In this new episode – our first production since January of 2020, which also means our first episode since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, widespread protests against police brutality and the notable impact of the Black Lives Matter movement – we begin a two part mini-series on the history and politics of yoga culture. In this first part, we play an interview with Dr. Andrea Jain, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, and editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. The episode coincides with the release of Dr. Jain’s new book Peace, Love, Yoga: The Politics of Global Spirituality (Oxford University Press). In our discussion, Dr. Jain touches on the complex history of yoga, its emergence as a mass consumer product in the twentieth century, and the politics of yoga as a “spiritual commodity” shaped by neoliberal capitalism. Dr. Jain’s interview gives listeners a more critical perspective on the popular cultural and spiritual practice in this current context of pandemics, social distancing, and protesting against racial injustice.
We decided to devote a mini-series to the history, culture, and politics of yoga in part due to the increasing popularity of the practices in 2020. It seems that more people are consuming yoga products and engaging with yoga practices through commercial platforms like YouTube and Zoom as they shelter in place and social distance. Thus, we think Dr. Jain’s new book Peace, Love, Yoga and her critical assessment of modern yoga as a “spiritual commodity” is important and relevant in this historic moment we’re living in today. In the early months of COVID-19’s rise in the United States, a number of articles appeared online suggesting that yoga, meditation, and other “mindfulness” practices could help alleviate people’s dealings with stress and anxiety. Online exercise classes and programs boomed as people around the world stayed at home, and mindfulness entrepreneurs have been able to capitalize on the rapid increase in consumers and subscribers. Nurses and medical practitioners are “prescribing” yoga and mindfulness practices to COVID-19 survivors as one way of alleviating mental health issues. In Washington, D.C., hundreds of people gathered at the new-christened Black Lives Matter Plaza for an hour of yoga, using the practice to demonstrate their solidarity with the Black community. In short, it is apparent that the meaning of yoga as a global commodity and cultural practice has shifted considerably in the first half of 2020, and this compels us to devote some audio time towards exploring its complexity and significance.
Peace, Love, Yoga is available for purchase through Oxford University Press and Amazon. Dr. Jain is also the author of Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture (Oxford University Press, 2014), which explores the history and popularization of modern postural yoga.
Below are some suggested links for more information on the cultural politics of yoga:
- For more information about Dr. Andrea Jain’s work, visit her website.
- The Journal of the American Academy of Religion official website.
- Here is a video, produced by IUPUI, in which Dr. Jain discusses her research on religion and yoga.
- The British newspaper The Guardian addresses the issue of cultural appropriation with contemporary yoga.
- A recent article in The Oxford Student about yoga and cultural appropriation.
- A recent article in the San Diego Downtown News on how COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter have brought to light issues within the yoga community.
- Yoga teacher Nadia Gilani writes in The Huffington Post (UK) that “I can’t help feeling that what’s going on is in fact a perverse form of 21st Century colonialism.”
- A recent article in The Guardian detailing how yoga and mindfulness entrepreneurs have capitalized on the online boom due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo Acknowledgements: “Zolder Yoga” by Eelco van Wieringen. The link to the image on Wikimedia Commons can be found here.