‘Who Owns Yoga?’: A Powerful New Documentary

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In an evocative new documentary produced by Al Jazeera and Four Corners Media, Correspondent and Yoga teacher Bhanu Bhatnagar explores the commercial and cultural evolution of one of the world’s oldest physical and spiritual practices, by asking the pertinent question: who owns Yoga?

We spoke with Bhanu about what inspired the documentary, some of the most powerful insights, and how the filming has reframed his thinking.

“I had this idea running around in my head,” says Bhanu, reflecting on what inspired the documentary. “With the cultural and commercial appropriation of Yoga so apparent, I began asking myself the question… how authentic is it anymore?”

Throughout the documentary, Bhanu also poses a series of questions like “Does Yoga belong to India?” “Does it belong to anyone?” and “Does it even matter?”…

To get to the heart of the issue, Bhanu worked with Film Makers Marie-Helene Carleton and Micah Green, and Editor Jacob Giswold-Moran, to conduct a series of interviews with key influencers redefining the Yoga concept around the world.

These include London’s Stewart Gilchrist, an Ashtanga Yoga teacher renowned for his very thorough approach and who also expresses a strong opposition to the commercialism of Yoga, passionately describing it as ‘abhorrent’.

“Yoga is about life…” Stewart explains in his powerful interview with Bhanu. “It’s not about flexibility or gymnastic prowess; it’s about life.”

Who Owns Yoga

Bhanu with Stewart Gilchrist [Image: Micah Garen]

Bhanu set out with a conscious intention not to upset the Yoga community, and takes an extraordinarily open minded approach to the subject, drawing reference to his Hindu background. The documentary very cleverly explores Yoga as a new modern obsession, focusing on character-led stories with a concerted effort Bhanu says, to let those interviewed speak for themselves.

“I thought I’d be offended by some the flippant use of spiritual terminology,” says Bhanu, describing his initial fears. “I thought I’d have more negative feelings, but instead I realised just how incredibly adaptable Yoga is.”

Bhanu, who came to Yoga as a purely physical activity, was inspired to learn more about its philosophy. He examines the many modern fusions of Yoga now being practiced globally, including London’s popularised Rocket Yoga, Boxing Yoga and Voga, as well as DDP Yoga by Wrestler Diamond Dallas Page and Strala by Tara Stiles, both American.

Tara, who recently encouraged Londoners to ‘make your own rules,’ talks to Bhanu about her campaign with the W Hotel, describing the ‘less zen, more glamour’ tagline as a way to encourage people to give Yoga their own definition.

“Who are we answering to anyway?” she asks, a question Bhanu travels to India to investigate.

“It’s about maintaining the integrity of what it was originally,” says London-based instructor Courtney Stefanowicz, another comment that Bhanu delves into with some of India’s most respected Yogis.

‘Who Owns Yoga?’ also looks at the battle over intellectual property and patenting of yoga sequences like Bikram’s, the rise of spiritual materialism, Yoga as activism and a competitive sport, and whether Yoga can ever be just a physical practice.

“There is no such thing as a purely physical practice,” says David Life, Founder of Jivamukti Yoga, when asked by Bhanu.

And with so many diverse opinions expressed, Bhanu still finds the original question a difficult one to answer. He does, however, feel that his thinking around the topic has been reshaped.

“After filming, I changed the way I personally teach Yoga. I realised I needed to make a change, to integrate more meditation, with more of a focus on being still.”

“No matter how hard people try to own it, it remains a deeply personal experience,” he says, emphasising the fundamental importance of intention. “This,” he adds, “has to come from the individual.”

‘Who Owns Yoga?’ was shot over 7-8 weeks, coming together as an idea in February after a call for pitches was made by Al Jazeera and Bhanu’s selected.

Watch ‘Who Owns Yoga’ and read additional commentary here. 

Follow and share your thoughts with Bhanu on Twitter @bhanu_bhatnagar or connect with the Who Owns Yoga community on Facebook.

We’d also like to read your thoughts on the documentary, leave your comments below.

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