Last fall, Al Jeezera quietly launched a short documentary, Who Owns Yoga? Produced by Bhanu Bhatnagar, a yoga teacher and journalist, with filmmakers Micah Garen and Marie-Hélène Carleton, the 48-minute film explored the modern obsession with yoga and asked difficult questions about ownership, cultural appropriation and commercialization.
It turns out that 48 minutes isn’t enough time to get into the complexities of these questions. Bhatnagar and his team are now on a quest to develop the documentary into a feature-length movie and hit the international film festival circuit, reaching a wider audience. They’ve pulled together a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money for editing, post-production and festival submission fees.
Bhanu Bhatnagar answered a few questions about the film, the decision to expand it, and his experience as a filmmaker of Indian descent. The short version of the film already adds another dimension to the global conversation about the direction of yoga as a transnational practice, and a longer version with extended reach can only amplify this essential discussion. This is a project worthy of support and a wider audience.
What do you hope to accomplish with a feature-length film that you weren’t able to with a shorter television doc?
A number of things. First, allow viewers to spend more time with some of the characters in the shorter version, characters like Diamond Dallas Page and the ladies of Praise Moves. Second, we want to introduce entirely new characters into the mix as well, like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, that we couldn’t find space for in the shorter version. There’s even a scene with my brother about our different identities and yoga’s Indian roots. And that brings me to my third point. The longer version is far more personal than the shorter one, it allows me as the story-teller time to muse, to reflect and to negotiate the muddy waters of yoga in the modern world. And finally, the feature length version takes the debate about yoga’s place in society to a truly global audience, so that it too can participate in that debate. Not to mention, this year is the world’s first even International Day of Yoga, to be marked on summer solstice, June 21st. There couldn’t be a more appropriate time to make a film about yoga in all its diversity.
What was the response to your 45-minute television documentary?
The response was overwhelmingly positive. I expected most yogis to find the film informative and entertaining. But what I didn’t expect is that countless others with no background or interest in yoga were fascinated by the issues the film throws up – issues like cultural appropriation, intellectual property rights, commercialisation, nationalism and religion. In that sense, Who Owns Yoga? is a film about much more than just yoga; it’s a look at the hybridised world we now live in and how we must negotiate our own truth as we move forward.
How has your own experience as a yoga practitioner and journalist, with roots in the East and the West, informed your filmmaking?
I started this journey with a sort of superiority complex when it came to yoga. I understood yoga to be rooted in tradition and lineage, even Hinduism to an extent. And while this is all true, I was ill prepared for the breadth and diversity of the yoga I witnessed while making this film. It became clear that this wasn’t going to be an easy story to tell, but rather one full of contradictions. As filmmakers we immersed ourselves into this heated debate. But for me in particular, given my Indian background, it gave me an acute sensitivity to some of the issues we were raising, for example whether yoga is a religious practice or whether anyone should be allowed to own a piece of yoga (through a patent for example).
How has your international perspective made you curious about yoga’s cultural ownership?
I allude to this idea in the film: that in a sense I am a product of transnational yoga; that my own life is reflected in the state of yoga today; that globalisation has turned yoga into a commodity, but in so doing has allowed it to spread to every corner of the world. But no matter how international my background, you can’t escape the fact that both my parents are Indian and I hail from one of the oldest civilisations in the world. And so this dichotomy in my identity has always raised questions about cultural ownership and appropriation in my mind. I have always found it fascinating, and over the course of making this film, I have come to realise that we can’t sit around trying to police cultural appropriation…it is inevitable. Look around you. Everything is a product of cultural appropriation at some point in time.
So, who does own yoga?
YOU own yoga, insofar as yoga is about experiencing “union” or at the very least striving for it, then only the practitioner of yoga can own yoga. Businesses and organisations can try to own a piece of yoga (by filing for a patent for example), but that remains a symptom of the capitalist world we live in and applies to everything and not just yoga. But because the practice of yoga is deeply personal, it can only ever be owned by you.