Last updateTue, 17 Mar 2015 2pm

#ANANTASANA: Questioning Globalisation and Religion - The Cultural Reincarnation of Yoga

Recently there has been a lot of debate and discussions in multiple corners of the world as to whether or not yoga’s religious roots still have validity today.

When I first came across this debate it confused me – I just couldn’t see how the sweat clad bodies in Bikram classes in Covent Garden could have any divine purpose apart from the worship of tiny American Apparel shorts.

Furthermore, religion has played a huge part in how culture, society and other expressions have been shaped, so to me it seems almost impossible to separate out a particular series of movements or postures and assign them as inherently religious.

Surely everything that we do has had some sort of religious meaning across the cultural space-time continuum?

However, there have been instances in the US where Christian religious leaders have actively condemned yoga to its parishes due to its non-Christian origins.

In the same society prominent arguments are being made for its health benefits, and for it being merely a mode of physical exercise and stress relief.

To me it seemed really straightforward at first, surely ‘peace of mind’ can’t be monopolised by a religion?  With that logic, could certain emotions also be religious?

The postures may have names with religious connotations, but language and semantics is all about cultural appropriation. If we start questioning the religious origin of everyday terms the task would surely be infinite.

Unless you are directly preaching I can’t really see the religious implications of yoga in the US or in the UK for that matter. If you did a sweepstake across gym studios across London I very much doubt its yoga practitioners would consider it anything more than ‘generally holistic’.

On the otherhand however, a similar but very different debate is currently occurring in India.

The Supreme Court is due to make a decision as to whether yoga is in fact a religious practice, as it’s been suggested that it should form part of physical education in schools.

In this case, if it does prove to have a religion assigned to it, allowing it in schools would compromise the country’s secularity.

When presented with this development, I’m finding it difficult to make a decision about yoga and religion.  It seems impossible to conclude in a way that is applicable across all nations and cultures.

Here in Britain I would easily suggest that yoga’s religious potential is merely subjective, meaning that if you want it to be religious that’s up to you.

In India however, it invokes an entirely different scenario. 

Religion plays a big part in Indian culture, but more importantly, secularity and the transparency of the myriad of religions within the country are, to me, more sacred than any ritual or temple.

I’m very concerned if what is believed to be a religious practice is to be allowed in schools – tensions between communities, and notions of an imposing hegemony, would become unavoidable.

If we look at other countries, there’s already a working definition of yoga’s religious status.

As outlined in a BBC News Magazine article, places such as Malaysia and Iran actually ban ‘spirituality’ to be part of the practice – rather it’s promoted as a sport in order to get around religious restrictions.

The non-religious character of yoga seems to me as something non-Indian countries have appropriated, as its history there is relatively recent. In India however, it’s an ancient practice with roots having grown stronger over centuries.

But since the emergence of those arguing that yoga isn’t religious in India, I can’t help but think something has changed. Has yoga’s popularity and appropriation in the West contributed to a change in what it means in its country of origin? Is India now potentially taking on this Western appropriation of yoga?

Furthermore, is the argument for pro-yoga in Indian schools actually promoting a Westernised view on yoga? To me, this notion seems far too simplistic to be true.

You may have seen the BBC documentary India’s Supersize Kids where Anita Rani explores how Western influences in fast food is spreading like a literal and figurative pandemic across the country.

It illustrates a dystopian idea that India is in fact on its way to becoming a nation infected with obesity similar to the US and to a lesser extent, the UK.

However, what was briefly touched upon as well, were fitness trends emerging as a result to combat it. 

The documentary contains examples of Zumba and personal trainers being used for weight management, not inherently Indian practices if you ask me.  Perhaps yoga is part and parcel of an imported fitness trend?  Again, this conclusion seems too simple, as it was born in India to begin with.

The example presented by Anita Rani is indeed very negative, we don’t want the afflictions and health crises from ‘the West’ to spread. In this scenario we can see how certain practices has indeed moved directly from one part of the world to another – along with its devastating effects.

If we now direct these paradigms to yoga it’s easy to see why India now has trouble defining its meaning. If it originated in India and was then brought to the rest of the world and stripped of its religious connotations, would it be strange to see similar non-Indian versions of yoga being reintroduced? Rather, we might be looking at a practice that has the potential of showcasing ‘cultural hybridity’.

It appears as though we are seeing something different than the standard dichotomous ‘West – East’ binary that’s been discussed into oblivion.

This instance might in fact exemplify how yoga is being renegotiated and redefined through influences coming from both ends, as well as perhaps drawing inspiration from countries such as Iran and Malaysia.

It also seems poetically cyclical that it’s being redefined in India – yoga might in fact have become reincarnated to mean something completely different in its home country.

If this is the case, then I’m really excited about this development.

Yoga would then pose a very interesting scenario, suggesting we are no longer talking about ‘Westernisation’ – but rather, a more optimistic view of globalisation.

To me it doesn’t really matter whether or not the Supreme Court does conclude it to be religious or not. What matters is that the discussions are being held in the first place, with the subsequent surfacing of questions and debates. I’m keen to see what the future holds in India, and if yoga does in fact turn into a utopian cultural symbiosis.



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