the politicization of yoga: a “growing cultural phenomenon” gains mainstream attention

Within a certain subset of the North American yoga community, there have been quiet rumblings about the relationship between yoga and politics for a few years now. The conversation started to rise to the surface last year, when yogis showed up at Occupy Wall Street and a few other outspoken voices questioned the lack of political dialogue in the yoga community.

Now the mainstream press has caught on to the conversation, with an article in The Globe & Mail, “How yoga is turning into a protest movement.”

The piece starts off by summarizing the recent protests lead by Baba Ramdev in New Delhi, and then examines growing political movements in North American yoga. It also looks at the perceived paradox between yoga’s goal of “transcending” the world and active engagement with what’s happening in the world.

[Ramdev]’s campaign, however, is only the latest manifestation of a growing cultural phenomenon – the politicization of yoga.

At first glance, that might seem oxymoronic.

Traditional yoga is about a seeking state of tranquil separation from the world.

“The essence of the teachings is to act without motive for gain – not to seek the fruit of any action,” says Divya Prabha, founder and director of Halifax’s Shining Bay Yoga Studio. “And if you are motiveless, there can be no agenda.”

More practically, most of the millions of students who have lately discovered the joy of yoga are too busy perfecting asanas in hip leisurewear at hot-yoga studios to join campaigns for reform.

Blessed with an aura of credibility by celebrities – Sting, Lady Gaga, Shaquille O’Neal, Jennifer Aniston – more than 20 million Americans are now flocking to yoga classes. In the United States alone, it’s a $7-billion-a-year industry, with more than 25,000 studios and all manner of “merch.”

To the more familiar Indian disciplines, forms far removed from yoga’s austere origins have emerged: acroyoga (blending asanas with dance and gymnastics), yoga for hikers, the young, the elderly, laughter yoga (I kid you not), even yoga for canines. And many yoga sessions seem less about spiritual enlightenment than expressing individualism and one-upmanship. [The Globe & Mail]

The journalist did his homework, examining how the role that Off The Mat, Into The World, Africa Yoga Project, the Hyatt Boycott’s attempts to engage Yoga Journal, and a former yoga teacher running for office in Austin, Texas play in this awakening of “the political body.”

And full disclosure: I was interviewed for the article and abashedly shared my perspective on this growing movement, which I find enormously exciting and inspiring. I told the Globe, “With this larger wave of commercialization, hybridization and brand identification, there is also a countercultural wave calling out for a more engaged and politicized way of living.”

The book I’ve recently co-edited with Carol Horton, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics & Practice gets a little mention, and contributor Chelsea Roff also weighs in.

Perhaps the question is no longer, Do politics have a place in yoga? There are new questions starting to take form, and our work now is to create the space for respectful, informed and open-minded dialogue.

  1. Well, there was someone talking about yoga and politics before, in a chapter of a book called “Yoga in America”. The book was published in 2009. Here is an excerpt from my chapter titled “Yoga in America Is” which focused on yoga and politics:

    “Why is there such a dramatic rise in all things yoga in America?” …..At a time when Americans are waking up to a shared belief that we need to find equilibrium, to reassess our priorities, to face up to our effect on the rest of the world, to balance the desire for prosperity with the desire to remain healthy, many look to yoga to put things in order.”

    The book was written four years ago and was never marketed so I remain anonymous with it but some of us have seen yoga as an avenue or guidebook for politics way before yoga became a hotbed of discussion.

  2. …had to run off for the night but wanted to finish a thought, Roseanne.

    Although I see politics as an extension of the individual and yoga as a means for expression and understanding and therefore also an extension of an individual, I have not seen yoga change people’s political leanings.

    I think yoga allows folks to get in touch with themselves and that in some ways makes us more clear about who we are but it doesn’t mean it changes our deep seated beliefs.

    It used to be that the community that came together in yoga had a commonality that may have included a loose definition of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and a liberal political leaning but I have seen that change as yoga has become an addition to the general public’s workout, relaxation, therapy…

    It is an interesting discussion. Do we translate the teachings and the transformation that comes with yoga in a big way that alters our extended relationships? And if we do is it not because the leader like a teacher or preacher, leads the congregation down a particular path teaching or preaching a particular sermon? And isn’t this how some schools of yoga have become filled with blind followers?

    I look forward to your book and to future discussions of the effect of yoga on political choices, the teacher’s role and the navigation of those who have the power to effect change.

  3. I’ve sent this post to my friends in India to get their thoughts on Baba’s latest venture …. will get back to you….

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