BOOK REVIEW: Yoga and Capitalist Consumerism: A Marriage Made in Nirvana?

Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture. By Andrea Jain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Yoga, the Hindu-based breathing and posture practice, is everywhere these days — in schools, fitness centers, the YMCA, and even many churches.   Once a niche activity confined to dingy basement apartments in the urban demimonde, it’s recently found its way into suburban shopping malls, attracting millions of upscale, fashion-conscious women.

In many redeveloping inner city neighborhoods, populated by aspiring young professionals, Realtors now look to track-lit yoga “studios” – many of them fledgling corporate franchises — as harbingers of urban renewal.

But the transition from counterculture to pop culture hasn’t come easy.  Despite the persistent efforts of yoga marketers to re-package a pantheistic religious practice into a Western-style exercise regimen, the disjuncture between yoga’s deep spiritual roots and its increasingly crass commercialism has led to noisy complaints from Hindu traditionalists about the “corruption” of a sacred religion, and fears expressed by some Catholics and Protestants about a “diabolical” threat to Christianity.

Andrea Jain, a religion scholar at Purdue-Indiana University, and herself of South Asian ancestry, says these fears are largely misplaced.  Yoga, she argues, has been transformed and adapted – one might say, reincarnated – so many different times in so many diverse settings that it’s virtually impossible to identify a pristine “original” practice from which to measure “deviations.”   What’s mainly different now, she argues, is yoga’s insertion into a “global consumer culture” in which practitioners are less likely to seek enlightenment or even spiritual development than a myriad of psychic and physical health benefits that correspond to the unique stresses and strains of modern life.

Is this a break with yoga “orthodoxy”?  Not really, but it has turned yoga into a full-fledged commodity, with considerations relating to sales revenue, profit and loss, and branding increasingly central to how the practice is marketed and sold.   But spiritual materialism is affecting all contemporary movements, not just yoga, Jain argues.  It’s simply the cost and consequence of living in a capitalist world; to be relevant and useful, yoga must adapt to the distinct cultural dynamics and lifestyles of its time.

Jain’s argument is fine as far as it goes – and may be a welcome corrective to those who fear that the spread of yoga pants or the emergence of countless yoga hybrids – from “hip hop” yoga to “circus” yoga to “ganja” yoga, you name it, there’s a sub-niche for virtually every demographic now – may foreshadow a complete loss of yogic “authenticity.”  But she seems unaware that many yoga opinion-leaders have also begun revolting against the way market imperatives have made yoga not so much inauthentic, as unsustainable.

There is a growing concern, for example, that many yoga studios are not economically viable and that the current system for training new yoga teachers – itself driven by the need  to keep these studios afloat – may be setting too many young wannabe “priestesses” loose on an unsuspecting populace, increasing the risk of injury.   And the tendency to celebrate thin svelte (typically “white”) hyper-flexible bodies as the yoga norm has produced a backlash from critics who complain that the practice, as currently advertised, is reinforcing  mainstream culture’s “body-shaming” excesses.

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