Politics of Yoga

T Vijayendra

The alternative movements in India always run the risk of being co-opted by the right-wing.—Anon

Ever since the present ruling party came to power, yoga, among other 'Ancient Indian' traditions has been in the news. The central government and many state governments are promoting it. There is even an International Yoga Day dedicated to it. This is an initiative of the Indian polity that has set itself the task of portraying India as 'World Teacher' in every field. Some see it as India's reaction to the fact that inspite of its size and economy it is actually very poor in achievements in most fields.

The word yoga has been used in three main ways: Sadhana—as part of practice of many sects in India from ancient times. Then there is yoga as a part of physical fitness and lastly, in more recent times, yoga as therapy is becoming popular among some sections of urban society in India and abroad.

Yoga is a medieval sadhana, a subset of many sects of Hindu religion. It is not an end in itself. Different Yoga Sadhanas are used by different groups and sometimes even within the same sect many forms coexist. Thus there are Hata-yoga, Raja-yoga, Bhakti-yoga, Gyan-yoga etc. Today as Sadhana it is an anachronism and very few pursue it. Many scholars are aware of its history as a part of academic knowledge.

Yoga as a creed for fitness became popular during the Independence Movement as a part of a "national reawakening' and taking pride in Indian tradition. Countless booklets were published giving black and white block printed graphics of various asanas (body postures). It remained a minor activity among upper caste patriots.

Around 1968, yoga travelled overseas. This was a year when the world was in turmoil. There was a split in the Sino-Soviet relationship, the Naxalite movement in India, the Vietnam War protests in the United States of America where Draft Dodgers and Flower Power flourished.

There was a new found interest in the mysterious East and particularly in India because, among other things, marijuana was freely available here. Indian musicians, dancers, gurus and temples flourished in the USA. Naturally, yoga flourished there.

These trends returned to India in 1977 with a renewed enthusiasm among the upper class urban people. They had suffered a decade of unrest : the Naxalite movement, split in all political parties, industrial unrest, the great railway strike of 1974, the famines of 1966-67 and 1974. The Bangladesh war in 1971 recovered the credibility of the ruling parties and the Pokhran atomic bomb explosion sealed it. The Emergency further isolated the rich from the ordinary people.

Thus in 1977, after the Emergency was over, the nation was ready for SPIC-MACAY (Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music Among Children & Youth), the revival of Kuchipudi, Bharatnatyam and Kathak, bawdy Punjabi theatre in Delhi and all of that. Yoga classes too started in earnest. In all these revivals the most popular brands were those that were popular in the USA and England, and many NRIs actively promoted it both abroad and here.

Yoga therapy is a growing fashion in Indian metros. Like many such things, it is popular among the rich who have lifestyle diseases and who want to get relief/cure without changing their lifestyle. As such, it is an oxymoron.

For one thing Yoga therapy is a product of the neoliberal economy which started gaining ground in 1991. By 2005, it produced a new rich class. They were highly westernised in speech and clothing, with an interest in western cinema and music. They also had money and lifestyle diseases, so fitness was a craze among them. They flocked to gyms and yoga classes, went for morning walks and runs in expensive gear.

The yoga teachers soon discovered postural faults in these people, began counselling them and ended up playing the role of therapist. Gradually they introduced special mats, chairs, belts, ropes. Special therapy classes were held which were different from regular fitness yoga classes. At first glance, these therapy classes resembled medieval torture chambers of the Catholic Inquisition in Europe. One will find some hanging upside down held back from a belt tied to window bars, another lying low with weights on their back and others in all sorts of distorted postures. Stylishly fit young men and women served as therapists' assistants, helping people to gain the 'correct' postures.

Some richer people demanded personal classes at home from the sexiest looking teachers. They were willing to pay as much as Rs 1500 per hour! It became a fashion statement among  film stars and Celebes. Of course, there were always many who genuinely sought help for their sufferings and received relief too.

As a therapy it is similar to physio-therapy and has the same relationship with it as other 'alternative' therapies have with mainstream medical sciences.

The main reason for the popularity of all alternative medicine is the unethical practices of mainstream medical profession particularly in the private sector in industrial/capitalist societies. India is particularly bad because its public health services have completely collapsed.

The answer to all these problems is to provide completely free and rational public health services on the lines of Cuba or NHS in England. And like in China it can incorporate best practices from traditional health care services also. But that is asking for socialism! Even today the few rational and pro-people doctors in India practise these things. Many physiotherapists and orthopaedic surgeons in India do understand yoga and incorporate it in their treatment.

The ruling party is only one wing of the family of organisations collectively known as 'Sangh Parivar'. Their agenda is to establish a Hindu Rashtra which is fascist in nature. Like Hitler used the Aryan Myth they use ‘The glory that was Aryavart’ to propagate their agenda. Thus they use references to sciences, mathematics and health in ancient texts to promote their agenda. A section of the Indian ruling classes supports and funds them. Most of the current promotion is part of that politics and is a mass recruiting ground for foot soldiers.

Vol. 50, No.25, Dec 24 - 30, 2017