Film-makers Aim to Turn “Who Owns Yoga?” Into Feature-Length Documentary

April 24, 2015    BY Kathryn Ashworth

As it's burgeoned into a multi-billion dollar industry, yoga has come to mean big money for some. And the conflation of traditional practices and contemporary marketing lends itself to a few uncomfortable questions: If yoga can appear in so many different forms (everything from practice on paddle-boards to asana with your dog) then what truly is yoga? Do fusions, hybrids, and the commercialization of yoga make it more relevant, or are we simply appropriating culture? 

As it's burgeoned into a multi-billion dollar industry, yoga has come to mean big money for some.

Journalist and yoga practitioner, Bhanu Bhatnagar, and award-winning documentary film-makers Micah Green, and Marie-Hélène Carleton, have traveled across Britain, the US, and India to find answers to these very questions. Their 48-minute documentary, "Who Owns Yoga?" features everyone from gurus to yoga CEOs (including Yoga International's Todd Wolfenberg) to celebrity yogis to Christian yogis to yogi-anarchists. And next up?  Bhanu, Garen, and Carleton hope to turn "Who Owns Yoga" into a feature-length film. (Check out their Kickstarter for more info.)

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Bhanu, and we discussed his personal relationship to the project, whether or not it's possible to strike a balance between yoga and business, and what he hopes to accomplish by extending "Who Owns Yoga" into a 90-minute feature.

Why are you turning your short film into a full feature-length documentary?
In short: more characters, more stories, and more yoga wisdom. While making the 48-minute documentary for television last year, it became clear to all of us on the team—Micah, Marie-Helene, and I—that there is something special happening to yoga around the world. It’s part of a zeitgeist and as such, now pervades pretty much all areas of modern life. My own Indian background makes this film a deeply personal journey, one in which I rediscover my culture and heritage while recognizing that I will always straddle East and West. The feature-length film also includes more personal reflections from me, the story-teller, as well as some of the characters in the original film. We introduce new characters too. The longer version is more comprehensive as a film because it allows us the creativity to tell the story in the best possible way. And this year marks the first ever International Yoga Day, proposed by the Indian prime minister, and unanimously endorsed by the United Nations. It will be celebrated on June 21st. There couldn't be a better time to be talking about yoga and its place in society. 

How did audiences react to the original documentary that aired on television last year?
The response has been great. I expected yogis would find the film informative and entertaining, but I wasn't prepared for the response from people with no interest or background in yoga. They overwhelmingly loved the film, and were the biggest advocates for turning it into a longer feature film. And I think I understand why. The film throws up so many issues that are relevant and topical today, issues like commercialization, cultural appropriation, religion, intellectual property rights, and ownership. In this sense, the film is about so much more than just yoga. 

How did your personal background as an Indian raised in the West inform how you told the story of yoga in the modern world?
This film is unique precisely because I have my roots in the East but was raised in the West. I don’t consider myself to be from entirely one or the other, and my multiple identities inform my outlook on the world and yoga. Through the course of making the film, I was awe-struck by the diversity of yoga around the world, the many ways people interpreted it, and I came to realize that we each must negotiate our own path through yoga. This is reflected through the many characters we meet in the film. My Indian heritage gave me an acute sensitivity to some of the issues we were raising—for example, whether yoga is a religious practice, or whether it’s part of India’s cultural patrimony and deserves to be protected in some way. 

You spent a lot of time traveling and meeting yogis from around the world. On one hand, there seems to be a push toward the superficial (yoga clothing, products, etc.), and on the other hand, people seem to be looking for something much deeper. What trends did you see emerging from these two opposite forces?
It's interesting, because this very question came up time and again during the course of making the film. I witnessed an unprecedented commercialization and commodification of yoga. But there was an equally powerful force trying to keep yoga rooted in tradition and philosophy. These opposite forces will always clash and coexist, with individuals able to choose how deep or shallow their yoga is. And herein lies the salient point: Yoga is not yoga without being underpinned by philosophy, even something very basic, like the eight limbs. Yoga is about life. And life is about morality. And morality is underpinned by philosophy, in this case yogic philosophy. In India for example, despite a rise in western-style yoga studios, the guru-student relationship is much more entrenched, and many practitioners seek out private teachers for one-on-one instruction. While there might be a trend toward superficiality, I'm optimistic that there are countless groups and individuals working tirelessly to promote the essence of yoga—to give people the tools they need to live peaceful, happy lives. 

There are a lot of examples in your documentary about yoga being over commoditized, and even leveraged or owned to gain competitive advantage. Do you think there is a way to balance business and yoga? 
Yoga is not immune from the clutches of the commercial world. In fact, nothing is, not religion, not spirituality, not even nationalism. We live in a commercial world. And it is because of this world, not despite it, that millions of people have been exposed to yoga who otherwise wouldn't have. Is that a good thing? Absolutely. But as a community we need to decide for ourselves when the interests of business are overriding the interests of yoga or yogis. There is a way to balance business and yoga. There are many yoga businesses out there that do—by reaching out to their communities, by putting profits back into the community, by underpinning their businesses with yoga philosophy, by championing animal or human rights, by treating the Earth kindly, and the list goes on. Profit is not a bad word. There's nothing wrong with making money. But ask yourself: Is profit serving the interests of yoga? It is up to us, as yogis and consumers, to support ethical and sustainable yoga businesses that are not driven by profit alone. 

How do you see the issues of commercialization and ownership evolving as yoga becomes an even bigger industry? What are the relevant questions we, as yogis, should be asking?
The negative publicity over Bikram's attempts to copyright his sequence, and the patent awarded to YogaGlo for its camera angles have shown that the yoga community and the world at large are watching events very closely. And there's a sense that everyone is in it together, for the good of yoga. In my opinion a minority of players will continue to try and own a piece of yoga because that's what their lawyers, business advisers and venture capitalists tell them to do. But the vast majority of people will shun their efforts. One possible negative side effect of a growing yoga industry is that India feels the need to stamp its ownership claim over yoga. And this is where things get tricky. While it is true that yoga is an ancient Indian spiritual practice, it has been practiced and appropriated outside India for so long now that in some parts of the world the link is tenuous. And claiming yoga as a nation state flies against the very progressive and non-conformist nature of yoga to begin with. Of course yoga is Indian. But can India own yoga? I don't think so. 

There's no easy answers. Just lots of questions. Let's take the journey together.

As yogis we need to be asking different questions. Like "How can this ancient practice fit into our modern lives?" "What does the commercialization of yoga tell us about the world we live in?" "How do we negotiate the muddy waters of yoga to arrive at our own personal truths?" and "How do we use our power as consumers to make ethical choices when it comes to yoga businesses and the wider world?" There's no easy answers. Just lots of questions. Let's take the journey together. 

Kathryn Ashworth
Kathryn is an associate editor at Yoga International. She found her way to yoga one starry night in Portugal at Monte Sahaja (the ashram of advaita master Mooji). Now she lives at the Himalayan Institute, where she continues her studies. She views yoga primarily as a healing practice that can re-awaken a sense of wonder, purpose, and (to quote one of her teachers, Rolf Sovik) "relentless optimism."

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