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?
Yoga will evolve, as humans have. There is light & dark in the dissimilarity as with humans. I would like to thank you for sharing your journey or your work!
This was extremely well done. I appreciate Bhanu’s style of interview and balance in his presentation. Western Yoga needs more of his attitude.
In an interview Tara Stiles: “I took the name ‘Yoga’ out of my company a few years ago (and nobody noticed)…”
Well, at least she is owning up to the fact that it isn’t yoga being taught over there.
Some of us stay beginners at posture practice. Others stay beginners at awareness.
Nobody should really be telling anybody which is better to cultivate, if at all.
I was prepared to have left off practicing yoga forever, 4 months ago as I’d had it.
But that never happened, either.
Yoga posture practice doesn’t have to be commercialized.
Every time I teach yoga, I discover! These are small mighty amazing improvisational transcendent moments within a structure called yoga that I have been taught to teach. I came to yoga as a dance artist, and so at the core of my own bias, is a bias toward creativity. Each time this happens, I feel like a truer yogi, and yet I recognize I have done something I was “never taught” — these are small moments of seeming “invention” and I revel in them — but they happen naturally — like growth . I trust this growth, so deeply. In fact, I keep teaching BECAUSE of it. Because I grow. Sometimes I say, “is it still yoga?” and I feel like a child asking permission from it’s mommy to grow. Yes, it is yoga, at it’s best, I have realized. As it happens in me, so it may in each person and in the myriad cultures through which it flows, I realize. It’s all life doing it’s work. I believe in the post-modern self — the collage of ancient and now — which IS yoga in the now.
I can only speak for me, but I feel as a yoga teacher it is important for me to acknowledge and honor the lineage of yoga, honor my teachers’ work and share my practice in a way that is accessible to everyone without compromising my love of yoga, the lineage and history of this sacred, beautiful, ancient practice. I find the Indian lineage of yoga and the history very rich, full of life and wisdom which only enhanced my practice and I’d like to share that with people who are interested. I feel students are drawn to the teacher they need at the time.
Beautifully done! Bhanu gives us a brief but thorough tour into what we all debate about on this blog. I like that he ends the documentary having more questions than he started, but realizing that Yoga in its evolution remains to be a spiritual practice above everything else.
On another note, Al Jazeera is light years ahead of anything the US is putting out as far as journalism. Bhanu stepped on no toes, but thoughtfully called out the YogaGlo founder on his patented camera angle. It even makes me wonder if the interview caused the company to make and about face on its patent. Bravo!
According to Matt Caron of yb, they’d filed for a patent longer than one year after starting using their technology …
It takes longer than a year for a business to actually find out if something being done positively affects the bottom line.
These laws do make sense. It’s one thing to evaluate your business practices and yet another thing to cutting-edge innovate. Engineering innovation happens long before products hit the market for a reason.
Thanks VQ. Kinda sad we have to review laws to keep our wits about us in the yoga world.
love and light Dean, love and light.
Yoga belongs to everybody and the ego minds should not copyright it. Let’s keep unity though diversity.
Personne, surtout à l’Ouest, ne peut prétendre protéger un nom, un style, une posture ou autre relatif au yoga. L’essence même du yoga est dissoudre l’égo. Visons l’unité malgré la diversité.
First there was the Borat of yoga – Vikram Ghandi as the eponymous Kumaré mockumentary.
Now, the Harold and Kumar all-in-one do this documentary.
The only decent actual documentary (not mockumentary) about this was Y Yoga. Ever–although Ashtanga NY was a runner-up. What makes these two different?
The relative lack of commercialization a$$kissing. It isn’t demographic fogging or not-fogging. It’s the slant that makes the difference.
omg, guys this is the worst of yoga ever 🙂
Thank you for sharing this.
I myself am blessed to be a Yoga Teacher and student….
This film brings up a lot of great points….I PERSONALLY feel Yoga is for EVERYONE and I deep down inside feel no one can own Yoga – it is personal and subjective. As I tell my students – this is not about competition, your mat is a mirror and it is your personal refuge – I also do not in either my practice, nor my teaching divorce the spiritual aspect from the asana. However, I understand why people are ‘afraid’ of the ‘religiosity’ of Yoga and I myself have had to defend the use of the word ‘Namaste’ – after explaining what it was to students, (I was teaching employees at a local hospital) – they accused me of trying to ‘change their religion’. I went to my own teachers to ask what to do – they told me not to ‘half-step’ yoga, to be true to the teachings. But my one teacher also told me not to alienate others – so I had two different teachers giving me their personal take on this problem. That is when I realised that for every teacher/student, there is a different view. Instead of chanting OM, or using Namaste, I closed the class with using the word Peace….but part of me also wanted to say that if that one word was powerful enough to change their religion, how strong could their faith be?
Since that time, I have gone on to teach others and I use the word Namaste and I chant OM and I no longer back away from it – for just as Yoga is for everyone, I am my own person, my own unique imprint on the fabric of our cosmos and therefore, I will not diminish myself or the beauty of the teachings and the spiritual connection of mind, body, and spirit. Not religion, spirit….to me, the practice will bring one closer to their god/dess and even if they have no religious beliefs, they still benefit from the connection of breath and body.
Thought provoking as usual.
Ever taken a Karate-class ? The terminology used is completely Japanese ( no cute translations like “Downward-Dog”). Ever taken a Tae-kwon-do class ? The terminology used is all Korean ! As well it should be. And nobody ever asked damn-fool questions like : Is Karate Japanese (Damn straight, it is ! ) , or : Is Tae-kwon-do Korean (Damns straight, it is ! ).
So, too, Yoga is Indian (and since ancient India was all-Hindu, Yoga is all-Hindu) ! Why feel defensive about using Namaste and Om in your Yoga-class ? We should give props to India and to Hinduism, for their gift to Humanity, namely Yoga ! To not do so would be plain ungrateful !
Good: a reasonable survey of the standard stereotypes. Some were lured into being unintentionally ridiculous.
Bad: no historical grounding at all (the narrator intruded to tell us how “western” yoga competitions are, blithely unaware of their far longer history in India) no difficult questions asked, no real insights gained.
Ultimately – a self indulgent holiday video
HI THERE…..i just saw a great documentary on al jazeera correspondent…..”who owns yoga?”…..great journey…..just want to send a word out to the journalist….i had the same questions for the last 18 years n have finally found some answers….hinduism is not about kali and thaipusam….its about indra, king of the gods, similar to jupiter, king of the gods, and krishna, the god of the sun, sounds like apollo…in fact, all religions are the same, you will find this through yoga and buddhist meditation……its about the evolution of the cosmos and the solar system……yoga is in the holy bible, its called the 7 seals of creation….we’re on the right path…..i believe yoga is good…..god bless……please see my page…..https://www.facebook.com/yoga7seals?ref=br_tf
very much enjoyed this art
Thank you very much for posting this video. I found it very interesting. Although I take classes in what is called “mindfulness yoga,” I appreciate that some people prefer to have lots of music, strange clothes and may practice for fitness rather than spiritual awareness or tranquility. I think Tara Stiles’s question, “who are we answering to?” is a fair one. I despise the taste of avocados. Other people like them and they do no harm – they are even healthy for you! In other words, nonjudgment. Do we want to distinguish between people who practice “real” yoga and those who don’t? Perhaps we should just find what we think we want and let the rest just be. Western culture is too diverse to fit yoga back in the box anyway.
…great film, great message….YOGA is fun !
This is such an interesting documentary. As a yoga practitioner I try my best to travel deep within myself thanks to teachers who teach me a form of yoga that’ll be as close as possible to its roots, without it being a religious journey. one can’t buy or sell spirituality and materialism is the opposite of the yogic way. we need to be tolerant and hope that everybody will find the yoga that’ll address their needs. yoga is such an old spiritual science, it won’t be destroyed by fads or brands.
Cet article à su susciter beaucoup intention car je ne connaisais pas du tout cette thématique. Alors je tenais à vous remercier
Brilliant Documentary Bhanu !
Though Hindus don’t like to appropriate yoga, but its painful to witness the sheer bigotry of some Christian groups and the likes of Tara Stiles, where-in they clearly find a Hindu practice beneficial but don’t want to acknowledge that they are borrowing a Hindu practice. They go to the extent of masking it with Bible verses. Its like saying I like the message of Jesus (“love all, forgive them lord they don’t know what they do”) and want to practice it, but I will pretend that it was spoken by Krishna instead of Jesus…. Bigots don’t deserve to own any part of Yoga, cause fundamental part of Yoga is spiritualism not religion… Such bigots should be named and shamed publicly and cast out of yoga communities as fakes…