The issue of domesticated animal companionship is a tricky and controversial one. While human-pet relationships may seem mutually beneficial,
How the Face of Yoga has Changed Through Colonization, Cultural Appropriation, Capitalism and the Age of Social Media
Yoga has spread to virtually every city in America. It is practiced in gyms, on college campuses, at community centers, and even beer breweries and barnyards. But how has this commercialized form of yoga morphed from the original philosophy and deeply spiritual practice attributed to the Indus Saraswati Valley civilization in 2700 BCE? And how has social media played a role in the morphing of yoga from a philosophic and spiritual tradition to a mere workout and photo opportunity?
This research project deals with addressing the re-appropriation of yoga as a cultural artifact for consumption in the West. In this paper, I will first lay out the history of yoga: how it began and its multiple re-appropriations and changes throughout the years, specifically focusing on the effects of British colonization. Next, I will use a Marxist critique to outline how capitalism has played a hand in transforming yoga into a commodity to buy and sell. Finally, I will look to the effects of social media on our culture and how this, in turn, has influenced the way yoga is practiced in the Western world. I will focus in on our present moment and the ways in which the yoga we practice today differs from the ancient spiritual practice.
It is first important to note that much of this history is widely contested. Many scholars are in disagreement about the origins of yoga, its spread, and what it means to practice “traditional” yoga. The practice of yoga is said to date back at least 5,000 years (Dhyansky 1987 91). In its traditional form, yoga was a complete system to attain spiritual enlightenment. The word “yoga” (or yuj, in Sanskrit) means ‘to yoke’ or ‘to join’, referencing the joining of the individual consciousness with the Universal Consciousness to achieve harmony (Basavaraddi 2015). A ‘yogi’ was someone who experienced the oneness of all of existence and attained liberation of worldly suffering. Yoga also has its roots in ancient Hinduism, as Shiva was considered the first yogi and the first guru. It is said that Shiva imparted his knowledge on the Shaptarishis, or Seven Sages (Sadghurui 2009). The sages carried the practice of yoga to different areas of the Eastern world, where it grew into different practices, all rooted in the same foundations.
Shortly after the Vedic Period in India, when the Aryans began to settle there, the Sage Maharshi Patanjali wrote his Yoga Sutras which have become the philosophical basis for most of our modern yoga practice. Patanjali is commonly regarded as the father of yoga, although the practice truly dates back to the pre-vedic time. (Basavaraddi 2015)
The Classical Period dates from around 500BC- 800AD and was the time when many well-known texts came into existence such as the aforementioned Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita (Basavaraddi 2015). This was also the time of the two great teachers, Mahavir and Buddha. Buddha’s eightfold path was imagined during this time and great importance was placed on control of the mind, or Sadhana, one of the eight limbs of yoga. The Post-Classical Period spanning from 800-1700 AD saw the birth of Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga would become the basis for much of our present-day yoga styles. It features mainly the asana (posture) practice (Basavaraddi 2015). The Modern Period from 1700-1900 AD was the time when yoga reached American soil (Basavaraddi 2015). But first, in 1773, the face of yoga changed with Britain’s colonization of India. During this time, both Indians and the British colonizers had a negative opinion of hatha yogis . They associated them with “black magic and perverse sexuality”(Miller 2014). Wandering yogis were banned and many poor hatha yogis were forced to perform their postures on street corners as spectacles to panhandle for money.To the Western world, yoga became associated with homelessness and other negative qualities.
In the next few decades, the British tried to improve their relationship with the members of their Indian colonies. They attempted to tie together new modern practices with traditional Indian culture. Part of this process was the re-appropriation of hatha yoga. In creating the new face of India, colonizers combined Western fitness regiments, gymnastics and military calisthenics with traditional hatha yoga practices to change the stereotypes surrounding hatha yogis (Miller 2014). In actuality, the yoga that we practice to this day is this appropriated form of yoga and fitness, rather than the spiritual practice that is thousands of years old.
In the late 1800’s, the first instance of yoga in America was seen at the Chicago Interfaith Conference by a Hindu monk who became known as Swami Vivekananda ("How Yoga Came West" 2006). But, yoga wasn’t originally received so well. At first, Americans were confused and doubtful about yoga. BBC’s The Secret Life of Yoga points out that most Americans only entertained it to laugh at the barely clothed men bending their bodies into strange shapes (Singleton et al. 2016). Swami Vivekananda was highly critical of Christianity’s spread and therefore was not well-received among all. In some ways, this set the tone for how yoga was conceived up to the present day. Still, many yoga students want the fitness and relaxation aspects without the ties to Eastern religion and spirituality.
Two of the most well-known teachers in our modern-day practice of Western yoga, BKS Iyengar and TKV Desikachar were taught by Krishnamacharya shortly after the time of Vivekananda, and both were major influencers on the American yoga scene. They, of course, came from a lineage of teachers who practiced the re-appropriated gymnastics and calisthenics-inspired form of yoga. BKS Iyengar developed a system of alignment-based asana and pranayama practice that is the core text for many yoga teacher trainings in the modern day. TKV Desikachar founded Viniyoga which focused on the specific needs of each student, something that took root in America’s individualist society. Also taught by Krishnamacharya was Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga yoga, a sequence of postures with breath that also found a large following in the West (Miller 2014). As you can see, there are many branches of yoga with different manifestations, but all of these aforementioned gurus taught a yoga that was already untrue to itself.
The 1960’s in the United States saw the beginning of the hippie movement and yoga really started to catch on. Richard Hittleman returned to the US from India and brought a very non-spiritual version of yoga to US television, in a series called Yoga for Health (Mills 1995). This was the first large-scale introduction of yoga to the American people and was hugely influential on how people came to see the practice. It set the stage for Americans to view yoga as a health and wellness practice to get them in shape rather than a full system of living to achieve enlightenment.
Today, there are dozens of varieties of yoga practiced across America. Many teachers are adamant about keeping the “traditional” aspects of yoga, for example, the eight limbs that we see in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The eight limbs of yoga focus on all the aspects of a well-rounded yoga practice to unify the individual with the whole of creation. The eight limbs of yoga are Yama (universal morality), Niyama (personal observances), Asana (postures), Pranayama (control of breath, or prana), Pratyahara (control of the senses), Dhurana (concentration and awareness), Dhyana (devotion), and Samadhi (Union with the divine) (Iyengar 2015 31). As you can see, asana (or posture) is only one limb of these eight, and no limb is elevated above another. Many yoga practitioners in America teach very few or just one of these eight limbs. A typical yoga class in an American yoga studio may consist of a short dharma talk to introduce the class, a 5 minute pranayama practice and 50 minutes of asana practice. This form of yoga has very much lost touch with the ancient spirituality taught over thousands of years in India. It is seen as a workout, like pilates or swimming. But how has this happened?
The Business of Yoga
Yoga has undergone multiple re-appropriations in the past 5,000 years, the first of which happened under British rule, and the next which morphed it into a commodity that can be bought and sold in a capitalist socio-economic structure. It is my view that capitalism has played a major role in shaping yoga’s most recent re-appropriation. There are multiple implications that come along with this shift. Most of these changes have occurred as a result of Western yoga practices being tailored to fit the desires of students (customers). Traditional Indian yogis taught and resided in ashrams where students would seek their guidance. These teachers were “gurus” who would guide students to spiritual enlightenment, and, as such, they were taken very seriously (Antony 2016 286). They were respected and revered and their word was given tantamount importance. These gurus were not concerned with “making a living” or “building a brand” as many of our modern-day Western yoga teachers are. Their goal was to pass along teachings that had deep meaning.
In our culture, we are taught that the customer is always right. When yoga is turned into a business, it is morphed into something that caters to the whims of the students as opposed to the teachings of the guru. This is where we have all of these different forms of yoga emerging: wine yoga, goat yoga, naked yoga, hot yoga, beer yoga, and so on and so forth. Studio owners and teachers must constantly be introducing new forms of yoga and new campaigns to keep their students interested, intrigued, and spending money. The suggestions and recommendations of the students must be taken into consideration because they are the ones funding this business. The teacher or guru, therefore, loses their authority. Our Americanized version of yoga has become centered around fitness, health and the state of our bodies, because many Americans are reluctant to embrace the aspects of yoga that are rooted in Hindu religion. Though certified yoga teachers are required to study yoga theory and philosophy, it is most often not incorporated into classes because of this hesitation from students. For example, teachers may modify the names of poses to avoid Sanskrit words that can seem strange to students. Poses are given cute names like frog, or eagle, or crow, so that students associate the shape of their body with an animal or object rather than a deeper spiritual reference (Antony 2016 285).
Another phenomenon that is intensified by capitalism is cultural appropriation. A very rudimentary definition of cultural appropriation is, “the use of a culture’s symbols, artifacts, genres, rituals, or technologies by members of another culture” (Rogers 2006 474). This is a buzzword right now in our society, with many different interpretations and values attached to the language we use. In order to clarify what I mean by cultural appropriation from a critical perspective, it is important that we analyze how power has functioned. For the purposes of this paper, the meaning of cultural appropriation that I’ll be using deals with the use of aspects of a marginalized people’s culture by someone of the dominant group in order to gain their own benefits, without reference back to the history and people that made this possible.
It is my belief that yoga often straddles this line. I do not believe that practicing yoga in the West is inherently cultural appropriation, but I believe we have to be very careful about the way that it’s approached. Susanna Barkataki, a native of India, explains in a blog post from the site Decolonizing Yoga how many American yoga studios make her uncomfortable. She writes, “my culture is being stripped of its meaning and sold back to me in forms that feel humiliating at best and dehumanizing at worst,” (Barkataki 2015). It is precisely this “selling back” that has its roots in capitalism. When yoga is commodified, it becomes an object that can be sold to earn a profit. And the people and histories that made it possible are simply not important to driving profits.
In Marx’s Das Capital, he outlines how, under a capitalist socio-economic structure, the worker is alienated. There are four forms this alienation takes (Tucker 1978 72) First, members of the proletariat working class are alienated from their product. Many people view becoming a yoga teacher as starting your own business and freeing yourself from the role of simple wage earner. In reality, most yoga teachers do not work for themselves, but are employed or contracted by studio or gym owners. This may be slightly different from the proletariat working class Marx had in mind while writing Capital, but I believe it still applies. In working for another person, one becomes distanced from the product of their labor. In this case, the commodity for sale is the practice of yoga. When we are selling our labor to the capitalist in order for them to flourish from the fruits of our labor, we become alienated from our final product as we have less invested into it. This is particularly problematic for the practice of yoga because, as a spiritual practice, one would expect the teacher’s heart to be in it.
Second, the laborer is alienated from the mode of production, from the actual teaching of their yoga. According to Marx’s critique of capitalism, our mode of production is such that our labour production becomes nothing more than an endless cycle, repetitive in nature, with nothing more gained than the knowledge that we have worked hard that day. When we teach yoga to secure a living wage, it becomes this repetitive cycle of having to complete this task over and over in order to gain the means of subsistence. The laborer’s work becomes external to him, no longer something that brings self-satisfaction, but that must be done to attain some external satisfaction (money). Of course, like many other professions, there are those that would argue that their jobs bring great value and meaning. It is not my intention to imply that yoga teachers are always alienated from their labor, or that this is something which must happen in modern yoga practices, but it is simply my intention to provide a critique of how yoga may be changing due to these circumstances. It has been my experience that, at some point, almost all yoga teachers will encounter this form of cognitive dissonance, having two conflicting cognitions at once. This dissonance arises between the conception that yoga should be about sharing one’s practice and spreading a message of enlightenment, and the drive to secure a living for oneself and one’s family.
The third form of alienation according to Marx, is the alienation of the worker from their species-essence (Gattungswesen). This is, perhaps, the most difficult form of alienation to understand, but really the most vital as it ties together the other three. In Marx’s conception, the human species has a particular essence that is related to our ability for work and activity. It is related to our freedom to actively pursue that which gives us meaning. When one is motivated by profit and capitalist gains, work is no longer performed as a form of expression, but of necessity. Additionally, man is inextricable from nature, and through the modes of capitalism, is alienated from it as well. In this way, man is estranged from nature and the self, that which Marx considers the essence of the species and what makes humans spiritual beings.
Finally, man is estranged from other men. Through the process of these other forms of estrangement and alienation, laborers are also estranged from one another. When we are all distanced from our essence, from our true nature, we are distanced from each other as well. We can see this at play in the teaching of yoga. Teachers are lead to believe that they must do something different from other teachers in order to succeed, setting us up in competition with and opposition to one another. Other people are viewed as tools to achieve our means of subsistence.
The effects of alienated labor on the practice of yoga are striking. How can we presume to guide our students to enlightenment when we are estranged from them, our teachings, and our spiritual nature as human beings? This analysis of alienated labor and the effects of capitalism will be essential to the remainder of this paper, as we dive deeper into consumerism and the age of social media.
Capitalism and Consumerism
Consumerism is also directly related to capitalism. In recent years, we have seen the dramatic rise of the “athleisure” industry. In 2016 in the US alone, the industry brought in $44 billion (Trefis Team Forbes 2016). Brands like Lululemon, Alo Yoga, Nike and others have made millions upon millions of dollars selling yoga pants, bras, and other yoga-themed apparel and accessories. We also have yoga mat companies, yoga magazines, online yoga classes and many other products that have taken off and brought in huge profits. This is, in part, attributed to what Marx calls “commodity fetishism”. The fetish form of the commodity describes how commodities become something transcendent, endowed with special qualities more than their mere appearance (Tucker 1978 320) . It’s through commodity fetishism that Western practitioners view it as necessary to wear $50-$100 yoga pants in order to practice yoga, when traditional yoga texts actually recommend practicing in as little clothing as possible.
These yoga companies have also strategically made use of social media to drive commodity fetishism and sales. For example, the company that most readily comes to mind is Alo Yoga. They have 1.3 million followers on instagram and utilize the platform to flood the yoga market with their product. They utilize a large number of Instagram “influencers” and “ambassadors” to promote their products and have a very large marketing budget because they gift each ambassador with each season’s line of clothing for them to wear in their Instagram posts to encourage fetishism. As most brands do, Alo has a specific target audience and has been accused of being very non- inclusive in the diversity of their models and ambassadors. Recently, yoga teacher, Dana Falsetti (@nolatrees on Instagram) found herself in a highly publicized legal battle with the company. To briefly recap the incident, Dana released a yoga program on the fitness app, Cody, for her followers to purchase and follow along with on their phones or computers. Shortly after, Alo Yoga entered into a business deal with Cody App and inherited all of their intellectual property. Alo subsequently used images and clips from Dana’s program for their own marketing. Dana was uncomfortable with this because she, as a body positive plus-sized yoga teacher, did not wish to support the image Alo was creating, which I mentioned previously. She spoke out on her Instagram story and Alo sued her (Macgregor 2018). The incident gained a lot of attention from the Instagram yoga community and beyond as a blatant example of a large yoga-centric company behaving in a way that is very inconsistent with the values of yoga. This is just one example of the ways that capitalism can and has affected our conception of yoga.
This last example leads us into our final point of discussion, how Instagram and other social media platforms have spurred yoga’s most recent appropriation. In her book, Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle outlines some of the challenges we’re beginning to face since our culture has become so reliant on social media. A few examples are: the drive for perfection has never been higher, many people feel their lives are not exciting enough because they aren’t as interesting as their friends’ lives appear on social media, and we’re struggling to have real emotional connections to other human beings. So many of these scenarios also apply to the Instagram yoga craze. Many of the most well-known yogis on Instagram have hundreds of thousands, some even a million, followers. The appeal of posting your practice on Instagram can seem relatively harmless. It’s nice to keep a photo diary to see your progress, connect with other yogis around the globe and keep your practice fresh and interesting based on the inspiration others post. And there are some other benefits of social media that come from a society grounded in capitalism: brand sponsorships, building your business, and finding potential students in your area and beyond. In most teacher trainings these days, teacher trainees are taught “the business of yoga” which includes how to optimize their social media accounts to gain followers and customers. There are a few specific effects of what I’ll be referring to as “Instagram yoga” (even though it spans other social media sites as well) that I would like to address in the following paragraphs.
First, followers usually only see a peak pose, a snapshot of a moment in a yogi’s practice, instead of all the work that went into achieving it, frequently years and years of practice. This cause two further problems. Followers try to imitate the poses they see and admire in order to take an appealing photo and gain followers of their own. They may injure themselves while trying to do this since they haven’t been given the proper sequences to warm up and the proper cues to achieve the posture. Most yoga injuries happen because people’s egos get involved and they force their body to try to do things that don’t feel comfortable. The second effect of “peak poses” is that yoga has become stereotyped. People say “I can’t do yoga, I’m not flexible enough”, because they have a preconceived idea of what yoga is supposed to look like. In actuality, not being flexible is a big reason someone would benefit from yoga. This also leaves out the other seven limbs of yoga, focusing only on the asana, or physical postures. Even if someone could not practice postures at all, they could still benefit from the other aspects of yoga practice.
Social media also raises the question of authenticity, which is integral to yoga. People present the best versions of themselves on social media, the people that they strive to be. We document mostly the highs, preferring not to share the times of struggle or our routine days. The people that we idolize on social media, whether they are Instagram yogis or otherwise, appear perfect, hardly even human. But they are human. They are no more perfect than anyone else. Yoga teaches us to embrace what is imperfect; to sit with what makes us uncomfortable. When we present our yoga practice or our lives in a way that makes us seem perfect or superhuman, we remove the authenticity that a grounded yoga practice encourages.
On the other hand, there are many yogis who are trying to disrupt the way Instagram yoga has functioned. They make a point of sharing their highs as well as their lows, and the entire journey that they have embarked upon in taking up a yoga practice. There are women and men who do not represent the stereotype promoted by many yoga brands, who are unflinchingly honest in their pursuit of authenticity. These people are striving to show others that it is okay to be plus size and practice yoga, it’s okay to be a man and be flexible, it’s okay to black or brown and enter into this space that seems only open to members of the majority.
The efforts put forth in this paper have been toward a critical theoretical understanding of the commodification of yoga. As such, it is not my intention to make any value claims about the yoga we practice in the West, or the yoga practiced centuries ago. It is also not my intention to claim that this must be the case or that all yoga teachers and students are participating in cultural appropriation when they practice “Americanized” yoga. On the contrary, I think it is hugely important to keep an open dialogue about these issues, to continue to learn and enhance our understanding of history as the face of yoga evolves. At each step of this transformation, it will be important to look back on what the previous step entailed, how institutions of power were involved in the shaping of the cultural artifact, and which people were privileged, and which marginalized.
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