The Political Ecology of Yoga

The study of yoga’s history in India is an inherently interdisciplinary exercise. Joseph Alter, professor of anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, has written on yoga through the combined lenses of history, medicine, ecology, and cultural studies, creating a complex answer to the question of yoga’s popularity not only in India but worldwide.  The lecture was sponsored by the Davis Humanities Institute (DHI), Anthropology, the Middle East/South Asia Studies Program, Science and Technology Studies (STS), the Graduate Group in Religion, and South Asia Matters.

In his talk “Yoga as Nature Cure: Modernity, Medicine and the Political Ecology of Bodies,” Alter followed up on his previous work, such as The Wrestler’s Body (a study of traditional Indian wrestling practices and discourses of the body and health) and Ghandi’s Body (a discussion of the famous figure considering the junction of diet and politics).

Alter’s work on the political ecology of yoga takes into account both the culturally constructed nature of yoga as a social practice as well as the way in which yoga overlaps the ecology of the body with the ecology of the environment. The concept of “health” in the contexts Alter discusses takes on a transcorporeal connotation by broadly locating the body in an environment in order to transform both body and environment.

“Yoga cannot be understood in terms of the logic of culture and embodied meaning…[it is] a form of social practice that makes sense in relation to larger problems of alienation, disillusionment, and health anxiety in society at large,” Alter explained.

Alter focused his discussion on the specific transition of yoga as cultural practice in India to yoga as a form of medicine and nature cure.

He locates this transition by discussing figures such as Kuppuswamy Iyer, a medical student who eventually turns to yoga and the idea of nature cure and becomes known as Swami Sivananda.

Yoga as it is known and practiced today is associated with Indian culture, but Alter’s work demonstrates its complicated, international development. The idea of a nature cure gets imported to India at the end of the nineteenth century from Germany, where diseases such as tuberculosis were ravaging cities and confounding doctors and citizens were consequently turning to the great, “clean” outdoors to try to find health.

The romanticism and idealism of nature cure found a natural home in parts of Indian culture, partly because the holistic quality of yoga as nature cure allowed postcolonial Indians to regain control over their own health from institutionalized, imperial medical practices.

Institutionalized medicine fragmented the body into concrete parts and posited treatment as only within the realm of specialized medical knowledge. Yoga and nature cure, on the other hand, placed healing power in the individual self.

Although Alter’s talk focused on these generally positive, self-empowering aspects of yoga, he also drew attention to the sorts of biases and injustices built into the practice during the question and answer period.

For instance, there has always been a tension between yoga as “open access” and available to everyone and yoga as privileging the knowledge of the elect few to allow the human to transcend, to become supernaturally powerful. Yoga in India in the middle of the twentieth century is also envisioned as a “hyper-masculine practice,” according to Alter. Sivananda, for instance, wrote his books on yoga and health in English to reach an emerging postcolonial middle class of men in India.

Alter’s talk offered one explanation for yoga’s worldwide popularity – its ability to combine discourses of medicine and health with those of self-empowerment and independence, as well as a way for people to envision themselves as connected to their environment.

– Katja Jylkka, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in English