We advise you to grab a seat, grab a screen and watch this right now. “Who Owns Yoga?” is a documentary from Al Jazeera English Reporter Bhanu Bhatnagar and, though not super in-depth, in its short 50 minutes it covers so much ground about the issues and challenges of modern yoga’s growing pains – commercialization, corporatization, clashes with religion, ties with politics, evolution of hybrid styles, etc. – that it’s probably the most interesting, wide-ranging and cohesive reflection of today’s yoga we’ve seen put together for a news network or otherwise. The doc didn’t air in the US but some kind soul posted it to YouTube. You might want to watch it now before it’s taken down.
We have to give props to Bhatnagar for skipping across the globe to interview multiple yoga figures, some known, some not so well-known, to give a snapshot of what yoga looks like today, and perhaps a glimpse into where it is going. To give you an idea of the scope and subject matter in the film, here’s a list of (most of) the interviewees:
- Kajza Ekberg, Boxing Yoga Co-Founder
- Juliet Murrell, Voga Founder
- Stewart Gilchrist, Ashtanga yoga teacher in London
- Tara Stiles, “rebel yogi” and brand spokesperson
- Sheetal Shah, Senior Director of the Hindu American Foundation
- Leslie Marshall, Instructor of Praise Moves, a Christian non-yoga yoga
- Mary Eady, parent of child in the Encinitas School District who was against yoga in schools
- Dean Broyles, lawyer who represented parents against the Encinitas school district
- Diamond Dallas Page, founder DDP Yoga
- Mark Drost, Evolation Yoga (sued by Bikram)
- Derrick Mills, Yogaglo founder and CEO
- Todd Wolfenberg, Yoga International Executive Director
- Sri Dharma Mittra founder of
- Sharon Gannon and David Life, founders of Jivamukti Yoga and unashamed tree huggers
- Swami Ramdev, the very political Founder of Patanjali Yogpeeth
- Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, Founder of Isha Foundation in India
Bhatnagar is a yoga practitioner and teacher himself and he explains in the documentary why yoga is important to him and how he came to want to find the answers to his questions, the questions many of us have also likely asked at some point as participants in today’s yoga culture.
Until I was in my 20s I had no interest in yoga. I came to it as a form of exercise. But as I got better at the physical postures known as asanas, I wanted to deepen my practice by learning more about yoga philosophy and learning how to meditate. I took a teacher training course in Thailand and it was there that something occurred to me as I looked around the room at the other students. I was the only Indian. My instructor knew more about yoga and its Indian heritage than I did. I do consider myself a mix of East and West, born in Sweden and having lived in India as a teenager, but my yoga teacher training made me think about yoga in the modern world. How is it changing? Does it belong to India? Does it belong to anyone? And does it even matter?
Throughout the documentary there are no super clear answers, even though several people proffer that “no one owns yoga.” Viewing yoga as a sport, the wild variations and mutations its taken on (see boxing yoga, voga, and rocket yoga…called as such because “it gets you there faster”), the religious connections/separations, the massive amount of yoga-related products, ie. “spiritual materialism,” intellectual property battles, yoga and politics in India, etc. the answer gets even more blurred and obscured. And, yet, the conclusion Bhatnagar reaches is that each of our own yoga experiences is unique to us and different from anyone else’s, and that some people will stay on the surface and ride the wave as “passive consumers” while some will inevitably dig deeper. That’s kind of how it is, and maybe the beauty of it.
No matter where you fall on the spectrum, we imagine you’ll find gather something interesting by watching the documentary which we totally think is worth your time.
Please enjoy some of the highlights in quotes:
“Yoga is life. Yoga is all off the mat.” – Stewart Gilchrist
Yoga teacher “is the 21st century version of the DJ.” – Marcus Veda, London yoga teacher, former DJ
“It’s very traditional vinyasa yoga and then we started to kind of get dancy with it and at the peak of it we backbend so you’re feeling really open and energized. Bring on the loud music and then everyone goes crazy.” – Emma Henry, London yoga teacher leading yoga raves
“Why be zen when you can be fabulous?” – Tara Stiles-delivered tagline from the W Hotel promotional campaign
“I’ve been referred to as a revenue stream. My USP, my unique selling point was I’m a 50 year old man with dreadlocks and a beard. Studios find that interesting and want to put me on their roster.” – Stewart Gilchrist
“I took the name yoga out of the company name a few years ago and nobody noticed.” Tara Stiles
“I mean, who are we really answering to?” – Tara Stiles
“People have forgotten yoga means much more than exercise.” – Sheetal Shah, Senior Director, Hindu American Foundation
“We’re certainly aware that it looks like yoga. But we believe that yoga is a spiritual practice, and we’re not doing that.” – Leslie Marshall, Instructor of Praise Moves
“Social science research has proven that just doing the poses and just doing yoga breathing is enough to cause spiritual transformation.” – Dean Broyles, lawyer representing parents against yoga in an Encinitas school district and accidental yogi
“I’m not the center of the universe but I am as well. Yoga reminds me that if I just am that if I just concentrate on my breath the problems that keep going around and around in my head none of it is real, that none of it is true and that it’s just a fabrication, an illusion.” – Bhanu Bhatnagar
Final thoughts via Bhanu Bhatnagar’s article in the London Telegraph:
Capitalism isn’t going anywhere. And neither is yoga. So we have to accept that yoga will be bastardised, culturally-appropriated and commercialised. But the world we live in also allows room for yoga to transform people’s lives, in every corner of the globe and from all walks of life. The ways in which people practice and “live” their yoga has countless manifestations. I have seen it.
After filming, I was left with the feeling that we each define our own yoga. More people practice it today than ever before in human history. Sure, some of them are sold a lesser version of the real thing – passive consumers in a commercial world. But many more receive the wisdom and personal growth that comes with a sincere and dedicated pursuit of yoga.
Have you seen it? What did you think?