Bhanu Bhatnagar is a journalist and yogi. He is the brain behind ‘Who Owns Yoga?’, an Al Jazeera documentary published in 2014 which explores the commercialisation and politicisation of yoga in the modern world. He shares his insights with us 2 years on – you can find the full original 50 minute film at the bottom of this article.
To understand the remarkable journey of yoga in our collective consciousness, you needn’t look any further than the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s recent speech to a joint session of the US Congress.
On June 8, the leader of the world’s biggest democracy addressed the elected representatives of the American people.
“India’s ancient heritage of yoga has over 30 million practitioners in the US,” he said. “It’s estimated that more Americans bend for yoga than to throw a curve ball. And no, Mr Speaker, we have not, yet, claimed intellectual property rights on yoga.”
Through the applause you could hear the nervous laughter. Was this a veiled threat? What would the repercussions be for yoga businesses and teachers should India decide to claim yoga as a form of intellectual property?
In 2014 I made a documentary for Al Jazeera with filmmakers Micah Garen and Marie-Helene Carleton called Who Owns Yoga?. As an Indian born and raised in Europe, and as a yoga instructor and journalist, I was intrigued by the commercialisation and politicisation of yoga I was seeing all around me, exemplified at the time by Bikram Choudhury’s attempts to copyright his yoga sequence and the ensuing backlash.
Two years on, and Bikram has lost his copyright battle and the world has just celebrated the second international yoga day. High-profile individuals from politics to entertainment speak openly of its benefits. Yoga guru Baba Ramdev, whom I interviewed in our film, is today running India’s fastest growing consumer goods brand, Patanjali Ayurved, which reported $307 million in revenues in 2015. It sells everything from toothpaste to instant noodles. Yoga is practiced everywhere, from refugee camps in Lebanon to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the hipster studios of Manhattan. ‘Yogalebrities’ like Tara Stiles and Kino MacGregor, who has one million Instagram followers, run global yoga empires.
Our film coincided with the election of Narendra Modi. Since coming to office the Indian prime minister has put yoga at the centre of his diplomacy and public policy, aggressively championing it as Indian cultural heritage and as a form of soft power, getting 175 countries to support his plan for an international yoga day. His government has ambitious plans to bring yoga to 600,000 schools as well as thousands of hospitals and police training centres, a first in the nation that gave the world yoga. It’s also hoping to certify 50,000 yoga professionals within the next three years. It’s entirely plausible that a resurgent India could, in the future, set up a body similar to the US-based Yoga Alliance, which currently certifies teachers and studios around the world, in effect taking ownership of yoga back from the West.
Commercialisation can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, power can be abused and yoga can be misrepresented. On the other, it helps foster community and brings yoga to millions of people who wouldn’t normally have any access. This is the environment in which we live. The recent sexual harassment settlement at the Jivamukti Yoga School is a case in point. In a recent article writer and yoga leader Matthew Remski says the scandal has polarised the community, particularly online.
“On one side are Jivamukti teachers, students, and affiliate studio owners who reject accusations that they are cultists and avow the effectiveness of their method and the bonds of their community,” he says. “On the other are former students and teachers who point to the school as an example of everything that’s wrong with modern yoga: a quintessentially American pyramid scheme, topped by charismatic pretenders.”
I’ve often heard people complain about the perceived cult-like following of some yoga leaders, both Indian and non-Indian. I spoke to the founders of Jivamukti, David Life and Sharon Gannon, for our film two years ago. They were warm and forthcoming in their interview, speaking from the comfort of their home in upstate New York. But they run a global empire which has now succumbed to one of the pitfalls of commercialisation: alleged abuse of power. And Jivamukti is not the first, nor will it be the last.
Yoga has truly captured the imagination of humanity but as we race into the 21st century we need tools and ideas to help empower us to bring yoga to new places, all the while being mindful of the business of yoga. We are all a part of the yoga zeitgeist, a collective awakening of consciousness. Mindfulness, animal rights, organic food, non-violence, vegetarianism and environmentalism are all a part of this awakening. What we are witnessing is the rise of ‘wellness’ as a lifestyle, culture and identity.
Most yoga businesses are run by deeply passionate individuals who want nothing more than to share the benefits of yoga with the world. But many lack the business acumen needed to make an idea or vision succeed and there are very few places to learn these skills. Around the world, most teacher-training programmes don’t equip tomorrow’s yoga leaders with the tools and knowledge they need in critical business skills. This is why it’s crucial we come together to empower leaders and encourage big ideas and entrepreneurial spirit.
I interviewed yoga master Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev in southern India in 2014. When I asked him who owns yoga, he told me that yoga is a science, and that science cannot be owned by anyone. Since then he’s become the face of Indian yoga diplomacy, addressing the UN on international yoga day this year.
“It’s truly revolutionary for the United Nations to take up yoga as a way of bringing transformation in the world because without transforming individual human beings, there is no way to transform the world,” he said. “This effort to take yoga to every human being on the planet is about fulfilling the human longing for health, wellbeing and the pursuit of fulfilment through a logically correct and scientifically verifiable system.”
We have a unique opportunity as yoga leaders to share knowledge, inform, educate and nurture everyone who has a connection to yoga, and let’s face it, the numbers are immense and growing. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest in excess of 100 million people around the world are involved in some way with yoga. Globalisation and technology also present us with new possibilities to engage with the world. The digital revolution is already changing the way yoga leaders are interacting with their communities, for example through mobile apps. And this space will continue to evolve.
I am a product of the modern yoga age: Indian but not Indian, spiritual but not religious. You are also a product of the modern yoga age, but your story may be completely different. And herein lies the strength of our global community: hugely diverse but with a shared love for yoga. I’m excited about this new platform and the opportunity for genuine information sharing between the movers and shakers, from professionals working in the yoga industry to teachers to business owners. We will help shape yoga in the 21st century, guided by our desire to share yoga more widely while respecting its values and principles. Exciting times lie ahead.