The Globalization of Yoga

Globalization: A term so widely used as to be virtually
meaningless, it nonetheless captures the process by which modern yoga has
spread, from east to west and back again. Today yoga caters to a cadre of
practitioners spanning continents and counting tens of millions of adherents.
In this two-part series, we will discuss the globalization of hatha yoga with
particular relevance to Asia and implications of yoga practice for
musculoskeletal health in different cultures/ethnicities.

Modern
postural yoga started as a fusion of European gymnastics and selected hatha
yoga principles in the early twentieth century
, posits Mark Singleton. Around
this time, yoga was exported to the US from India by Vivekananda and
others, experiencing several waves of popularity before arriving at its current
ubiquity. As yoga has exponentially grown in the west, it’s
been re-exported to India
igniting a nationalistic fervor, despite
many modern forms being inextricably infused with western cultural norms

(for instance, new age spirituality; positive thinking; pursuit of
perfectionism and beauty/youth). Arguably, modern postural yoga, as were its
initial iterations, is an evolution reflecting more of the current cultural
context than anything ancient and enduring. Yet while the interpretation and meaning of yoga may have changed, many of
the gymnastics, Indian martial arts, and actual yoga-derived postures have not.
What does this mean for a global practice?

Today, yoga is practiced in many nations across the globe,
including the Far East. China, dubbed
“the new yoga superpower” by Yoga International magazine,
has around 10
million practitioners (about 16 million Americans practice). “Yoga went to
China via America,” according to one of B.K.S. Iyengar’s leading disciples,
Faeq Biria, who routinely trains students in Beijing. “They see it from an American
point of view. At first, they’re attracted by the byproducts: to be pretty, to
digest well, sleep well, have a nice body, be intelligent, unstressed. It’s
hard work to take them toward the deeper aspects.” Shares one studio owner,
“yoga is a symbol of the outside world. Like thin women on the beach.” As in
the US, yoga fits well there with the thirst for success. Yet Indian teachers
are in increasing demand, with some advocates for yoga’s deeper teachings
making inroads.

There’s
another reason yoga has become so popular in China
and other Asian
cultures: it fits well with indigenous healing systems and
spirituality/philosophy, from Taoist tai chi to Traditional Asian Medicine,
Buddhism, and Confucianism. Yet Taoist tai chi is gentle, soothing, and
rhythmic to facilitate a deeper connection to chi; most modern yoga conjures
images of pretzels, headstands, and other gymnastics, reminiscent of the competitive
environment in which it’s marinated. Thus, in a sign of the times, “hip Hong Kongers would rather splurge $35 on a flow class
than flow [tai chi] with their grannies.”

Do you think the effects of globalization on yoga are
primarily positive, negative or neither?

Part II: East and West Collide: Musculoskeletal implications
of yoga in different cultural contexts

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