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Who Owns Yoga?

February 2011
Who Owns Yoga? Dear PMG:

My two friends and I started doing yoga last year. Although my folks have practiced yoga for decades, I didn’t get interested until one of my friends told me that her Jewish-American mother was opening a Bikram Yoga studio two years ago. Then my other girlfriend—a Chinese American—told me about Rodney Yee, a certified Iyengar Yoga instructor who has popularized yoga through appearances on television.

I once thought that yoga was about stretching, a kind of exercise that kept one flexible and limber. This was reinforced when I went with my friend to her mom’s studio where lithe women and men were doing something called “hot yoga” in a very warm and humid room.

After reading B. K. S. Iyengar’s memoir, I realized that what my parents were doing with their pranayama breathing exercises was just as much about yoga as all the sweat-inducing gymnastic poses.

This confusion about the source and sustenance of yoga has my friends and me in a bit of a friendly debate: Who really owns yoga? Is it the Hindu religion, which originated it? Is it the proselytizers, who made ordinary people aware of it? Or is it the entrepreneurs, who monetized it across the world outside of India?  

Dear Friend,

“Thus I began some of the Yogic practices, as well as I could understand them from a reading of the Hindu books. But I could not get on very far, and decided to follow them with the help of some expert when I returned to India. The desire has never been fulfilled.”  (M. K. Gandhi)    

While Gandhiji was frequently and famously photographed sitting in his version of the Lotus Position, there is no record of him watching yoga videos, wearing yoga spandex shorts, or carrying a yoga mat to an overheated studio. All silliness aside, you’ve asked an important question about cultural ownership in a time of free-market supremacy.

As suggested in the above quote, although yogic practices were first documented in Hinduism’s earliest texts (Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras), one cannot go very far with the theory of yoga without guidance from a guru. But does that mean the guru owns the poses? Since this is not a legal advice column, concepts such as intellectual property are beyond the scope of Satyalogue. But perhaps a bit of historical dialogue between Indians separated by oceans is in order. Similar to the Native American belief that land was a part of the commons, Vedic philosophy was not for sale. To be sure, there were always some practitioners who benefited from the collective cultural heritage; but for the most part this heritage was available to everyone, just as the air one breathed was available to all.

So, who owns yoga? Leaving aside the economics, one answer is, “You do.  But only if you use it.” Yoga may now be a commodity as American as Coca-Cola, but that doesn’t prevent you from honoring its origins, integrating its benefits into your life, and sharing its merits with friends and family.

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