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The commodification and anti-commodification of yoga

Nearly all of us who live in urban areas across the world know someone who “does yoga” as it is colloquially put. And should we choose to do it ourselves, we need not travel farther than a neighborhood strip mall to purchase a yoga mat or attend a yoga class.

The amount of spending on yoga depends largely on brand. A consumer can purchase a pair of yoga pants with an unfamiliar brand at the popular retail store Target for $19.99 or purchase a pair from Lululemon, a high-end yoga-apparel brand that on average charges $98 for yoga pants. On Amazon, the consumer can choose from a variety of yoga mats with unfamiliar brands for under $20, or she can go to a specialty shop and purchase a stylish Manduka-brand yoga mat, which will cost as much as $100. And all that does not include the cost of yoga classes, which widely range from $5 to over $20 per class.

If a consumer is really dedicated to investing money in yoga, for thousands of dollars she can purchase a spot in a yoga retreat in locations throughout the United States, in Europe, or even in the Bahamas or Brazil, with yoga teachers marketing their own popular brands, such as Bikram Choudhury, whose brand is Bikram Yoga. Spending on yoga is steadily increasing. In the United States alone, spending doubled from $2.95 billion to $5.7 billion from 2004 to 2008 and climbed to $10.3 billion between 2008 and 2012.

The dandayamana-bibhaktapada paschimotthana asana (standing separate leg stretching posture). Photographed by Michael Petrachenko. (Images courtesy of Kirsten Greene.)
The dandayamana-bibhaktapada paschimotthana asana (standing separate leg stretching posture). Photographed by Michael Petrachenko. (Images courtesy of Kirsten Greene.)

Consumers convey the meaning of yoga, however, not only through what products and services they choose to purchase but also what they choose not to purchase. In other words, consumption can require exchange of money and commodities, and the amount of money spent on commodities largely depends on the brand choices of individual consumers. However, consumption can also lack an exchange of money and commodities. Many contemporary yoga practitioners, in fact, oppose the commodification of yoga by choosing free yoga services and rejecting certain yoga products.

For the founder of postural yoga brand Yoga to the People, Greg Gumucio, and those who choose the services associated with his brand, yoga’s meaning transcends its commodities. The anti-commodification brand of Yoga to the People signifies, quite directly, a very particular goal: a better world. It is believed that is possible as more and more people become self-actualized or come into their full being—yoga is “becoming”—through strengthening and healing their bodies and minds. The individual who chooses Yoga to the People still acts as a consumer even if consumption does not require the exchange of money. The consumer chooses Gumucio’s brand as opposed to others because of that brand’s success in capturing what yoga means to him or her.

Some yoga practitioners reject the yoga mat for its perceived over-commodification. The mat, for most practitioners of postural yoga, is a necessity, not just because it allows one to perform postures without slipping or to mark one’s territory in a crowded class, but also because it signifies various non-utilitarian meanings. The mat signifies a “liminal space” set apart from day-to-day life as one participates in a self-developmental ritual of rigorous physical practice. It is also often a status symbol. But yoga insiders who reject mats argue that they are not necessary, that they interfere with practice, and that they are simply commodities without any profound meaning. It is worth noting that the first purpose-made yoga mat was not manufactured and sold until the 1990s. Yoga practitioners who reject the mat choose brands of yoga that do not require the mat, such as Laughing Lotus, because those brands are believed to better signify the true meaning of yoga. For them, the meaning of yoga is experiential and transcends ownership of a commodity as seemingly arbitrary as a mat.

Recent Comments

  1. […] overwritten rumination on the commodification of yoga, check out this Oxford University Press blog post. Big words to make a pretty obvious […]

  2. Andrea Jain

    Thanks for your comment, Steve. I’d like to engage you on your criticism. Would you be willing to specify what you think is the “obvious point” of my essay? Thanks!

  3. Ana B.

    I must say this is an excellent article with plenty of good points. It is true that yoga became a sort of a pop culture phenomenon in the last couple of decades and that it really turned into a commercial enterprise. Some of the yoga related companies are overcharging for their (sometimes unnecessary) gear and perhaps it would be for the best if us yogis simply return to our roots.
    On the other hand, I think that yoga retreats are great. If someone thinks they are overpriced, just remember that you will pay the exact same amount of money if you go to any type of vacation. And plus, you get yoga classes and very relaxed atmosphere if you opt for a yoga retreat.


  4. Paul Moore

    Commodification is not all bad. Anti-commodification is not all good.

    Commodification. Today it’s a business that entices more people to give it a try. All the trendy advertising glamour acknowledges Mann’s statement that “attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron.” That’s quite a change from hundreds of years ago when yoga knowledge was treated as a closely guarded secret, available only to those willing to take a vow. And those who disclosed or misused its powers did so at their own peril. Debra Diamond’s “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” richly illustrates this history, along with the evolution of yoga.

    Anti-commodification. It is an effort to move beyond merely healing the physical. It needs to acknowledge that physical ills can be viewed as gifts that motivate people to try the postural practice. Wise students will recognize that expensive yoga clothing and exotic practice locations are no substitute for practice time, and that the best rewards are in mental health, mindfulness, and learning to be ever grateful. But “insiders” who dictate rigid standards of practice and lifestyle also discourage many newcomers.

    Perhaps what is needed is a balance. It should inspire a range of people (not just the skinny, fit and flexible) to try the asanas and experience how it can change the body and mind. Accept that some will focus only on the body. The industry that feeds on the enthusiasm, by selling teacher training, will wither away as newly minted teachers spread the word that teaching yoga is often a low paying task. Only the truly dedicated yogis will persist.

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