How Western society has commercialised yoga

Bec Oakes

Western societies have turned this 5,000-year-old spiritual practice into a product—what can we do about it? 

In July 2020, Sweaty Betty announced that they would be changing the names of some of their activewear products, responding to internet criticisms calling out the cultural appropriation and commercialisation of yoga. These product names previously featured sacred Sanskrit words and greetings, which Sweaty Betty said, “Separated from their sacred foundations… felt insensitive” and they “felt it was inappropriate to sell products using these culturally important words.”

The announcement was generally met with praise. Many applauded Sweaty Betty for taking steps to address their appropriation. However, Western societies’ commercialisation of yoga remains an issue with a once sacred spiritual practice now estimated to be worth $80 billion worldwide.

The origins of yoga can be traced back some 5,000 years to Northern India where its purpose was to train the body and mind in self-observation and awareness. The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit root “yuj,” meaning “to unite” and its goal was to unite the body, mind and soul.

While yoga itself is not a religion, the two are deeply connected, its origins stemming from Hinduism and being used in multiple other religious practices. For Minreet Kaur, a henna artist and journalist from West London, yoga is heavily entwined with her faith as a Sikh. “I like to do some form of yoga daily with meditation. I can chant Waheguru—meaning “wonderful God”—and it gives me peace of mind and cleanses the body.”

She explains: “The Sikh prayer Gurbani states that the highest form of yoga is meditation. For a Sikh to achieve liberation or union with God, one must remain absorbed in meditation upon the Lord’s name; this is the best way of yoga.”

The typical Western perception of yoga, however, is radically different. When we think of yoga, we conjure up images of slim, tanned, blonde women in Lululemon leggings doing sun salutations on the beach. We think of state-of-the-art studios with “namaste” painted on the walls in fancy script. We think of social media influencers with Om tattoos sharing pictures of perfectly posed handstands to their thousands of Instagram followers.

While yoga has eight limbs of practice; guidelines on how to live a purposeful life, Western interpretations often focus on just one—asana or the physical practice—represented in the media by toned, white, model-like bodies. This glamorised form is a far cry from the practice’s origins and our image-based culture has reduced a sacred spiritual practice into “a fashionable form of physical exercise with a touch of Eastern exoticism” that the West is massively profiting from.

Rina Deshpande, Ed.M., MS.T., ERYT-500, is a first-generation Indian-American yoga and mindfulness researcher, writer and teacher, and was raised with yoga as part of the teachings of her culture and Indian roots. She speaks about the use of Sanskrit scriptures on clothing. “When something becomes a tattoo or a print on a shirt, it risks being tokenised as a trendy foreign design.” Her parents, on the other hand, can read Sanskrit and truly embody the words. She says, “People who are buying yoga merchandise may not understand that it’s not just pretty but rather carries deep meaning. Seeing my parents illuminates the difference between commercial branding and authenticity.”

An example of such is namaste, which is printed on everything from tank tops to posters. This traditional Hindu greeting has a literal meaning of “the god in me bows to the god in you” and is typically used at the end of a yoga class to acknowledge the divine in each other. Put into context, it feels incredibly insensitive to print a word of such hefty religious meaning on a commercial product, stripping it of its cultural significance.

And, as this glamorised version of yoga’s popularity grows, we’re finding more and more ways to profit from it and straying further away from its original meaning. One development over the past few years is “brewga,” a class that marries “the joy of drinking beer and mindfulness of yoga” in one practice.

Shilpa Panchmatia, a London-based business growth coach questions the intentions of people choosing to attend these classes, asking, “Do people come to do yoga? Or, do they come to socialise?” She talks about how alcohol is frowned upon in many of the religions that practise yoga and claims, “[having the practice] and alcohol together shows disrespect towards these religions.”

"Yes, we can all practise yoga but let’s acknowledge where it came from"

Rina explains that this commercialisation exploits yoga’s sacred origins. “Am I in favour of drinking beer while doing yoga? I think that just means that it’s not yoga and I wish the name yoga wasn’t taken for it.”

In the West, the way yoga has been marketed to us means that many of us have adopted a cultural practice without acknowledging its true meaning, turning it into a fashionable workout. Does that mean we shouldn’t do yoga? Not necessarily, but we do need to be more mindful in our practice to avoid harmful appropriation. Rina wants to invite people to reflect and educate themselves on the origins and true meaning of the practice. She explains, “Appropriation can feel like you’re not really seeing the culture. Yes, we can all practise yoga but let’s acknowledge where it came from.”

We need to respect the lineage we have the privilege of accessing instead of just consuming the parts we find attractive. And by doing that, we can truly begin to access the healing power that yoga can offer.

 

Read more: The dos and don'ts of back pain 

Read more: What's your relaxation style?

Keep up with the top stories from Reader’s Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter