In our interview series, “Seven Questions,” we ask some very smart people about what inspires them and how their latest work enhances our understanding of the sacred in cultural life. For this segment, we solicited responses from Andrea Jain, author of Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture (Oxford University Press, 2014).
1. What sparked the idea for writing this book?
The short answer is a simple one: the late guru of the Jain Shvetambara Terapanth, Mahaprajna (1920-2010).
In the summer before my third year of graduate school at Rice University (Houston), I had the opportunity to travel to Rajasthan, where I came upon the Jain Shvetambara Terapanth (a Jain sectarian tradition) and its acharya (monastic leader), Mahaprajna. Mahaprajna was famous for having introduced a new form of “Jain yoga” called preksha dhyana. I could not grasp, and therefore was set on a trajectory that would involve many years of research leading to the publication of Selling Yoga, the contrast between the traditional world-, society-, and body-negating ascetic underpinnings of Jain thought and Mahaprajna’s advocacy for modern conceptions of universal peace, physical health, and well-being.
Synchronicity was an important spark too. Upon my return home from Rajasthan to Houston, I discovered Houston happened to host one of the few Terapanth centers outside of India. I made several visits to the center where Mahaprajna’s monastic disciples lived and taught preksha dhyana. I realized that this form of Jain modern yoga was a part of a much larger transnational movement and that its creation and propagation represented an attempt at continuity with the global yoga industry. That industry is dominated by popularized varieties of modern postural yoga, a regimen made up of sequences of bodily postures, which are often synchronized with the breath. Pop-culture yoga, in turn, represents dominant consumer demands and desires.
I set out to write a dissertation on preksha dhyana’s relationship to the larger yoga market and consumer culture. Although my doctoral research was largely ethnographic, I was prompted to address far-reaching theoretical questions about yoga’s popularization and the intersections between religion and consumer culture, the high-profile “yoga wars,” including Christian and Hindu protests against yoga’s popularization, and on entrepreneurial gurus and popular yoga brands. As I broadened the scope of my study, I followed postural yoga through a series of associations and relationships to physical sites in London and throughout the United States and India, on websites and in publications, and to other contemporary areas of cultural production, such as yoga studios and public parks. Selling Yoga reflects those developments.
2. How would you define religion in relation to your work? Where do you see the sacred or sacred things in this book?
In Selling Yoga, I do something unusual: I combine theoretical, historical, and cultural approaches to the comparative study of religion in an analysis of the recent yoga boom. Given that pop-culture yoga is often trivialized, reduced to the mere commodification of what is perceived as an otherwise ancient, authentic religious system, the claim that yoga is in fact religious requires me to explicitly define what I mean by religion.
I first decided to avoid the reifying connotations of religion, preferring body of religious practice in its place. I use body of religious practice to refer to a set of behaviors characterized by the following: they are treated as sacred, set apart from the ordinary or mundane; they are grounded in a shared ontology or worldview (though that ontology may or may not provide a metanarrative or all-encompassing worldview); they are grounded in a shared axiology or set of values or goals concerned with resolving weakness, suffering, or death; and the above qualities are reinforced through narrative and ritual.
I found these characteristics to be ubiquitous in the pop-culture yoga industry. Below are a few examples.
Pop-culture yoga reflects the underlying ontology of consumer culture, which links the self to the body so that the attainment of health and beauty are central to the transformative and transcendent process of self-development. The yoga insider believes her- or himself to transform the body into a temple, a sacred vessel. When B. K. S. Iyengar’s students recite their teacher’s famous mantra—“The body is my temple, asanas are my prayers”—or read in one of his monographs—“Health is religious. Ill-health is irreligious”—they testify to an assessment of the mundane flesh, bones, and yoga’s physical movements and even accessories as capable of being transformed into sacred things.
Critics might retort that “fitness,” “stress-relief,” and “health” are the “final objectives” of pop-culture yoga and serve utilitarian self-interest as opposed to salvation or other transcendent aims. Wouter J. Hanegraaff, however, has rightfully suggested that the opposition between healing and so-called transcendent, religious aims is problematic, that religion is often concerned with healing the problems of human weakness and suffering. Many insider accounts of yoga evidence that it functions to resolve problems of suffering and weakness. As an explicit example, consider Joseph H. Pereira, an Iyengar Yoga teacher, Catholic priest, and Founder of the Kripa Foundation in India, which operates over thirty recovery centers for people suffering from alcohol or drug addiction as well as support centers for people suffering from HIV and AIDS. Iyengar Yoga plays a central role in the “holistic component” of the Kripa Foundation’s recovery and support programs.
Suffering is often believed to be surmountable through yoga, but certain types of suffering are also believed to be worth pursuing. At first glance, this seems unlikely since pop-culture yoga is a product of a culture in which consumers choose products based on individual desires and needs, a type of consumption that appears rather hedonistic. Yet, global trends in consumer culture at times betray a strong ascetic tone. Television commercials, for example, target consumers who are assumed to be inadequate and unhappy because they are overweight, lack sex appeal, or are addicted to unhealthy foods or behaviors. Self-development, with the unattainable yet ever-present goal of self-actualization, becoming perfect, is sacred.
Disciplining desire finds expression in various ascetic areas of pop culture, including yoga. Yoga serves as one more way to self-actualize and repent for the sins of eating too much sugar, smoking cigarettes, or sitting around watching television. Consider the “no pain, no gain” mentality that prevails in many yoga classes. At any given moment in a typical Bikram Yoga class, for example, students struggle to hold an onerous posture, sweat dripping in their eyes, motivated by the belief that their struggle leads them closer and closer to perfection.
There are countless rituals in the pop-culture yoga world. Elizabeth de Michelis has suggested that a yoga class can function as a “liminal space” in which practitioners remove themselves from the demands of everyday life and enter a designated space to undergo transformations and healing before being reintroduced to “everyday life.” The excesses of yoga—retreats, workshops, dieting, onerous postures—signify its reversal of conventional life for the sake of rebirth back into that life as a renewed and better person.
Yoga advocates also mythologize yoga by responding to new cultural desires and demands with narratives that describe yoga as both authentically ancient and progressively modern. There is no doubt that, for many yoga teachers, the claim to possess knowledge of yoga that can be rooted in ancient origins is closely related to their quest for power, status, or money. The claim to authority with regard to ancient yoga knowledge, however, also serves to ground a worldview and set of values, and therefore fulfills a mythological function.
Both Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois, for example, mythologize their systems in ways that tie them to ancient yoga traditions while simultaneously reflecting contemporary dominant ideas and values by claiming biomedical authority. Iyengar and Jois’ myths ground Iyengar Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga respectively in a linear trajectory of transmission from premodern yoga. Iyengar claimed ties between Iyengar Yoga and the ancient yoga transmission going at least as far back as the Yoga Sutra (circa fifth century CE), whereas Jois suggested that verses from the earliest Vedas (circa fifteen hundred BCE) delineate the nine postures of the suryanamaskar sequences of postures in his Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga.
Oftentimes, yoga insiders overtly describe the aims of yoga in religious terms. Consider the Texas Yoga Association, which opposed the state regulation of yoga, arguing that yoga is an ancient practice comprised of a plurality of branches and that it developed as a “spiritual” and “religious” practice, not simply as a “trade skill” or “sport.”
Though many yoga insiders prefer to describe yoga as “spiritual,” others eagerly associate it with traditional religions. It is not unusual to find overt religious packaging of yoga brands. Some contemporary Christians, Jews, and Muslims, in fact, argue that the universal benefits of yoga can be reconstructed as an essential component of the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim life respectively. Estelle Eugene, founder and Director of the Jewish Yoga Network in the United Kingdom, suggests yoga can contribute to a well-lived Jewish life. Muslim community activists have encouraged Muslims in Queens to practice yoga and even performed their daily prayers (salat) on their yoga mats during an interfaith festival in Jackson Heights. Many Christians have constructed “Christian” yoga brands, such as Christoga, Yahweh Yoga, and Christ Centered Yoga.
The extent to which pop-culture yoga can function as a body of religious practice is perhaps most obvious in contexts in which yoga consumers do not spend money. Some choose donation-based yoga classes, for example, because they are believed to better signify what practitioners consider the true “spirit of yoga.”
Consider Yoga to the People’s “mantra”:
There will be no correct clothes
There will be no proper payment
There will be no right answers
No glorified teachers
No ego no script no pedestals
No you’re not good enough or rich enough
This yoga is for everyone
This sweating and breathing and becoming
This knowing glowing feeling
Is for the big small weak and strong
Able and crazy
Brothers sisters grandmothers
The mighty and meek
Bones that creak
Those who seek
This power is for everyone (Yoga to the People 2011b).
For the founder of Yoga to the People, Greg Gumucio, yoga’s meaning transcends its commodities. Yoga to the People signifies, quite directly, a very particular goal, a better world, deemed more and more possible as people come into their full being through strengthening and healing their bodies and minds.
A close evaluation of pop-culture yoga suggests that, although the commodities of yoga are manifestations of it, it would be a mistake to reduce yoga to those commodities. In fact, yoga as a body of religious practice and yoga commodities are not mutually exclusive; rather they stand in a symbiotic relationship. The yoga market assigns yoga commodities new, often profoundly religious, meanings. In other words, pop-culture yoga can signify more than just the fulfillment of utilitarian needs, rather the fulfillment of religious needs can become contained in it. Put more simply, yoga can reflect what insiders’ consider most sacred.
3. Can you summarize the three key points you’d like the reader to walk away with when finished?
First, yoga has always been polythetic in the many pathways of its historical development and has remained so through modern postural yoga’s evolution and recent popularization. Yoga has been perpetually context-sensitive, so there is no “legitimate,” “authentic,” “orthodox,” or “original” tradition, only contextualized ideas and practices organized around the term yoga. Yoga is in part what yoga practitioners say it is.
Second, contemporary consumer culture’s emphasis on self-development through rigorous body maintenance mirrors pop-culture yoga’s devotion to fitness and health. Pop-culture yoga is a transnational product of yoga’s encounter with global processes, particularly the rise and dominance of market capitalism, industrialization, globalization, and the consequent diffusion of consumer culture. In short, pop-culture yoga systems are products of consumer culture and contain within them many commodities.
Third, just because pop-culture yoga is a product of consumer culture, that does not mean we can reduce it to the mere commodities of market capitalism. When yoga insiders claim they experience yoga as transformative, extraordinarily powerful, or “spiritual,” we should take those claims seriously and evaluate yoga (even in its popularized varieties) as a body of religious practice. In short, those who have bemoaned the consumerist branding, commodification, and popularization of yoga as the loss of a purer, authentic religious practice are wrong. For many practitioners, yoga’s religious qualities have not been eliminated.
4. Who are your inspirations or intellectual models for you as you wrote this book?
I am indebted to so many intellectual models who inspired me as I wrote Selling Yoga.
Aldous Huxley was one of them. In fact, the epigraph to Selling Yoga is the following Huxley quote: “Orthodoxy is the diehard of the world of thought. It learns not, neither can it forget.” Orthodoxy’s rejection of critical thinking, especially with regard to its own historical contingency, is problematic for many reasons but primarily because it has violent consequences for living people, especially those located outside of the so-called straight and right path.
Another intellectual model was Wendy Doniger. The epigraph to Selling Yoga’s “Preface,” in fact, is a quote from her controversial book The Hindus (2009): “There is therefore no central something to which the peripheral people were peripheral. One person’s center is another’s periphery.” Doniger has critiqued attempts to limit what counts as Hindu by defining Hinduism in terms of an essence. Her narrative succeeds in capturing the reality that there are many different types of Hindus, and accordingly, what Hinduism looks like varies depending on the perspective of the Hindu one happens to be speaking to, observing, or whose text one happens to be reading.
Inspired by Doniger and Huxley, I sought to write a book that would inform readers that yoga is nonstable, ever-adaptive, and never monolithic. In other words, it is always historically contingent and so changes form as it enters new social contexts. Yoga underwent popularization when its advocates constructed new forms that intersected with contemporary consumer culture. Yoga, however, is meant to serve as a case study of a much larger phenomenon: yoga, like religion generally, is a human product that has undergone assimilation to the emergent and dominant consumer culture, and products that intersect with that context cannot always be reduced to mere commodities of market capitalism. Recent articulations of yoga are not necessarily more or less religious and are not more or less authentic than earlier ones. In fact, there is no “authentic” or “original” yoga as there is no “authentic” or “original” Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, or any other religious complex.
Many yoga insiders and outsiders have resisted this position because they prefer to deny the historical contingencies of their own orthodoxies, which they believe transcend human agency. But anyone interested in approaching yoga, and religion generally, in a way that accounts for its heterogeneity and context-sensitivity as well as insider and outsider perspectives and that avoids revisionist histories must resist the tendency to locate a “right” path or a claimed essence around which all yoga systems do or should revolve.
As an amusing side note, my husband and I named our first son Huxley.
5. What was the most difficult thing about writing the book? Did you encounter any unexpected problems or challenges?
One difficult thing about writing Selling Yoga, though it was not surprising, is that contemporary popular culture defies the ability to locate any cultural object at one site or sites. And in the case of pop-culture yoga, we cannot locate it in my chosen sites alone. However, as a practical move, I had to select my examples as windows into the incalculable sites of the construction, dissemination, and practice of yoga. I had to carefully select from case studies in my effort to demonstrate that the postural practice we most associate with yoga today underwent global popularization as a consequence of its coincidence with transnational cultural developments. The question of how I should select and limit my case studies was a perpetual one. Friends and colleagues regularly got in touch with a link to this new pop-culture yoga star or that new pop-culture yoga clothing phenomenon, and having to carefully select what to include and what to exclude was a constant and difficult process.
6. What’s the most unexpected response, critical or positive, that you’ve gotten about the book?
Unfortunately, pop-culture yoga has historically been dismissed from any serious consideration of what yoga or, more broadly, religion is. Many scholars of religion, popular culture, and yoga have implicitly and explicitly criticized pop-culture yoga as illegitimate or a corruption of “real” yoga. To reduce pop-culture yoga’s innovations to borrowings from or the mere commodification of otherwise authentic religious wares, however, would undermine the ontological, axiological, narrative, and ritual functions and meanings of yoga for many of the practitioners I engage with in my study, the insiders to modern postural yoga.
In Selling Yoga, I discuss several past examples of reductive readings of pop-culture yoga. What I did not expect, however, was that some of my current religious studies colleagues share those readings of pop-culture yoga. Though they recognize that all premodern and early modern yoga traditions had particularities based on their socio-historical contexts, some have been unwilling to reduce those traditions to a mere cultural accretion while simultaneously doing just that when it comes to today’s pop-culture yoga. In other words, they assume the innovations unique to pop-culture yoga de-authenticate it as real yoga or religion simply because it is a product of consumer culture.
Some of us might retort that there are ethical problems with the current yoga industry, since yoga entrepreneurs capitalize off of the authenticity claims they make for their yoga commodities. That there are ethical problems with market capitalism, given its dire consequences for individuals, communities, and the natural environment, is indisputable. The ethical implications of capitalism in the light of modern commitments to human rights, social justice, and environmental sustainability are dire. In other words, if one’s ethical agenda includes maintaining a stable global community of equal persons and a sustainable natural environment, market capitalism is rightfully perceived as an obstacle. That the ethical problems with market capitalism make the products of consumer culture, by definition, mere commodities and lacking in religious substance, however, is disputable.
7. With this book done, what’s up next for you?
I have a long-term research project that I hope will result in my second monograph, titled Yoga on the Margins: From Pop Culture to Behind Bars. This project will involve studying the many uses of yoga among disenfranchised communities, including incarcerated and formerly incarcerated populations, as a rehabilitative method and as an initiative to empower socially- and economically-marginalized groups. Today there are over two million incarcerated people in the United States alone. Legal systems in combination with social stigma serve to confine them as well as former prisoners to marginalized communities that are denied access to mainstream society and its economy. In locations across the world, yoga has been introduced to incarcerated populations as well as high-risk youth populations and other marginalized communities as rehabilitative methods and as strategies for social and political empowerment. I am in the preliminary stages of research on the intersections of those efforts and social justice initiatives in a variety of locations, including sites in India, the United States, and Kenya.
Andrea R. Jain is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and author of Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture (Oxford, 2014). She is a regular contributor to Religion Dispatches and Co-Chair of the Yoga in Theory and Practice Group of the American Academy of Religion.