'International Day of Yoga' Will Not Solve Climate Change. Here's Why

The challenges of tackling climate change still remain mostly in the realm of politics and economic interests, rather than soft choices over culture and what to wear to a Yoga Day event.

The International Day of Yoga (IDY) is now in its fifth consecutive year. The theme for 2019, aptly enough, is climate action. The claim, this time around, is that a yogic lifestyle can help prevent climate change by healing humanity’s relationship with the earth.

In the words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a “yogic lifestyle” is not only a powerful instrument to tackle climate change through “changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness”, but also a path to wellness that will somehow make us better individuals in “thought, action, knowledge and devotion”.

However, India has a branding problem. Even though it is the home of yoga, it faces huge challenges when it comes to handling pollution.

The AYUSH Ministry, which oversees the standardisation of yoga on behalf of the government, adds further flourish by asserting that yoga is a practical discipline that develops one’s inherent power to achieve a balanced life that can be freed of stress, pain and disease. (Really? One could ask.) Is climate action simply in need of a personality transformation that can be brought about by a mix of standardised postures, breathing, chants and meditative moments? While undoubtedly, there is a case to be made for some benefits, the hard challenges of attenuating climate change still remain mostly in the realm of politics and economic interests, rather than soft choices over culture and what yoga pants to wear to an IDY event.

This is where the soft power approach of India appears. AYUSH’s Common Yoga Protocol purportedly represents the paragon of moral-political economies that can achieve the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) codified in Agenda 2030. This forms the rubric for assessing and motivating sustainable development across the economy, society and environment. While such social media campaigns exist, like #Tourism4SDGs and Sadhguru’s #Yoga4SDGs, their appearance hides the fact that many vulnerable groups are excluded and disadvantaged.

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Even in the domain of culture, the narrative used to create the demand for a yogic lifestyle is unsurprising. For one, yoga signifies a distinctly middle-class aspiration and performance of an “urban lifestyle.” Even though yogic lifestyles are packaged as paths to emancipation, their consumption only reinforces class disparities instead of offering an alternative.

Regardless of the increase in yoga activism, much of it is another opportunity to signal virtue. Whether the urban yogi is found in New York, London, Tokyo, Bangkok or Hanoi, the inherent spiritual narcissism does not necessarily mean the next ‘yogation‘ (yoga vacation) will include volunteering to save forests or resist the construction of large dams or #OccupySomething. A cursory glance at any number of yoga studio websites shows how they are often presented as urban oases that intensely focus on the consumer-self. This mature-saturation point of the global yoga industry demonstrates the intense competition for relevance. The unregulated spiritual marketplace enables yoga hybrids to avail themselves of a seemingly endless array of options.

While the self-proclaimed protectors of the supposedly “one, true yoga” denounce the heresy of such things as beer yoga, weed yoga, penguin yoga, SUP yoga, acro-yoga, death metal yoga, and so on, such appeals to purity and tradition are themselves founded on ahistorical narratives that essentialise and Orientalise yoga’s complex and dynamic history to a static monolith. This is a type of cultural appropriation which is as problematic as any of the hybrids listed above.

Yoga is an integral component of the wellness ideology of “self-care” which proposes that the world will be healed through the self-absorption and self-centredness of the atomised, individualised, docile consumer. However, the alienated and disaffected individual grappling with fast-paced urban living is more often than not investing in neoliberal goals of endless consumption, as opposed to any attempt at overthrowing the structural conditions that separate communities or unify them. This is, of course, regardless of any marketing ideal that promotes yoga as a catalyst for connection.

Yoga is a boundary. It does more to separate members of the in-group from the out-group than is recognised. “Self-care” also implies one is incomplete. Which in turn requires consumption of yoga to fix this and more perceived problems. This perpetual state of self-improvement and self-transformation is a central part of neoliberal ideology. It is also used to fuel economies through consumption of a yogic lifestyle that is promoted as a veritable cure-all, and which has the added benefit of being sustainable and ethical.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi doing yoga during the International Yoga Day, 2017. Credit: PTI

Representative image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi doing yoga. Photo: PTI

The urban yogini walking confidently down the street with their yoga mat and take-away coffee (in a re-useable cup) has become emblematic of the cosmopolitan ideal. This includes the preference for expensive organic, sustainable, ethical clothing and other products. A yogic lifestyle is presented as inherently sustainable and ecologically friendly. From this, an individual’s consumption and performance of “yogic ways of life” becomes part of a moral index. Every action is measured against the ethical performance of others through the reciprocal obligation of surveilling oneself and others while perceiving health as a duty, as opposed to a right.

In other words, the neoliberal sense of the self, who is marked by consumption, choice and freedoms, draws from the well of the market.

New metaphorical wells are now being dug in the fastest-growing sector of the global tourism industry — one which relates to ‘inner wellness’ tourism. Most of this growth is happening in Asia. This is because many government tourism agencies actively push neo-Orientalist narratives that play on the idea that Asia is the magical and mystical land of sages and yogis. This reinforces the stereotypes held dear by foreign as well as domestic tourists.

Transformational tourism” is considered by industry experts as an attempt to step beyond authentic travel by suggesting a deeper emotional level of connection with oneself, others and the world is possible. What better way to achieve this than through some form of ‘yogation’?

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Categorised as niche tourism, this sector is amongst the fastest growing. Currently valued at $680 billion, it is expected to grow to $808 billion by 2020. It has a 15 percent share of the total tourism industry’s revenue and grows at more than twice as fast as the overall tourism industry with a compound annual growth rate of eight percent. However, even though international tourism accounts for roughly 10 percent of the world’s GDP, it also amounts for about eight percent of the global carbon supply.

If we travel, for whatever reason, we pollute. Even if it is to eat, pray, live, the capital of yoga Rishikesh has plumbing issues. No amount of yoga will help with this. As the annual number of people choosing to travel for inner wellness tourism and yoga-related transformational tourism rises, the necessity for living restrained, sustainable lives and reducing personal carbon footprints continues.

Perhaps, being able to reduce one’s footprint while traveling is one siddhi (yogic power) that really ought to be cultivated? Or, will yoga transform people’s ethical choices to travel locally instead of to the mystical, magical, sacred Yogaland that so many producers of yogations offer, inconveniently, on the othered side of the earth?

Patrick McCartney, PhD, is a JSPS Post-Doctoral fellow at the Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies at Kyoto University in Japan. Patrick explores the communication strategies involved in the politics of imagination, the sociology of spirituality, the anthropology of religion, and the economics of desire in relation to the imaginative consumption of global yoga. His current project focuses on the Japanese yoga industry in relation to global wellness tourism and can be followed at yogascapesinjapan.com.