Where do we draw the line between growth and commercialism?
A recent article in Vanity Fair, Whose Yoga Is It, Anyway?, profiles Sonia Jones, the wealthy yogini wife of a hedge fund billionaire in New York City, who has teamed with the family of legendary yoga teacher Patthabi Jois (thought of in the West as the father of Ashtanga Yoga) to open a sleek line of high-end yoga studios. With locations (which they call “shalas”) so far located in the Florida Keys, Encinitas CA, and Bondi Beach Australia, the Jois Yoga brand is poised to take over the Ashtanga world, with the support of the Jois family itself.
A philanthropist who has used her family’s money to support the Jois family and the Ashtanga community for decades, Jones is alternately considered a hero and a villain for her role in the evolution of Ashtanga yoga in the West. Despite her tireless support of Patthabi Jois and his mission up until (and after) his death in 2009, she is accused by her detractors of exploiting the Ashtanga brand and commercializing the Jois name.
In truth, her company is called Jois Yoga, and includes not just upscale urban Ashtanga studios but a line of yoga clothes that was debuted not long after Gurugi’s death. This—along with the blatant commoditization of the Jois family name—left a bad taste in the mouths of some of Ashtanga’s devotees, among them Tim Miller, who was the first Ashtanga teacher to be certified to teach this style of yoga in the West, and whose grassroots studio in Encinitas was for decades considered to be the Western heart of the Ashtanga community. But now, a Jois Yoga studio exists right up the street.
At the heart of this article is the question about the Americanization of yoga, which is a theme that is close to my heart, as an Indian-born yogi running a yoga company (Divine Wellness) that caters to yoga-savvy Westerners. It’s so easy to denounce the modernization of yoga as a commercially exploitative affront to an ancient tradition. But the reality is that we live in a capitalist world, and for yoga to thrive and spread to the masses, it must play by the rules, at least to some extent. And yoga has long been a transformative practice that is itself constantly undergoing transformation. As the Vanity Fair article says:
“Most people who practice Ashtanga think they’re doing something ancient and Eastern. But the provenance of the sequences is murky. The official story is that Krishnamacharya developed the physical postures after finding the remains of a 2,000-year-old manuscript in Calcutta’s library. He believed it to contain postures referenced by the sage Patanjali in a centuries-old text called the Yoga Sutras. Part of the appeal of Ashtanga is its authenticity; to uphold that, there isn’t supposed to be any modifying of the series. But the remains of the Calcutta manuscript no longer exist, and recently work by a scholar named Mark Singleton has cast some doubt on how important physical postures were in ancient yoga. The Yoga Sutras are more about achieving detachment from your measly existence than about contorting your body into impossible positions…”
Indeed, yoga is a practice undergoing transition and constant translation, and being flexible of mind is just as important as being flexible of body. So in the end, I believe that any efforts to spread the pure intentions of the yoga practice—regardless of which style of lineage we are talking about—can only be a good thing. However, I have my personal preference for yoga practice, and it does not include expensive, brand-name yoga outfits or impeccably-designed yoga “shalas” to practice in. In fact, I believe that one should be able to practice in the comfort and privacy of one’s own home with little fanfare and the only accessory a good, knowledgeable teacher.
And so, a quote I particularly love from Sharath Rangaswamy, Pattahbi Jois’s grandson and the current successor of the Ashtanga lineage:
“In the West, you make things very fancy. Yoga is not fancy.”
Anurag Lohia is the founder and chief promoter of Divine Wellness, the latest unique initiative of the Lohia Group, a well-known business conglomerate headquartered in North India. Coming from one of India’s premier business families, Anurag’s entrepreneurial vision and penchant for modern technology is evident in all his endeavors. His current initiative, Divine Wellness, offers the world’s first live, interactive, one-on-one private yoga classes and Ayurvedic consulting via internet webcam.
A staunch believer in Hindu scriptures, Anurag started practicing yoga at the age of 15 and has spent two months at the Nalanda Yoga Centre near Hrishikesh in India, where he learned about the true power of India’s ancient health sciences. He has also published a translation of Sri Adi Sankaracharya’s Sanskrit commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. Anurag blogs about health, wellness, medicine, reforms in healthcare, yoga, Ayurveda and related topics. He can be reached at mailto:[email protected].
Editor: Kate Bartolotta.