Yoga Inc.

Yoga Inc.

Yoga Inc. (Director: John Philp, USA, 2006): A fascinating excursion into the world of “for-profit” enlightenment, Yoga Inc. suffers from having just too many good stories to tell.

First, there’s the explosion of yoga all over the Western world, with the resultant rise of businesses to capitalize on it. Philp speaks with yoga experts who decry the separation of yoga as a spiritual practice from yoga as simply a physical fitness technique. They claim that making yoga palatable to Western audiences in this way disrespects tradition and violates the very soul of yoga. When the film showed some of the flakier variations out there (including nude and “Christian yoga”), I found myself agreeing with them. With yoga’s soaring popularity has come the inevitable arrival of yoga franchises, which are now putting independent yoga studios out of business. And with every gym now offering some form of yoga classes, the fad may be reaching a breaking point. The film included a very funny interview with Barnaby Harris, who founded a store in New York City called Fuck Yoga. I’m not sure if it’s funny or just sad that some of the people who buy his t-shirts wear them to their yoga classes.

Secondly, we discover that there are tensions within the yoga movement itself. Bikram Choudhury, the man behind “Bikram” or hot yoga, is suing anyone who tries to use his methods or yoga poses without crediting him. He has copyrighted yoga poses that his critics maintain have existed for thousands of years, causing a huge rift in the yoga business community. This type of squabbling seems all the more sad when contrasted with some quotations from traditional yogis one that stressed that yoga is about peace, not power. When there’s money involved, that seems to be forgotten. It felt very much like the controversy over televangelists from a few years back. Focussing on the earning potential and forgetting the basis of the teaching seems very easy to do in our Western culture.

There’s even a third major story in Yoga Inc. Esak Garcia, one of Bikram Choudhury’s followers, is a participant in competitive yoga. Bikram claims that this tradition of yoga champions goes back “thousands of years” in India, though that seems dubious. The sight of yoga practitioners competing for trophies and medals seemed crazy enough, but there is a campaign led by Bikram to have yoga admitted as an Olympic sport. In this other major thread of the film, we follow Esak as he prepares for the yoga world championships. This type of competition seems to be strictly about the physical practice, with contestants trying to outpose each other or fold themselves into contortions. In a very American sense, this type of display is more about the surface than about the depth, about the attractive body rather than the beautiful soul.

The film was constantly engaging, but I just felt it needed more time to fully explore all the issues it dug up. This would work as a series, I think. On the other hand, Philp did a good job of using various documentary techniques, including the use of stock footage and image scans, though the low budget showed through at times with some low-resolution images and the odd cheesy effect.

Overall, this taught me quite a bit about something that is extremely trendy right now. And though I’m skeptical of the current “McYoga,” I do have respect for the traditional version, wherever that might exist. Though yoga isn’t my spiritual path, I believe that it should be treated as a spiritual path, and not as simply business, or fitness, or sport.

Here is the Q&A with director John Philp from after the screening:

Duration: 11:10

Yoga Inc. weblog


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One Response to Yoga Inc.

  1. natalie says:

    Brilliant movie. I am not a yoga practitioner but I loved it. Subsitute “Yoga” for “Coffee” and you have an investigation into the dumbing down effects of money into any area of value. Starbucks, anyone?

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