Yoga

Does anyone actually own yoga?

The tradition of Yoga in India is as a part of religion. They are different sides of the same coin. Yoga in America is decidedly secular. There is even a court ruling explaining how yoga is not religious in America.

At one point there was a campaign to Take Back Yoga aiming to restore yoga to its fundamentals and not the multi-million-dollar business it is here. It didn’t get very far, probably because by the time the campaign was attempted the yoga practitioners in this country numbered in the millions.

But the attempt to somehow take yoga back, as if it had been somehow given away, suggests the idea that someone could actually own yoga. Is that possible?

This is not a new question

The idea that someone might own yoga first happened back in 2011. The problems arose when people other than Indians attempted to copyright asanas, techniques and sequences.

Many Indians including B.K.S. Iyengar and the teachers at the Kaivalyadhama Ashram were vociferous in their objection to the possibility. The rationale being that yoga is an ancient and traditional practice and cannot belong to any one person or group.

New Developments

Since that initial external gambit, India has taken steps to protect what can and cannot be called yoga. The first step was the appointment of a Minister of Yoga. The goal of the government is to have yoga recognized first and foremost as a practice which is essentially Indian grounded in the Hindu tradition and anything that is other to that will be not yoga by definition.

The parallel is Champagne

Years ago, the French were able to do this exactly by getting an international declaration, based on a court case, that Champagne is only produced in the area of France to the northeast of Paris. Any other fizzy wine made anywhere else is not Champagne. The difficulty is France recognizes this but if other countries decide not to, there’s very little France can do about it.  California produces Champagne by the gallon. There are roquefort and mozzarella cheeses produced in the US too, and the European Union can only grumble, and it does.

India is facing the same challenge

Even if India could create a geographic indication, a legal device which establishes the essential Indian-ness of yoga, it will probably be unable to enforce it. It is much more difficult though to create a geographical indication over something that you cannot hold like you can a grape or a lump of cheese.

Enterprising westerners have already created variations on the theme of yoga, and so it is already difficult to insist that today a practice has to have started in India. Ironically hot yoga, though initiated by an Indian, was started in Japan. Where would that fall?

The issue comes down to money. In the west, yoga is worth billions, considerably more than it is in India. It is possible to imagine the Indian government attempting to get a slice of it.