Arts, culture & society | Asia, South Asia

18 June 2018

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been using yoga as a way of promoting Indian culture to the world. However, Western positions on yoga are challenging India’s control of the practice, Shameem Black writes.

As the fourth United Nations International Day of Yoga (IDY) approaches, thousands of people will abandon their desks to perform the Common Yoga Protocol. While the IDY is celebrated by diverse groups, it bears a special significance for India. Especially since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, yoga has become a prominent way to promote a new, flexible India to the world. Yoga appears simultaneously ancient and hip, philosophical and physical, Indian and worldly.

International Day of Yoga has given India a spectacular platform to leverage a globally popular practice for soft power. Yet India is not generally considered to be strong in this regard. In 2017, India did not make it into the Soft Power 30, an index of the world’s top 30 soft power nations. Indian commentators bemoaned that while everyone appears to love yoga, Westerners reap far more material benefits than do Indian teachers or India’s spiritual tourist industry.

So, why has India faced such difficulty in leveraging yoga for material gain?

One underappreciated reason, I suggest, is that yoga is not just a vehicle for soft power. It is also a form of flexible power.

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By this, I mean that yoga means many different things to many different people. Just as India must compete with other countries economically, it must compete with transnational culture producers who are redefining the importance of yoga in new ways. India faces a challenge for control over the cultural significance of the practice.

Since yoga entered the Western mainstream in the late 1990s, it has gained new purchase in books, videos, and digital culture in English. This trend marks a shift in cultural authority over yoga.

In the mid-twentieth century, it was common for influential narratives about the practice to be authored by (or on behalf of) Indian gurus. These gurus often recalibrated the significance of yoga, advertising it to appeal to a Western audience. Yet the gurus largely retained control over influential understandings of what yoga was. They frequently described yoga as a sign of India’s latent strength and power.

This is no longer the case. Since the turn of the millennium, there has been a boom in yoga-themed novels, memoirs, films, blogs, and websites in English. These new imaginative works show how yoga is increasingly part of a diverse social fabric of life in places like the United States and the United Kingdom.

This durability is part of what makes yoga valuable to India. Yet the stories told within these new cultural products may not always be the ones that the Indian Government wants told.

First, a number of the new yoga fictions present India as part of yoga’s long lost past rather than part of its dynamic present. This sense of an India consigned to the past ironically draws energy from Indian nation-branding claims that yoga is 5,000 years old. (This figure is contested by scholars, but it is commonly found in both Western and Indian popular culture.)

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More pointedly, some Western novels explicitly work to divorce yoga from anything that could be perceived as culturally Indian. They establish a disturbing cultural logic that imagines ‘Indianness’ and ‘Westernness’ as incompatible.

Second, many new yoga fictions take a different tone to the one you’re likely to find on International Day of Yoga. Western yoga narratives are often irreverent, cynical, and satirical. They poke fun at the practice, even while promoting it. While the Indian Government has occasionally taken a playful approach through the Incredible !ndia campaign, its promotion of yoga usually adopts an extremely earnest line. For Western generations raised on postmodernist advertising, the snarky wits of new yoga memoirs may convey more authenticity than state-sponsored exhortations to roll out a mat.

Third, many fictions reveal the dark sides of a life in yoga. They challenge the idea that teaching yoga is a great way to survive in the global economy. Although the internet is full of claims that yoga is a fast growing sector, one theme pervading many novels is the financially precarious nature of the practice. Just as many Indian teachers may feel bypassed by the benefit flows of what some call an $80 billion dollar industry, so do many Western small studio owners. While these novels generally convey great love and respect for the practice, they are often anxious about how teachers can survive in today’s economy.

These competing understandings of the practice raise questions for how the Indian Government might approach its own promotion of yoga. Increasingly, India will need to compete with new cultural messages – or it will need to join forces with them. Talking frankly about India’s history and contemporary relevance, keeping a sense of humour, and directly confronting the challenges of yoga today may go some way in winning India more friends in the West.

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