Yoga has attained new prominence in Indian national politics
In the new millennium, India has grown increasingly assertive in its global presence. Bollywood has spread alluring ideas of India worldwide, while information technology services have come to depend on India’s large and mobile supply of technology labour. But, in recent years, the Indian government has begun to promote a new face, or body, for India: that of yoga.
‘Yoga diplomacy’ has become a new trend for India. Targeting both world leaders and global publics, the state has sought to brand itself through this increasingly popular practice. Seen as both ancient and modern, powerful and peaceful, and above all, flexible, yoga offers a potent metaphor for particular values that the Indian state wants to project to the world.
Though the word ‘yoga’ has meant very different things at different points in history, the practice is usually seen as having strong roots in the Indian subcontinent. Over the twentieth century, yoga transformed from a practice largely pursued by male ascetics in India to one enjoyed by a wide range of people all over the world. By the turn of the millennium, yoga had entered popular culture in many different countries. It had also become potentially quite lucrative. Estimates of yoga’s global monetary value in 2015 have run as high as USD $80 billion.
This kind of clout has caught the Indian state’s attention. With the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, yoga has attained new prominence in Indian national politics. A practitioner himself, Modi has used yoga to create a powerful visual symbol for a new global India. He was able to persuade the United Nations to create an International Day of Yoga in celebration of the practice. Mass yoga sessions on 21 June 2015 led to dramatic visual images of a peaceful and synchronised India—headed by Modi—leading the world in the pursuit of a better life.
Such a public face for India serves a range of political purposes, especially in light of India’s vexed history of violence. Before assuming the role of prime minister, Narendra Modi was perhaps best-known outside India for his role as minister of Gujarat during some of its worst episodes of twenty-first-century religious violence. Major questions have been raised about Modi’s complicity with this violence, especially against Muslim communities. Public images of Modi as a peaceful meditating yogi—images that evoke India’s most famous Gujarati leader, Gandhi—have helped to make possible a distinctly different global persona for the prime minister.
Yoga’s flexible symbolism has also allowed the Indian state to project very different messages beyond and within the nation. In a globalised English-speaking public sphere, yoga is often considered a secular and fashionable health-giving pursuit. In enthusiastically promoting yoga as an Indian practice, the state seeks to surround itself with some of that glamour. Promising a corrective for those who spend hours hunched over devices or worrying about precarious jobs, yoga helps to shape the supple bodies and minds required by contemporary capitalism. In this context, yoga can be seen as a signature Indian solution to globally widespread anxieties. India’s tourist industry has capitalised on this promise, marketing yoga-rich parts of India as a wellness destination for foreign seekers.
At the same time, the promotion of yoga within India sometimes reads differently to those on the Hindu right. Even though the Indian government has officially advocated yoga as a practice suitable for secular communities, Hindu nationalists often claim yoga as a distinctive form of Hindu practice. Government support for yoga, thus, can sometimes be taken as tacit endorsement for broader Hindu political aims. This possibility has also not been lost on India’s religious minorities, who sometimes look with suspicion on the government’s ulterior motives in its advocacy of yoga.
While some aspects of popular culture sidestep yoga’s possible associations with India, others actively mock the desire to promote yoga as an authentic Indian cultural symbol
Yet, while yoga is symbolically useful for the Indian state because it can signal flexible messages at home and abroad, India by no means controls yoga’s cultural meanings. Indeed, the state faces stiff competition from globalising popular culture. As more and more people practise postural yoga, they have begun to reshape and extend its range of cultural meanings.
Since the late 1990s, and especially in the last decade, yoga has blossomed into a distinctive theme in English-speaking literature, film, and new media. Often affectionately satirical, these representations of yoga in popular Anglophone culture frequently seem quite distant from the images promoted by the Indian state.
In a good number of these books and films, India has a relatively marginal role to play. Yoga’s success in moving into the mainstream of many English-speaking societies has sometimes come by shedding its cultural associations with India. Popular yoga-themed novels written in English have often been concerned with yoga as a distinctively American or British phenomenon, one that charts the hopes and anxieties of (usually) middle-class women in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, or London. Yoga studios are, to these writers, what the drawing room was to Jane Austen.
The Indian state thus faces a keen irony: yoga has been so successful in integrating into the social habits of other parts of the world that, to many practitioners, it now no longer seems particularly Indian. Indeed, a recurrent figure in some of these cultural productions is a member of the Indian diaspora who is thoroughly baffled by the juggernaut of Western yoga.
While some aspects of popular culture sidestep yoga’s possible associations with India, others actively mock the desire to promote yoga as an authentic Indian cultural symbol. The 2012 Canadian web mockumentary, Yoga Town, for instance, makes fun of a Western desire to experience yoga as an exotic Indian pursuit. In desperation, the white proprietor of a failing yoga studio calls upon an Indian–Canadian consultant to help revive her business. The consultant fills the studio with sculpted heads of the Buddha, but when the proprietor turns them over, she realises that the sculptures are mass-produced in China. The ‘Indian’ aura surrounding yoga, the mockumentary suggests, is largely the manufactured product of contemporary global capitalism.
Though there remain many strains of Anglophone popular culture that do portray yoga with positive connections to India, the Indian government is likely to encounter an increasing number of challenges to its yoga-oriented branding campaign. The very flexibility of yoga’s symbolism—the same flexibility that helps make it attractive to the government—is also what puts the practice beyond national control. The more successful the Indian government is in promoting the practice of yoga, ironically, the more contests it will face over yoga’s symbolic life.
Dr Shameem Black is Fellow, Department of Gender, Media and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, at the Australian National University.
International Yoga Day, 2015, in New Delhi. Photo: Flickr,