Modern yoga and yoga-like practices are about as diverse as you can get. They range from quiet, incense-filled rooms led by softly spoken teachers to barn-like gyms with pumping music and everything in between, including hot yoga, baby yoga and even yoga in the nude.
But almost all claim at least a lineage, an authenticity and an association with what they believe are its ancient Indian roots. Practitioners often report a development in personal spirituality and self-growth as a result of time spent on the mat. However, American academic Andrea Jain says they might be fooling themselves.
“We are fooling ourselves to the extent that we think that spiritual content comes from its ancient Indian roots. Historically, that’s just not the case.”
Jain teaches at Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis and is the author of a new book, Selling Yoga – from counterculture to pop culture. The book explores the growth of modern yoga from fringe practice to global popularity. She takes issue with claims of authenticity but also disagrees with those who say the spiritual claims of practitioners are nonsense.
“I think there is a real spiritual or religious dimension to popularized yoga. No, it’s not linked to ancient Indian roots, but it is linked to a certain religious dimension within modern consumer culture.”
Modern postural yoga is the term most often given to systems of yoga that emphasise breathing and physical postures. Andrea says these varieties were simply the most successful in the market when yoga underwent popularization and as a result became ubiquitous in the imagination of the west. As result, they are often attacked as being illegitimate, mere commodified forms with no real relationship to “true” yoga. In Selling Yoga, Jain argues that there is no such thing.
“(Yoga) has always been context-sensitive. In an historical sense, we can’t actually locate an authentic yoga tradition.” Jain cites yoga researcher Mark Singleton, who argues that modern postural yoga was invented in the early twentieth century during encounters between Indian nationalists and western physical culture advocates. Yoga, she says, is a hybrid form and always has been.
“It has constantly been in flux and taking new forms. Fundamentalist Hindus argue for yoga’s essential Hindu origins. I argue that this is wrong. Historically, yoga was practiced by Buddhists, by Jains and by others in South Asian history. Even in the Hindu context it didn’t have one essential form. It took many.”
The spiritual or religious aspects of postural yoga, Jain argues, stems in part from a belief that it is linked to the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, first codified around 400 CE and built upon even older sources. She calls this a myth, but nonetheless acknowledges the sincerity of believers. Yoga studios, she says, also become a kind of sacred space for their users, a quiet, still place, set aside from the everyday world. There, the yoga student can meditate, still the mind and develop an enhanced sense of self while setting aside stress and ordinary concerns. So while modern yoga’s origins may not be authentically ancient and spiritual, the end effect often is.
Needless to say, plenty of yoga enthusiasts disagree with her, and like all things in a consumer-driven world, yoga is subject to fashion and its current level of popularity may not last. Andrea Jain, however, believes that, given certain conditions, yoga will continue to be as popular for quite a while yet.
“The basic tenet of consumer culture is that individuals can and should pick and choose commodities that fit their own lifestyle choices…as long as yoga advocates and entrepreneurs continue to successfully market yoga in a way that intersects with popular values, demands and desires… I think it will be really successful in consumer culture across the world.”