Introduction to critical issues in yoga

The aim of this essay is to examine the dynamic and multi-dimensional relationship between contemporary globalised yoga (CGY)[1] and the topics of neoliberalism and gender.  This subject can be tackled from multiple angles. In order to honour the specifications of the essay, it is limited to a brief overview of what could be considered some of the major themes.  In some instances, questions will be raised as topics for future contemplation.

It is tempting to assume that there is one typology of contemporary yoga that has been subject to the same forces of globalisation and can be codified accordingly. Yet, Singleton and Byrne (2009:6) question if there is indeed “a discrete and identifiable category of beliefs or practices.” This is particularly pertinent in the age of globalisation which has seen a massive increase in trade, travel and information. Cultural exchange has accelerated and with it concepts and ideas have travelled faster than ever before.  With this acceleration in mind, divergence and variation within CGY is to be expected (Alter 2009:47).  For the purpose of this examination, the term CGY will be used to refer to the multiple forms of modern yoga which have been dispersed globally.[2] This includes a variety of breath based physical practices and instruction which focus on disciplining the body and mind, and have their roots in pre-modern yoga. [3] Such “roots” could refer to aspects of what De Michelis  (2009:19) describes as “disciplinary practices whereby one attains, or moves progressively closer to, moksa (or nirvana).” As shall be shown below, many of the Sanskrit terms familiar to pre-modern yoga have been exposed to a great variety in translations and interpretations.  The theoretical study, or even practice of such concepts (such as the eight limbs of Patanjalayogasastra) does not necessarily equate to their internalisation (McCartney 2019: 148). This highlights the limited extent to which an etic study can accurately perceive the relationship of an emic practice, particularly one which explores biopolitics (whereby a change in one’s body affects a change in one’s actions) (Godrej 2016:5).  In an attempt to bridge this gap, I have taken the liberty to include the observations of contemporary teachers, such as Uma Dinsmore-Tuli, alongside that of academics.

The first section will explore if CGY supports a neoliberal framework, or if it simultaneously proffers a counter thesis to it.  Due to the wide range of topics, which could be explored under the label of “gender”, the second section examine the dynamic between CGY and its largely female populace. A curious twist in the plot is that neoliberalism holds the key to soften some of the authoritarian and patriarchal relics that live on in CGY. I have placed this essay at this point in the manual as it marks the point where an examination of yoga practiced within a globalised world intersects with Women and Yoga.

The meeting of two worlds: Yoga and Neoliberalism

 Neoliberalism can be defined as an economic and cultural ideology, which involves reducing the role of state and securing the unimpeded function of the market economy (Puustinen and Rautaniemi 2015:47).  The shift of focus away from the responsibility of the state towards the individual, is supported by policies that promote self-care, self-responsibility, entrepreneurial directives and essentially self-regulation. One of the most obvious parallels with CGY is the focus both have on maximising potential. References to the subtle body, as taught in premodern Hatha Yoga (Mallinson 2011:779), have been overlaid with Jungian psychology. This combined with confused spiritual jargon that refers to “enlightenment” or achieving a state of perfection, means that CGY is often touted as a holistic cure for all aliments and imbalances – from the physical to the emotional and beyond. [4]

Rather than enforcing a top down narrative of social conduct, neoliberalism directs the individual from the inside out. It encourages individuals to “reflect back on themselves, assess themselves for their potentials and aptitudes for independent conduct” (Blinkley cited in Godrej 2016:8). Likewise, one of the forefathers of CGY, B.K.S Iyengar (2002:122) taught that svadhyaya (self-study) paired with an embodied yoga practice, was an effective way to cultivate a sound understanding of the self.

Contemporary interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita, have hijacked terms such as dharma. For example, Cope (2015:xxi) writes: “Yogis insist that every single human being has a unique vocation. They call this Dharma.” In many CGY circles, it is taught that one must first engage in a journey of physical, emotional and psychological “healing” as a prerequisite to service or social responsibility. The danger is that this inner journey opens up a pandora’s box which leads to a never-ending plethora of emotional and phycological aliments which must be heal – at whatever the cost. Godrej (2016:15) warns that once democratic subjects become wholly enthralled in their own interests they become “available to political tyranny” precisely because they are so self-absorbed. This is particularly pertinent in 2019, where access to information and current global issues can leave individuals feeling overwhelmed and politically impotent.  Warner observed that the ideas of personal liberation sold in CGY provides a seductive alternative “to narrow the scope of life’s challenges and demands … to the more manageable range of the in-and-out of your own breath.” Gandhi and Wolff (2017:2) note that “people are grasping for something to belong and connect to outside of the empty and shallow societal anchors of materialism and consumerism, which do not nourish or empower people in any sort of meaningful or sustainable way.” One must wonder to what extent neoliberalism is pushing people towards CGY in the illusion that it will fill the missing cultural gaps? Yet could it also be that the success of CGY is perpetuating neoliberalism?

Many multinational corporations offer in-house yoga classes to their employees. CGY is promoted as a tool to reduce and manage stress and anxiety (Carrette and King 2004:1). Yet could this be a way to ensure employees are of optimal health in order to increase productivity?[5] Or even to endure workloads that could otherwise be considered to be unethical? An array of auxiliary industries has accompanied the surge in interest in contemporary yoga. It is common for sections on business and marketing strategies to be included in a YTT courses. The new teacher is literally trained in how to turn herself into a product to be effectively marketed. There may be many yoga teachers who would prefer to focus on the content of their classes rather than the content of their website or social media pages.  However, the online competition and yoga market is so fierce that as Jain (2015:159) highlights in her aptly titled book Selling Yoga, the modern yoga teacher has been forced to adapt to the dominant consumer culture and context.  Jain argues that this does not necessarily take away from any perceived intrinsic essence of yoga, rather the very nature of yoga is its “malleability” or its ability to bend into new shapes without breaking.  Therefore, it seems tricky to determine if the pressures of teaching CGY within a neoliberal framework could corrupt any essence of yoga, if it’s very essence is always changing! Yet for arguments sake, how would certain values inherent to the Patanjaliyogasastra hold up in a competitive market economy? For example, can one effectively advertise whilst maintaining satya (telling the truth)? Or run courses without overcharging and honouring aparigraha (non-greedlessness)? These are just a few of many potential ambiguities.

Opposition to the neoliberal narratives

There is a rise of yoga schools who have a mandate to be increasing accessible, be trauma informed, and train teachers to work in areas of conflict, oppression and corporal punishment.[6] Such projects are widening a platform which challenges the acceptance of the dominant social and cultural norms within both CGY and neoliberalism. Even the act of engaging in a physical yoga practice, free from external distractions, and spending time cultivating an inner awareness could be enough to begin an inner revolution. For example, Remski (2018) describes that in his experience yoga gave him the “resilience” to engage in social justice work. In this way, practitioners are encouraged to self-regulate their behaviour by upholding ethical guidelines that are loosely threaded in yogic philosophy (Stone 2009).  The focus on self-discipline, common to both premodern yoga and aspects of CGY, paired could support a shift in values via the “devaluing of materiality relative to spiritual reality.” Godrej (2016:15).

Underneath CGY lays a distant framework of Sāmkhya’s dualist ontology, which views matter (prakrti) as inferior to absolute spirit or ultimate reality (purusha). In Patanjalayogasastra (2.2) the kleshas are described as the root cause of suffering, and warn against confusing the impermanent with the permeant. Stone (2009:20) suggests that this provides an alternative narrative which opens the practitioner “to a life grounded in action and relationship” and untangled from neoliberal conditioning which views the self as distinct and separate from the rest. Although it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which CGY creates a space for narratives on death and impermanence to be explored, even a simple reference to the mythology behind common poses such as bakasana (crow pose) could ignite a spark to challenge a consumer society, which death doula Jenkinson (2015:277) believes is fuelled by a death phobic culture. Yet, to what extent does contemporary teachings and popular phases translate into an emic shift in ideas? For example, one of the most common phrases shared in CGY is “we are all one.” Who knows to what extent this is lip service or how many practitioners may prioritise collective welfare over their individual concerns? Carrett and King describe how premodern yoga provided “a reorientation away from the concerns of the individual and towards an appreciation of the wider social and cosmic dimensions of our existence.” (cited in Jain 2015:102.) However, does this reflect a largely romanticised idea of premodern yoga? And if so, perhaps CGY has not betrayed a premodern version but rather reflects a misconstruction of premodern ideas? Likewise, what was the understanding of the category of the individual in premodern times in South Asia? As most certainly, it was not identical to contemporary globalised notions in late capitalism. Yet teachers such as Remski and Dinsmore-Tuli demonstrate, as well as the increasing number of yoga activism projects suggests, it may well be that CGY is a convenient method to promote social justice over neoliberal ideas of self-development.

The marriage between CGY and gender

CGY attracts a far greater percentage of female than male practitioners.  This can be observed in almost any average yoga class, yet it is also evidenced by the high number women who register as teachers via regulatory bodies such as Yoga Alliance.  Immediately, this highlights that as the primary consumers of CGY, the topics of gender and neoliberalism are closely intertwined. A cursory examination suggests that CGY sells a package of attainment for the modern woman which ticks all the boxes: CGY offers her a trim, toned figure, holistic health, an avenue of self-improvement, an invitation to engage in a “spiritual” practice and an opportunity to meet like-minded women.  Yet Godrej (2016:11) warns that CGY re-inscribes “consumerism and heteronormative beauty standards.” Such dissatisfaction with one’s appearance, size, shape and age and so on fuels a plethora of body modification and the cosmetic industry (Wolff 1991) and thus links back to the previous examination of the relationship between CGY and neoliberalism. As Wolff (1991:187) observes, “a culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience.” There is a danger that CGY and its associated landscape (a vegan or raw food diet etc) is being used to mask an epidemic of low self-esteem, body dysmorphia and eating disorders plaguing women world-wide.

Of course, many women are drawn to CGY for all sorts of reasons that reach far beyond body image. Dinsmore-Tuli (2014:49) suggests that certain narratives of CGY offer women an alternative to the “disconnection rooted in our cultural experience” where “in a world where we live by men’s values and according to men’s expectations, the very fact of being a woman at all is a source of struggle and disease.” The history of CGY originated from a practice designed by men and for men (Mallinson 2011:779). The fifteenth century text, the Hathapradipika, (often referenced as the source of our contemporary physical poses) does not consider a woman’s anatomy. The instruction given is for a male body only.[7]  Dinsmore-Tuli (2014:90) argues that the presence of women was often viewed to be a polluting or a distraction. So, to what extent has CGY been able to challenge such a patriarchal framework by teaching to a woman’s anatomy, including acknowledging her menstrual cycles? Yet it seems that few CGY classes encourage women to honour the natural dip in energy levels that happens pre-menstruation (Pope 2017:49) or give guidance how to effectively support her through pregnancy, post-natal recovery, peri-menopause and menopause. Dinsmore-Tuli (2014:578) also suggests that the premodern yogic focus on attaining siddhis and even the desire for liberation from the human condition, is one that promotes control over nature, rather than respect for it. To what extent does this promote a disregard for both a woman’s menstrual cycle, the natural aging process and even environmental ecology?

The yogic body isn’t a woman’s body

The authoritarian manner of teaching passed on from the guru/discipline tradition, has created a curious pedagogical approach where the teacher is always right, holds all the knowledge and knows what is best for you. A long-time student of B.K.S Iyengar, Angela Farmer, recollects how his alignment cues have spread world-wide, and yet are obsessed with straight lines. As with the Hathayogapradipika, many of common existing alignment cues speak to a male body. There is little space of honouring a woman’s curves. Farmer (cited Dinsmore-Tuli 2014:58) recollects that there was a fear of punishment if one were to “incorrectly” perform the pose.  The recent exposure of physical, verbal and sexual abuse from guru to student throughout different yoga lineages,[8]  raises the question as to what extent blindly following postural cues has created a pyramid of abuse, which trains students to trust the teacher implicitly.  Farmer now teaches women how to move through postures honouring their own unique physiology and daily needs.

Such innovation opens up another caveat: Could the arena of neoliberalism, which is highly focused on the individual choice, potentially undermine this teacher knows best attitude? As Godrej (2016:10) notes, “students are given choices to modify their practice following their own bodily constraints and capabilities.” CGY could provide a “brave space” in which women can re-empower themselves by moving how they need to move in order to honour cyclical wisdom. Trauma informed yoga emphasises that physical alignment must not be prioritised at the expensive of creating, or triggering, trauma for fear of failing to keep up with the group (Khouri and Haglund 2017:5). Yet, even in a more general CGY class, the attainment of certain strenuous or complex postures (such as arm balances and inversions) could support a healthy sense of self-esteem, self-worth and that the practitioners is capable of supporting herself in different positions, both on and off the mat.


The evolutionary nature of CGY, plus the myriad of ways in which it is practised, means that this relationship is not clear cut. In fact, it is almost impossible to evaluate. On the one hand CGY jeopardies secluding the practitioner within a community of likeminded, affluent consumers. It promises continuous self-development, healing, inner peace and happiness.  Yet the perpetual treadmill of self-healing could depoliticise and pacify on a collective scale. On the other hand, aspects of the CGY hold the potential to strengthen an undercurrent of alternative values and foster a counter narrative to neoliberalism. In a culture which prizes competition and individualisation, the echoes of yogic philosophy offer a radical new perspective on values and lifestyle choices. Themes within texts such as the Patanjalayogasastra and the Bhagavad Gita, could be of great support for practitioners who realise that continuous self-development does not necessarily lead to either individual or collective well-being.

In regards to gender, the commodification of CGY has lured a disproportionately large number of women into its fold. The emphasis on attainment paired with a globalised addiction to image, means that the CGY has in some ways been co-opted to further perpetuate an agenda that is dangerous to women’s self-esteem and well-being. There is a growing awareness that alignment cues designed for a male body and taught from an authoritarian framework do need to be reformulated to one which is respectful to a woman’s anatomy and overall health. Such a pedagogical approach could provide a space for women to come together to reconnect with the inherent wisdom within their bodies, rather than needing to fix it or to control it. The inconsistencies revealed by such a gender informed yoga practice holds the potential to foster a reorientation away from the dominant neoliberal framework whilst shining a light on the multiple interpretations of CGY.

[1] CGY will be used as the abbreviation for Contemporary Globalisation Yoga from this point now on.

[2] Although religious and philosophical ideas have been travelling out of India since at least the time of the Buddha (around 600BC). Specifically, in regards to yoga, Acri (2012) has translated a Javanese version of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, dated to around the 1030AD.

[3] Pre-modern refers roughly to the period prior to the 19th Century.

[4] Judith (2004), Eastern Body, Western Mind: Psychology and the Chakra System As a Path to the Self is frequently used are required or recommended reading in Yoga Teacher Training (YTT) courses.

[5] Corporate enterprise, Aetna, recorded that after the implementation of yoga and mindfulness classes in their company, paid medical claims per employee were down 7.3 percent. This amounted to about $9 million in savings annually. (Gelles 2015)

[6] Examples of such organisations include, Off the Mat and into the World, Ompowerment, Yoga for Humankind, and the Yoga Prison Project to name but a few. Lucia (2018:41) explores the prosletysing effects of such projects or missions. One must also wonder to what extent this furthers a neo-colonial mandate?

[7] See Chapter 1 verses 27, 29, 39 in Hatha Yoga Pradipika (2002).

[8] For example, see Remski (2019).


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Image: ‘Portrait of Yogini,’ c. 1750–1760 via Honolulu Museum of Art