Yoga – The practice that makes one think of Indian yogis on Himalayan mountaintops or incense burning hippies and working professionals on their on their lunch breaks. This spiritual, physical, and mental practice of yoga has transformed rapidly since its’ early origin on the Indian Subcontinent. As yoga can be described as an attitude, a philosophy, a set of practices, an exercise, or a way of being in the world- one may wonder how the practice has evolved with time, moving from its’ birthplace on the Indian Subcontinent to become the global phenomenon it is today.
The transformation and commodification of yoga became evident to me this past November, as I visited Rishikesh, India aka the ‘Birthplace of Yoga’ or the ‘Yoga Capital of the World’. It was in this small city on the banks of the Ganges and at the foothills of the Himalayas- I found an influx of yoga studios, ashrams, vegetarian/vegan restaurants, guesthouses, astrologer offices, and boutiques. In Rishikesh, one could see the fusion of the old practice of yoga and the current westernized version- as Indian holy men and western tourists walked amongst each other. The fluidity and nature of yoga as a cultural practice made me question what factors led to such changes to the ancient practice, the change in those who practice yoga, and how the current westernized version differs from yoga’s traditional values. It was here I found myself questioning how yoga became such a trend, in the western world- with more and more yoga studios opening annually across the western world.
As commercialized yoga classes in the western world can differ greatly from those traditionally practiced in parts of India- it is crucial to reflect upon the differences and similarities between each. With ‘western yoga’ being focused on physical movement, reducing stress, and connectedness- there are several close links to traditional forms of the practice… yet in a more commercialized manner with fitness and stress reduction being key marketing terms for yoga studios and lifestyle shops. Upon thinking of how yoga has changed- I wanted to look further into how/when yoga was first introduced to The West.
It was only in the 19th century that wider audiences in the USA and Western Europe began to learn about yoga. As exposure was derived from a series of public lectures given by Indian Swami Vivekananda, with his lectures detailing the exercise in a commercial manner. Through telling North American and European audiences about the spiritual and physical benefits of yoga- Vivekananda successfully commodified yoga leading to the creation of a market for the practice in Western society. Yoga, described in Vivekanada’s lectures and pamphlets, became a ‘spiritual good’, something of value that could be acquired and circulated
among the literate middle class people within India and The West. The spiritual commodity of yoga has an explicit exchange value evident in the exchange for spiritual wealth in India and material cash resources in The West. Styles of contemporary yoga practices vary from individuals twisting and stretching themselves in various positions to more meditative positions strictly focusing on breathing. While various practices similar to ‘yoga’ are common throughout India- it is interesting to see how ‘yoga’ became the cultural export it is and other meditative practices aren’t.
Furthermore, the commodification and popularity of yoga is likely due to three reasons:
1. Shift in Traditional Values: While yoga was traditionally considered a domain for spiritual enlightenment for Hindu males- Vivekananda’s re-interpretation shifted the focus of yoga to health and freedom. Health is one of the primary goals of ‘the self development process’, of which is widely accepted by our ‘modern society’.
2. Way to Connect with Spiritual World: This is seen as a way of reducing stress, regaining health and freedom and ‘connecting with a higher being’. This commodification and branding of the practice can be seen as the spiritual awakening of the western public.
3. Re-circulation of Ideas and Practices: Yoga became entranced in our global society leading to extensive fascination in regions outside of India. This oriented yoga as to be a set of progressive, self-processed unifying identity leading to a a ‘better life’ Due to this shift in the manner yoga is practices- more and more studios/classes are popping up across the western world. This is evident as yoga has been labelled the ‘exercise of the 21st century’ with more and more engaging in the practice annually. However, while the practice continues to grow it is important to be mindful of its’ historical origins and to critically reflect upon how
As yoga continually changes- it is important to reflect upon how one can incorporate traditional aspects of yoga into the westernized versions we may practice here in Canada. It is through this one can have a greater understanding of the daily practice and appreciation for the culture and history of Yoga. Through looking at yoga in a more critical manner- one can gain a deeper appreciation and see it more than a commercial good.