Who Owns Yoga – Interview with Bhanu Bhatnagar

Bhanu BhatnagarCheryl interviews Bhanu Bhatnagar, a news correspondent from Al Jazeera English about the documentary ‘Who Owns Yoga?’

The ancient practice of yoga has been packaged and commercialised in a myriad of different ways over recent decades. But while this has enabled it to reach millions of people, it has also brought with it the pitfalls of operating in a modern capitalist world.

The film explores the obsession with yoga and the impact this is having on one of the world’s oldest physical and spiritual practices, and asks: Who owns yoga?

How did the idea to create a film called ‘Who Owns Yoga?’ come about? What are the core aspects you explore in the documentary?

A journalist by profession and Indian by heritage, I discovered yoga in the West. So the question ‘who owns yoga?’ is one that resonated with me. I wanted to explore this question more deeply. To help make this film a reality I was joined by New York based film makers Marie-Helene Carleton and Micah Garen. Together, we embarked on a journey through yoga in the modern world. Plenty of films have already explored the history of yoga, where it came from and how it spread. But given how popular yoga has become, we were interested in yoga TODAY, in the modern age. We wanted to explore issues of commercialization, cultural appropriation and politicization. We came together as a team to explore these issues. Yoga is as diverse today as the people who practice it, from the wandering Indian sadhu to the New York hipster. In this film, we hoped to explore this diversity and help shed some light on the culture wars surrounding yoga.

Where does the word ‘yoga’ come from, what is the textbook definition? How old is it?

The Sanskrit word ‘yoga’ comes from the Sanskrit root ‘yuj’ which means to add, unite, join, connect, harness or attach. The ultimate goal of yoga is ‘moksha’ or liberation, emancipation and freedom. I understand the word ‘yoga’ to mean unification with your Self at the deepest level, and by default, with the rest of existence, the whole universe. You can call this God or consciousness or supreme energy, whatever you like, the definition is up to you as the practitioner, since in yoga, there is no space for dogma, because it is a personal, experiential practice. The verdict is out on exactly how old yoga is. The word has existed in the Sanskrit language for well over 3,000 years, but has come to mean different things over the ages. There is general consensus that yoga practices developed around the fifth or sixth century BC.

Personally, what do you think the essence of yoga is?

That is a tough question to answer, partly because I think my answer will vary depending on where I’m at in my life and in my personal yoga journey. Right now, with almost a decade of yoga practice behind me, I feel the essence of yoga is showing me my true nature – love. The essence of yoga is meeting my Self (on and off the mat) and going with the flow of life, rather than resisting it. The practice of yoga is like holding a mirror up to your soul – so it can see itself in all its magnificence.

How has yoga evolved and become big business in the West?

Yoga is huge, there’s no denying it. It’s truly a 21 century global phenomenon. What the West has done to yoga is what it has done to pretty much all other forms of cultural exports – it’s become commercialized, hybridized and bastardized. The message of yoga has undoubtedly become diluted as it has spread around the world. Having said that, its growth and popularity have also exposed yoga to millions of people around the world who otherwise would never have heard of it, let alone tried it. In that sense it’s a bit of a double edged sword. The capitalist system we live in thrives on packaging and selling goods and services to targeted consumers. And yoga is fast becoming a mainstream consumer activity. Now there’s money to be made in yoga, a LOT of money. It’s important for practitioners to continue to be true to yoga, to maintain its integrity, in a world where yoga can be so easily hijacked by the next yoga celebrity.

So you took a personal journey and travelled to the US, UK and India. Tell me about some of the people you spoke to and what they had to say.

We met some fascinating people while making this film, some of them well known, some of them not. In the UK someone who left an impression on the entire film crew was Stewart Gilchrist. He’s a respected yoga teacher in London with a traditional and thorough style of teaching. He told me how much he abhorred the corporatization of yoga and how yoga studios refer to him as a ‘revenue stream.’ In the US we were lucky enough to meet the founders of Jivamukti, David Life and Sharon Gannon. They invited us to their home in upstate New York, where we spent an afternoon with them, talking and walking through the woods. David and Sharon are heavyweights in the yoga world. Their activism is inspiring and they truly try to live their lives in a yogic way. They could be called traditionalists, when you stand them next to Tara Stiles, a self-made yoga celebrity with a big following in New York and elsewhere. She has a marketing campaign with the W chain of hotels and her tag line goes: “let’s forget about being zen and start getting fabulous.” Make of that what you will. In California we met a conservative Christian who’s fighting to have free yoga classes removed from the school syllabus. Dean Broyles argues that it’s a religious practice that has no place in secular schools. In India, we had the privilege to sit down with Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev for a frank chat about yoga. He describes himself as a mystic and yogi and has followers around the world. Every pore of his being exudes yoga. I felt a great sense of comfort around him. And the words that came out of his mouth were pure wisdom. Being in his presence was to experience the power of yoga.

What were the key issues you were addressing in the film? Was there anything you heard or saw that really surprised you in terms of how yoga is being commercialized?

Marie-Helene, Micah and I have tried to explore the three main ‘–tions’ as we saw them: commercialization, appropriation and politicization. We wanted to shed some light on what is happening to yoga TODAY, who is practicing it and why, and what that means for yoga going forward. We saw and heard many things that surprised and shocked us. Yoga is truly everywhere now, and is being applied to all manner of sub-cultures. Take rave yoga in London for example, an early morning yoga session in a dark room with techno music and dancing. Or take the male-only naked yoga classes being offered at a studio in New York. Or the practitioners of Praise Moves, a Christian alternative to yoga where biblical scripture is recited while performing yoga poses. Is all of this yoga? The jury is still out I think.

What do you think yoga’s biggest attraction is in the West? Why is it so popular?

I asked Sadhguru in India a similar question and he answered it, in his wise manner, in just three words: because it works. As a toolkit for wellbeing, yoga has to be experienced. And the more people that are experiencing its benefits, the more they are contributing to its global spread. I believe a committed yoga practice (or any form of mindfulness or mind-body activity) creates positive energy. And positive energy attracts more positive energy, creating a type of feedback loop. So the more positive energy that’s generated through yoga practice, the more yoga that will be practiced. People are seeing the benefits of using age-old techniques to calm their mind, slow their breath and alter their behavior, without consuming loads of chemicals. I think we are undergoing a spiritual awakening as a species. That’s how profound I think yoga’s impact is.

Click here to watch Who Owns Yoga?

Is yoga a spiritual practice or can it be a purely physical practice too?

That is a question that came up time and again and we struggled with it as a team. My belief is that most people, especially in the West, come to the yoga mat as a physical practice, because that is what we know best. We live in our bodies, we see it in the mirror every day, we feel it. So it’s the natural place to begin a spiritual journey too. Even those that aren’t seeking a spiritual path, can be transformed through a physical yoga practice. And the transformation is subtle, small things like a change in disposition, a calmer mental state, a love of life. As practitioners we can take our yoga wherever we want to. It can remain an intense physical practice with some elements of meditation, or it could be entirely meditation, with no movement, or it could be a combination of the two. That’s the beauty of yoga – it’s entirely up to you. And there’s no right or wrong, because it all boils down to your experience.

Can you share a story of someone you know who healed themselves through yoga?

During the course of making this film, almost everyone we spoke to had a story of how yoga healed them, from small ailments like back problems, to more serious physical injuries and emotional healing. A dear friend of mine has the most inspiring story of all. Amit and I went to school together many years ago. We both practice yoga, but we’ve had very different journeys. Amit came to yoga as a last hope when doctors told him all hope was gone. He’s a cancer survivor who lost both his parents to the disease. He’s had to deal with a tremendous amount of sorrow – more than any person should need to cope with by the time they reach their mid 30’s. Despite bouts of chemotherapy, the cancer returned and spread to his spine. So Amit decided he had little to lose and threw himself into a world of yoga, meditation and Ayurveda. As he healed his mind and started to see the world through a positive lens, he started to tap into his body’s innate ability to heal itself also. He told me that yoga and meditation not only enabled him to accept his cancer, but to take it one step further and embrace it. Amit is now cancer-free and living a truly yogic life. His story is inspiring on so many levels.

What are some of the reasons that people practice yoga? And are those reasons different between men and women?

People come to yoga for all kinds of reasons, but a common thread appears to be stress-alleviation. Our lives are more stressful now than at any time in human history. We work longer hours, we have more responsibilities, social networks and the internet constantly bombard us with information. Our bodies are constantly in a state of alert, ready to fight or flee. Yoga helps release some of the pressures by helping us reconnect. And while it’s unfair to generalize about men or women, co-director Marie-Helene did find that the men we spoke to tended to come to yoga because of a physical ailment or injury, while many women came to yoga for emotional healing.

Bhanu BhatnagarOne thing you didn’t explore in the film is the science behind yoga, the mind-body connection. Tell me about that?

Yes, the science of meditation is a new and exciting field of inquiry, particularly in neuroscience. We are learning more and more about our brain, and how it connects to the body and the mind. People like Deepak Chopra are at the forefront of this type of research. I’m a firm believer in the transformative power of mind-body activities and conscious breathing. Sages and saints have been saying it for thousands of years. But science is finally beginning to provide evidence of this in empirical ways. Once the benefits of yoga become established as scientific fact, I think we’re going to see another explosion of yoga around the world – all part of the global spiritual awakening.

Do you think there’s a middle way that doesn’t compromise the values and principles of yoga but still makes it accessible to the masses?

Of course there’s a middle way. Life isn’t black or white, old or new, traditional or modern. It’s not a zero-sum game. We live in a world where we have choice, tremendous choice. More and more, that choice applies to yoga too. What commercialization of yoga has done is it to make it accessible and mainstream. And it offers the consumer a wide range of options. Granted, some of those options are diluted versions of what yoga should be (take boxing yoga for example), but more exposure means more people are inquiring about yoga, what it is and how it works, and that can only be a good thing. Just remember, more people across the planet are practicing yoga than at any point in human history. And the numbers are only going to swell.

What conclusion did you reach at the end of your film?

That’s a tricky one to answer for two reasons. First, I want readers to watch the film. Second, it was very difficult to arrive at a conclusion at all. For if I learnt one thing during the making of this film it was that yoga remains a deeply personal activity, despite all the commercialization and appropriation. Given that, yoga can only ever be owned by its practitioner.

If more people are doing yoga, will it improve the world we live in?

Without a shadow of a doubt, yes. Yoga and meditation create positive energy, and that energy spreads. Think of how contagious laughter is. The positive space that’s created through yoga practice is the same: it’s contagious. Other people feel it and then want to grab a piece for themselves too. Ultimately, yoga helps us connect with ourselves. And it’s only when we connect with ourselves that we are able to genuinely connect with others, not just humans, but animals, trees, our environment, our entire planet, our entire universe. Imagine a world where everyone was connected?

How has yoga changed your life and you as an individual?

Yoga is still changing me, and I suspect my practice will continue to change me for the better until the day I die. Yoga is a journey, it’s a process. A teacher once told me that yoga is not an end, but a means to an end. Up till now, yoga has had many positive effects on me. I was a much more stressed out person before yoga came into my life. I’m less restless, less reactive, more in tune with my body. I’m also stronger, more flexible and have good posture. I don’t beat myself up over things anymore, things outside my control. I let go of negative emotions much quicker and I feel like I’m flowing with life, rather than against the tide. I’ve just painted a pretty perfect picture of myself. Needless to say, I’m not perfect, and I struggle constantly with the above. But it’s all part of the journey.

Would you agree that the greatest gift of yoga is not what we do on the mat but what we take with us off the mat?

Stewart Gilchrist says in the film: “yoga is all off the mat.” I’ve heard the expression several times over the years and couldn’t agree more. Yoga is about life, and life is all around us, all the time. The time we spend on the mat meeting ourselves, teaches us how to be off the mat. In fact, making a film about yoga brought the entire film crew together as Marie-Helene, Micah and I explored the issues and asked difficult questions, especially of each other. In that sense, all three of us were practicing yoga – the yoga of inquiry (Jnana yoga), and it was all off the mat.

Listen to a recording of a radio interview with Cheryl and Bhanu broadcasted on Soul Traveller radio.


Correspondent: Bhanu Bhatnagar

Film makers: Micah Garen & Marie-Helene Carleton

Editor: Jacob Griswold-Moran


About the editor
Cheryl Soul Seed MediaPassionate about wellness, yoga, meditation, and raw food – Cheryl Slater heads up the social media team for Yoga Magazine and her business Soul Seed Media specialises in providing social media and PR support to holistic businesses.