They might have called it Occupy New Delhi.
In an Indian incarnation of the burgeoning social protest movement, one of its most celebrated yogis – Baba Ramdev – this week led thousands of disciples through the streets of the capital, protesting against what he claimed was endemic political corruption.
The focus of his attack is “black money” – the estimated trillions of rupees said to be parked illegally in Swiss and other foreign bank accounts.
Much of it is controlled by the country’s elites, maintains Mr. Ramdev, the bare-chested, richly maned, 41-year-old head of a multimillion-dollar international yoga empire.
The guru’s campaign, however, is only the latest manifestation of a growing cultural phenomenon – the politicization of yoga.
At first glance, that might seem oxymoronic.
Traditional yoga is about a seeking state of tranquil separation from the world.
“The essence of the teachings is to act without motive for gain – not to seek the fruit of any action,” says Divya Prabha, founder and director of Halifax’s Shining Bay Yoga Studio. “And if you are motiveless, there can be no agenda.”
More practically, most of the millions of students who have lately discovered the joy of yoga are too busy perfecting asanas in hip leisurewear at hot-yoga studios to join campaigns for reform.
Blessed with an aura of credibility by celebrities – Sting, Lady Gaga, Shaquille O’Neal, Jennifer Aniston – more than 20 million Americans are now flocking to yoga classes. In the United States alone, it’s a $7-billion-a-year industry, with more than 25,000 studios and all manner of “merch.”
To the more familiar Indian disciplines, forms far removed from yoga’s austere origins have emerged: acroyoga (blending asanas with dance and gymnastics), yoga for hikers, the young, the elderly, laughter yoga (I kid you not), even yoga for canines. And many yoga sessions seem less about spiritual enlightenment than expressing individualism and one-upmanship.
But there also is what Roseanne Harvey, a Montreal yoga teacher and the co-editor of a new book, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, & Practice, calls an awakening of “the political body.”
“With this larger wave of commercialization, hybridization and brand identification, there is also a countercultural wave calling out for a more engaged and politicized way of living,” she says.
She also insists there is no fundamental disconnect between the deeper roots of meditative yoga and political involvement – and that a focus on compassion, truth and justice is essential for the practice to remain relevant.
One not-for-profit organization, San Francisco-based Off the Mat, Into The World, makes no pretense of its pragmatic mission: to use yoga to “inspire conscious, sustainable activism and ignite grassroots social change.”
The ancient teachings may have been about transcending reality, allows Hala Khouri, one of OTM’s three principals. “[But] for contemporary yogis … this is not practical, nor necessarily beneficial for the larger society.”
A modern practice, Ms. Khouri contends, is “not about literal transcendence. [It’s] more a yoga for the householder who can be in the world, while cultivating qualities of serenity, non-judgment and peace of mind.”
Since 2007, Off the Mat’s annual Global Seva Challenge has raised almost $2-million to help fund projects in Cambodia (an orphanage), Uganda (a holistic birthing centre), South Africa (a halfway house), and Haiti (microbusinesses).
Similarly, organizers of Kenya’s Africa Yoga Project are using the practice as the foundation for broad social outreach. It offers about 250 free community classes a week, teaches weekly in prisons and has so far trained 52 Kenyans to become yoga instructors – providing desperately needed jobs for impoverished women, many of them affected by HIV/AIDS. It plans to expand the program to other African nations.
This year, Off the Mat upped the political ante at home, launching YogaVotes, a non-partisan campaign to promote American voter registration and political participation.
“We’re really at the intersection of yoga and the real world,” says Davian den Otter, a Canadian who has joined OTM’s marketing team. “We’re trying to get yoga leaders to take their yoga values into the political arena, because it feels so broken. If yoga is about union and unity, we can’t necessarily separate from the political. “
The unorthodox activism, Ms. den Otter acknowledges, has sparked a backlash from more traditional yogis, who fear political ideologies may infect the spiritual sanctuary of the studio. “Our answer,” she says, “is to bring yoga into the politics, rather than politics into the yoga.”
But the reality, insists Chelsea Roff, the managing editor of a yoga blog founded by the daughter of bestselling guru Deepak Chopra, “is that we’re already engaging politically. We ‘vote’ every day. Every time I buy a latte at Starbucks, I’m supporting the way they treat people who grow their coffee. Everyone would benefit from bringing more awareness to how we’re engaging.”
Even when yoga tries to build a wall around itself, politics can intrude. Organizers of the current boycott of Hyatt Hotels – a protest aimed at what it says are the chain’s nefarious labour practices – are now lobbying the Yoga Journal to move a planned 2013 conference from the Hyatt San Francisco.
If anything, the problem is not politics taking over yoga, it’s motivating those who practise yoga to organize and influence the political agenda effectively.
“I’m constantly disappointed with how self-absorbed, individualistic and apolitical yoga practitioners are,” Ms. Harvey says.
But at least one former American yoga teacher, business consultant Vik Vad, has already taken the next step. He is seeking political office, running for tax assessor and voter registrar in Austin, Tex.
He says his twice-daily yoga practice “provides me with balance, a time to renew, rejuvenate, and re-energize. After addressing the external world in speeches and interaction, it’s essential for me to cultivate internal stillness – or attempt to – to calm the mind, body and emotions.”
In India, of course, yoga has long been yoked to politics.
In the 1940s, Mahatma Gandhi deployed the teachings of the classic Hindu text the Bhagavad-Gita to inspire his campaign for Indian independence. According to some interpretations, the 700-verse book, thought to have been written 500 years before the birth of Jesus, argues that life requires moral engagement on the field of action.
Indeed, argues Shaman Hatley, associate professor of religion at Concordia University, the Gita’s Karma Yoga “action in accord with the ethical framework of Dharma, as an offering to the supreme Being, is as much a part of yogic traditions as the yogi disengaged from society in pursuit of enlightenment.”
Subsequent Indian prime ministers have also kept advisers with ties to yoga near at hand. Indira Gandhi relied on Dhirendra Brahmachari, who wrote several books on yoga, while Narasimha Rao was close to Chandraswami, a tantrik.
More recently, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi used his teachings as the basis for the Natural Law Party, which formed chapters in more than 70 countries and ran candidates in elections in Britain, Canada, the United States, Israel, India and elsewhere. It advocated using the principles of transcendental meditation to solve societal problems.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ramdev is continuing his campaign from the holy city of Haridwar, urging followers not to vote for Congress Party candidates in the next election unless the government begins to patriate and tax offshore funds.
“If there was a competition for corruption in the Olympics,” he said, “India would have won gold.”
By the numbers
The number of North Americans who currently practise yoga
The annual spike in the number of yoga enthusiasts
The number of people with yoga- and Pilates-related jobs
Yoga merchandiser Lululemon’s projected revenues for 2012
The projected value of the yoga industry in the United States by 2016
Editor's note: The Bhagavad-Gita is not a Buddhist text. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version this story.