“You don’t know what that means!”

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By Andie Alexander
Andie Alexander earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and History in 2012 and is working on her MA in Religious Studies at CU Boulder. Andie also works as the online Curator for the Culture on the Edge blog.

Several weeks back, I came across College Humor’s “If Gandhi Took A Yoga Class” video. In the clip, they have Gandhi challenging “western” yoga practices and understandings. Take a look… (Warning, there is some foul language)

While this is an amusing satire of yoga classes, it makes some interesting moves: Gandhi is correcting the yoga instructor with the Sanskrit terms for poses, undermining her qualifications, and establishing his practices — his religion — as authentic and thereby discrediting western practices as inauthentic. However, I am not interested in the supposed (in)authenticity of either side, but rather, what sort of moves are being made.

Now that I live in Boulder — and yes, I have started taking yoga classes myself — I hear a lot about “the west” and its misappropriation of Indian cultures and religions, i.e., misinformation, misunderstanding, incorrect practices, etc. This sort of discourse is deeply rooted in the essentialism of an array of practices and beliefs that undoubtedly vary greatly. It reminds me of the recent debates and controversy over whether yoga is religious or not, what with the addition of yoga to some public school’s physical education curriculum in California schools some time back. In this controversy, many parents were concerned that their children were being indoctrinated into Hinduism rather than just taking a physical education class. This consequently opened the door for much debate over whether yoga is a religious practice or not.

However, I think to get caught up in that debate — i.e., is it secular or religious?, is it authentic yoga? — is to miss the larger issue at hand.

In December 2014, the United Nations established today, June 21, as International Yoga Day following Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address at the UN General Assembly in 2014, where he said:

Yoga is an invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition. It embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfilment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature.

What I find intriguing about PM Modi’s statement is not his assertion that yoga is inherently a spiritual practice, but rather I am interested in this “ancient tradition” he speaks of. What is so effective about that statement is the complete lack of justification for it. India, and South Asia, have a very rich history with many competing — sometimes conflicting — groups attempting to establish themselves as the normative group. By linking India and Hinduism and telling its historical narrative in that particular way, Hinduism becomes the normative group in India, which consequently marginalizes other groups such as Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, etc.

This move to establish a Hindu nationalist narrative for India has resulted in backlash from other minority communities. As Rupam Jain Nair and Andrew Macaskill state in their article “PM Modi’s yoga offensive gets Muslims stressed“:

Members of India’s minority groups say the move to promote yoga is a ploy to whip up Hindu pride and marginalize the country’s 175 million Muslims. India’s main opposition Congress party has also attacked the yoga event as a political gimmick.

The article continues saying that yoga has been established in the schools but that they omitted the religious chants from the exercises. While it would be easy to get caught up in the “Is it religious?” debate (like with the yoga programs in Encinitas, CA), as stated above, I think it is more worth noting the moves that are being made by competing social groups (i.e., Hindus, Muslims, Christians, etc.) within a larger structure (i.e., India) and how these groups try to legitimize their own positions as normative thereby making themselves not only the dominant group, but also the “authentic” Indian group.

Furthermore, the current Indian government itself is capitalizing on these power plays to establish itself internationally. For International Yoga Day is not about oneness or honoring the history of yoga necessarily, but rather about recognizing and promoting certain yogic practices as legitimate or authentic and positing one group within contemporary India as “more Indian,” and therefore normative, which consequently marginalizes the other factions in the larger structure.

The establishment of this day, then, is more political than celebratory. So when we see these satirical videos or issues in communities, we can see these debates over whether something is religious or not as a minor issue or focal point redirecting attention from a much larger agenda at work.