Culture, Power, and Modern Yoga (Part 2): How Capitalism Shapes Modern Yoga

by Anjali Rao and Lorien Neargarder This article was originally published on the Accessible Yoga blog

Look up "benefits of yoga" online and you'll see pages of search results that claim everything from physical to mental/emotional improvements, some with click-bait statements such as, "With just one practice!" A favorite is the claim that back-bends and other postures that stretch the area of the upper chest will "open" your heart emotionally. This implied contract––that I will no longer be ___ if I just practice ___ (fill in the blanks) invites a passivity to our growth and transformation. The words "magic" and "magical" are even used as descriptors of yoga poses. Soon we begin to believe that the next commodity will erase all the bad things in our lives, so we sign up for that yoga retreat, buy those yoga leggings and that fancy headstand prop, thinking these things will improve our relationships and heal our trauma, only to find that yoga poses aren't magic and transformation is not passive––yoga is not outward-looking, and it cannot be bought. Uniting the human self with the Divine is an imperfect, messy, internal transformation that often results in external changes; when we focus solely on the external, we miss the internal changes and the uprooted teachings of yoga now become vulnerable to misinterpretation and manipulation. Capitalist Culture Yoga is a multi-billion dollar industry, but very few teachers can make a living out of teaching yoga. If we dig into yoga capitalism of the modern world, we see that this “industry” is expected to reach $215 billion by 2025. The revenue is generated by athleisure sales: clothes, props, and accessories. Corporations own franchises that market yoga solely as a physical movement practice, boutique studios cater to the elite, the ones who can afford to pay $20 per class. Sadly, the pandemic has decimated smaller yoga studios that focus on community and financial equity for students and teachers. Yoga has been folded into the economic landscape of White capitalism and has been turned into a lucrative industry, where the profits are meant for the corporations only. Yoga has been co-opted by the dominant culture (White, middle-class, Protestant people of northern European descent, heterosexual, and cisgender) and being part of the dominant culture's economic landscape also means being co-opted by the prevalent corporate ethos: exclusion of marginalized groups such as BIPOC, LGBTQ, people with visible or invisible disabilities, and people who cannot afford the membership/class/clothes. Yoga practice and the practitioner are interpreted in and reduced to numbers, the number of teacher trainings run and the number of students who are in them, the number of dollars earned by the corporations, the number of people who stay as members in a studio, the number of followers on social media accounts, the number of accoutrements that one can market as being absolutely essential in a yoga practice. We imagine that any independent contractors, small business owners, and entrepreneurs reading this article are now asking the practical question, We live in a capitalist system, so if we don't apply a capitalist structure to the business of yoga then how do we keep the doors open and the lights on for people to learn about yoga? It won't happen overnight but if we are to live in "a good and just society," as described by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we have to work together to build, "A socially conscious democracy that reconciles the truths of individualism and collectivism." There is a tension between those last two words, individualism and collectivism. We have to hold that tension as practitioners, teachers, studio owners, speakers, and experts in order to find a balance between the needs of being in a capitalistic society (individualism) and honoring the philosophical foundation of the practice (collectivism). Yoga has a capitalist culture problem. We need more inclusion and equity. We disrupt capitalist culture when our yoga centers serve everyone in their communities, teaching practitioners to identify and unshackle themselves from the transactional mindset and support teachers. Reflection Points:

  • How can you, as a yoga practitioner, support, hire, and learn from diverse teachers and experts?

  • How can you, as a provider, collaborate with someone who has a different background than you?

  • Can you, as a yoga studio/center owner, build equity by offering sliding scale payment options, scholarships, for workshops, teacher trainings, and classes?

  • And what would it take for owners to invite BIPOC and other marginalized teachers into their spaces and offer payment for any intellectual labor or the emotional labor that comes up whenever racism is addressed in a mixed BIPOC/White setting?


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