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I believe in integrated living: self-care; and science with spirit.

Commercialisation of Yoga

Jennifer Taylor
Thursday, June 25, 2015

The judgement ‘that’s not Yoga’ is heard regularly within the Yoga community. Whether it’s criticism of: one tradition against another; criticism of ‘workout mentality’; overemphasis on asana at the expense of the other seven limbs of Yoga; or the proliferation of Yoga teachers tumbling out onto an unsuspecting public with inadequate certifications. Some aspects of these criticisms are founded, some represent unwelcome elitism and negativity.

Being in business as well as steeped in Yoga for nearly 30 years, this is a topic I contemplate often. The commercialisation of Yoga is an easy target for criticism. As I researched this article, I found that the criticism fell into two main philosophical schools: the purist, ‘denigration of ancient traditions’ school; and the ‘hypocrisy’ school. The ‘denigration of ancient traditions’ school objects to innovation at the expense of quality and seeks to uphold respect for sacred lineage, authenticity and integrity. The ‘hypocrisy’ school argues that the ethics of Capitalism and Yoga are fundamentally at odds, predisposing commercial activities in the field of Yoga inevitably towards exploitation and corruption.

If we define the commercialisation of Yoga as the offering of yoga products and services for financial gain, these include but are not limited to studios, workshops, teacher trainings, retreats, clothing, content and accessories.[1] ‘Commercialisation’ is generally a pejorative term, suggesting profit over people and style over substance.

The ‘that’s not Yoga’ argument is potentially more credible when made on religious grounds. Yoga is historically traceable as a practical element of the Hindu/Jaina and Buddhist religions. Yoga evolved through oral traditions and can be traced through the ancient writings of the Vedas, Upanishads and supporting texts upon which these religions, among others, are based. However, even a pivotal text like the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali refers to Yoga as a transcendent state (of stillness of the mind and union with the divine), a systemised technology for achieving that state, and a devotional practice without referring to a creationist God (Brahma). TKV Desikachar, scholar and son of the ‘father’ of modern Yoga Krishnamacharya, is quoted as saying, “This is very important for us to emphasize that Yoga is not Hindu religion. Yoga is a system that helps the mind and Hindus may use it as they have been, and anybody can use it.”[2]

It’s not hard to see why the definitions become unclear. These are lofty existential subjects under continual debate and evolution. This is the changing nature of philosophy and spiritual practice.  However, not everyone, struggling through daily life, has the resources, capacity or willingness to grapple with such a debate. Yoga is not just for those that can retreat to scholastic or monastic life and pragmatism seeks other forms of practice. The life of a householder is bound by family, social, political and financial obligations.[3] These obligations often include a role in commerce.

Does it matter, therefore, that Yoga is broken into more digestible pieces for wider consumption? Respected academic, Georg Feuerstein, spoke of his discouragement at, “…the progressive distortion of traditional Yoga at the hands of Westerners (and Easterners) who had come under the spell of commercialism.”[4] He had, “…many misgivings about modern postural Yoga moored as it is in body narcissism with its false ideal of perfect looks, absolute health and eternal youth. However, he also talks of his own ‘searing spiritual crisis’ and despairing nihilism in late adolescence that risked him turning away from his early discovery of Yoga.[5] At the culmination of this crisis, Feuerstein himself made a choice to move away from a negative, reductionist philosophy because the universe was so much richer and multi-dimensional. He concludes that, “…all intellectual explanations are just models. They are not the Truth. They are either adequate or inadequate in a given context. They work or they don’t.”[6] Perhaps Yoga has been commercialised because it works under given circumstances. (No commercial pun intended here!)

The ‘denigration of ancient traditions’ school goes on to negate the commercial exaltation of the body and the overemphasis on postural Yoga asana over the other limbs of Yoga: morality; ethics; philosophy; breath; sensory withdrawal (relaxation) and meditation. This is also to do with the point of perception. In the West, the body is objectified; something to be maintained and acted upon, perhaps as health insurance against injury and illness. In the East, the body appears a far more energetic phenomenon, reflecting psychospiritual and elemental balance and imbalance. [7]

The criticism of overemphasis on the body is supported by the proliferation of commercial marketing images and the contrast of these images with Yogic philosophy is clear: Egoic identification with the body and attachment to pleasurable things (raga) causes suffering. These are the same criticisms long made of Hatha Yoga over academic Jnana Yoga, devotional Bhakti Yoga and service-oriented Karma Yoga. Non-dualist philosophers argue even further that the body, and the ‘innermost Self’, do not exist. They are an illusion to be transcended as part of a single, divine consciousness (Purusha). Dualist philosophers counter that nature (Prakriti), the body, and an individual Self, has a role alongside the divine. Even if this difference is largely semantic, starting with the body and allowing it a role in spiritual growth, as Hatha yogins from the Tantric tradition do, counters earlier philosophical suggestions that the body is an object of shame: unclean; defiled; and ignoble. 

The ‘postural Yoga is not Yoga’ argument is supported by the perspective that modern Yoga, Yoga in India since the turn of the twentieth century, was heavily influenced by socio-political conditions of the colonial period. Body culture, body building, contortionism and calisthenics, all Western techniques, exerted an influence on modern Hindu Yoga producing a different successor than that of traditional Indian Hatha Yoga, loosely derivative but ‘not Yoga’. [8] This argument runs into trouble however, when it presupposes that adaptation due to cultural context is a modern phenomenon. It is not. Hindu spiritual practices themselves are known for their tolerance, flexibility and eclecticism. The concept of stages of life (ashrama) was introduced in response to the social impacts of renunciation by the young and able-bodied. This changed the time of life for renunciation, ‘forest-dwelling’ and wandering seekers (sannyasin) anticipating the modern form of retirement, possibly with greater dignity.[9]

The argument that too much emphasis on the body is negative also flounders when considering that the body is the third of eight limbs of Yoga because it is an accessible starting point for more difficult work with breath, energy and the mind. Perhaps it doesn’t necessarily matter what brings a person to the mat initially. It is what that encounter leads to that matters most. Feuerstein agrees more recently but also emphasises, “…there is clearly a continued need to emphasise that Yoga is a spiritual tradition, which seeks to bestow happiness and inner freedom rather than merely physical fitness and health.”[10]

Then the big cards of ethnicity and class are raised: modern (commercialised) Yoga is associated with fitness for thin, upper socio-economic, white women. [11] The intense following of Yoga throughout Asia, might challenge the ethnicity argument. Instagram also tells a different story with regard to both ethnicity and body image, though social media is an entirely different discussion. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanajali describes that the yogi obtains mastery over the laws of forms attaining powers as well as perfecting the body, “Perfection of the body includes beauty, grace, strength, and the crystal hardness of a diamond. (3.47)”[12] Therefore, corporeal beauty is not detrimental, neither is its celebration. Egoic identification, ignorance and attachment to that image remain the central issues.

Let’s look a little closer at the inference behind these statements too: ‘It’s not Yoga’ because the practice has a newly international, widespread following of women. Firstly, this is not been my personal experience. Three of my most influential teachers have been men and my husband is an avid practitioner.  It is true however, that most of my students are female. Encouraging people to practice with their partners is an important founding principle of www.mrandmrspose.com.

Secondly, Yoga was once regarded as the domain of men. Hatha Yoga Pradipika rather misogynistically suggests that women are one of the influences to be avoided when establishing a Yoga practice. [13] However, these were different times and this can be construed in modern terms as a recommendation for sensible moderation of sexual activity while commencing an intense spiritual practice due to the vulnerability and instability of the beginner’s mind.

Thirdly, research indicates that educating women on health, whether physical or spiritual, benefits more than just the individual.[14] A woman is likely to encourage her children, her partner and wider community to benefit. This gives pause to the criticism of gender bias in Yoga. The focus should be on inclusion and integration rather than criticism or devaluing a practice because it has been adopted by women.

Beyond these arguments, the issue with commercialisation of yoga comes down to ethics: that exploitation, corruption and marketing bias violate yogic principles of non-violence (ahimsa), non-stealing (asteya), non-greed (aparigraha) and honesty (satya) to name a few. This correlates with the second school of thought, the ‘hypocrisy’ school, that maintains that Commercialised Yoga is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. It does not, or cannot, walk its talk. 

There are plenty of salacious contemporary examples such as Bikram Chaudry, John Friend of Anusara Yoga and Lululemon. These are problematic due to their proprietary nature, as well as moral and ethical corruption. These examples are not particular to Yoga, commercialised or otherwise. They are particular to ignorance (avidya), desire and attachment (raga). In these cases, those on the spiritual journey have not yet arrived.

The hypocrisy school claims incompatibility between Yoga and business, unless that business is non-profit. This is less conflicting when looking at large, impersonal corporations but when looking at small business, it hits closer to home. As any teacher of yoga will warn, one does not embark on such a journey for the money. However, this argument suggests that those investing in the yoga community, studying and seeking to build lives and communities around yoga should not profit, at least not financially. They need food and shelter, have families to nourish and children to educate as well as communities to which they need to contribute, but they should not profit from their daily work. Something about this just doesn’t ring true.

It can also be argued that commercialisation of yoga is not only a product but a means of distribution. There are tales of Krishnamacharya demonstrating special powers (siddhi) in a bid to resurrect yoga: suspending his pulse; stopping cars with his bare hands; performing difficult asanas; and lifting heavy objects with his teeth.[15] This promotional activity continued East and West through Krishnamacharya’s famous students , Indra Devi, BKS Iyengar Sri K Pattabhi Jois and TKV Desikachar. Are these activities, ultimately profitable for these adepts, commercialisation or worthwhile dissemination of the practice of yoga?

There is also a semantic argument here. When profit is called abundance, the arguments further soften. Abundance, like beauty, is not inherently bad. Attachment and identification with its forms are counter-productive and cause suffering. Furthermore, the means with which abundance is attracted or generated becomes critical. In a scenario where an individual is taking right-action or following their duty (dharma) and is in receipt of abundance, this is something for which to express gratitude. Where there is exploitation of others, whether individuals and the natural environment, this is a product of ignorance and causes suffering.  

So is there room for Conscious Commercialisation? John Mackey, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Whole Foods Market in the United States thinks so and has co-authored, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business. “Operating under the conscious capitalism model will show that businesses are the true value creators that can push all of humanity upward for continuous improvement.“[16]

Dana Burrows, author of Conscious Leadership: Spirit in Business, suggests we need to change old business thinking to spirited business thinking with five ‘Game Changers’: Know Thyself; Lead with Love; Karma at Work; Build Community; and Change the World.[17]  In short, this work reveals the inherent, connected nature of business, relationships and the power of contribution. Commercial enterprises are made up of people and potential, so are the customers of those enterprises, the consumers of these products.

Finally, Mahatma Ghandi puts it succintly in his treatise on the epic war poem, ‘The Lord’s Song,’ The Bhagavad Gita:

“In my opinion the author of the Gita has dispelled this delusion. He has drawn no line of demarcation between salvation and worldly pursuits. On the contrary he has shown that religion must rule even our worldly pursuits. I have felt that the Gita teaches us that what cannot be followed out in day-today practice cannot be called religion.”[18]

If we accept then that it is the humanity of commercialisation that makes it risky for a psychospiritual paradigm such as Yoga, then this is surely, part of the work of a yogin. We are each responsible for the integration of our practice with our worldly actions, whether social, political, commercial or spiritual.



[1] Oxford Dictionary, oxforddictionaries.com, http://bit.ly/1ANMOUI

[2] Kaminoff, L, Interviews with TKV Desikachar in Madras Oct 1992, http://bit.ly/1Mj1bRX

[3] Iyengar, BKS, Light on Life, Rodale 2005:243.

[4] Feuerstein, G, Suggestions for Studying My Work on Yoga, Traditional Yoga Studies, 2011:1

[5] Feuerstein, G, Why I Practice Yoga, Traditional Yoga Studies, 2011:2.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Farhi, D, Bringing Yoga to Life, Harper Collins, 2003: 84.

[8] Singleton, M, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Oxford University Press, 2010: Loc 137.

[9] Ibid, Loc 2911

[10] Feurstein, G, The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, Shambala 2003: Loc 196 of 9124.

[11] Murphy, R, “Why your Yoga Class is so White,” The Atlantic, 8 July 2014.

[12] Marshall, B, The Perennial Way, TAT Foundation Press, 2011:13.

[13] Svatmarama, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Yoga Vidya, 2002: 30.

[14] Press Release, “Education Plays Key Role in Advancing Women, Girls, and Communities, Report Says,” World Bank, 14 May 2014: http://bit.ly/1GzzIGB

[15] Ruiz, FP, “Krishnamacharya’s Legacy: Modern Yoga’s Inventor,” Yoga Journal, 28 August 2007.

[16] Schwabel, D, “John Mackey: Why Companies should embrace Conscious Capitalism,” Forbes, 15 January 2015. http://onforb.es/1QbcEJb

[17] Burrows, D, Conscious Business Leadership: Spirit in Business, Balboa Press, 2015: Loc 16 of 60.

[18] Ghandi, M, The Bhagavad Gita According to Ghandi, North Atlantic Books, 2009: Loc 214 of 3149.