Yoga and Capitalism?


You’ll have to forgive me for this pseudo-academic rant.  I’m working on a paper examining the commodification of yoga as it gained popularity in the western world and moved away from the instructions for practicing yoga provided in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and thought I would share this short excerpt.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika provides no socioeconomic distinctions in its hundreds of strict instructions.  The only requirement stated is that a student must learn from a guru; at no point does it imply that the student must be of a certain economic status.  The suggestions for creating a place in which to study yoga actually required little to no economic investment: “The Yogî should practise Hatha Yoga in a small room, situated in a solitary place, being 4 cubits square, and free from stones, fire, water, disturbances of all kinds, and in a country where justice is properly administered, where good people live, and food can be obtained easily and plentifully. (Yogi Swatmarama, translated by Pancham Sinh, 1915)”

Practicing yoga today includes paying fifteen to twenty dollars per class, purchasing a polyvinyl chloride or thermoplastic elastomer mat with a price tag that can rise as high as $150, and buying yoga-specific workout clothes, which can cost over $100 for a single outfit.  A yoga studio parking lot is often filled with BMW’s, Mercedes Benzes, and SUV’s. The yogi of today can also travel to exotic international locations to pursue her enlightenment—for the reasonable price of $2,195.  “Yoga-lebrities” such as Kathryn Budig and Seane Corn travel the world to teach at conferences, sell their own personal brand of yoga (and/or yoga accessories or clothing), and receive press from the queen of media herself, Oprah.  The message is clear: wealthy, upper-class individuals are the ones who stand to benefit the most from contemporary yoga. The cost of studying yoga, both in money and time, is too high for the typical individual from a lower socioeconomic stratum.

The ideology of yoga in the 15th century as described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, itself an expression of subservience to a greater system, had fewer class-based restrictions on it than the ideology of yoga in contemporary America, which is also an expression of subservience to a greater system.  The difference lies in the dominant economic and religious systems.  One is a subservient feudal system in which the economic means of production are intertwined with religious caste distinctions.  The other is a capitalist system that, despite what televangelists say, worships profit above all else.

I’m no stranger to impulse-buying a $50.00 yoga mat bag, or ogling the latest in Lululemon gear, or insisting on practicing only on my Manduka.  But looking at the way that contemporary yoga seems to only or those who can afford such luxuries may make me think twice before I start circling sports bras in the Athleta catalogue that shows up in my mailbox every month.



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