Given that we see yoga practically everywhere we turn, from strip-mall yoga studios to advertisements for the Gap, one might assume a blanket acceptance of yoga as an acceptable consumer choice.
Yet, a growing movement courts fear of the popularization of yoga, warning that yoga is essentially Hindu. 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. Some well-known Americans, such as Mohler, add that yoga’s popularization threatens the Christian essence of American culture. Hindu protesters, most notably represented by 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.
Protesters rely on revisionist histories that essentialize yoga as Hindu, ignoring its historical and lived heterogeneity. By the end of the first millennium C.E., however, a variety of yoga systems were widespread in South Asia as Hindu, Buddhist, Jains, and others prescribed them. Following the twelfth-century Muslim incursions into South Asia and the establishment of Islam as a South Asian religion, even Muslim Sufis appropriated elements of yoga. Therefore, throughout its premodern history, yoga was culturally South Asian but did not belong to any single religious tradition. Rather than essentializing premodern yoga by reifying its content and aims, it is more accurate to identify it as heterogeneous in practice and characteristic of the doctrinally diverse culture of South Asia.
The history of modern postural yoga, a fitness regimen made up of sequences of often-onerous bodily postures, the movement through which is synchronized with the breath, 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. In other words, the methods of postural yoga were specific to the twentieth century and would not have been considered yoga prior.
In short, recent scholarship has shown that the type of yoga that dominates the yoga industry today—modern postural yoga—does not have its so-called “origins” in some static, “classical,” Hindu yoga system; rather, it is a twentieth-century transnational product, the aims of which include modern conceptions of physical fitness, stress reduction, beauty, and overall well-being. Hence recent scholarship on yoga, both historical and lived, attends to the particularities of different yoga traditions, which vary based largely on social context.
Nevertheless, protesters against the popularization of yoga, in strikingly similar ways, are polemical, prescriptive, and share misguiding orientalist and reformist strategies that essentialize yoga as Hindu. Interestingly though, the two protesting positions emerge as much from the cultural context—that is, consumer culture—that they share with popularized yoga as from a desire to erect boundaries between themselves and yoga insiders. For example, protesters participate in the same consumer dialect, assuming the importance of “choosing” a fitness regimen that fits one’s personal lifestyle and serves the goal of self-perfection. The protesters positions, in other words, are as much the products of the social context they share with postural yoga advocates as popularized yoga itself.
Image Credit: Yoga. Photo by Matt Madd. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.