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 satisfy you. It is a pleasant delusion that we are in a yoga bubble separate to capitalism. But if you have food to buy and you and your yoga studio has rent to pay, you’re in it, OM or no OMs. Living in a capitalist system, in order for something to survive, it needs to generate money. Yoga therefore has become a market, and markets require a product, growth, development and sustainability. As a teacher I see and feel this negatively as a need/pressure and, actually, as an opportunity.

Yoga students are looking firstly for ‘space’, and second, for a ‘human’ experience, for the teachings to offer something unique and true to them, that they cant find elsewhere. As teachers we need to keep returning the focus back to our students, inviting them to feel for alignment, them to listen to themselves as they practice: this is the in-built irony of teaching. Studios want teachers and forms of yoga that will bring in big numbers to keep the studio alive/and or growing. The most ‘yogic’ of yoga studios often run at a loss, or are kept alive by City investors. Students want to know what they will get in a class, and so it becomes a challenge to not brand or identify your interpretation of yoga.

So can yoga exist with integrity in a capitalist society, is it still yoga? Yes. I think it can and is. It needs to be useful and it needs to be sustainable. Check. It is definitely both of those. To have real integrity though, and let this dictate the practice you choose, it should serve a need rather than a desire. Can yoga exist with integrity in a materialist society without distortion? I have to say no.

The fruits, the material, of your practice are not the yoga: the beautiful body, the glowing skin, even the illusion of an eternally calm and content mind. If you hold onto those fruits you’ll find yourself soon disillusioned. Yoga is the path of joy, not the path of pleasure, because pleasure is a hunger that will never be satiated. On this point, Dharma Mittra offers an important point – yoga is about intention, and intention is an amazing way to find integrity in your practice, whatever hybrid of yoga you choose:

‘Ego is the second cause of pain and suffering. It’s very difficult to escape it. Everything I do I don’t think is perfect, here in this physical plane it’s impossible to do something perfect. Of course deep inside you have your good intention to do it perfectly and do your best, so that is the main thing. I don’t care about the results.’

It is ego that wants to own yoga, put a label and brand it. But it may actually be your dharma (life path) to build studios, design mats, or share something of yoga with authenticity. As ever, we need to check for desire, ego and greed if happiness is a goal, the yoga world is not going to be immune to this whilst humans practice it. I view Yoga as a darshan – a way of seeing, as well as a physical practice. Yoga is regular focused practice, it is discipline, it is tuning into the universal rhythm – of breath, of change. Surely if one of the universal truths from the Upanishads is that all is in flux, nothing is permanent, then we have to embrace these changes in yoga itself. Yoga itself is not a static fixed thing, but part of the unstoppable ebb and flow of life that we seek to align to in our practice.

This also provides us with an opportunity. If we embrace the change in yoga, we can direct its flow, its direction. To answer Tara Styles question – ‘who are we answering to’ – we are answering to ourselves. The process of yoga is finding out what do I truly need right here, right now – with humility. Is this true to me? For some time it may be that we need to feel gorgeous (Strala Yoga), impressive (competitive yoga), tough (Boxing Yoga) or devout (Prayer Moves)… but if we still feel dissatisfied, then there are infinite layers of ‘yoga’ to peel off and find something more authentic to who you are in that new moment. The end product is you. You at the end of the class, and as Stuart Gilchrist says – you off the mat – with your family, friends, colleagues, on your bike…