Resisting Commodification: towards a Yoga of Delight
““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 Jess Borthwick, Graduate of Yogasara Teacher Training 2022
Drawing on what I am learning from Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras, the Bhagavad Gītā, the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra (VBT) and The Devī Gītā, I will explore what I understand about classical yoga philosophy and comment on its evolution from its philosophical roots into the Westernised practice of sun salutations, arm balances, and designer leggings that we know today. I will comment on the ways that yoga philosophy can entrap modern yoga practitioners into fulfilling their duty under a neoliberal agenda to exist in a constant process of self-improvement and self-policing, and how this works to keep them tethered to a capitalist regime that relies on literally buying in to a continual process of self development. I will wrestle with the reality of teaching yoga within this context and introduce a “yoga of delight,” informed by Tantric philosophy, that may offer a guiding light through this ever-changing and confusing landscape. I suggest that delight, which could be thought of as aliveness or simply love, is a force that is by definition anti-capitalist, reinforcing connection between all things and reminding us of the wonder of being alive. If we make tending to delight a core focus of a yoga practice, it disrupts our participation in capitalism and returns us to the essence of yoga.
Yoga, as we know it in the West, carries with it a mythology of ancientness. Heavy with its cloak of Sanskrit names, dense philosophy, and lineages of teachers, common understanding of yoga is that it is a thousands-year-old practice that has been handed down over generations. But yoga developed into the postural practice we see today through a complex interchange of cultures and influences, involving (among many other elements) long traditions of mystical occultism, the suppression of yogic practices through British colonisation and Indian resistance, the adoption of Scandinavian aerobics, and Indian yogis bringing yoga to the West (Singleton, 2010). The modern postural practices we know today are almost unrecognisable from the yoga that developed thousands of years ago. Much of what we understand to be yoga in the 21st century is a recent invention, and has evolved into an industry worth over £926 million in 2020 in the UK alone (Cadman, 2021). But we must resist the oversimplified idea that modern yoga is a “commodified divergence from some authentic, premodern, monolithic, cultural ideal” (Godrej 2016, p. 793). Yoga has repeatedly been reinvented and there has never been one central definitive form, evolving from a cacophony of different influences and lineages, with an equally broad range of interpretations and definitions (Godrej 2016, p. 774).
Within a modern Western context, yoga has evolved into an āsana-focused ‘mindful workout’ regime with little mention of the other elements of classical philosophy. Concepts from classical texts such as Raga (attachment) and Dvesha (aversion) are intensified and capitalised on by the consumer culture that surrounds yoga through the frenzied sales of leggings, mats, and the proliferation of exclusive retreats and ‘masterclasses’. Even the notion of a masterclass is flawed, as eligibility for attendance is determined not by ability, experience, or level of devotion to the practice, but by levels of affluence, privilege, and social capital.
In the Yoga Sūtras, Patañjali presents that human suffering comes from the illusion that the individual is separate from divine consciousness, the all-that-is. The purpose of yoga, therefore, is to help the practitioner focus and still the mind in order to awaken from this illusion. Once the practitioner truly grasps the true nature of reality, all suffering falls away (Hartranft, 2003). In order to make this accessible, Patañjali wrote about a practice of living well, guided by 8 components or “limbs”: yamas (external disciplines), niyamas (internal disciplines), āsana (physical postures), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (focused concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (enlightenment or absorption) (Hartranft 2003, p. 43). Āsana (translating as ‘seat) is only one part of a much larger whole where much more emphasis is placed on meditation and spiritual development than physical postures. In fact, Hartranft states that “hatha yoga was probably not Devīsed until the ninth or tenth century, many centuries after the Yoga-Sutra, and was almost certainly unknown to Patañjali” (2003, p. 45). In Yoga Body, Mark Singleton presents that “in spite of the immense popularity of postural yoga worldwide, there is little or no evidence that āsana (excepting certain seated postures of meditation) has ever been the primary aspect of any Indian yoga practice tradition” (p. 3).
In The Yoga Sūtras, Patañjali discusses the Kleshas, or causes of suffering, which are understood to be “not seeing things as they are, the sense of “I”, attachment, aversion, and clinging to life” (Hartranft 2019, p. 30). The endless push-pull of Raga and Dvesha generates dissatisfaction because our experiences are always impermanent and fleeting; we cannot escape challenge, change and difficulty any more than we can escape the ultimate reality of death. Yoga offers a way to transcend these causes of suffering: stilling the mind, engaging in self-discipline and self study, and devoting oneself to the divine. The more that a person strengthens their practice of working to realise the true nature of reality (that nothing exists outside of the divine), the more the Kleshas lessen their hold and the more we experience peace, and even bliss.
Yoga developed out of an oral tradition in which the teachings were shared directly from teacher to student, one-to-one, over many years, with the teacher or guru (an expert, having undergone many years of intense study and practice) uncovering the next stage of learning when the student was ready to receive it (Singleton 2010). Now, ‘teachers’ are churned out in their thousands after completing 200 hours of study and practice, and there are now over 10,000 teachers in the UK (Cadman, 2021). Modern postural yoga classes frequently pack in 30 or 40 students, sometimes many more, and the average practitioner engages in yoga as part of a physical fitness regime, or because they seek relaxation and relief from stress.
While there is a proliferation of āsana options – including yoga with goats, beer, suspended from the ceiling – it is difficult for the average practitioner to gain a deeper understanding of yoga philosophy and begin to develop a more meaningful practice beyond improving their backbends and headstands. I have been attending yoga classes regularly for over 15 years and have rarely heard a teacher explore philosophical concepts in drop-in classes, which is the only access the average yoga practitioner will have to the teachings of yoga. Perhaps this is a result of our sound-bite culture that lacks the patience to wrestle with complex ideas and seeks neatly packaged ideas delivered in digestible formats; or maybe the fact that we have Devīsed a culture of ‘drop-in’ classes which are too brief for these kinds of discussions and fail to foster the continuity of relationship needed to explore them; or perhaps this is an effect of teachers being ill-equipped to present yoga philosophy to their students. In order to develop a deeper understanding of yoga philosophy, the average practitioner must invest in a course, yoga retreat, or teacher training, all of which requires a certain level of privilege and affluence.
Furthermore, modern commodified yoga is used to sell a wide range of products, from hamburger buns to insurance to treatments for toenail fungus, and this advertising depicts a shallow and image-centric view of the benefits of yoga āsana with no mention whatsoever of the spiritual elements of yoga or its potential for providing a means of liberation (Blaine, 2016). On the contrary, used in this way it compounds and intensifies Raga and Dvesha, and keeps us trapped in an endless loop of attachment and aversion that distances us from the stillness of realising our true nature. The irony is that the practice of yoga is sold back to us, capitalising on the very things that yoga, as it is presented to us by Patañjali and in many other sacred texts, intends to liberate us from.
Neoliberalism demands that “individuals govern themselves through the cultivation and optimization of their own […] potentials,” and “everything, including one’s own mind, body, and emotional state is a resource […] to be developed, exploited or leveraged for advantage in a world of competitive actors” (Binkley, 2014, quoted in Godrej, 2016, p. 779). Western yoga has been subverted into a tool that props up a neoliberal agenda, in which the subject is self-governing, responsible, individualist, and reliant on capitalist structures to develop their value. Neoliberalism is interested in self-care in that it perpetuates individualisation and self-responsibilisation, and the structures of yoga neatly feed into this narrative. Godrej notes that “many yoga practitioners may become perfect subjects of neoliberalism: autonomous, self-disciplined, driven by the logic of choice, responsible for their own health, geared toward progressive self-cultivation, made amenable to the competing demands of the neoliberal economy, and empowered to be productive members of such an economy through their own entrepreneurial self-investment” (2016, p. 785). In this way, they are trapped in a capitalist, consumerist model and even the yoga practice that is designed to facilitate their freedom from such structures further ensnares them in the cyclone of buying the next thing, paying for the next course, seeking liberation from external forces outside the self. The more you pay for an experience or product, the more value it has, and the more value you have, if only temporarily until the next opportunity for capitalist participation emerges and is demanded to ensure that you remain current and relevant. It is not enough to buy expensive yoga leggings and pay for a masterclass once; neoliberalism requires continued participation.
This influence results in a yoga culture that is individualist, elitist, capitalist, and also plays into many other destructive elements of our culture that is obsessed with productivity and obedience. Yoga studios are full of thin white women working hard to out-perform themselves and their peers, “bettering themselves,” and (intentionally or not) creating spaces that are unsafe for people of colour, disabled people, old people, and anyone whose body type doesn’t mirror the models in Yoga Journal.
The danger is that contemporary yogis may become perfect neoliberal subjects, as the practice of yoga may inadvertently reinscribe a consumerist, politically passive, undemocratic, and anti-egalitarian orientation. Responsibilizing yogic subjects for health-inducing self-cultivation and “consumption” of yogic opportunities, while connecting such success to self-governance, may imply that poor, heavy, unhealthy, or unemployed others have only themselves to blame. Inequities in health, body size, employment, or income can be legitimated and depoliticized by being relegated to the realm of “personal” choice and a failure of disciplined self-optimization. (Godrej, 2016, p. 786).
The yoga community in the West is not diverse, and does not foster respect, inclusion, or kindness towards anyone who Devīates from the skinny white female ‘norm’, and instead perpetuates racist, fat-shaming stereotypes in the name of spiritual development (Cartwright et al., 2020, and Batty, 2022).
In the face of this, how can we resist neoliberalism and the commodification of yoga as a spiritual practice? For me so far, an answer lies in investing in that which is beyond the reaches of commodification: the aliveness of an engaged human experience.
In The Book of Delights, poet, essayist and gardener Ross Gay undertakes to write an essay on delight every day for a year. It became a practice, in which he developed his “delight radar” and he found that the more he paid attention to delight, the more delight he experienced. That is not to say that his life featured any less pain, sorrow, or loss, but that it also became more full of richness and joy. He explores the ways that delight is connected to inefficiency and unproductiveness and disrupts consumption, and it occurs to me that making delight the focus of a yoga practice might tell us something important about teaching yoga in the midst of commodification (Gay 2020).
Delight, as I will use it here, is not pleasure or happiness, but the deep, rich, complicated feeling of being truly present in one’s aliveness. True delight is possible not in spite of, but because of the knowledge that we are all journeying towards our deaths. It is the juxtaposition of pleasure and suffering, the awareness of the limitations of our lives, that makes the bright parts of our lives all the brighter. In her essay ‘Joy’, Zadie Smith outlines what she understands to be the difference between pleasure and joy. She explains that while some might assume joy to be a more intense feeling of pleasure, she finds them to be quite different. She says that her child is “occasionally […] a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact that she gives us not much pleasure at all but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain and delight that I have come to recognise as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily”. If pleasure is simple, fleeting, and uncomplicatedly nice, joy is “the feeling […] that the experiencing subject has somehow ‘entered’ the emotion, and disappeared. […] On that dance floor I was joy, or some small piece of joy, with all these other hundreds of people who were also joy”. Perhaps we can understand Smith’s joy as spiritual connectedness, profound moments of aliveness that bring us closer to a sense of meaningfulness, made possible only by the irrefutable awareness of impermanence and vulnerability.
Delight connects us to other people – it reminds us that we need and are needed by one another, and in doing so disrupts the neoliberal capitalist individualisation that severs connections between people in the never-ending obsession with self-betterment (Gay, 2020). Delight is also by definition non-productive and unmarketable. Connecting to delight is to connect to vulnerability, connectedness, to admit that we can be moved by the world around us. Delight connects us to the fact that we have needs, that we are not independent, and that we are grateful. So can we take a practice of delight into our experience of yoga, and can it help us to stay connected to a nourishing form of yoga that doesn’t buy into the commodified form that we see all around us?
A yoga of delight is one that pays close attention to the remarkable experience of being alive. Not always pleasant – sometimes a sharpness that comes from a painful juxtaposition, perhaps a painful learning process that has made us a better person, or a tragedy that leaves you breathless and counting your blessings. This kind of yoga practice truly embraces the totality of being human and rejoices in the miracle of being alive, even in the midst of grief or pain. That feeling cannot be bought or sold, and it cannot be marketed or fabricated.
In the face of the yoga practitioner’s consumptive relationship with yoga – being encouraged to consume mats, apparel, studio passes, masterclasses – a practice that centres delight causes all of those elements to fade into irrelevance. When we anchor ourselves in delight, to our interconnectedness, to our fleetingly precious aliveness, to love, it no longer matters how expensive your leggings are or how many Instagram followers you have. We are freed from attraction and aversion, consumption and even “good behaviour” as the practice becomes infused with honesty, humility, attentiveness, and presence. All that matters is that we make an offering of the closely witnessed experience of our lives to the Holy, the all-that-is. This connects to a passage in The Devī Gītā which describes a practitioner who offers supreme devotion to divinity, one that does not seek liberation from their life but who places sole and unwavering attention on pleasing the Goddess (Brown, 1999, p. 223). Contrary to ideas in the Bhagavad Gītā and Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras, which instruct the practitioner down a path of spiritual development with the ultimate goal of escaping our human lives, this approach of delight is more Tantric in that it inspires the devotee to immerse themselves totally in the experience of living without looking for an escape, and through that process achieving liberation. While Sutric traditions aim to transcend the human experience in order to get out of the way of spirituality, my understanding of Tantra is that it embraces and includes the totality of our experiences, understanding our human-ness to be inseparable from our divinity (Wallis, 2013).
We are living through painful, difficult, confusing times, and for this reason I feel that making a yoga practice one of delight is more important than ever. It strengthens our hope and resilience, motivates us towards kindness and curiosity, and operates as a defence against the negativity, apathy, fear and suspicion that so often dominates our airwaves. In a world of uncertainty, change and crisis, a big part of resilience building might be ‘topping ourselves up’ with what is good, beautiful, kind, loving, so that we can better share it out into the world.
Attempting to reflect the central teachings of yoga within a Western context is complicated and difficult. Particularly with the acknowledgement that in many ways I fit into the Yoga Journal stereotype as a thin, white, flexible woman, I feel a strong imperative to interrupt the neoliberal narrative and reach across the divide and make the medicine of yoga accessible to others who may otherwise be shut out of experiencing it. With this in mind, I feel it is important to take care that I am not always demonstrating or offering the most challenging āsana and then “walking it back” for those with different physical ability levels, but rather that I demonstrate a more accessible version of a pose and offer more challenging options verbally. On a deep level, Western yoga is inseparable from body politics, so celebrating fat bodies, disabled bodies, non-white bodies, and queer and trans bodies is an act of resistance against neoliberal demands of using yoga to ‘invest in’ or ‘improve’ the self. I want my yoga teaching to be a place that celebrates and makes space for people whose bodies don’t fit into Western beauty standards, so I will continue to educate myself about the use of props and the needs of people of different body shapes, sizes, and colours.
I find myself confronting my imposter syndrome and sense of unworthiness when I come to teach, feeling overwhelmed by the expectation that I should be an expert or “have it all figured out,” and so I am approaching teaching not as an expert but as an explorer with discoveries to share. The framework of yoga offers endless avenues for exploration, and also provides an opportunity for me to share what I do know and feel deeply grounded in: that nature is sacred, that life is a precious and sacred gift, that we can take the gifts of the process of learning about yoga as a way to find out what it means to be a good ancestor, to pave the way for the ones who come after us. I intend to centre my own practice as well as my teaching in all the compassion I can muster, and the belief that the practitioner, whether that is myself or my students, is already enough – perfect, whole, complete – just the way they are.
Neoliberalism and the commodification of yoga demand that the practitioner be noble, self-policing, and self-improving, in a deeply individualistic way. I am interested in remembering the collective and our service to each other. I want to explore the ways that yoga can function as community care as well as self-care, and I feel that a framework of delight can move us towards our interdependence. I believe we can overcome many of the Kleshas, especially Raga and Dvesha, through a yoga of delight, gratitude, and paying attention. The essence of yoga has to do with waking up from the illusion that we are separate from each other and the divine, and a practice of delight reminds us in a thousand tiny ways that we are interdependent, interconnected, part of each other and part of a much larger whole. By presenting reminders of the wonder of being alive, and by rooting myself deeply in the challenge of paying attention to the wonder of my own life, I hope to honour the teachings of all who have come before me, and to represent something of that ancient wisdom in a way that is relevant, fresh, and inspiring to others.
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