Can commercialized yoga be respectful to the Indian traditional practice?
Geeta Iyengar stands on the stage at the Iyengar Institute in Pune, India. “You people,” she wags her long finger as her piercing eyes sweep the room. The 150+ students are both local students and practitioners from around the world, but we all know she is addressing the “Westerners.” “You people come here and you just want to take from us. You do not respect yoga. You do not respect Guruji. You come to get your next certification, or to get your ‘points.’ Then you go back and teach a workshop and charge money for something you got from us.”
We are hushed and docile and sheepish. It’s true, our students are eagerly awaiting our return to our native countries to get a taste of the Pune experience through us. We’re here primarily for our own growth as yoga practitioners, but also as representatives of communities from nearly every corner of the globe. Geeta Iyengar understands this all too well. Most of us are full-time yoga teachers, committed to the yoga path, staying in Pune for one to two months at a time, and coming to study every year or two. To study at the Iyengar Institute, we have to have a minimum of eight years Iyengar Yoga study under our belts and the recommendation of a senior teacher. But to be this dedicated means our livelihoods depend on yoga as a commercially viable product or service.
Geeta Iyengar’s father, BKS Iyengar, the premier yoga master of our era and largely responsible for globalizing yoga, recently passed away at age 95. A yoga practitioner struggling to support his family teaching an art that Indians themselves, due to generations of colonization, held in low esteem, came into the international spotlight through famed American-born violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who introduced him to the upper crust of Europe in 1952.
Through the attention he garnered from white people as an exoticized wonder, he was able to earn a living to support his family, gain international, and eventually national fame, and, in the 1970s, build an Institute which attracts Iyengar Yoga students from around the world. Geetaji understands this all too well, and although I’ve never heard her directly address this dilemma, I believe it informs her ambiguous relationship with the international students. On the one hand, she realizes the health and dynamism of the Iyengar Yoga movement requires international participation, and on the other hand, she’s troubled at how commercial yoga has become, how far it has strayed from its roots, and how greedy and bloated the egos of many practitioners has become.
Note that only after foreign recognition did Shri BKS Iyengar earn legitimacy in his home country. Tragically, this is how global white supremacy and cultural imperialism persists. In an interesting twist, only after yoga became a multi-billion dollar industry did the debate regarding cultural appropriation become mainstream, to the point that the Indian government is actively promoting yoga as a Hindu spiritual practice.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi comes from the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been described as “Hindu fascists.” Author and human rights activist Arundhati Roy provides background on the party and the 2002 pogrom of which Modi presumably played a central role. Of late, the BJP has actively rebranded itself as a nationalist party for all Indians, regardless of caste, creed, or religion. How this will bear out remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the government is wielding yoga as a cultural capital weapon, with popular appeal. I say, watch out.
Is yoga indeed a Hindu practice? While BKS Iyengar and his family are Hindu, his Indian students at his Institute include numerous Parsi, Muslim, and Christian Indians. His international students range from agnostic to Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, and more. BKS Iyengar from the beginning has presented yoga as a spiritual practice suitable for all religions.
Although some Hindu practitioners may disagree, many books and articles describe yoga as a set of practices parallel to, but separate from, specific faiths. Classical texts like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are part of the Buddhist canon as well as studied by yogis. Also, many scholars describe the modern day asana (yoga postures) practice as a conglomeration of various traditions ranging from gymnastics to martial arts to dance, only about 100 years old, rather than thousands. Look at the work of Mark Singleton and Wendy Doniger, for instance. And I cannot fail to mention one of my favorite apocryphal takes, Jesus Lived in India, which argues that Jesus himself learned yoga, tying together Christianity, Buddhism, and yoga practice. Makes sense to me.
To me, admitting that what I practice and teach differs from the tradition of the Himalayan sadhus (pilgrims) 5,000 years ago does not diminish the practice. I see it as an art form meant to evolve with the times. BKS Iyengar’s yoga exemplifies this progressive dynamism. He was taught as a teenager by his guru, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, the vigorous vinyasa style (poses linked by the breath) that we refer to nowadays as “Ashtanga Yoga,” espoused by Shri Pattabhi Jois, also a student of Krishnamacharya and his followers.
Young BKS Iyengar, assigned to teach in Pune and separated from his teacher, spent up to ten hours each day practicing on his own, and his own style began to emerge. He saw that most of his students could not perform the classical asanas as he had been taught. He put himself into the bodies of his students to figure out how to help them and began developing the hallmark precision and astute instructions and adjustments of the Iyengar method. He began improvising “props” to assist them, taking bricks from the street and such.
Naturally, what Iyengar developed was quite different from what he was taught as a teenager, and his practice continued to evolve. His eldest daughter, Geetaji, also an ayurvedic physician, developed and adjusted the practice to suit the varying needs of women, through menstruation, pregnancy, postpartum, and menopause. Both Guruji and Geetaji developed a sophisticated approach and customized sequences for people with illnesses and injuries, so that patients from all over the world come seeking healing.
To further complicate the definition of yoga, Guruji’s son, Prashantji, teaches a different stream altogether, which departs from the detailed instructions of his father and sister. Prashantji’s approach includes lengthy discourses on the esoteric nature of yoga, commentary on yoga scriptures, all infused with poetic wordplay and humor. The asana classes could consist of four or five asanas only, while Prashantji exhorts us to examine the asana from inside-out rather than outside-in, from the perspective of the breath, or the organs, or the mind, or any number of facets. He refuses to tell us what to do, relentlessly dismantling what we think “Iyengar Yoga” should be, disrupting the tradition set by his father and sister. Still, this is all under the broad umbrella of Iyengar Yoga.
This is why, to an Iyengar yoga practitioner, the description of yoga as a Hindu practice feels awkward. One visit to a medical class at the Iyengar Institute, or to Geetaji’s women’s class, or to Prashantji’s class would leave a student seeking a pure Hindu religious experience, baffled.
Furthermore, if we declare and protect yoga as a Hindu practice, we are also supporting yoga as a practice of the Brahmin caste. As in the USA, yoga in India tends to be in the domain of the upper class. Traditionally, only the upper castes enjoyed access to the arts. These days, progressive Indians say the castes no longer apply. However, they admit that they operate under a de facto, unspoken but understood code. Lower castes and classes, which include Muslims and Christians, would traditionally not have access to a practice like yoga. Is this what Narendra Modi intends?
In the USA, radicals and progressives concerned about the cultural appropriation of yoga may be unwittingly playing into the hands of the Hindu right-wing by giving them sovereignty over the practice. Even the radical SAAPYA (Southeast Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America) got caught in the crosshairs, getting mistakenly lumped with the Hindutva (right-wing Hindu) movement.
I think the issue is not so much about “giving back yoga” to Hindus, as it is about Americans and others profiteering, oversimplifying, exoticizing, sexualizing, ego-building and empire-building their own take on the practice of yoga. I have some radical friends and acquaintances who have relinquished the practice of yoga in order not to be culturally appropriating it. This may be the right thing for some. But instead, can we transform the practice of yoga in America to be more respectfully aligned with Indian roots and far less about profit?
It’s the damn bindis and commercialization, y’all, not the teachings themselves, that we have to give up. Geeta Iyengar is not asking us to stop practicing yoga. It’s the fashions, the methods named after ourselves, and the arrogant assumptions of privilege that are problematic. I would also add that the exclusiveness of yoga to certain people in the USA — cisgendered, white, thin, and upper class — corrupt the deeper meaning of the practice.
Though many may disagree, I do not think yoga teachers should be accruing wealth. I regard my work as my spiritual calling, my ministry, so to speak, and as such, I feel I must not attach an expectation of profit from it. If it provides me with a modest livelihood, I am grateful. If not, I need to either reduce my living expenses or earn supplemental income. I have managed by adopting a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity and maximizing community connections. For me, pursuing wealth would mean leaving my beloved city of Detroit to teach upper class people in the suburbs.
I am also a Vipassana meditator, but I’ve never heard Vipassana, with Indian Buddhist roots, taught by the Burmese Indian, SN Goenka, debated in the context of cultural appropriation. While yoga is hotly debated, to the extent that practitioners are forsaking it, meditation is rarely brought up. Why?
It comes down to money. There’s no money in Vipassana meditation. All centers are run on donations and all teachers are volunteers. No one is trademarking a particular style of meditation, no one is building a meditation empire, no one is propagating a meditation teacher training, no one is trying to “take back” meditation, and no one is selling sexy meditation clothing. In a global capitalist society, value is largely determined by commercial worth.
“Take Back Yoga” didn’t emerge until yoga as a multimillion dollar industry emerged. With big money comes sex. It’s ironic that the Iyengars developed “yoga bloomers” to provide modest and functional attire but really what folks want is that “Lulu-ji” shit, see-through, sexy, and all, because there’s no way to immerse oneself in an ancient practice of liberation quite like shopping for expensive clothes.
In contrast, what we get in India, as far as amenities, are thin, worn mats packed wall to wall, with no air conditioning, no changing rooms, long bathroom lines for two women’s toilets, in exchange for the most stellar and profound instruction in the world. In America, it’s just the reverse. We get beautiful temperature-controlled studios, sophisticated sound systems, well-appointed boutiques, and next to no instruction from a teacher with a generic certification. Which leads me to my real pet peeve: the proliferation of yoga teacher trainings.
Yoga became a multi-billion dollar industry when every Tom, Dick, and Harry started their own teacher training program. For a few thousand dollars and a weekend-a-month, you can start from zero and earn your certification in a year.
Afterwards, if you have the gall and a decent credit score, you can open your own studio, invite all your friends, and teach whatever the hell you want. You can charge 20, 30 bucks a class or more, cater to upper middle class suburban women who want a “yoga butt,” and have the time and money to come two, three, four times a week to bliss out to your yoga soundtracks, morning sun salutes, and evening slow flow or candlelight or whatever else you invent or copy. As a beginner teacher, you don’t have a lot to teach them, but you provide a beautiful, affirming atmosphere, and you recycle a handful of aphorisms that make people feel good: “Open your heart to the wisdom of your body,” or “Inhale peace, exhale love.”
As your classes grow, you can hire more 200-hour teachers. They’re churned out in droves each year, and you can pay them next to nothing. They have day jobs or spouses to support them. Years pass and yoga becomes mainstream. Your boutique is booming, and before you know it, you’re offering your own teacher training. You give it a nice Sanskrit name, something easy to pronounce but exotic-sounding. And so it goes.
I’m with the right-wing Modi Hindus on this one. Not only is this unsafe and irresponsible, but it demeans and disrespects the profound practice of yoga. It flattens a complex realm of teachings for the purpose of commercial profit. It shrinks a holistic spiritual practice to a new age fitness routine. American-style yoga feels like cultural appropriation because people extract the parts of it that are marketable and treat the cultural roots like an easily discarded costume.
It used to be, and still is in the Iyengar Yoga tradition, that if you wanted to teach yoga, you had to win the confidence of your teacher and have them take you under their wing as an apprentice, one of only a few at a time. You had to put in years of practice before you could start apprenticing. The apprenticeship would include every aspect of the practice from reading philosophy to learning the nuts and bolts of every pose, observation and correction, modifications and adjustments, and sequencing. In a years-long relationship with your mentor, you would learn how yoga philosophy manifested in their day-to-day lives and be able to engage in conversation. Through your teacher you had a direct connection to the roots of the practice in India, and with time, you would also go to India to study. From your mentor you would receive lots of direct feedback (sometimes more than you wanted) to help you improve. In other words, you had to pay your dues, and for years, not months.
Apprenticeship in the Iyengar method would begin by observing classes, then eventually assisting, then after in-depth study, supervised teaching. After at least two or three years of study under your mentor, in addition to the recommendation of a second intermediate or senior level teacher, you might be ready to take the weekend-long test to begin the process of certification in the Iyengar method, and if you passed, then take the second part of the test the following year to finally become certified. Higher levels of certification take even more years, so that one remains always a student, and every teacher, no matter how experienced, is also being mentored by more than one teacher. Such is the wisdom of the guru model. One always has teachers above them, and one must always be humble.
I started teaching in 2001, after studying for five years, then became a Certified Iyengar Yoga Instructor in 2004 after easily exceeding 1000 hours of training, which included direct classroom instruction, weekend workshops eight to ten times each year, supervised teaching, reading and writing assignments, and discussions and consultations. After I received Introductory level certification, I went on to Intermediate Junior I, II, and III certifications, each requiring two to four additional years of study and testing, with no guarantee of passing. If I choose to continue on the certification path, there are still nine levels above me.
Because of the years of rigorous training, Iyengar Yoga teachers may have more in common with professional healers like physical therapists, acupuncturists, and naturopaths, than the run-of-the-mill American yoga teacher who writes a check, shows up for training, and receives a diploma after a year or less. Iyengar training ensures that teachers have a thorough understanding of the holistic practice of yoga, which ranges from observations of social and personal ethics (yamas and niyamas) to understanding the deeper practices of concentration and meditation (dharana, dhyana), in addition to thorough knowledge of asana and pranayama (postures and breathwork).
Of course the high standards pose another issue — who has access to the teachings? Who has the time and resources for this depth of study and commitment? Personally I have committed myself to make Iyengar Yoga classes and apprenticeship opportunities available to all. But white supremacy and capitalism permeate society on so many levels, ranging from (lack of) exposure to basic information to cultural expectations to body image, presenting obstacles to making Iyengar Yoga truly accessible.
I’m proud to point out that our own Iyengar Yoga Detroit is run by two Certified Iyengar instructors who are women of color, perhaps the only such center in the nation. Our student body enjoys much more racial diversity than most yoga studios. Still, we have far to go to truly reflect our community.
Let’s take Geeta Iyengar’s criticisms to heart. If yoga is to be a practice of liberation, we all need to take responsibility by giving credit instead of hoarding it. Let’s honor the lineage of yoga by respecting our teachers and the roots in India. Let’s take it upon ourselves to embody and embrace the whole path of yoga as a lifestyle, not just do flashy asanas. Let’s give ourselves years, decades, to study, and prioritize our studentship over our teachership.
May we honor our teachers. May we dismantle systems of oppression and exploitation rather than reinforce them. May we heal ourselves in order to heal our communities. Namaste.
//Gwi-Seok (Peggy) Hong lives on the east side of Detroit, teaches Iyengar Yoga in Hamtramck, writes essays and poems, and blogs at stillinsirsasana.blogspot.com. An activist and organizer, she is involved with Healing Justice, New Work/New Culture/New Economy, Uprooting Racism/Planting Justice, and The Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership.