deflect attention from its histories of violence.

At the same time, yoga is coming to articulate new assertions of self and power for many modern Indians. Inside India’s borders, yoga has also grown in popularity. It has deepened its links to right-wing Hindu nationalism, to growing spiritual entrepreneurialism, and to the lifestyle aspirations of the expanding middle class. Some of the yoga taught in Indian urban centres has recirculated via Western norms, so that studios promise the cache of New York or Los Angeles. Narratives of yoga as a 5,000-year old practice (a date often contested by scholars) afford nationalist thrills, allowing Indians to claim pride in their heritage.

Yet the place where yoga has proved most vexing is in the Indian diaspora. Many Indians in the diaspora, who have lived through eras when their culture was belittled, now look with some scepticism at yoga’s growing popularity. When there were costs to be paid for practising visible elements of Indian culture, the diaspora paid them. Now, when there are benefits to be had – whether economic benefits, political benefits, or the benefits of cool – the diaspora often feel bypassed. Watching large Western corporations profit from the popularity of yoga frequently generates some unease. Diasporic artists, such as *Pardon My Hindi, have used yoga to critique the ways in which Indian cultural practices can be commodified for benefits that largely flow to non-Indians. Here, yoga has become an emblem of Indian loss, estrangement, and even anger.

It seems that there is a yoga out there for everyone. You can even find yoga for people who say they don’t do yoga. In this uncanny flexibility, we can see how part of yoga’s appeal is not just in its promise of a better body or spirit. It is in its promise of a new identity. Through the changing faces of yoga, we can witness many of the aspirations and anxieties surrounding India and its peoples.