There’s a piece of me that is fascinated with academia and wishes I had committed myself to becoming some kind of yoga nerd academic.
I had the chance to encounter this world last month when I went to a presentation at the University of Victoria called Politics of Yoga: Sex, Religion and Power in a Global Industry. It was hosted by the university’s Centre for Studies in Religion and Society as part of a series that engages scholars with local practitioners from various traditions. The presentation connected the Victoria yoga community with two thinkers, including scholar and author, Andrea Jain from Indiana University (see my conversation with the other presenter, Angela Jamison).
The goal of the day-long event was to initiate a conversation about yoga and contemporary thought (although those of us in the blogging trenches have been doing this for years). In his opening remarks, organizer Paul Bramadat framed the event as an invitation to think more clearly about what we talk about when we talk about yoga.
Andrea Jain focused on the question how the study of yoga can help us understand religion in society, summarizing the research from her book, Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture, which looked at how yoga became part of North American popular culture through the lens of religion. She asked if yoga lost its religiosity as it became commodified, coming to the conclusion that contemporary commodified yoga is actually a new manifestation of religion.
After the presentation, I had the chance to sit down with Andrea and ask about her current research projects and the potential of yoga as a political tool.
IAYB: I would like to hear about what you’re working on now, where your research is going at the moment.
Andrea Jain: I love that question, because I’d rather talk about the things I’m writing about now. After Selling Yoga, then the next natural question was, what are the politics of yoga? I bracketed the questions of capitalism for the first book, as I was concerned with understanding the relationship between the yoga industry and consumer culture at large, not critiquing it from an ethical perspective.
With my next project, I’m looking at politics, capitalism, and how these are both problematic. I’m arguing that we can retheorize spirituality in a way that really better accounts for how it’s lived in the world today, through close attention to the politics of the yoga industry. This next project is far more political and critical. I look at the ways in which the yoga industry perpetuates a neoliberal worldview that sees everything in terms of market value. I also lift up some alternative possibilities for what yoga could look like in service of social justice.
IAYB: During your presentation and in your book, I noticed that your research has been on the right-wing, neoliberal aspects of modern yoga. I’m glad to see that your work has shifted toward what we can call “leftist” or social justice yoga, and that you highlight communities that are quietly and persistently doing this work. Who have you been talking to and whose work do you want to lift up?
AJ: I interviewed Dianne Bondy, who is really interested in yoga for people of colour, people with abundant bodies, and people in the prison system. I talked with Marshawn Feltus in Chicago, who is teaching yoga in an inner city context to young people who would otherwise have no access to yoga. His work helps them experience yoga as a means of finding peace and community from the oppression of living in a marginalized community. He learned yoga in prison, so he’s lived the trauma of racism and wants to use yoga as a healing mechanism. I’ve also talked with Carol Horton, also out of Chicago, who’s very interested in yoga as an instrument of political activism.
One of the communities I went into recently was Third Root Yoga in Brooklyn. They are deeply and self-consciously political, and they have classes for black bodies, Latino bodies, queer bodies. They’re very aware of how communities and bodies get marginalized, and they try to create safe space. They talk very openly about the political moment and the ways in which people are being oppressed. Since the election of Trump, they’ve been talking about how to create a space where people can talk about their fears, come together as a community, and strategize about how we’re going to resist.
IAYB: This seems so essential. Over the past months, there have been all these news stories about attendance at yoga classes increasing because people need relief from the stress and anxiety of these turbulent, violent times. It seems like you’re tapping into communities who are speaking to the current political climate and trying to meet the needs of people who feel traumatized by it.
AJ: I think yoga can be healing, empowering, and community building. All of those things are essential to activism. You have to be empowered, and empowerment requires community, wellbeing, and health. People have been kept oppressed by reducing access to health care and basic needs like healthy food. But how can you resist when you’re sick?
IAYB: I love the idea of yoga as a tool of resistance, but I also find myself feeling ambivalent about it, as though the idea is too simplistic.
AJ: I think it can be a tool, but it can also be a mechanism of perpetuating the dominant global order. I don’t think there is anything in yoga that is inherently about resistance, although it has been instrumentalized in that way by various communities. In that sense it’s a good thing. It can also be a mode of oppression or abuse, by exploiting the cultural cache of yoga in the way that, for example, entrepreneurial Indian guru Baba Ramdev does. He has perpetuated a very essentialized vision that is then used to limit the rights of sexual minorities through the argument that we know homosexuality is a disease because we know yoga can cure it.
In that case, it’s a tool of oppression. But then there are communities that work to create a special space for queer bodies to do yoga, heal from trauma, and recover from violence. They need teachers that look like them, who speak like them, and have experienced the trauma with them. That can be so incredibly healing. There’s nothing about yoga, it’s what people do with yoga.
Watch for Andrea Jain’s next book project for the stories about these communities that are creating a new vision for healing and community through yoga.