Yoga: a multi-billion industry that is in need of reform

Yoga studio

This blog is a response to Dr Andrea Jain’s talk at Triyoga Camden in association with the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies on Wednesday 27 March entitled ‘The Politics of Yoga: Sex, Religion, and Power in the Global Industry.’

Dr Andrea R. Jain (associate professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis) offers a compelling insight into the multi-billion dollar yoga industry. Jain argues that the ontology of religion is repeated in the modern yoga industry: yogis claim that the practice can heal illness, they follow gurus/teachers, they take part in rituals, many even prostrate themselves (e.g. Bikram Yoga which takes place in a 35-45 degrees room). Instead of seeing yogis as hedonistic, narcissistic consumers, Jain argues that we should take yogis seriously as religious seekers. 

As an on and off yogi myself, variously committed over the last decade, Jain’s analysis held salience with  me. Thinking back, would I dare to admit that I have had a sort of religious experience? Perhaps when I have walked away from a two hour long yoga class feeling enlightened, ecstatic even. Perhaps the feeling I am addicted to is not just from exercising, but performing the same ritualised poses to a moving soundtrack in a room of other believers.

I have to question myself. Here I am, in the 21st century, claiming to be a secular Jew. A non-believer. But there is, after all, something I subscribe to. I truly believe that yoga has the power to heal people: both from minor injuries (when done right, otherwise it gives you more) and low-level anxiety. I am also willing to spend money I don’t have to practice with renowned teachers. A few years ago, when I was really taking yoga seriously, I gave up drinking entirely and swapped nights out with other young twenty-somethings for 6am yoga classes. Doesn’t this pattern mirror other religious ontologies where seekers stick to a strict regime in order to find God / ‘enlightenment’? 

However, as Jain argues, modern yogis are reticent to label yoga, or their spiritual practice, a religion due to a modern ‘anxiety around religion’. As well as the careful cultivation of a rarefied and orientalist view of yoga and ‘spirituality’. 

The health and wellness boom is not restricted to the seriously committed but, as pointed out in the lecture, has been co-opted by neoliberal capitalism. That’s not to say though that capitalism and religion can’t live in tandem with one another. As one audience member pointed out, the Christian church has been accumulating wealth for centuries.

Jain pointed out that whilst she observes that yoga has become part of the neoliberal capitalist project, one where profit is put above humans and the commodification of spirituality and cultural appropriation is used to generate products, this does not means she takes people’s transformative experiences of yoga any less seriously. What she does worry about is the way that yoga mirrors major power structures.

Commercial spirituality does not subvert existing power structures but re-perpetuates them. For instance, the yoga industry is a place where CEOs are often overpaid men, whilst ‘the women are underpaid and overworked’. Yoga is elitist. Due to the high price of classes, you will often find that yoga centres are exclusionary and, therefore, primarily white spaces. Or course, this is not a rule, but it mirrors a society where minority groups are structurally disadvantaged and ‘white supremacy is real’.

At this, one of the audience members challenged Jain: ‘But look at the demographic of your audience, almost everyone here is white’. She quipped back ‘well white people need a lecturing to’. This marked a turning point where some of the already edgy audience members turned on her. One woman, asking her to explain real incidents where she has experienced structural racism, because as far as she could find from her own research, there was no evidence of racism and ‘everyone has their own facts’. Thankfully the woman was shouted down by the rest of the audience.

But her reaction is troubling: it is precisely questions like this which show why ‘white people need a lecturing to’ and reveal the way women in authority have to fight even harder for the margin of space they are given. The woman followed up her question by claiming the lecture had been ‘emotional’. Until women who have strong political opinions are taken seriously, there is still a lot of work to do and I can only applaud Jain for continuing to enter public spaces with her scholarship to make demands for ‘revolution’. 

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