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The Evolution of 'Woke Yoga' as a Branding Strategy

Battles over yoga’s biography have unintended consequences.

If one starts to think about the branding of yoga and the narrative threads involved in creating demand for its consumption, one seemingly insurmountable issue relates to the multiple ways yoga’s biography is imaginatively curated to suit various ends. For example, yoga and Sanskrit are employed by nation states, like India and China, through faith-based development narratives.

While China considers developing “yoga villages” part of its attempt to eradicate extreme poverty and morally edify the masses, this development narrative competes with India’s concept of “Sanskrit-speaking villages,” which are similarly employed.

Yoga’s popular romantic biography pivots from threadbare, forest-dwelling ascetics to flexibly fit urbane people about town. Today, in certain parts of Yogaland – which is a term used to refer to the global consumption-scape of yoga – there is a growing rise in the application of critical race theory and progressive feminist ideology. Over the past few years, the merging of yoga and social justice activism has intensified. Though this appears geographically bound to Western Europe and North America. This evolves out of the critical theories that developed from within the Frankfurt School, attempting to find problematics (wrong think) and attain collective liberation, though not of the mokṣa kind. These theories frame contemporary yoga as indelibly intersected by race, oppression, and appropriation, while promoting a static monolithic view of the past. Innumerable articles exist prescribing how to decolonise one’s practice.

One of the main critiques of the decolonizing yoga movement, which is not necessarily unified in its ambitions, is the ways in which yoga’s “history” is supposedly taken out of context, while the “embodied practice” is diluted and stripped of its full potential. This has caused the roots of yoga to be trimmed of its source. The irony is that these historiographical origins are often completely removed or altered to suit the decolonizing project of “honouring yoga’s roots,” where the earliest layers of “yogic wisdom,” and the term, yoga, first appears. Even though it specifically refers to the action of harnessing for warfare, cattle raids, and migration, it is not surprising that this fundamental element is so often omitted. Today, the pursuit of wellness, stretching, and social justice replace yoga’s root. Though none of this is accurate, yet, somehow these honour its roots.

People do yoga by the Ganga at Rishikesh. Photo: DJ SINGH/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Success in the martial action of yoga enabled kṣema, or relative “times of settled rest.” The early Ṛig Vedic culture (1200–800 BCE) is defined in the unassailable sections of Hinduism’s corpus, as one that engages in yearly cycles of action and rest. The compound, yoga-kṣema, refers to acquiring and preserving prosperity and property, at the expense of others. None of which is related to being equitable, inclusive, or just.

The etymological root and historical origins of yoga reportedly relate to the martial action of uniting with other “strong-armed” men to destroy one’s enemies.

Ironically, yoga’s biography is often reconstituted to suit this emergent narrative, which asserts that yoga has always been about social justice, which is now “too white.” It appears there is no yoga without justice and no peace without yoga. Does this not seem close to the earliest definition of yoga-kṣema? One representative organisation, Yoga for Black Lives, has instrumentalised yoga to “combat state-sanctioned violence that Black people across the United States experience,” which “support resistance to this kind of violence by giving people the opportunity to take part in a life-affirming and life-sustaining practice.” 

Yoga is now considered a political act and radical health intervention. The yoga of today is reframed as the action of social justice, through which the perceived whiteness of the global consumption-scape of Yogaland must be decentred. Increasingly, white yoga entrepreneurs are asked to offer free classes to BIPOC students and promote and centre BIPOC teachers, as well as “help create access for what we believe is transformation of yoga in the West.” This includes the Afro Yoga Allies, which asserts the necessity of making reparations to help “dismantle racism and white supremacy while directly investing 100% of proceeds to yoga teachers of colour.” Though, why does decolonising yoga look more like a turf war and a takeover attempt?

Also read: The Story of Yoga’s Sporting Journey

The perceived dilution and hyper-commodification of yoga occurs in roughly the same way all over the world. No matter the country or culture. It is not the sole domain of white people to uproot and appropriate this cultural practice, as many of the popular narratives used to create yoga’s history in India do not square with the linguistic, archaeological, and historical records. The rampant commodification and essentialising of yoga across Asia, especially in India, China, and Japan, helps in advancing market share in domestic wellness tourism, which typically far outweighs any profit made from international tourism, pandemics, or no.

It is strange that only white people and their “Western yoga” are deemed capable of hyper-commodification, while Asia’s adoption of self-orientalising narratives, such as the Incredible!ndia advertisements, which recycle affective moods of the “mystical and sacred Orient,” contain essentialised, “racist” tropes about the East and Asians being “more traditional” or “spiritual.” As the Nippon Yoga Union claims, Yoga has been practiced in Japan for 3,000 years. Even though the term, yoga, does not appear to have arrived in Japan until Kukai (774–835), also known as Kobo Daishi, returned from China at the beginning of the 9th century, to establish the Vajrayāna Buddhist-inspired school of esoteric Shingon.

A morning yoga session peering into the jungle in Ubud, Bali. Photo: Jared Rice/Unsplash

It appears to be the case that one’s credibility to employ essentialisms is determined by skin colour. Take, for example, the criticism of “Hip Hop Yoga” and its perceived cultural appropriation by white people and compare it to black culture’s “Trap Yoga.” While the former is derided, the latter is celebrated for its fusion of yoga with trap music, without any mention of causing harm through appropriating traditional Indian culture, or for that matter, the perceptibly white culture of modern yoga.

Myth and mystery are key to the branding strategies of the petit bourgeois yoga studio owner, who often, though inadvertently, take cues from India’s Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of External Affairs. Any yoga entrepreneur trying to put some chapatis on the table uses the same essentialised communication strategies as these ministries. The same essentialising logic is core, as much as it is legion. The industry, no matter which market/continent is discussed, ensures that every yoga teacher must keep grinding out a living in an overly saturated market, which keeps churning out too many yoga teachers, many of whom are thoroughly underemployed.

Is it really the case that Yoga’s perceived issues with equity, diversity, and inclusion only emerged through the perceived white supremacist take over?

As a counterpoint, it is worth considering that from its proto-stage of development, yoga was an antinomian pursuit, predominately, if not exclusively, practiced by male social outcastes sidelined by the hegemony of Brahminical orthodoxy, which imposed innumerable daily rites. Though, much of the heterodoxy that emerged in competition was later absorbed. The best example of this is the Bhagavad Gītā, which clearly appropriates ideas and terminology from other groups, such as the Buddhists.

Today, the global yoga consumer cannot but help imbibe the ‘upper’ caste sentiments of a Sanskritised and sanitised biography, which many South Asians have never considered part of their history. Though, attempts to level white supremacy with caste supremacy, as a way to holistically decolonize yoga, with assertions that sūrya namaskāra (sun salutations) “has no roots in ancient yoga but was formed through modernisation by Europeans to integrate fitness into the practice” demonstrate selective readings, or, perhaps, none at all, rather to suit an ideology. The fact is that sūrya namaskāra emerged out of India’s physical fitness culture over a few centuries and was created by Indians who were partly influenced by European physical culture. It would help if the decolonisers could get their yoga mats in order.

Though, seemingly not much more than a Facebook group, the activists working with Dalit Yoga seek to claim a space for all the othered communities in Indian society, at home and abroad. A backdrop to this is the objectionable statements by Rajiv Malhotra, who seems to have a limited idea of what jobs Dalits are entitled to or can do. For instance, he does not think Dalits are scholastically inclined, which makes them suitable for “body stuff,” like yoga teaching, and being a maid or driver.

The decolonizing of yoga must address the monolith of vaṛṇajātī, as difficult as this is.

One could argue that modern Yoga’s global popularity, which is critiqued as not being democratic or diverse enough is, in fact, that which it is claimed it denies. It is capitalism that democratised and popularised yoga, making it accessible to billions of people all around the world and able to seep into the most banal layers of the twenty-first century social imagination. There is an ever present irony related to how yoga entrepreneurs use yoga to disrupt and dismantle the very capitalist infrastructure that made it globally popular. If it were not for capitalism, India would not have the symbolic capital it derives through the International Day of Yoga.

Life, in the early Vedic period oscillated between times of seasonal movement (yoga) and times of settled peace (kṣema). Jarrod Whitaker explains how yoga relates to the act of “harnessing” animals to carts and weapons to bodies, for warfare and travel. Though, importantly, it does not simply refer to plowing fields. Even if this agrarian trope is often used.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrating International Day of Yoga in Ranchi on Friday. Image: Video screengrab

Prior to each period of yoga, the poets and strong-armed men performed rituals to gain support of the god of war. Adding to the irony, the aim of Ṛig Vedic soma rituals was to manifest Indra’s help in obtaining victory in battle. Soma refers to a fermented drink, which possibly contained ephedra, cannabis, and other intoxicating substances. Aldous Huxley refers to it in his novel, Brave New World. While the original Vedic beverage is said to have emboldened and strengthened those who consumed it—in preparation for battle—Huxley’s hallucinogen promotes well-being and the replacement of religion through spiritual but not religious escapist sentiments and a lowering of critical thinking skills. Huxley seems to have inadvertently predicted the rise of the global wellness industry and Yoga’s role within it, as part of a new Yoga-inflected social justice theology. Within a Huxlian frame, Yoga is the soma that puts those who practice it, to sleep, as the Latin root suggests. The irony that Woke Yoga has a far greater soporific effect, as opposed to stimulating, should not be underestimated. Though, if the ritual supplication succeeded, Indra, drunk on soma and puffed up by praise, would lead the seasonally amalgamated tribes as their symbolic chieftain (rājan). As the “war king,” Indra was responsible for controlling the war band and defeating foreign parties. Though, for some reason, the typical “5,000-year-old Yoga narrative” instead explains, that:

The word “yoga” does appear in the older Vedas; however, the context of its use is more as a state of unitive/transcendental consciousness rather than as a contemplative behavioural practice.

If this is the case, then destroying one’s enemies is a peculiar way of attending to the pursuit of universal consciousness and dealing with trauma. Some decolonisers go as far to say there were no kings, armies, police, etc., or that society was egalitarian. It is hard to know what to make of the clear administrative hierarchy, some of which includes the village chief (grāmiṇī), district chief (viśpati), leader of an army (senānī), leader of a division (senāṅgapati), leader of a troop (cakranāyaka, gaṇapati), leader of an army and village chief (senānigrāmaṇī).

Also read: Where Does India Stand When It Comes to Yoga Tourism?

This leads toward one of the most well-known stories from the Ṛig Veda, which is found in book seven (of ten), regarding the ‘battle of the ten kings’ (dāśa-rājña). As the early Vedic period advanced through its mature and later periods (1000–500 BCE), the smaller tribes (janas) grew into larger and more complex amalgamations (janapadas). This resulted in more complex economic battles evolving from simple cattle rustling into battles over land. This is 2000-plus years before any European colonisation occurred. As well as the pre-modern antecedents of modern postural yoga, which started to emerge from the eleventh century CE onwards in Buddhist Tantric texts. Yet, multiple examples exist claiming this idyllic utopia was vegetarian. Even though this is at odds with the graphic Ṛig Vedic poetry celebrating the slaughter of animals and Indra’s joy at seeing rivers of blood, the smell of entrails, and the buzzing of flies. To which his pleasure was only outmatched by the smell and sizzle of the slaughtered animal’s fat dripping on the coals, and, of course, eating it.

How does obfuscating Yoga’s cultural ground zero honour anything?

It seems that a common impression of the “Vedic Period” is one where everyone just lived a peaceful agrarian existence punctuated by some stretching, farming, and rituals. The Yogi Approved website explains that, “yoga first made an appearance in the Rig Veda, the oldest of these scriptures.” Next, it relates yoking to harnessing two animals together to plow fields, and that, “essentially, to yoke is to create a union, and this is typically how we hear yoga defined today.” There is no mention of warfare. Though the author asserts their credentials as a teacher of Yoga’s history, it is difficult to understand why they either choose to edit out the martial context or do not know about it. Neither option is tolerable for anyone proclaiming to be an expert on the history, origins, and development of yoga.

Soldiers perform yoga in Siachen, June 21, 2016. Photo: PTI/File

The following is indicative of a popular yoga narrative and how it is contorted. Writing on the topic of Cultural appropriation, colonialism, and capitalism: Yoga in the 21st Century, Hannah Dahl claims that Yoga was either borrowed or stolen. Even though Narendra Modi claims it was gifted to the world, Dahl says, that:

“Yoga originated in what is now Pakistan, in the northwest part of India during the Vedic times. According to Indian scholars, this could have been as far back as 5000 BCE, making yoga one of the world’s oldest spiritual practices, said Susanna Barkataki, a British-Indian yoga teacher and yoga culture advocate. Yoga’s sister science, Ayurveda, is considered to be the oldest science in the world. Aside from some scholarly debates over when exactly yoga emerged, one thing is abundantly clear — it started in the East, and has always had roots in Eastern spiritual practices.”

Apparently, it is only scholarly debates that get distracted by niggling issues and forget about simply living a yoga lifestyle. Though, if facts and figures are oppressive, why are they used at all? Why do decolonizers of Yoga, who clearly have little regard for history or know much about yoga’s complicated story, even bother to include dates? Why do they begin their victimhood narrative that white people stole yoga when there is ample evidence showing that various sects and schools within South Asia borrowed, stole, appropriated, improved through doctrinal innovations, and fought and killed for access to and possession of technological profits and control of mercantile trade routes and centres related to Yoga?

Dahl, like many others, seems unaware that the Bronze Age, Indus Valley Culture (3,500–1700 BCE) is not the same as the Vedic Culture (1,200–500 BCE), either culturally, temporally, or geographically. This monolithic appeal to mystery is a universal marketing tool. Take, for instance, the narrative that “yoga is 5,000 years old.” Though, most of what appears in the previous link is patently misinformed romanticism only pretending to be factual, it is, nonetheless, an indelible refrain. Who needs facts when appeals to emotion are far more effective? This website claiming to offer the history of yoga, is indicative of general template. It mentions the self-proclaimed steward, Susanna Barkataki, who perceives that:

“Yoga is a practice that comes from the subcontinent of India and has been practiced, passed down, codified and developed for [sic] somewhere between 2,500 and 10,000 years. We don’t know the exact dates for when yoga was first practiced. Based on more recent research, Western scholars are dating yoga to around the time of the Buddha, some 2,500 years ago.”

Barkataki provides an explanation of what yoga is, which drips, not with the sweat of ホットのヨガ (hotto no yoga), but with an indelible irony. Apparently, there have been:

“…some misunderstandings as to what yoga is in the West today. The problem with these misunderstandings is they dilute yogic teachings to the point where yoga is barely recognizable at all. Change is always happening, so why does this matter, you may ask? At its root yoga is a practical, structured, scientific framework and embodiment practice that aims at curing our personal and social ills.”

Students practice yoga during a training session ahead of International Yoga Day. Photo: Reuters

One might wonder, though, how yoga’s abovementioned root resembles the linguistic root relating to warfare. It might cause one to wonder if the decolonisers of Yoga, who engage in diluting Yoga’s root through promoting their brand of social justice-oriented Yoga, have much knowledge of the complex and dynamic past. One flag goes up with the conflation and mingling of yoga with Ayurveda. The popular narrative revolves around these so-called “sister sciences” having 5,000 years of direct interaction and exchange. Yet, this is a fantasy. There is no historical link, as Suzanne Newcombe explains, prior to their wellness merger in the 1970s. It seems that Yoga has had a heart transplant, because Barkataki claims that:

“Yoga, at its heart, is a radical and civically engaged practice.”

Essentially, there are some familiar traces from Harappan society seen in contemporary Hinduism. Though, they are also found across a much larger and older pan-Asian political-religious economy and long-distanced trade back as far as the third millennium BCE. Suggesting a socially engaged yoga originated before the Vedic culture, without any evidence, does not honor any roots. If anything, this narrative is a colonial construction and is recycled to supposedly decolonise yoga. In fact, a multilayered meta-tautology emerges through the decolonisers using colonially constructed narratives to recolonise Yoga.

Scholars of yoga and consumers, alike, are caught in their own consumer/producer cycle that too often involves appeals to mystery. Scholars, if writing to the Yoga consumer audience, might frame the history of Yoga more in line with popular narratives. This might occur even if they know the history is in fact different and more complicated. Still, mystery is used to promote the idea that it might, probably, or could, be true. See Daniel Simpson’s disdain for academic enquiry and preference for “mystical zeal,” through which he seeks to protect the “practical objectives” from the “intellectual gymnastics,” which, in his opinion, “are clearly a block to the ultimate goal of transcending the mind.” Though, Simpson’s new book, the Truth of Yoga, might be best described as a collection of all the colonially constructed, Orientalist imagined narratives, which are unironically presented as truth. Even though it seems the sophistry of scholars can get in the way of honouring yoga’s roots, because consumers of yoga generally prefer romantic simplistic reification over complex nuance, we know much more than any History of Yoga section in most yoga teacher training manuals will ever likely include. Even though it could. A common example is found in the claims of Yoga Basics suggesting its origins of 10,000 years while conflating the Indus Valley Culture with the Vedic Culture. This lecture by archaeologist, Mark Kenoyer, has some of the most recent knowledge on this fascinating topic. So too, the reprint of Andrew Robinson’s book, The Indus provides valuable insights.

Sanskrit is often considered the “language of the gods” (devabhāṣā). It is intimately connected to yoga. Though, riding roughshod over millennia, according to Barkataki: 

“Sanskrit is a specific and precise language with powerful resonance. Each sound has embedded within it the essence of the meaning of yoga itself. It is important to use the original language used at the time when yoga was first organized into a system or way of being in relationship with one’s self and the world.”

Over 3,500 yoga enthusiasts take part in one of the biggest yoga events in China in Wuxi. Photo: PTI

Sanskrit has multiple layers and has evolved over time. Even though Barkataki seems to imply it just emerged and was perfect from the beginning, because Yoga was:

“codified and developed for [sic] somewhere between 2,500 and 10,000 years.”

What is difficult to assess is the degree to which the generic decolonizing rhetoric crosses over with neo-colonial Hindu nationalist rhetoric, which Barkataki does speaks out against and calls for introspection. Though, it is confusing. For instance, her preferred narratives, which are the dominant decolonizing narratives, read like these Hindu supremacist assertions. This speaks to the fact there are multiple ways in which the social worlds of decolonizing Yoga social justice advocates seamlessly cross over sharing the same sentiments and narratives as Hindu supremacist ethno-nationalists. Though, not all scholar-activist-yoga practitioners entertain the myth-making rhetoric.

Seena Sood’s discussion of decolonising through critical self-introspection and the difficulties in demarcating boundaries is noteworthy. So too, Anusha Laksmi presents a valid critique of the issues with Yoga’s international day and ethno-nationalism. Particularly because these boundaries are porous and the sentiments subtle, which allows for untold spiritual bypassing.

If the reader is curious, here is some of the original “language of yoga.” This is the cultural and linguistic root, which does not square with any contemporary narrative suggesting social and political justice is the core of yoga’s origins. Any attempt to assert such a biography, as part of a social justice inspired, neo-colonial attempt to reclaim an imagined past and weaponise it to create a fortified moral community around the idea of a global yoga tribe, seems to miss the point, and certainly falls short of honouring yoga’s roots or, for that matter, bringing people and groups together.

Based in Japan, Patrick McCartney is trained in archaeology, political-economic anthropology, sociolinguists, historical sociology, and classical philology. His work focuses on documenting the imaginative consumption and biographies of yoga, Sanskrit, and Buddhism. He tweets @psdmccartney and @yogascapesinjap.