Yoga Wars An Oxymoron?

Yoga wars sounds like an oxymoron. The fact that it is now in yoga lexicon should draw attention to the contemporary usage of yoga and the negative aspects of the process of monetizing yoga. Yoga has become a victim of its own success. In absolute terms, yoga wars is an oxymoron. Let us look at this contradiction.

There were no “yoga wars” when there was no money to be made in it; when it was inconceivable that it could be “certified”, “patented”, “franchised”, “marketed”, made into various products to increase market share, have business models, and so on. Like Lululemon, how long before we have yoga company IPOs–yoga packaged and securitized? I wonder what valuations they would get and how well the “yoga stocks” would do. Instead of tech billionaires, would we have muscular “yoga billionaires?” Someone out there has to be thinking about it though the yoga market is miniscule compared to the technology space!

I am not suggesting turning the clock back 50 years.

In an August 23, 2010, article “Yoga Wars” Spoil  Spirit of Ancient Practice  in The Washington Post, the author Emily Wax writes that more than 30 million American practice yoga in a $6 billion yoga industry in the United States. An Indian government agency is fighting what it rightly sees as yoga theft. The physical poses, asanas, go back more than 2,500 years and belong to everyone. For instance, the article cites, “Yoga wars, as they are known, started in 2004 in Beverly Hills when Calcutta-born yoga master Bikram Choudhury claimed as his intellectual property a sequence of 26 postures that his students performed in a room heated to 105 degrees. He attempted to collect money from smaller studios offering ‘Hot Yoga’ classes.” These are not the first charges we have seen against this “yogi.” Nor is he the only one. 

People who go to yoga classes can be better informed consumers of yoga and they have the power to change things with their dollars.

I once had a yoga student bring me a sheet of mantras given to her by her yoga instructor, a medical doctor, who was certifying 200-hour programs. She said I could just have a look at them and could not use them, as they were copyrighted by her instructor. What were these mantras? Om namah shivaya, and other similar common mantras used in homes across India for centuries, and this instructor could not even pronounce them. But they were his “intellectual property” as far his students (some with doctorates in their fields such as nursing) were concerned. When I said this was laughable, it is like saying someone has copyrighted The Lord’s Prayer, the point still did not get through. Would this prevent anyone from reciting these mantras and prayers and how would anyone stop them? I don’t get the point of copyrighting prayers. But hey, it is a war out there, grab what you can quickly.

In principle, there is nothing wrong in making money, in making a living teaching yoga. In practice though, it is hard not to lose touch with the integrity of the principles–the purity and integrity are gone, or diminished, when money becomes a factor in teaching yoga and meditation. The loss is greater for the teacher than the student. The student is still preached the high principles of yoga that the teacher no longer lives by. At some point, disillusion sets in for many students and the hypocrisy becomes obvious. Perhaps, because it is not a process of mental evolution in the West, it is just another physical fitness program, it does not require  the same level of mental and ethical discipline? India has had its share of yogi bogeys as well.

Yoga is increasingly another global avenue to make tons of money, often unethically. The more muscular personalities with big marketing and PR budgets  force out the more idealistic, financially struggling teachers. The yoga wars over turf, “styles”, branding, and market share continue.

This blog and www.mahasriyoga.com are an attempt to counter the yoga wars that are inevitable when large sums of money and power are involved. Instead of monetizing yoga, we would like to democratize it. The Indian government is smart in protecting yoga for humanity so no one can hijack it as their own.

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