Who Owns Yoga?

I recently read an article about the ownership of Yoga and my brain began firing off questions of my own.  If 10,000 hours is the designation by which experts earn their title, then I am, by definition, am a yoga expert. My practice dates back to 2000, and in 2009 I lived in an ashram where I studied the yoga poses (asana), practices, theories, breathing techniques (pranayama) and meditation.  I'm certified to teach yoga and I notice a difference when I commit to practicing all of the above on a regular basis. That being said, I'm firmly grounded in the traditional practice and have strong opinions on the issues that arise when talking about the mind/body regimen that has been around for thousands of years.  

"The whole system of Yoga is built on three main structures: exercise, breathing, and meditation. The exercises of Yoga are designed to put pressure on the glandular systems of the body, thereby increasing its efficiency and total health. The body is looked upon as the primary instrument that enables us to work and evolve in the world, and so a Yoga student treats it with great care and respect. Breathing techniques are based on the concept that breath is the source of life in the body. The Yoga student gently increases breath control to improve the health and function of both body and mind. These two systems of exercise and breathing then prepare the body and mind for meditation, and the student finds an easy approach to a quiet mind that allows silence and healing from everyday stress. Regular daily practice of all three parts of this structure of Yoga produce a clear, bright mind and a strong, capable."** 

Without getting too detailed about styles and types of yoga, which is another post entirely, Hatha yoga, is the practice of which most people associate with a Yoga class, and is defined by "the physical movements and postures, plus breathing techniques." Every Yoga style and practice that we have here in the United States comes from Hatha Yoga. Yoga was founded in India as a way to connect the mind and body as a spiritual practice, some say by the Hindu religion others say it was discovered years before by the Vedic culture, either way, the word Yoga means “oneness, to join or yoke together,” and it brings the body and mind together into one harmonious experience.

The Prime Minister of India has launched an effort to qualify yoga with a "geographical indication" -- an acknowledgement of location's importance to a product -- meaning, if approved, India would have control over what is known as and called "yoga" worldwide.  Another example of such distinction is the use of the word "Champagne." Technically, the word Champagne can only be used to describe the sparkling alcoholic wine made from grapes grown in the region of France by the same name.  If you purchased the bubbly to ring in the New Year, you may have noticed that some bottles have the words "sparkling wine" rather than Champagne, which indicates the grapes used in the making of that particular bottle and brand were grown outside the region.  Still following? But the challenge comes in regulation outside of India, where it becomes difficult to oversee the thousands upon thousands of yoga studios worldwide.  Think of all of yoga studios popping up in your neighborhood or classes taught at a local gym.  Regulation of each and every one becomes a challenge, to say the least, but understandably, India wants a portion of the multi-billion dollar industry (here in the United States the yoga business generates $10 billion annually). 

It's a good question and one that is tough to determine.  Remember years ago when Bikram Choudhury tried to copyright his yoga sequence? Each beginner Bikram class, no matter the teacher or the studio is exactly the same, every single time you follow the 90-minute sequence. (Bikram yoga is also different from Hot Yoga) His argument was that the sequence moves oxygenated blood to every part of your body, to each organ and fiber, restoring all systems to healthy working order, toning the muscles and creating a sense of well being.  Each class follows twenty-six postures, in the same order, which he says "scientifically warms and stretches muscles, ligaments and tendons, in the order in which they should be stretched." The practice is derived from Hatha Yoga, but he wanted to copyright the way in which the poses were practiced, which then loops back to the original question -- Can you truly own yoga and if so, WHO does?"

I'm not sure it's a question that will be answered in the new future -- it's been going on for years-- but as someone that has been not only practiced yoga, but also educated myself on it's traditions, theories and foundations, I do think it's become a bit diluted from it's origin. If you live here in Washington, DC, you've heard about the increase in fitness fees dubbed the "yoga tax" which went into effect at the beginning of the year (my thoughts on this are an entirely different post as well). A few days ago, I was speaking with a yoga teacher, who shared with me the difficulty he was having in getting it waved at his studio.  According to the studio owner, if you can prove that your practice has a meditation component to it, then the District can wave the price hike.  He, and frankly myself included, had a tough time with this, because, by definition, ALL yoga practices have a meditative element and component to them, right?  Because then, by the district's definition, yoga is a physical body workout and dismisses the mind/body/spiritual connection that is what, literally, defines the practice of yoga.

For me, I noticed that I was getting away from the spiritual practice and in the past few months, I change course and reinstated a traditional home practice, with breathing techniques and meditation.  The benefits of yoga are immeasurable and there's been more and more medical research that has come out about how yoga and meditation change the gray matter in our brains, making us happier, healthier and less stressed.  While it will take years -- if at all -- to officially bestow ownership to one country or entity, I do know that the benefits of the practice are something I can definitely get behind. 

Do you practice yoga and, if so, in what capacity? I jokingly say that Yoga makes me an all-around better person -- if you practice, do you say the same about your state of mind when you get on your mat?

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