Much before yoga could be accepted as a wholesome and family-friendly practice available at a yoga studio next to a Starbucks cafe at the local strip mall, many yogis would work assiduously to strip away yoga’s sinister overtones and would guide in its re-emergence as a secular and peaceful practice. The dreadlocks had to go, and the ash-smeared hashish-smoking yogi was replaced by a yogi of pleasing hair-length and body hygiene.
A wholesale shedding of the hirsute and unkempt image of the yogi, as well as a generous application of spit and polish was undertaken before a shiny and sanitized version of the modern yogi emerged, suitable for Western consumption.
Yogis Through the Colonial Lens
Early interactions between yoga practitioners and Westerners during the British Raj were illuminating. Presumably, colonial yogis severely tested prevailing puritanical Victorian sensibilities by their more freewheeling native ways. A recent exhibition by the Smithsonian, “Yoga: the Art of Transformation,” dubbed as the first exhibition on yoga, devoted a full section on how the colonialists of the British Raj remained uncomprehending and just a bit uneasy at the fakirs on their beds of nails and with a proclivity to levitate.
Many yogis were not integrated into mainstream society even in colonial India, and had been the perennial outsiders, spurning family life, living in communes and frequently smoking consciousness-altering substances. Much like American hippies of the 70s who would come much later, these early yogis tolerated ridicule and derogatory appellations. While Western counterculture hippies have been called beatniks or freaks, the British, upon encountering yogis and at a loss as to how to frame the mendicants, called them fakirs, even though the latter were of Muslim lineage, such as sufi dervishes.
An Orientalist lens is evident in the film Hindoo Fakir made by Thomas Edison in 1902, and described as a “remarkable and mystifying” picture. A fakir, with referents more Islamic than Hindu, is seen creating cinematic “trick” spectacles such as a flower that turns into a girl with wings, who flies around the stage. In 1931, Churchill’s infamous reference to Gandhi in 1931 as a “half-naked fakir” cemented the status of the word as a colonial slur. Clearly, the powers of yogis, such as levitation and visions induced both fascination and fear in the West, mixed with a healthy does of disdain.
Sinister yogis continued to populate popular culture, including a poison-dart spewing fakir referred to only as “the eyes” in the 1950s Tintin series, The Cigars of the Pharaoh and The Blue Lotus. The fakir uses blow-darts dipped with rajaijah juice to drive his victims such as the Maharaja of Gaipajama insane. Hypnosis, the Indian rope trick, and escapology are additional skills in this drug-smuggling, criminal fakir’s sinister repertoire.
The Transformation Begins
Aware of yoga’s image problem, Swami Vivekananda, in his 1896 book Raja Yoga, decried the contortionists and conjurers who were giving yoga a bad rap in the West. Swami Vivekananda taught and lectured extensively on Hinduism and yoga in America during his first visit from 1893-1896 and, during his second visit, from 1899-1900.
Another important yoga teacher, T. Krishnamachari, was hired in the 1920s by the Raja of Oudh and trained many influential students in India who helped spread his teachings overseas.
B.K.S. Iyengar, with his well-groomed mane of hair was lauded by celebrity violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who wrote the foreword for Iyengar’s 1966 book, Light on Yoga. Menuhin’s endorsement of Iyengar as “his best violin teacher,” a nod to the benefits of yoga, helped provide cultural legitimacy to the practice of yoga in the West.
The attractive sari-wearing Indra Devi originally born Eugenie V. Peterson, brought yoga to Hollywood in the fifties and contributed to the trend of making yoga acceptable. Marilyn Monroe was one of her famous disciples who adopted the practice of yoga in her wellness routine. The Beatles traveled to India in 1968 to learn transcendental meditation at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi ashram in Rishikesh, and their well-publicized trip was another opportunity to enhance yoga’s image.
These first interactions of yoga teachers with famous celebrities captured through photographs and articles in print magazines hastened the acceptance of yoga in other parts of society. But it was the 1970s hippies who provided yoga with the warmest embrace. The hippie movement was a counter-cultural social movement that drew upon Eastern mysticism for a pagan, back-to-nature spiritual life to challenge the mainstream orthodoxy of competitive consumer capitalism and Christian family values.
This circuitous trajectory of how yoga shed its sketchy image and arrived into the American mainstream is a fascinating journey; a journey that has ended at a strip mall near you. This transformation can be examined through the lens of popular cultural representations. In contemporary television shows such as Orange is the New Black, Eastern spiritual traditions are depicted with characters such as Yoga Jones, Guru Mack and Norma embodying the history of the 70s counter-culture hippie movement in America. These images, far less sinister than earlier colonialist and neo-colonialist images, add to yoga’s continuing salience in contemporary cultural consciousness.
The Counter-culture and Eastern Mysticism in Current Culture
From representations of sinister yogis where “otherness” was indeed the guiding principle, we move to the present where the Netflix show, Orange is the New Black has references to Amma the hugging saint, and depicts Sanskrit chants and discussions of astral planes.
A character, Norma, develops a cult following among prison inmates due to her shoulder squeeze that miraculously heals. As a younger, painfully shy woman, Norma, in bell-bottoms and flower garlands, had become enamored with Guru Mack, a hippie. Norma becomes one of Guru Mack’s multiple wives and sticks with him through the bitter end (which she precipitates, and thus receives the prison term). Before his death he is shown broke and disheartened in a dilapidated Volkswagen Beetle van, the hippie vehicle of choice. Through these characters, the show provides a perspective on the counter-cultural social movement of the 60s that drew upon Eastern mysticism that challenged the mainstream.
The Fakir Gets a Makeover: Enter Yoga Jones
We see a fairly sympathetic view of yogis in Yoga Jones, an inmate at Litchfield Penitentiary in the same show. Yoga Jones is a white yogi, a nod to the present-day acceptance of yoga culture and its tropes in present-day American society. She displays many characteristics emblematic of “hippie culture.”
Yoga Jones radiates a serene high-mindedness that one might associate with yoga even when there is a Darwinian struggle for survival around her. She, on the other hand, is like the proverbial lotus in the mud, full of helpful advice to new inmates, active in the prison garden where she grows kale, and apt to spout poetry by Rumi.
Yoga Jones provides a new perspective to the newly arrived protagonist Piper Chapman, stressing the impermanence of every moment. Incarceration, however scary and dehumanizing an experience, could be borne if it was not to be forever.
Yoga Jones: Do you know what a mandala is?
Piper Chapman: Um, those are those round Buddhist art things.
Yoga Jones: The Tibetan monks make them out of sand laid out into big beautiful designs. And when they’re done, after days or weeks of work, they wipe it all away.
Piper Chapman: Wow, that’s, that’s a lot.
Yoga Jones: Try to look at your experience here as a mandala, Chapman. Work hard to make something as meaningful and beautiful as you can. And when you’re done, pack it in and know it was all temporary.”
This gem of Buddhist philosophy serves to soften Piper’s prison landing in prison. Strategies such as yoga to overcome suffering can take on special significance in prison, where inmates face horrific stresses in an institutional environment that robs them of agency and human dignity.
In one episode, when prison instructor Yoga Jones hears that Piper has ended her relationship with Alex, she exudes Zen calmness and quotes Rumi, saying that lovers don’t ever meet, that they are in each other all along. In response to this poetic sentiment, Alex responds that their relationship was something like that, but with the extra elements of backstabbing and drugs. We return from the rarefied verse of Rumi to the moral relativism and undeniable grit of a woman’s prison.
Yoga in American prisons does have a real-life version. Prison yoga founder James Fox for instance, teaches yoga to inmates as part of The Prison Project.
Yoga’s Other Baggage
Along with this projection of yoga as a way to deal with the stresses of being in prison, we also see some other less desirable strands of thinking displayed in television portrayals.
Norma’s elevated status among her acolytes can be seen as an examination of the curious nature of faith in different societies. When a toast seems to bear the likeness of Norma, her followers are overcome with devotion. The storyline is a clear sendup of the seemingly irresistible draw of charismatic, occasionally scandalous, spiritual gurus from real life
The most recent real-life yoga celebrity who has been dogged by sex scandals is Bikram Chowdhury of the franchise Bikram Yoga. Bikram Chowdhury has not been good for yoga’s reputation and the scandal feeds into the suspicion that yoga and loose morals somehow go together.
Another enduring strand of thought—yogic eroticism has an entire chapter in William Broad’s The Science of Yoga. A raised eyebrow regarding downward dog (adhomukh shvanasana) is expressed in a 2016 episode of the sitcom Modern Family where Gloria takes Claire to a yoga studio where the teacher is adjusting Claire in a bold manner. The yoga teacher exudes not serenity, but a rakish come-hither-ness. Western Internet yogi celebrity Kino McGregor routinely performs yoga in a bikini; a puzzling sartorial decision till one realizes that audience size is the currency of the Internet. These interactions draw attention to another strand of thinking that colors Western perception of yoga, which is yoga’s reputation as an alleged aphrodisiac
A sex scandal involving a yoga guru, whose followers place such trust in him, is a particularly troubling breach of trust. By contrast, B.K.S. Iyengar’s book Light on Yoga makes references to the virtues of brahmacharya or celibacy.
While yoga has become so ubiquitous as to even appear in fictional television shows, yoga’s real coup has been its recognition at the United Nations, which declared an International Day of Yoga in 2015. Yoga’s stress-busting promise of inner harmony and a mind-body connection is spreading.
The Subversive Act of Relaxing
In its “avatar” outside of India, most current depictions of yoga are of calming “Om” breaths, where resorts boast of resident yoga teachers to help rejuvenate and de-stress visitors, and of salons and studios where one can nip in to get a quick relaxation fix.
The history of how yoga got this salubrious veneer highlights how ironic it is that yogis critical of mainstream materialism are called upon to dissipate work stress, a product of consumer culture and work schedules It also speaks to the subversive act of relaxing in a world which is accelerating in its velocity and break-neck information assault. While it can be argued that the mainstream adoption of yoga culture constitutes an escape from the stresses of oppressive 24/7 work cultures in a globalized corporate landscape, a yoga mat, just like a tattoo, is indeed open to interpretation.
Is it a sign of conformity to a fad? Or a rebellious political statement? Or is it just an act of personal expression? This meaning is open to interpretation.
Thomas Friedman, in his recent book Thank You for Being Late talks of the radical act of taking back one’s ownership of time from the deluge of information overload. Mindfulness is the new mantra, an antidote to the accelerated velocity of everyday life and stresses of the win-at-all-costs work culture. One can argue that even the act of a ten-minute yoga nap during savasana is subversive in the fiercely competitive world of nonstop productivity.
Ironically, the same counter-cultural movements that were considered anti-work, now provide an antidote to stress, preventing burnout and facilitating continued productivity. Corporate yoga is on the rise. Once again, consumer capitalism coopts what challenges it and absorbs it within its fold.
Today’s corporate yoga chains such as Core Power and Yoga Works, full of lululemon-clad svelte practitioners are hardly recognizable as counter-cultural in any way. Yoga Journal, a glossy ad-filled magazine devoted to wellness and self-care, feels more square and establishment by the day.
As part of modern yoga’s journey, it distanced itself from the 70s hippies who had let their hair down and experimented with psychedelic drugs. It was to appeal to sensibilities of Western mainstream practitioners that the yoga community offered a sanitized, uniquely American, secular, asana-based athletic yoga. We can see this hybridization as the emergence of a new form of yoga on American shores.
Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D. is a frequent contributor to India Currents. She is a certified yoga teacher and finds that standing on her her head often gives her a new perspective. She sometimes finds herself wondering if doing yoga would make Donald Trump a better president.