The belief in some progressive circles that yoga is an elite lifestyle indulgence and a distraction from serious issues is a mistaken one. Yoga is more than a set of physical postures for the rich to look beautiful. It is a philosophical worldview that connects the spiritual and social worlds elegantly and may one day achieve what Marxism’s many struggles have failed to do.
The yoga studios that have sprouted across the United States are catering not simply to some commercialised narcissism as sceptics in India might suspect, but also to a growing discourse about what it means to live ethically in a global society scarred by greed, inequality and environmental destructiveness. Yoga magazines and retreats talk not only about health and peace of mind, but also about issues like sustainability and ending exploitation.
In India too, the discourse around yoga that is emerging in less privileged and less westernised social contexts is marked by a powerful critique of the normalised practices of today’s society such as consumerism and junk food. Some of this discourse might sound naively nativist, but that part might well be a response to the entrenched disdain in the Indian elite consensus for things spiritual or Indian, rather than any deep ‘yogic’ antipathy.
Yoga today carries the promise of a far-reaching progressive spiritual-social movement. Unlike the Marxists, who push for political change with little consideration for the poetry of the soul that animates human striving, and unlike the dry moralists of traditional religions, who propound dogma over insight, the global yogis of today have the possibility to create something better than what politics and religion have done.
For that to happen, at least one gesture needs to come from the land of yoga’s birth. We must not vandalise yoga’s global potential with our petty posturing and secular-communal clichés. We shouldn’t have to bargain about ‘Oms’ and ‘Surya Namaskars’ as a prerequisite for people to feel better. After all, yoga has gone global without some imperialist Hindu agenda accompanying it. That has always been the greatness of Hindu universalism. It needs no armies. De-Hinduising yoga is therefore not only unnecessary, but also counterproductive. Yoga cannot be a force for change without respect for its philosophy.
If we could create a universal pedagogy around yoga, something remarkable could happen. If the government could set up yoga institutes around the world without the fear of stepping on secular toes there could be a more intellectually focused, locally meaningful, and socially progressive direction given to this phenomenon. Is it not the worldview of a yogi that has produced the greatest critique of capitalist modernity? If Mahatma Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj and other similar works could be taught in the space of yoga culture, a better vocabulary for reflection, critique, and social change might emerge than anything the militant-isms have given us.
Surya namaskaras might not replace the clenched fist overnight. But today’s global yoga culture has revived the idea that one’s spiritual well-being is connected to the other’s material well-being. That is a revolution worth pursuing.
Vamsee Juluri is professor of media studies, University of San Francisco
The views expressed are personal