Andrea R. Jain's Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture is a comparative study of modern postural yoga, its popularization, and its intersections with consumer culture. According to Jain, the key message of her book is that "yoga has been perpetually context-sensitive, so there is no 'legitimate,' 'authentic,' 'orthodox,' or 'original' tradition, only contextualized ideas and practices organized around the term yoga."
Following is an excerpt from a January 29, 2015 Religion Dispatches interview with Jain. In this particular excerpt, Jain discusses some of the biggest misconceptions about postural yoga. This excerpt is accompanied by images from the following Tumblr sites: Dudes Doing Yoga, Yoga for Men, and Yoga Folies.
Given that we see yoga practically everywhere, from strip-mall studios to advertisements for The Gap, one frequent misconception is that there is a blanket acceptance of yoga as an acceptable consumer choice. Yet, Selling Yoga illuminates a number of growing movements that oppose popularized yoga and even sometimes court fear of it.
Some Christians, including Albert Mohler (President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), Pat Robertson (television evangelist and founder of the Christian Coalition of America), and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Roman Catholic Church, warn about the dangers of yoga given the perceived incompatibility between what they believe is its Hindu essence and Christianity. I call their position the Christian yogaphobic position.
Some well-known Americans, such as Mohler, add that yoga’s popularization threatens the Christian essence of American culture. Hindu protesters, most notably the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), criticize yoga insiders for failing to recognize yoga’s so-called Hindu origins and illegitimately co-opting yoga for the sake of profit. I call this the Hindu origins position.
The two are strikingly similar, most significantly insofar as they lean on the misconception that yoga is definitively Hindu. This idea is based on revisionist histories that essentialize yoga’s identity, ignoring its historical and lived heterogeneity. By the end of the first millennium C.E., yoga systems were widespread in South Asia as Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and others prescribed them. Throughout its pre-modern history, yoga was culturally South Asian but did not belong to any single religious tradition.
The history of modern postural yoga also problematizes the identification of yoga as Hindu. That history is a paragon of cultural encounters in the process of constructing something new in response to transnational ideas and movements, including military calisthenics, modern medicine, and the Western European and North American physical culture of gymnasts, bodybuilders, martial experts, and contortionists. Yoga proponents constructed new postural yoga systems in the twentieth century, and nothing like them appeared in the historical record up to that time.
Another unfortunate but common misconception is that yoga is a mere commodity of global market capitalism or, at best, “spiritual, not religious.” On the one hand, many outsiders to popularized yoga profoundly trivialize it by reducing it to mere commodities and impotent borrowings from or “rebrandings” of traditional, authentic religious products. On the other hand, many insiders frequently avoid categorizing yoga as religion, preferring to call it spiritual or to invoke other non-explicitly religious terms to describe it.
If one closely evaluates examples from popularized yoga, it becomes apparent that it can have robust religious qualities. Pop culture yoga can serve as a body of religious practice in the sense of a set of behaviors that are treated as sacred, as set apart from the ordinary or mundane dimensions of everyday life; that are grounded in a shared ontology or worldview; that are grounded in a shared axiology or set of values or goals concerned with resolving weakness, suffering, or death; and that are reinforced through myth and ritual.
In the postural yoga context, for example, when Iyengar’s students repeat their teacher’s famous mantra—“The body is my temple, [postures] are my prayers”—or read in one of his monographs—“Health is religious. Ill-health is irreligious” (Iyengar 1988: 10)—they testify to experiencing the mundane flesh, bones, and physical movements and even yoga accessories as sacred.
– Andrea R. Jain
Excerpted from "Fake, Evil, Spiritual, Commodified;
What’s the Truth About Popular Yoga?
January 29, 2015