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Selling the Business of Yoga

Baba Ramdev has built a $670 million company on the back of yoga’s soaring popularity. Is his ethics in alignment with yoga’s teachings? 

While eyeglasses remains Gandhi’s most recognizable accouterment, the dhoti was his most beloved. He championed this simple wrap, made from unstitched cloth, as a way for fellow Indians to loosen the grip of British colonialism. Not only could everyone operate a spinning wheel in order to produce their own clothing, it was also a revolution against foreign capitalism.

How times have changed.

The name Patanjali is most famously associated with the author-compiler of the Yoga Sutra. While this book is considered the foundation of modern yoga, it was little referenced until the last century or so. Patanjali’s biography is uncertain; he might have lived in the first century BCE or the fourth century CE. A five-hundred-year window leaves a lot of room for speculation.

Regardless, around the same time that the Sutra was being translated broadly and exported at the turn of the twentieth century, Indians were in the midst of a burgeoning movement to overthrow colonialism. Gandhi constantly parsed the Bhagavad Gita in his form of bhakti (devotional) yoga, using it as inspiration when marching to cultivate salt (then illegal under British rule) or by calling for a coalition of seamstresses to kick fashion to the curb and become self-reliant.

A similar plea is being made by Patanjali Ayurved, an Ayurveda company spearheaded by Baba Ramdev, a controversial yoga teacher/political rabble-rouser. The company has blurred lines between yoga and capitalism in ways that would make Lululemon executives blush. Currently valued at over $670 million US, their line of supplements, tonics, juices, and books is now being fawned over by other self-pronounced yoga gurus looking to cash in.

Not that there’s anything wrong with running a successful company. Ramdev’s anti-imperialist messages rewind us to Gandhi’s revolutionary tactics—he recently said Patanjili is aiming to shut Colgate, Unilever, and Nestle out of India in the coming years.

But what happens when your revolution becomes the institution you’re supposedly fighting?

Reading Patanjali’s social media feeds reminds me of attending a Landmark Forum-inspired Lululemon groupthink conference: business strategizing couched in easily digestible New Age quips—the intellectual equivalent of plastering ‘Selfie Stop’ on an Abbot Kinney mural. Meaning is secondary to product. If meaning can be coopted to sell products, even better.

This is common in so-called ‘Westernized’ yoga, where bikini-clad yoginis tag juice and clothing companies on Instagram in exchange for product and payment. In fact, for many scoring such endorsements has become a goal. Forget (the author) Patanjali’s instructions for using yoga to slow down the ‘mind-stuff.’ True spirituality is patterned on leggings and in the backwash of cold-pressed kale-turmeric concoctions.

This confusion between spiritual and business practices is nothing new, but its recurrence throughout history is always troubling. While Ramdev recently made a former political opponent an ‘ambassador’ of his products, that does not erase his past Osho-sized tax evasion issues.

Nor does it wipe away Ramdev’s views on homosexuality. Gay and transgender rights are often fought for by American yogis; Ramdev truly turns his country back to the times of Patanjali. When homosexuality was decriminalized in Delhi in 2011, he responded,

The verdict will encourage criminality and sick mentality. This kind of thing is shameful and insulting. We are blindly following the West in everything. This is breaking the family system in India. Homosexuals are sick people, they should be sent to hospitals for treatment. If the government brings this law, I will take to the streets of Delhi in protest.

Ramdev then assured his followers that he could ‘cure’ homosexuality through yoga and meditation, much in the way that Christian preachers claim to cure the gay away with Jesus. And don’t forget about Ramdev’s belief that yoga education should replace sex education in schools or that yoga can cure both cancer and AIDS.

In his 1958 book, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade claimed that yoga seems like many things because it is many things. Debates over yoga’s ‘true’ aim are as common as Instagram handstands. From what I’ve observed, yoga usually means whatever the person practicing it wants it to mean—not far from the manner in which many practice their religion.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell once said religions need to evolve every generation to keep up with the times. Fighting against the tyranny of foreign rule by crafting your own clothing and producing your own food seems a commendable response. Selling giant jugs of ‘orange-flavoured’ aloe vera juice and making impossible claims about deadly diseases sounds more like an insane ploy to keep your name, and products, in the spotlight. In the world of social media, truth all too often falls victims to impassioned rhetoric—and product placement.

In this light, Patanjali the company merges seamlessly with the Western institutions it rails against. As much time and energy as Ramdev spends denouncing foreign corporations, one thing is certain: he sure is trying to become one. 

Image: Money Sharma / Getty Images

Derek Beres is a Los-Angeles based author, music producer, and yoga/fitness instructor at Equinox Fitness. Stay in touch @derekberes.


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