Who owns yoga? Reflecting on the Al Jazeera documentary
I can’t count the number of times people on meeting me as a yoga teacher say ‘go on then, sell yoga to me.’ My bemused answer is always a flat ‘no, it don’t need selling.’ But before we debate who owns, or sells, yoga, should the question not be what is this thing yoga? Yoga can be traced back over 5000 - 10 000 years, originating in North Eastern India. Considering what vast changes have occurred in this time it should be of little surprise that the form of yoga has not only changed but in most instances barely resembles the original ‘yoga’… And we cannot even be exactly sure what the original form of yoga was.
Yoga’s origins are somewhat shrouded in mystery as it was an orally passed down and, at times, politically suppressed practice. Yoga today stems from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, written in 400 CE where asana (physical posture) is only listed as third out of the eight limbs of what yoga is. No posture other than a seated posture is described in this text and in terms of technique, we must be comfortable and stable. It really wasn’t until the 20th Century, and particularly since the 1980’s that this asana-rich yoga practice became prevalent, and now there are countless thousands of asana described as ‘yoga postures’. So already even the most traditional yoga practices today such as Ashtanga, Hatha and Jivamukti, are a huge shift from the Sutras’ definition of yoga.
The word yoga itself means to yoke together, and the most widely accepted definition is that yoga binds together body and mind, and drives towards health and wholeness. In this documentary ‘Who owns Yoga?’ we see Yoga as a competitive Sport, Christian Prayer Yoga, wrestling yoga, boxing yoga, cosmetic yoga (‘Why be Zen when you can be fabulous’ Tara Styles). In the West we have seen legal battles over owning yoga sequences and camera angles for online yoga classes. It seems the one common thread in all this is that yoga is big business.
Many of the hybrids of yoga I saw on the film I personally flinched a little at – but why should I judge someone else’s pleasure? Should many different and unique forms of yoga add to our modern life – yes – yoga is about life, and can reflect its diversity. However as individuals and as a culture should we not seek to grow with integrity and intelligence? I see there to be benefits in merging Western science with Eastern philosophy. But a hybrid of two ‘fun’ sports or pass-times, is just that, fun and a pass time. It’s not the tool, its how you use it. I feel it’s not sacrilege if yoga is ‘just a work out,’ you are just shortchanging yourself.
What we’re really talking about here is yoga and capitalism. One of the most attractive qualities about yoga is that it appears to be a ‘break’ from the norm: of ‘consume, buy, do’. I see many students practicing each week with the consumer drive to ‘own’ that asana and ‘do’ flexibility. Not that its bad, its just about being honest about what you’re seeking and whether this is a goal or approach that will