The transcultural commodification of yoga, and how to avoid it
““With an understanding of the philosophical roots of yoga from Patanjali and the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, reflect upon the cultural appropriation of modern yoga, based on your previous experience and your time observing or assisting in classes as part of this course. Discuss how you feel you can best represent the essence of yoga through your own teaching that feels congruent with your understanding so far.””
Written by Aliette Lambert, Graduate of Yogasara Teacher Training 2020/21
If we start from the premise that we are all the same and that yoga is a set of practises aimed toward illumining this true and universal nature (Wallis 2013), then its cultural appropriation is impossible. The truth of our divine nature cannot be ‘appropriated’ because of this very sameness: no one culture has propriety over spirit if we are all spirit. However, our cultural conditioning obscures this truth, therefore necessitating practices of yoga (ibid). Thus, the cultural appropriation of yoga is not only a possibility, but perhaps the only possibility given the social, political and economic system in which we are enmeshed (Rogers 2006). Although its premise (divine sameness) cannot be appropriated, yoga’s practises necessarily are.
It took me three (consecutive) years of practicing yoga to recognize its spiritual roots, and another five to really understand those roots, and to begin to harness yogic practices for its intended purpose, to identify and connect with the divine in me. What is yoga actually? A repertoire of practices that can be used in any which way to aid this realization. How does this occur? Traditionally, in relation to a teacher (guru) who has knowledge and wisdom, being a step or two ahead on the path of awakening (śaktipāta), within the context of a spiritual community (kula) of initiates (those who are recognized by the guru to be on this path to awakening) (Wallis 2013).
In a neoliberal capitalist economic system, however, yoga is a signifier for either a type of exercise (i.e., a form of aerobics) that leads to a specific embodied form (taut, toned, strong, flexible), or a form of relaxation and mindfulness, or both. Those who ‘do’ yoga embody a yoga practitioner subject position – way of being – systematically symbolized in a specific way (usually white, middle-class women in tight, elastin branded clothing, see Appendix 2) (Munir et al 2021). In any given yoga studio or class, yoga’s spiritual roots are nebulous at best (Antony 2014), with its various practices as outlined seminal texts such as Patanjali’s Yogasūtras or the Hathayogapradīpikā such as pranayama (control of prana, life force) or mudrā introduced – if at all – as an appetizer or dessert to the main course of āsana (postural practice) which in itself is markedly different to the type of hatha yoga described in historical texts (Singleton 2010, 31).
In its modern, western incarnation, the historical aims of yoga – for Patanjali, samādhi (integration) (Hartranft 2019), or in Abhinava Gupta’s tantric philosophy, samāveśa, “state of awareness in which you are completely in tune with reality, immersed in your divine nature” (Wallis 2013, 67), or a practice (sādhanā) leading to liberation [moksā] (Singleton 2010) – are at best mentioned as lofty goals or aphorisms that the teacher often does not understand or embody. Most classes are ‘drop in’ and structured; at any given studio there are a core of regular students with whom the teacher may be acquainted – however genuinely – and a transitory assemblage of students dropping in and out of various classes, a phenomenon undoubtedly exacerbated by flexible, generic ‘MoveGB’ type class passes.
It is the dislocation of yoga from its historically intended purpose, and its resignification to a form of ‘exercise’ practiced by those with the symbolic capital (Bourdieu 1986) that indicates yoga’s cultural appropriation. My first experience of yoga was at an exclusive studio in inner city Baltimore; the only person to whom I ever spoke was the receptionist, and I had no idea that the purpose of yoga was anything other than the ability to balance on one arm with a leg over my shoulder in branded yoga gear. Later, in Edinburgh, I glimpsed its spiritual potential in a gym of all places, where one teacher occasionally introduced chanting and meditation into her ashtanga class. However, the class remained focused on the goal of exercise through āsana and was embedded in a logic of capital accumulation (e.g., membership at an exclusive, for-profit gym, with the teacher using the class as a means of promoting her own yoga studio).
It was only through a synchronous encounter with a teacher in Exeter who was obviously on a spiritual path not limited to yoga traditions and then stumbling upon Yogasara when I moved to Bristol that I became aware of the true nature of yoga, and simultaneously its cultural appropriation in most, if not all, circumstances in western culture. However, as I demonstrate in this essay, considering the resignification of yoga in Western contexts as culturally appropriative is anachronistic and simplistic, and I argue mystifies the ideological obfuscation of yoga by a neoliberal, capitalistic logic. Instead, we must consider yoga as transculturally commodified. In what follows, I first discuss what I mean by transcultural commodification, then explain how this relates to yoga, and finally reflect on my own experiences and intentions for teaching yoga.
The transcultural commodification of yoga
A central discourse surrounding yoga relates to cultural appropriation as academics and practitioners alike grapple with understanding the application of yogic practices outside of their original context. The word appropriation comes from the Latin word appropriare, “to make one’s own”, and this from the root proprius meaning “one’s own”, also the root of “property”. The definition of cultural appropriation, with obscured and flexible meanings across relevant academic disciplines (Rogers 2006), is largely understood to occur when a dominate culture takes something exclusively from another (typically subordinate) culture. However, this lens undermines far greater complexity and far more pernicious power dynamics that are blatant and unavoidable in the world of yoga and must be carefully and consciously manoeuvred: those of capital accumulation (Munir, Ansari and Brown 2021) that results in the commodification of yoga (Antony 2014).
Rogers (2006) proposes the concept of transculturation when considering issues related to cultural appropriation, exchange, exploitation and domination, issues unavoidable and endemic to global, transnational capitalism. Cultural appropriation is largely essentialist in assuming a clear, dualistic delineation between two cultures: one with power who does the appropriating, and the other without power who is appropriated. As Rogers explains, this romanticises cultural difference along the lines of Western/primitive in a way that is no longer accurate – if it ever was – given the complex, nuanced hybridity of culture that has evolved over the course centuries of colonialist rule into global capitalism with transitional trade policies and a global division of labour, among other means of cultural cross-pollination. One look into the material belongings of any Western household illustrates this beautifully: A Mexican-style skirt made in Indonesia; a computer designed in California and made in China; curry paste in the cupboard bought at an Asian supermarket but made in the UK, and so on.
Under such conditions, acts of cultural appropriation are “‘always already’ condition of contemporary culture”; that is, for most individuals and cultures today, “the condition of transculturation is an involuntary one” (Rogers 2006, 493). In the context of yoga, dynamics of transculturation are exemplified by the re-appropriation of yoga in India, whereby “although yoga never actually left India, its current popularity follows on the heels of its western dissemination” (Askegaard and Eckhardt 2012, 48). That is, the traditional, or “grandmother’s practice,” of yoga was considered passé by nouveau riche South Asians who instead adopted its western form – however ironically – in its culture of origin (ibid). In short, a straightforward model of appropriation is no longer suitable – if it ever was – to understanding relational, dynamic cultural trends, variegated and dislodged from their roots and traditions by global capitalism. What is more interesting to understand about yoga’s transculturation and assemblages of appropriation (that is hybridity and multiplicities of appropriation in any given space and time) is the underlying power dynamic: capital accumulation.
Capital accumulation is most aptly understood here through the Marxist theory of commodification (Billig 1999). Simply put, some thing (this could be a physical thing or concept/practice/idea etc.) becomes a commodity when its value is understood in relation to other (distinct) things (i.e., commodities), rather than in relation to that which produced it in the first place. This reflects a fundamental logic of alienation: something being seen or experienced as though it were something else (in this case capital), in effect obscuring its true nature (Øversveen 2021). As Marx (1887) describes of the commodity: “the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom”. Instead: “it is only by being exchanged that the products of labour acquire, as values, one uniform social status, distinct from their varied forms of existence as objects of utility”.
In this way, “yoga” becomes a “thing” not unlike other “things” that achieve aims related to wellbeing, wellness and exercise, such as Pilates or meditation classes, or a spa experience or a gym membership and so on. Instead of valuing yoga based on its intrinsic purpose (the value of its practices that connect us to our divine nature), we understand its value relative to the other ‘practices’ or commodities that may produce a similar ‘result’, and according to generic and preset financial valuations (e.g., £12 for a 1.5 hour exercise/wellness class). Herein lies the process of commodification: “routine concealment or forgetting” (Billig 1999) of the commodity’s true nature, what Eagleton (1991, p. 86) describes as “dissembling or duplicity built into the very economic structure of capitalism”. Such concealment obscures – in the case of a thing – the dynamic social relations (not to mention power dynamics and environmental costs) underpinning and embedded in what may seem a commonplace and obvious price of a good (e.g., a yoga class or a jar of curry paste).
Commodification conceals yoga’s true purpose and leaves it vulnerable not only to motivations of capital accumulation, but also a resignification, aligning its commodity form with the ideological framework of the cultural and economic milieu in which it finds itself. In the case of the UK (and to a larger extent the US) this milieu is fundamentally driven by neoliberal, capitalist economic and political policies motivated to 1) generate opportunities for capital accumulation (Brennan 2002); 2) place the onus of responsibility on the individual by deregulating markets and privatising social life (Lemke 2002). With such goals in mind, the individual (as a consumer subject) is encouraged to look to the marketplace and commodities – importantly such as yoga – to define and understand her/his identity.
Yoga then becomes not about its true purpose, but about generating (capital) opportunities for the individual to understand (and ostensibly improve) the self, aiming to achieve self-reliant and self-disciplining goals of (individual) wellness and health within the framework of capital accumulation (Lavrence and Lozanski 2014). Of course, the debacle of identity in a market-based economy is ongoing due to its impossibility, therefore offering endless opportunities for capital accumulation. French philosopher Dany-Robert Dufour (2008, p. 70) describes it as a hysteron proteron – a rhetorical device which means that which comes before – to indicate the impossibility of neoliberal selfhood, describing that the subject must “postulate something that does not yet exist (herself) in order to trigger the action through which she must produce herself as a subject”. This existential conundrum results in persistent, unanchored feelings of anxiety and depression that many attempt to ameliorate through some commodified form of yoga.
Symptoms of commodified yoga
Transcultural and commodification dynamics endemic to yoga in the west are easy to detect, and much harder (if impossible) to avoid. From my experience, the symptoms of commodified yoga (see a list in Appendix 1) can be grouped into three categories: standardization; capital accumulation; and disconnection.
Standardization signifies a likeness experienced from one yoga class and studio to the next (think Ritzer’s  McDonaldization thesis). Classes have the same (broad) structure – the vinyasa curve (start seated, move to standing postures into a peak posture or balance, and gradually back to the ground ending by lying or seated mediation). Studios have a generic and similar look and feel, and may be branded or professionalized (e.g., a receptionist and café). Teachers embody a similar way of being (see Appendix 2 for a screenshot of top google images when searching ‘yoga teacher’). Both clientele and teachers are predominately white/middle class/women. Kit and clothing are branded and similar. In short, the more commodified the yoga class or studio is, the more predictable it will be; past experiences can therefore accurately inform expectations.
Figure 1: Generic yoga studio
Capital accumulation is the second prevailing logic in commodified yoga. This is unsurprising given its position within a capitalist system that demands some form of cooperation in a market logic to keep a studio running and pay overheads including living-wage salaries and maintenance, not to mention to generate a profit. There are parallels to standardization that underpin this capital logic: one is similar pricing schedules across studios, and the more commodified, the more inflexible and prescribed pricing may be (often based on a fixed pricing schedule for instance). In short, all students pay similar prices with little or no room for negotiation, therefore reproducing a certain classed subject position as economic capital is required as a means for entry. Another key indicator is the organizational structure. Rather than set up as a charity/NGO or social enterprise (Boeger 2017), commodified yoga studios are often structured as companies. This is problematic because no matter the intention of the studio’s owner or teachers, the very nature of a company is to earn profit that must be reinvested into it or redistributed to shareholders. In short, the commodified yoga studio is operated as a business that functions through a logic of capital accumulation. Growth is a fundamental imperative in this capital logic – more students, more teachers, more classes, more studios… This may result in forms of advertising including the social media presence of the studio and the teachers that portray yoga in largely commodified ways through commodified means (see Appendix 3 for example Instagram posts advertising Yoga).
Perhaps most pertinently, the third symptom of commodified yoga is disconnection (or alienation in Marxist terms [Øversveen 2021]) from self, community, and spirit and student. Beginning with spirit, in commodified yoga, āsana is the main focus, with any sense of spirituality extrinsic (meaning not signified or practised in truth but only in speech/symbolisation) to the practice (Singleton 2010). In some classes there may not be any spiritual undertone whatsoever, while in others there may be a formulaic veneer without anchoring (Antony 2014). This leads to disconnection from the self: in commodified yoga most teachers and students are engaged in some form of spiritual bypassing, defined as using spirituality and its practices to avoid facing unresolved difficulties/traumas and emotions (Welwood, 1984). That is, students and teachers alike use yoga practices however spiritually without engaging in deep and importantly radically honest inner work central to the (truly) spiritual path that requires both ascent to spirit, and descent to soul (Plotkin 2010), or exploring and integrating all of the chakra energy centers, rather than only focusing upward (Judith 1996). Moreover, in commodified yoga, there is a sense of depersonalisation given large and impersonal classes, with a proliferation of yoga teachers who do not necessarily have the gravitas, experience, or spiritual authenticity to genuinely transmit its practises. In more extreme forms, students do not know or speak to one another, and have no relationship with, or a superficial relationship with, the teacher. ‘Advanced’ or ‘intensive’ training programmes and workshops have low barriers to entry and are large, again signifying a lack of intimacy and community both in relation to students and perhaps more importantly the teacher, who may in this way be alienated from the student. This results in classes/trainings/workshops that are generalised to some external conditions or the needs/experiences of the teacher, rather than to tailored to what may help any given student realize her/his divine nature. In short, disconnection is the prevailing logic in commodified yoga.
Antidotes to commodified yoga
Visibility, along with accountability, can be a catalyst for promoting social justice.
Yoga does not have to be practiced in its commodified form: understanding neoliberal capitalist dynamics of commodification is a good first step toward practicing yoga in its non-commodified form, as reflected by the above quote. This gives teachers the capacity for deeper reflection in making choices and decisions about how (and why) to transmit certain practices of yoga to their students.
During my time in classes/workshops/training at Yogasara, I have experienced possibilities for de-commodifying yoga, particularly from those teachers devoted to ongoing, intensive psychic-emotional-spiritual work. A sense of community prevails amongst ‘regular’ students. The organisational structure is a community-interest company, which allows for reinvestment of profit into the community. There is flexibility and negotiation based on student circumstances within a pricing schedule (usually negotiated downward). Although white/middle-class/women make up a preponderance of clientele and teachers, diversity (race, class and gender) is demonstrated. The studio is far from generic with a clear reflection of intrinsic devotion to Dasha Mahavidya (the ten wisdom goddesses) manifested in the space. There is reflexivity and discussion of issues related to the appropriation of yoga, exemplified by this essay topic.
That said it is not impossible to identify logics of commodified yoga operating in the space, from a prevalence of drop-in classes focussed on āsana, to teachers ostensibly engaged in spiritual bypassing, to workshops and teacher trainings that are relatively large and general (that is, with over 20 students, many of which do not necessarily have a familiar relationship with the teacher, or who may not be dedicated to a spiritual path, e.g., śaktipāta). Although there are communal dynamics of friendship and comradery amongst students (and teachers) to varying degrees, the extent of integration and interdependence of this community in the daily life of its members (Delanty 2018) is not well-defined, at least in my experience. In short, there is scope to further the project of de-commodifying yoga that is clearly central to the organisation and inspiration of Yogasara, namely by returning to Tantric scriptures for inspiration.
Firstly, inspiration can be gained from tantric principles of guru and kula to diversify offerings away from a predominance of drop-in classes or one-to-one sessions, to include small group and tailored workshops and classes. In traditional tantra, initiation was central to its practice. A guru required evidence of a longing for initiation, resulting from the students’ experience of an awakening, or śakti-pāta, translated as “Descent of Grace” or “Influx of God’s power” (Wallis, 2013, 321). Evidence of śaktipāta included loyal devotion (bhakti) and selfless service (sevā) along with the financial offerings, discussed below. As Wallis explains of the Śaiva Tantra tradition, “a person could not be initiated unless the initiating guru had good reason to believe that the applicant had experienced the śaktipāta awakening” denoted in nondual traditions by more subtle dynamics, or “a greater inner shift than might be connoted by merely becoming interested in the spiritual life” (2013, 325).
Rites of initiation from a seasoned and genuine yoga teacher for those practitioners who have experienced śaktipāta I argue is essential to combatting the commodification of yoga. While a general workshop or drop-in class is still extremely important in a neoliberal, capitalist society given a need to expose as many as possible to radically different and emancipatory ideas, students who have experienced śaktipāta require specific, tailored practices to cultivate and cement the śaktipāta, importantly also in relation to other students on the path, forming a kula of initiates. This cannot be achieved in large group, ephemeral settings, and requires a certain level of commitment and proximity to the teacher. Importantly, and as Wallis (2013) notes, the teacher must be one of integrity, compassion and humility. This is the value to be found in the guru principle: the imperative to forge a relationship between a student on a śaktipāta and a sincere teacher further along the path who can offer wisdom and knowledge essential to awakening, which is the very aim of yoga. Community efforts, such as income-based pricing schedules that account for those with higher incomes supporting those with lower incomes are also central to this. This follows the tantric principles of dāna and daksinā in which offerings are made to the guru or temple in proportion to one’s income (Wallis 2013, and see Appendix 4 for a sample pricing schedule).
As I undergo the path of teaching yoga, it is my intention to continue on my own path of śaktipāta, requiring continued psychic-spiritual-emotional work and deeper learning of the practises of yoga as they are meant to be practised. I will begin teaching general classes as I become rooted such practises and their transmission, in order to pass along the knowledge and awareness I have gained. When appropriate and if there is inspiration and interest, I will eventually facilitate closed group, set classes and workshop (e.g., listening circles) amongst selected students. My classes may not necessarily focus on asana, although given the aims of the studio and wider expectations, this would still remain central. I will encourage an income-based pricing scheme. I will donate any profit I generate (if any) to a congruent charity, or toward my own continued training if I cannot afford this through my main income. Finally, I will adhere to principles I seek to transmit, namely: radical honesty, connection, commitment and community. These are principles that have been dangerously undermined by the commodification and transculturation of yoga, principles that are burgeoning with potentiality at Yogasara, and principles I seek to proliferate.
For context, yoga is considered an industry valuated at approximately USD$88 billion. This is comprised of studios alone. When including retreats and kit, the figure jumps to $130 billion. Source: https://www.wellnesscreatives.com/yoga-industry-trends/
 This is important: although a yoga teacher may be someone only a step or two ahead on the spiritual path and there is value to this, too many teachers at one studio, and too many inexperienced teachers, or disingenuous teachers, may dilute or complicate spiritual congruity and sincerity necessary to de-commodifying yoga.
 I use the term teacher instead of guru to circumvent issues that have arisen in relation to patriarchal and self-serving guru-hood endemic to both eastern and western guru traditions where narcissism, power dynamics and abuse are rife. Instead, I define ‘teacher’ as someone with integrity and compassion, who is further along the Path of Knowing than a student and is being guided by others one step ahead of them.
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