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643604

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PTXXXX10.1177/0090591716643604Political TheoryGodrej

Article

The Neoliberal Yogi and


the Politics of Yoga

Political Theory
129
2016 SAGE Publications
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DOI: 10.1177/0090591716643604
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Farah Godrej1

Abstract
Can the theory and practice of the yogic tradition serve as a challenge to
dominant cultural and political norms in the Western world? In this essay
I demonstrate that modern yoga is a creature of fabrication, while arguing
that yogic norms can simultaneously reinforce and challenge the norms of
contemporary Western neoliberal societies. In its current and most common
iteration in the West, yoga practice does stand in danger of reinforcing
neoliberal constructions of selfhood. However, yoga does contain ample
resources for challenging neoliberal subjectivity, but this requires reading
the yogic tradition in a particular way, to emphasize certain philosophical
elements over others, while directing its practice toward an inwardoriented detachment from material outcomes and desires. Contemporary
claims about yogas counterhegemonic status often rely on exaggerated
notions of its former purity and authenticity, which belie its invented
and retrospectively reconstructed nature. Rather than engaging in these
debates about authenticity, scholars and practitioners may productively turn
their energies toward enacting a resistant, anti-neoliberal practice of yoga,
while remaining self-conscious about the particularity and partiality of the
interpretive position on which such a practice is founded.
Keywords
yoga, neoliberalism, biopolitics, Bhagavad-Gta, Yga-Stras, Patanjali,
authenticity

1Department

of Political Science, University of California, Riverside, CA, USA

Corresponding Author:
Farah Godrej, Department of Political Science, University of California, Riverside, 2213
Watkins Hall, 900 University Avenue, Riverside, CA 92521, USA.
Email: godrej@ucr.edu

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Political Theory

Can the theory and practice of the yogic tradition serve as a challenge to
dominant cultural and political norms in the Western world? In this essay, I
demonstrate that modern yoga is a creature of fabrication, while arguing that
yogic norms can simultaneously reinforce and challenge the norms of contemporary Western neoliberal societies. The multivalence of the yogic tradition allows it to be put in service of a variety of socio-cultural norms and
political commitments. In its current and most common iteration in the West,
yoga practice does stand in danger of reinforcing neoliberal constructions of
selfhood. However, I caution against seeing this as a distortion of yogas
so-called original principles and norms, for modern, Western, capitalist,
and/or neoliberal tropes may occasionally be compatible with key norms of
the yogic tradition. Ultimately, I argue that yoga contains ample resources for
challenging neoliberal subjectivity, but this requires reading the yogic tradition in a particular way, to emphasize certain philosophical elements over
others, while directing its practice toward an inward-oriented detachment
from material outcomes and desires. However, in so doing, we must resist the
essentialism that marks contemporary discourse around yoga: the projection
of a pure, monolithic tradition characterized by seamless continuity of theory and practice over centuries.
I begin with a brief historical overview of the yogic tradition, including its
arrival and development in the West. Next, I explore how current forms of
yogic practice tend to align with forms of neoliberal subjectivity seen in
regimes of biopolitical self-governance. I also propose a counterhegemonic
reading that may allow yoga to stand in opposition to neoliberal selfhood. In
concluding, I note that contemporary claims about yogas counterhegemonic
status often rely on exaggerated notions of its former purity and authenticity, which belie its invented and retrospectively reconstructed nature. Rather
than engaging in these debates about authenticity, scholars and practitioners
may productively turn their energies toward enacting a resistant, anti-neoliberal practice of yoga, while remaining self-conscious about the particularity
and partiality of the interpretive position on which such a practice is founded.

What Exactly Is Yoga?


The term yga is not as clearly defined as most of its contemporary practitioners might imagine. Scholars point out that the word has meant many different things in many different contexts, and that perhaps no word has been
more misunderstood. Used in the earliest texts of the Indic traditions, the
word yga has a wider range of meanings than any other in the Sanskrit lexicon,1 ranging from yoking an animal to its harness, to practices that would
yoke or unify individual consciousness with the divine. It has variously

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been employed to denote a device, a recipe, a method, a strategy, a charm,


an incantation, fraud, a trick, an endeavor, a combination, union, an arrangement, zeal, care, diligence, industriousness, discipline, use, application, contact, a sum total, and the work of alchemists. But this is by no means an
exhaustive list.2 Over time, it has come to be identified with techniques of
disciplined self-mastery, aiming toward an extraordinary state of consciousness, usually defined as ultimate union with the divine.3
Recent scholarship has emphasized that the variety of texts, ideas, and
practices subsumed under the term yga has always been heterogenous, doctrinally diverse, and highly syncretic, even (and perhaps especially) within
their premodern Indian iterations. While a relatively systematic yoga
nomenclature became established among Hindus, Buddhists and Jains in the
subcontinent between about 300 BCE and the fifth century,4 and while yoga
may have been culturally South Asian, it was practiced in a variety of ways
across different religious traditions of the subcontinent.5 Its textual and philosophical foundations were highly diverse, as were its approaches to theory
and practice. Across many Indic texts and traditions, yoga was developed,
taught, and systematized in myriad ways, replete with cross-cultural borrowing and exchange across the fluid boundaries between Hindu, Buddhist, Jain,
Islamic, and other non-Brahmanical traditions of renunciation.
Scholars agree that it was not until the relatively late, medieval development of tantric philosophy in both Hinduism and Buddhism (around the tenth
or eleventh centuries CE) that postural practice emerged. Tantra refers
broadly to South Asian philosophical systems centered around the use of
embodiment as a path to transcendence. It involves the embrace rather than
the denial of bodily pleasure, which had up to then characterized the more
predominant ascetic systems of yoga in South Asia. Hat. ha yga or the physical practice of postures (sanas), today thought to be the most central yogic
practice, was in fact a much later and more heterodox development, rather
than a pure or originary form of yoga. Yoga as it is practiced today is a
medievalrather than ancienthotchpotch of Buddhism, Saivism, with
even Islamic influence and non-Hindu tribal asceticism.6 And, in contrast to
the notion of a pristine and unchanging, millennia-old lineage of . . . theory
and practice, most scholars now agree that yoga, like every other social
product, was derivative and syncretic from the outset, containing a multiplicity of definitions and interpretations.7
The arrival of yoga in the West, starting in the mid- to late nineteenth
century, was the combined product of the retrospective reconstruction of a
so-called classical yogic tradition by modern Indian pioneers, along with
key dialogical exchanges between Indians and Western interlocutors. During
an increasingly modern and globalized nineteenth century, yoga was

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Political Theory

deconstructed and reconstructed both within and beyond South Asia, leading to the emergence of a new transnational tradition developed through
encounters between Indian yoga reformers engaged with modern thought,
[and] Europeans and Americans interested in topics ranging from metaphysics to fitness.8 Various intellectual modernizers, both Indian and
Western, aimed to establish yogas legitimacy in the West as a contemplative and ethical tradition of ancient provenance. Following his famous
address to the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893, Swami
Vivekananda gave a series of lectures in the United States, offering a rationalist, ascetic, contemplative interpretation of yogic spirituality. Using a
selective reading of Patanjalis Yga-Stras that reified the centrality of the
text, Vivekanada constructed a monolithic and ostensibly authentic version
of yogas classical history that today constitutes its most predominant narrative: From the time it was discovered, more than four thousand years ago,
Yoga was perfectly delineated, formulated and preached in India.9
Vivekananda expressed disdain for yogas bodily practices, downplaying
their importance, but other Indian reformers began representing yoga as a
physical fitness regime comprised primarily of postures and exercises.
Among others, Sivananda Saraswati and Tirumalai Krishnamacharya constructed new postural systems with putative roots in earlier textual traditions.
Like Vivekananda, however, these reformers also undertook a selective, creative reliance on so-called ancient textsparticularly the Yga-Stras and
the Bhagavad-Gtreifying certain texts over others, loosely linking postural practice to classical texts, and eliding the fact that the provenance of
these invented postures was hardly ancient or classical. Many of the
poses taught by these teachers (and now routinely practiced), despite their
Sanskrit names, do not occur in the medieval tantric texts where hat.ha-yga
is elaborated, much less in the earlier classical texts, where there is scarcely
any mention of physical postures.10
Thus, popular postural yoga came into being in the first half of the twentieth century as a hybridized product of colonials Indias dialogical encounter with the worldwide physical culture movement,11 along with nationalist
aspirations to building a strong, disciplined population capable of rejecting
colonial rule and ruling itself. Indian yogis internalized the importance of
physical fitness during the late colonial period, constructing indigenous
exercises partially borrowed from imported fitness techniques, resulting in a
pan-Indian hub of physical culture revivalism.12 The methods of postural
yoga that became popular in India in the early to mid-twentieth century (and
later in the West) would not have been considered yoga prior to this period
of Indian history.13 Meanwhile, the connections between these postural
methods and their putatively ancient textual roots is tenuous. Monolithic

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deference to the notion of classical yoga and to the authoritative status of


certain texts such as the Yga-Stras are constructed by a combination of
modern Orientalist scholarship and the retrospective presentation of an
unbroken classical tradition by Indian reformers.14
These reformers attracted and trained many students, some of whom went
on to become key players in the global dissemination of yoga. B.K.S. Iyengar
and K. Pattabhi Jois, both students of Krishnamacharya, each innovated their
own schools of postural practice (Iyengar and Ashtanga Yoga respectively).
The yogas disseminated by these figures, much like those of their teachers,
were linked to a putatively ancient tradition, and simultaneously represented
as comporting with the rationalism of modern science and biomedicine. This
universalized, medicalized postural yoga became increasingly popular in the
West in the late twentieth century, driven by a combination of factors: a EuroAmerican counterculture drawn to alternative spiritualities, increased global
travel allowing Euro-Americans to travel to India, the lifting of immigration
restrictions that allowed the rise of transnational teacher or guru figures in the
West, and the intersection of yoga with the emergent global consumer capitalist culture.15
In the late twentieth century, yogas popularity exploded as Euro-American
practitioners began to invent their own systems of yoga, commodifying,
branding, and marketing these innovations to global audiences. The mindboggling array of yoga practices now available in the West includes aerial or
flying yoga (performed on silk scarves suspended from the ceiling); acroyoga (performed in acrobatic, circus-like style); Stand-Up Paddleboard
(SUP) yoga, performed on a paddleboard on open water; rock-n-roll yoga
(set to certain kinds of music); yogalates (a hybrid of yoga and pilates);
Anusara yoga (innovated by American yogi John Friend); hot yoga, or
Bikram yoga (performed in a heated environment); kundalini yoga (ostensibly based on a version of tantra); as well as Iyengar, Ashtanga, and Vinyasa
yoga, among many others.

Yoga and Biopolitical Self-Governance


I now address the cultural status and treatment of yoga in the contemporary
West, where it is most closely identified with the physical practices (or
sanas) of postural yoga. I explore how contemporary postural yoga may
stand in relation to forms of power exerted in liberal and neoliberal regimes.
Although my claims pertain to yoga in the United States, they may be broadly
applicable in a variety of liberal/neoliberal contexts. I rely on Foucauldian
concepts of biopolitical self-governance and neoliberal governmentality to
offer a reading of the role of postural yoga within such regimes. Following

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Foucault, I refer to the US context as both liberal and neoliberal: valorizing


key features of liberal thought such as individual freedom, choice, and autonomy yet subject to neoliberal interpretations of these principles, as neoliberalism employs classically liberal values in a specific way.16
While some analysts argue that postural yoga stands in resistance to the
forms of domination Foucault identifies in such regimes, I argue that this is
only partially true. In some instances, postural yoga in the United States is
a participant within the exercise of neoliberal biopolitical power. Moreover,
the development of postural yoga into a form of biopolitical selfgovernance does not always represent a divergence from the authentically
Indian or putatively ancient roots of the yogic tradition. Rather, it can be
compatible with a variety of imperatives found within the yogic tradition.
In some instances, yogas participation in a neoliberal biopolitics may
require a denial and even violation of the traditions most common norms.
But yogas transformation in the Westand particularly its participation in
neoliberal biopolitics has also been effected in a way that is coextensive
with some of the most important underlying assumptions or principles17 of
the yogic tradition. I now analyze the ways in which yoga may participate
in neoliberal biopolitics, addressing yogic practice as it is reconstructed and
lived today in particular US contexts. The plural, hybrid nature of both
premodern and contemporary yoga entails a methodological approach that
relies not on any particular texts or practices construed as authoritative
but rather on specific forms of lived yogic experience. It is this set of lived
experiences in American urban centersas evidenced by attendance at
yoga studios, and popular discourse in the world of blogs and magazines
to which I refer.

Foucaults Biopolitics and Neoliberal Governmentality


Michel Foucaults concept of biopolitics deals with the penetration of selfdisciplinary regimes into the most intimate domains of modern life such as
the body. Foucault offers us a compelling way to understand how individuals
relationships to their own bodiesincluding practices of bodily cultivation
and self-fashioningare enlisted in the workings of power. In his 19771979
lectures at the Collge de France, Foucault investigates processes of subjectivation in liberal and neoliberal societies and introduces the concept of governmentality, defined as the conduct of conduct: the set of institutions
and practices . . . through which peoples conduct is guided, as authorities
seek to guide . . . [the] decisions of individuals and collectives in order to
achieve specific objectives, through a complex of practical mechanisms,
procedures, instruments and calculations.18

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The advent of neoliberalism in the latter half of the twentieth century


brings about an emphasis on a new kind of subject: autonomous, prudent,
responsible, and calculating. While neoliberalism is ordinarily equated with
a radically free market involving maximized competition and free trade,
Wendy Brown notes that it is also a political rationality: a specific form of
normative political reason organizing the political sphere, governance practices, and citizenship.19 Neoliberalism, she claims, casts the political and
social spheres as . . . themselves organized by market rationality, promulgating a political culture that figures citizens exhaustively as rational economic
actors in every sphere of life, and policies that figure and produce citizens
as individual entrepreneurs and consumers whose moral autonomy is measured by their capacity for self-caretheir ability to provide for their own
needs and service their own ambitions.20 When deployed as a form of governmentality, neoliberalism entails a mode of control achieved through formation rather than repression or punishment, which orchestrat[es] the
subjects conduct toward him or herself . . . lead[ing] and control[ling] subjects without being responsible for them.21 It convenes a free subject who
is controlled through his or her own freedom: an entrepreneur in every
aspect of life, rationally deliberating about courses of action, making choices,
and bearing full responsibility for their consequences.22 Its methodology,
Sam Binkley notes, is uniquely minimal: without acting directly on subjects,
neoliberal governmentality seeks to incite a set of specific transformations
through the intentional curtailing of the apparatus of government itself,
thereby effecting an indirect manipulation of the background conditions for
individual conduct.23
Variously described as an ideology, an economic system, a logic of governance, a theory of the state, a new stage in capitalism, or a political rationality, the term neoliberalism is vaguely defined but omnipresent, internally
contradictory, interdisciplinary, and promiscuous, used to describe a wide
variety of phenomena, with little consensus on its precise meaning. Brown
notes that it is a loose and shifting signifier with no fixed or settled coordinates, exhibiting temporal and geographical variety in its discursive formulations, policy entailments and material practices.24 At one level, we
might see these ambiguities as a productive source of theoretical possibility.
But many argue that when neoliberalism is seen as hegemonic and ubiquitous, it loses its explanatory or analytical purchase, reduced to an all-or-nothing bulldozer.25 If neoliberalism can be everywhere and do virtually
anything . . . it is impossible to use the term to describe the . . . varied terrain
and methods of the exercise of power today.26
My first task, then, is to provide a more precise meaning for my own usage
of the term. Not all scholars rely on Foucault to explicate neoliberalism.

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Some (influenced by Marx) focus on the role of economic policies and the
restructuring of socio-economic and class relations,27 while others are more
likely to focus on neoliberalisms effects on individual subjectivity: how subjects come to understand themselves, how their behavior is shaped and their
sensibilities cultivated by neoliberal assumptions.28 Here, I follow the latter
Foucauldian form of scholarship, which tends to emphasize the governmentality effects of neoliberalism.
My usage of neoliberalism follows those who see it as a large-scale historical project . . . operating through a wide variety of social agents, involving a
deep transformation of culture.29 Seen in this way, the project of neoliberal
governmentality plays out equally on the levels of social, economic, cultural,
and personal life.30 This approach focuses on the culture of neoliberalism,
and the specific governmentalities through which it insinuates itself into the
fabric of our lives . . . touch[ing] on many of the most innocuous and personal
categories of self-understanding, from sexuality and embodiment to emotional
self-management and intimacy.31 It seeks to trace the ways in which neoliberal thought has penetrated people, including the ways we understand who we
are and how we live our lives.32 It focuses particularly on the routine, everyday practices of living, assuming that we are all implicated in shaping politics
through quotidian personal conduct.33 Admittedly, this entails a uniquely
Foucauldian view on the power of discourses and technologies of government
to shape peoples lives,34 although many Foucauldians acknowledge that this is
not an uncontested lens through which to read our current moment, and that
Foucaults account of neoliberalism is quite distinct from many others.
A key aspect of its socio-cultural transformation is neoliberalisms emphasis on what has variously been called the optimization of the self or the technization of its well-being.35 Theorists like Binkley and Barbara Cruikshank
demonstrate how positive psychology, self-esteem movements, and other
discourses of personal self-help and transformation create self-governing
subjects.36 On this view, individuals govern themselves through the cultivation and optimization of their own . . . potentials, and everything, including
ones own mind, body, and emotional state is a resource . . . to be developed,
exploited or leveraged for advantage in a world of competitive actors.37
Neoliberal governmentality entails the freedom to take up self-cultivation as
an enterprising program:38 central to its apparatus are frameworks through
which individuals reflect back on themselves, assess themselves for their
potentials and aptitudes for independent conduct, and work to optimize their
freedom.39 Those who fall short of the realization of this potential are seen
to have betrayed their human capacities.40
This emphasis on responsibilizing citizens to optimize their potentials is
rooted in what Brown and others have called the self as an entrepreneurial

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self-investor, and human capital as the new conduct.41 What distinguishes


neoliberalism from capitalism, Brown notes, is not simply its enlarged domain,
but the importance of self-investment: the pursuit of activities such as education, training, leisure, reproduction, consumption and more are increasingly
configured as strategic decisions and practices related to enhancing the selfs
future value.42 As both individuals and states become projects of management rather than rule, neoliberal reason construes both person and states on the
model of the contemporary firm: both are expected to comport themselves in
ways that maximize their capital value in the present and enhance their future
value, and both do so through practices of entrepreneurialism, self-investment and/or attracting investors.43 Competition, not exchange, structures
relationships among selves construed as human capital.44 Meanwhile, human
capitals constant and ubiquitous aim, whether studying, working, planning
retirement, or reinventing itself, is to entrepreneurialize its endeavors, appreciate its value, and increase its rating or ranking.45

Yogas Participation in a Neoliberal Biopolitics


I now demonstrate how postural yoga as practiced in the United States may
converge with neoliberal governmentality. Foucauldians have noted that the
responsibilization of individuals is particularly apparent in the field of
health, for liberal humanism is in part anchored in the belief that individual
health is a product of our own choices.46 The shift in technologies of government in neoliberal regimes involves an increasing emphasis on the responsibility of individuals to manage their own affairs47 through prudent
self-investment and self-optimization. The practices of yoga can be seen as
what Foucault called technologies of the self: practices that permit individuals to effect . . . operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts,
conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a
certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.48
Foucault traces the genealogy of this self-care to ancient Greek and Roman
practices, locating in them an emancipatory potential for resistance to power.
But some claim that the rise of modern biopolitical disciplinary power
absorbs these technologies of the self, through a precise, detailed, and constant knowledge and control of bodies and lives.49 The ancient philosophical
project of self-care can be displaced by modern scientific discourse and institutions serving the mass formation of individuals.50 In contemporary neoliberal societies, these technologies of the self can be put in service of the
imperatives of self-maximization designed to normalize bodily self-discipline: the body and its capacities . . . become central to technologies of selfhood.51 While bodily self-enhancement has of course been a human goal

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since time immemorial, self-enhancement in contemporary biopolitical


regimes is characterized by the [maximization of] the vital forces and potentialities of the living body . . . understood as an imperative.52 Contemporary
forms of yoga practice can often reflect this imperativeand responsibilityto maximize human vital capacity through self-management, investment in oneself, optimization of ones own well-being, and thus of ones
future value.
Postural yoga is a teleological project of progressive individual selffashioning, self-improvement, and optimization. Despite the diversity of
yogic teleologies, at the heart of the yogic project is the impetus toward incremental betterment of ones capabilities, whether understood in lofty terms of
soteriological transcendence, or more mundane terms such as bodily beauty
or perfection of postures. One practices with regularity, repeatedly honing,
training, and cultivating the body, working to make it more pliable and easefully able to move through poses. Nor is this commitment to teleological
self-fashioning an artefact of Western yoga. The emphasis on repeated selfcultivating practice appears in premodern Indic texts now regarded as
canonical, as well as in modern Indian forms of practice.53 For instance, K.
Pattabhi Joiss Ashtanga yoga valorizes the bodys ability to . . . progressively achieve greater heights in the performance of yoga poses,54 while
B.K.S. Iyengars Light on Yoga is replete with references to repeated practice
in pursuit of progressive achievement.55
As a technology of the self, postural yoga also occasionally participates
in discourses of individual choice and responsibility so crucial to the neoliberal program. It offers the modern consumer a dizzying variety of choice,
while allowing her to construct her own identity in keeping with market logic
and consumer culture.56 The self-fashioning of yoga is couched as an expression of lifestyle choice and individual identity. One yogi claims: In my opinion, rational egoism is the proper moral code for a yogi . . . I cherish MY right
to life, liberty and the pursuit of MY happiness. In selfish pursuit, I hope to
achieve MY inner peace.57 Many yoga classes are rife with the language of
individual choice, as teachers deploy responsibilizing language that congratulates the yoga practitioner for her or his healthy choices. Thank yourself for
coming to your mat, and you showed up to practice today are routinelyheard refrains. Like Althussers subject, yoga practitioners are hailed when
they choose to engage in yogic self-cultivation, thus recognizing their own
identity as responsible subjects.58 Teachers gently exhort the students with
slogans such as this is your time and this is your practice. Also highly
common is the idea of individualizing practice to each persons requirements:
students are given choices to modify their practice following their own bodily
constraints and capabilities. Often, teachers will demonstrate a physically

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demanding posture or sequence, while reassuring students that they are welcome to modify them to make them less demanding, or to skip certain
sequences by taking childs pose or blsana, a restorative fetal position
accessible to almost all. Yoga sometimes adopts the neoliberal ethos of risk
management that responsibilizes the individual for her choices: signing a
waiver releasing the teacher or studio from legal liability due to injury is now
mandatory at most yoga studios in the United States. Nor is there any doubt
that postural yoga has become a commodified, fetishized object of material
gain. Magazines such as Yoga Journal attest to the variety of yoga merchandise, along with photo shoots featuring pouty models and designer yogawear, all reinscribing consumerism and heteronormative beauty standards.
The rational, prudent yoga consumer chooses her specific practice from this
smorgasbord, she chooses daily to come to her mat, to modify the postures
in accordance with the available choices, and to be responsible for recognizing her own bodily capacities and limitations.
This convergence of yogic practice with the neoliberal logic of consumer
choice exemplifies postural yogas occasional detachment fromand transformation ofthe dominant norms of the Indic traditions. In premodern
Indic contexts, yogic knowledge was typically transmitted within the context
of a gurudisciple relationship characterized by submission of disciple to
guru. Premodern and contemporary Indian guru-oriented yoga is sometimes
characterized as rigorous, physically demanding, and forceful, requiring
physical stamina, capacity for exertion, and submission to the teachers
instructions (hence the translation of the Sanskrit term hat.ha-yga as violent or forceful exertion). Stories are told of legendarily authoritarian
Indian teachers like Iyengar and Jois who were famous for their punitive
teaching styles, sometimes employing corporeal discipline, such as aggressive physical adjustments and even slapping and shouting. However, yoga
now functions largely according to the principles of individual choice, as
each practitioner chooses his or her own path eclectically, without immersion
within a lineage. Of course, lineages of modern Indian gurus are reified by
some Western yoga practitioners who seek to travel to India to study at the
source and thus authenticate their teaching or practice.59 Yet, discipleship
under modern Indian gurus takes on the normative features of modern
Western life.60 The individual choice of the student continues to take precedence as the organizing principle for Western practitioners, even when filtered through the lens of gurudisciple tradition.61
The trope of yoga as an investment in oneself is ubiquitous in public
discourse; yoga magazines, websites, and ads exhort subjects to treat yoga as
an investment in yourself . . . with many positive returns,62 directly connecting its role as a self-care strategy to its perceived potential for increasing the

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value of the self.63 These languages and frameworks underscore that many
contemporary subjects of postural yogic practice are hailed in public discourse
as human capital to be managed entrepreneurially through investing in their
own long-term well-being. Like education, fitness, diet, therapeutic work, and
other activities of personal reform and self-optimization, yoga is increasingly
seen as a strategic practice designed to enhance ones own esteem and future
value, whether understood in terms of stress reduction and overall good health,
or attracting future investors such as significant others or even social peers.
But even while postural yogas participation in neoliberal biopolitics
occurs at the expense of distorting certain predominant yogic norms, it simultaneously converges with others. Of all yogic principles, those most likely to
resonate with the responsible, self-governing subjects of neoliberalism are
self-discipline and self-mastery. The very translation of yoga, despite the
variety involved, usually denotes self-discipline or self-mastery. In almost
every text now construed as authoritative, self-discipline and self-mastery are
considered primary routes toward yogic goals. This self-discipline and selfmastery so foundational to the definition of yoga appear to have been translated into and made compatible with contemporary forms of self-regulation
required in neoliberal times. Like weight loss and exercise regimens that
[assign] to each individual the responsibility for monitoring and measuring
their bodys activities, yogas fundamental commitment to self-mastery
aligns creatively with a neoliberal biopolitics that affords individuals both
the tools and the motivation for increasing levels of self-governance.64 This
alignment is further intensified by the branding practices of yoga merchandising firms which appropriate yogic practice into a consumerist model of
discipline and self-care in order to reinforce Western ideologies of healthism
and personal optimization.65
In a study interviewing yoga practitioners, a majority of respondents
answered that among the things they valued in yoga was the discipline and
work ethic it instilled. In a representative response, a student explains: I
stopped smoking, I lost about fifteen kilos, I stopped doing drugs, I stopped
drinking . . . I have developed self discipline . . . I am more focused.66 Like
diet and exercise, postural practice becomes one more way in which neoliberal subjects can become governors of their own selves.67 The financial
incentives offered at yoga studios for regular attendance hail the committed
practitioner who brings herself to practice with regularity. The system of the
series or multi-class pass encourages monitoring of attendance; regular attendance is incentivized through a pricing that makes a drop-in class far more
expensive than a series. To commit seriously to yoga is to work steadily and
cumulatively, perhaps over years, on precision, alignment, breath flow, and
so forth. Every sana (pose) is a challenge that sometimes has to be

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practiced intensively until you finally master it.68 Even when shorn of the
ascetic implications of transcendence, these aims require disciplined, regular
practice, and mental and corporeal self-mastery. In this sense, the conceptualizations of selfhood that are produced within yoga converge with neoliberal
constructions of selfhood, and these discourses are therefore mutually reinforcing and constantly reproduced.69
Yogic norms of self-mastery may also assist the subject in dealing with
neoliberalisms contradictory demands. As Julie Guthman notes, neoliberal
governmentality produces contradictory impulses such that the neoliberal
subject is emotionally compelled to participate in society as both out-of-control consumer and self-controlled subject.70 Neoliberalism and its attendant
forms of consumer culture require the subject to engage in obligatory forms
of ingestion, while simultaneously moderating her own consumption or atoning for it through forms of health-inducing self-cultivation. The perfect subject-citizen who either resists the temptation of unhealthy foods or
moderates their physical effects, achieving both eating and thinness, is
imbued with rationality and self-discipline. Postural yoga serves as an instrument to fulfill these conflicting demands: either the repeated physical practice militates against eating unhealthily, or self-discipline allows the subject
to avoid temptation altogether. Meanwhile, the popularity of postural yoga in
the Euro-American middle classes may also be explained by the demands of
the post-Fordist economy, in which the density of work is increased while the
workday is delimited by blurring the boundaries between work and the rest
of ones life. Postural yoga may allow subjects to continue coping with the
stresses of the post-Fordist workplace, while keeping the body healthy, useful, flexible, and productive enough to work all hours.71 Yoga may empower
citizens to enhance their capacities and skills in ways that subtly (if unintentionally) shape them into self-monitoring and self-reliant subjects . . . prepared for success in global capitalism.72
Contemporary forms of yoga thus illustrate the empowering aspect of
self-governance at the heart of governmentality. On Foucaults view, exercises of power do not necessarily result in the removal of liberty; rather, they
may empower or activate subjects and enlarge the field of individual
freedom and choice.73 Participation in postural yoga empowers its subjects
to choose the form of practice that may best aid their self-enhancement, while
partaking in an ethic of what Nikolas Rose calls active biological citizenship:
exploring and pushing their own physical limits, accessing new realms of
possibility in the rest of their lives, achieving new things in body and mind,
encountering challenge, and perhaps conquering physical limits.74 As Sara
Rushing notes, the concept of empowerment, once identified with civil rights
activism and feminist consciousness-raising, was co-opted by neoliberals,

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deployed to diminish social safety nets by valorizing entrepreneurial selfcare and responsibilization, . . . [a] solicitation to self-discipline and subjectivity in compliance with the dominant logic of systems of power.75
In this way, the practice of postural yoga may fulfill the neoliberal cultural demand for entrepreneurial, disciplined, and self-regulating subjects.76
The techniques of self-governance valorized by yoga produce forms of
agency both required and rewarded by neoliberal regimes, providing individuals the ability and motivation to ensure the productive and predictable
development of their own body toward the end of smooth economic development.77 Modern postural yoga may creatively align with biopolitical imperatives, as the language of yogic self-discipline converges with neoliberalisms
self-surveillance, self-monitoring, and self-mastery. Many yoga practitioners
may become perfect subjects of neoliberalism: autonomous, self-disciplined,
driven by the logic of choice, responsible for their own health, geared toward
progressive self-cultivation, made amenable to the competing demands of the
neoliberal economy, and empowered to be productive members of such an
economy through their own entrepreneurial self-investment.
Now, some may object that there is surely nothing wrong with a healthy,
productive populace in which people discipline themselves, take responsibility, and feel challenged or empowered by their pursuit of health. But Wendy
Brown reminds us that neoliberalism as rationality has prepared the ground
for profoundly anti-democratic political ideas and practices to take root.78 It
produces an unemancipatory, and anti-egalitarian orientation, undermining
an already weak investment in an active citizenry and an already thin concept of a public good.79 Neoliberal conceptions of selfhood produce a pacified and neutered citizenry80 divested of any orientation toward the common.
Citizenship is reduced to self-care, consumption and entrepreneurship,
thereby ensuring that the project of navigating the social becomes entirely
one of . . . procuring a personal solution to every problem, while the conversion of socially, economically, and politically produced problems into
consumer items entails depoliticization on an unprecedented level.81
Unemployment, obesity, or ill healthand by extension povertyare attributed to the failure of responsibility, entrepreneurship or self-mastery, rather
than to unjust socio-political structures. Democratic subjects, wholly in thrall
to their own interests, become available to political tyranny . . . precisely
because they are absorbed in a province of choice and need-satisfaction that
they mistake for freedom.82
The danger is that contemporary yogis may become perfect neoliberal subjects, as the practice of yoga may inadvertently reinscribe a consumerist, politically passive, undemocratic, and anti-egalitarian orientation. Responsibilizing
yogic subjects for health-inducing self-cultivation and consumption of

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yogic opportunities, while connecting such success to self-governance, may


imply that poor, heavy, unhealthy, or unemployed others have only themselves
to blame. Inequities in health, body size, employment, or income can be legitimated and depoliticized by being relegated to the realm of personal choice
and a failure of disciplined self-optimization. The optimizing of bodily performance becomes the marker of productive and conscientious citizenship, while
self-improvement and self-regulation become a civic obligation, a vaccine
against sources of social instability such as gender inequality and violent
crime.83 The logic that the achievement of enhanced bodily health is the result
of ones free choices and hard work (the nontrivial price of most yoga
classes notwithstanding) may produce apolitical attitudes that disregard inegalitarian social structures, focusing instead on the freedom to engage in the
consumption of yoga. Such a yogic subject may become amenable to arrogations of power, absorbed in pursuing her free choice of yoga practice, disinterested in questioning the broader structures that produce differential
outcomes.
More insidiously, yoga can function as a complete preoccupation, a choice
which perpetuates the fallacy that one is doing something meaningful. In
pursuing yoga, many may see themselves as making a lifestyle choice that
seems to supply a seemingly benevolent ethical content. Practitioners of yoga
may imagine that they have discovered a broadly palatable ethics that feels
exotic and countercultural.84 But in actuality, this choice may function to displace politics, by pacifying the subject in a measure proportional to the extent
of her preoccupation with deviating from the apparent default lifestyle choice.
The larger the lifestyle choice looks, the more it may preclude her from
having the energy to explore more radically democratic solutions. Yoga can
become a visible outlet to soak up resources in a way that will not truly destabilize the dominant system, an elaborate preoccupation that absorbs the time
and money which could be directed toward challenging political structures. It
may provide the illusion that one is taking a drastic step away from the dominant system, while simultaneously consuming the resources and effort
required to explore truly radical alternatives.
But just because contemporary yogic practice occasionally converges
with neoliberal governmentality, should we assume that yogas political
effects can simply be reduced to its production of the good neoliberal subject? Clearly notthe highly diverse set of texts and practices now referred
to as yoga cannot be considered either compatible with or subversive of
certain political commitments in any inherent sense. Rather, because it entails
a variety of goals and purposes, yogas normative underpinnings may align
with a variety of political formations, those that capitulate to neoliberal forms
of governance as well as those that critique and resist these same forms of

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governance. Like every polyvocal tradition, yoga offers an abundance of


interpretive possibilities, and I now demonstrate that reading and practicing
elements of the yogic tradition in a particular way may offer challenges to
neoliberal constructions of selfhood.

Yogic Resistance to Neoliberal Biopolitics


Perhaps the most promising avenue for a counter-neoliberal reading is yogic
philosophys devaluing of materiality relative to spiritual reality. The Yga
school of philosophy developed within the context of a renunciatory classical
tradition in South Asia during the second century CE,85 influenced by the
ontology of the earlier Sm.khya school. Sm.khyas dualist ontology sees
matter (prakr.ti) as inferior to absolute spirit or ultimate reality (purusha). The
realm of phenomenal changemy or illusionincludes nature, the human
body, its functions, and worldly life, all considered subordinate to ultimate
transcendent reality.86 In contrast to Western dualism, the mind and body are
both included in the realm of embodiment: mental and emotional processes
are considered subtle forms of matter, subject to the same illusory tendencies
as the body. Along with other classical systems, Sm.khya and Yga prescribe
complex practices of ascetic discipline in order to extricate the individual
from the grip of materiality. Liberationthe transcendent realization of the
Self in its purityrequires controlled withdrawal of the senses from this transient realm.
The purpose of yogic self-discipline, on this view, is steady disidentification from the corporeal selfincluding the volatility of ones mental processesin order to realize ones identity with a supra-material, transcendent
consciousness. The opening chapter of the Yga-Stras famously defines
yoga as the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness: yoga-citta-vr.ttinirodhah. .87 This definition is further reinforced in the Bhagavad-Gt, at
least one version of which translates the very word yoga as discipline: He
is said to be mature in discipline [yga] when he . . . is detached from sense
objects and actions (yad hi nendriyrthesu . . . yogrdhas tadocyate)88 In
these texts, the fluctuations of ones mental contentparticularly sensory
desiresis reflective of the fleeting and ultimately illusory nature of material existence. The application of self-discipline to the senses requires the
dispassionate observation of sense processes, cultivating awareness of
and detachment from the logic of materiality and from the content of ones
own mind when ensnared in the grasp of materiality. He should focus his
mind and restrain the activity of his thought and senses (tatraikgrammanah.-kr.tva yata-cittendriya-kriyah). . . . When his controlled thought
rests within the self alone, without craving objects of desire, he is said to

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be disciplined (yad-viniyatam. -cittam-tmany-evvatis.t. hate nispr.hahsarva-kmebhyo yukta-ity-ucyate-tad).89


While modern Indian teachers like Vivekananda and Iyengar may have
referenced the Yga-Stras and the Bhagavad-Gt, the success of postural
yoga in the West stemmed from a de-emphasis of its soteriological ascetic
commitments, and its mass-marketing to Western consumer audiences as a
universally accessible and largely scientific practice privileging no philosophical or religious metanarrative.90 In contrast, I propose that when relinked to particular philosophical roots, postural yoga practice can be
subversive with respect to neoliberal subjectivity. The self-discipline undertaken in conjunction with these philosophical teachings would be antithetical
to the self-disciplining of the neoliberal subject: rather than self-governing to
become a docile body, a responsible consumer of choices, or a responsible
self-investor, this self-discipline would require its practitioner to cast critical
light on the mental processes having to do with worldly outcomes and thus
deconstruct their ultimately illusory and unsatisfying nature. Taught in this
way, the emphasis on detachment from worldly desire can place yogic practice squarely in opposition to the norms of consumer culture.
Crucial to Patanjalis self-discipline are yogic practices such as swdhyya
or self-inquiry, the pursuit of satya or truth, brahmachrya or self-control/
continence, and aparigraha or the renunciation of possessions.91 The pursuit
of these observances can encourage attitudes and behaviors that directly
counteract neoliberal subjectivity: cultivating a truthful inward gaze that
reflects on and problematizes the construction of ones own needs, desires,
and self-image; truthfully uncovering and critically scrutinizing ones own
motivations for certain sensual desires; practicing detaching from needing to
possess material goods or outcomes for external fulfillment, and so on. Such
practices can decouple self-governance from the imperative to choose and
consume wisely, directing it instead toward the problematization of discourses encouraged by neoliberalism, by inculcating a critique of material
desires and conventional notions of the successful life. Rather than optimizing my well-being or investing wisely in myself, the yogic pursuit of
truthful self-inquiry might cause me to deconstruct the motivations underlying such goals, possibly allowing me to unmask the larger socio-politicalcultural forces at work in disseminating such values. Rather than becoming a
docile site for resolving the contradictory impulses of neoliberal-consumption-and-control, the yogic body may [become] a sanctuary and a place of
resistance against the pervasive demands of consumer society.92 The yogic
practices of vairgya (dispassion)93 and pratyhra (sense-withdrawal)94
require one to remain a witness rather than a participant in ones thoughts
and desires, while viewing ones bodily experiences from a detached

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perspective.95 This could inculcate an awareness that denaturalizes neoliberal


norms, cultivating the ability to detach oneself from the normative desirability of goals such as self-optimization and self-investment. The emphasis on
pratyak-cetan or habitual inward-mindedness96 can remind us that the welllived life need not be defined in terms of exterior characteristics such as job
title, salary . . . bodily weight, and firmness.97 In a disciplinary context
where all activities must aim toward some productive, externalized, selfoptimizing outcome, yoga may become subversive precisely because of its
non-instrumental nature. Although still teleological, this yoga is good for
nothing98 other than self- and world-transcendence, a goal decidedly at odds
with work and body discipline for the sake of consumerism, self-investment,
and self-optimization.
Such an outcome may produce what Foucault called counter-conduct:
resistances, refusals, revolts against being conducted in a certain way.99
Despite his early insistence on subjectivity being determined by power,
Foucaults late ethical writings appeal to the selfs capacities to reflect critically upon the powerknowledge relations . . . and to engage in practices of
critical self-transformation that could resist disciplinary subject-formation.100 In a constructive, ethical turn, the later Foucault elaborates on the
practice of parrhesia or frank speech for the purpose of criticizing oneself
and others, and of speaking truth to power.101 In a similar vein, we may see in
this reading of yoga the potential for transformative self-care combined with
truth-telling, which may critically unmaskrather than unreflectively converge withbiopolitical disciplinary projects. In a culture defined by exteriority, exacting standards of physical perfection and corporate/commodified
ideals of success, some argue, yoga may [teach] resistance to some of the
prevailing conceptions of self that powerful entities in our societythe fitness industry, the cosmetics industry, the finance charge industry, the corporate workplacesupport.102 When taught in this particular way, yogic
practice can constitute what Ann Cvetkovich calls a utopia of ordinary
habit: everyday activities that can remake the affective cultures of . . . consumerism . . . and neoliberal culture.103
Arguably, such efforts, while still fledgling, are already under way: examples abound of lived yogic experiences that seek to inculcate countercultural
values. Movements like Yoga to the People offer donation-based classes
designed to combat yogas consumerism and make it widely accessible, citing the following: There will be no correct clothes/there will be no proper
payment. . . . No youre not good enough or rich enough/This yoga is for
everyone.104 Critical public discourse by yoga teachers and practitioners on
the commodified nature of yoga is increasingly common, with attempts to
link these issues to yogic philosophy through introduction of texts like the

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Yga-Stras in classes.105 Teachers write about introducing Patanjalian concepts such as satya (truth), swdhyya (self-inquiry) and aparigraha (nonpossession) in order to encourage developing self-awareness of ones
externally motivated self-image,106 questioning contemporary yogas conflation of bodily perfection with self-optimization,107 critiquing the
achievement-oriented nature of contemporary yoga by refusing to push
oneself into difficult postures, and emphasizing the anticompetitive nature of
yoga by keeping ones gaze inwardly focused instead of comparing oneself
with others.108 Of course, these contemporary efforts do not seek as radically
ascetic a fulfillment of the Patanjalian ideal as, say, Indian renunciates have
long attempted, engaging in acts of intense self-deprivation and austerity
such as fasting, celibacy, and nakedness designed to produce absolute mystical union. Nor can they, for in the Euro-American context, such radical asceticism and transcendence carry little resonance. Rather, these efforts, while
rooted in a fundamentally ascetic set of principles, are more modest in aim,
focusing on moving the needle away from uncritical investment in exteriorized, competitive, consumerist, values of self-optimization, and closer
toward the ideal of inward-oriented detachment from material desires and
outcomes.
However, a deeper reading of yogic texts also reveals that the very purpose of Patanjalis philosophy is to amplify human dissociation from the
changeable, dissatisfying environment of eco-social complexity.109
Patanjalis adept is liberated when concentrated in meditative experience
(samdhi), in order to attain the state of kaivalya (isolation or aloneness) in
which mind, body, and phenomenal world are transcendeda state hardly
conducive to the sort of socio-political awareness and action required to subvert neoliberalisms. The premodern practice of yoga was in fact thought to be
radically individualist, asocial, anti-human, and perhaps even anti-ethical,
requiring the removal of the individual from webs of conventional social
relation, obligation, and concern that render social ethics possible,110 resisting the values of traditional householding, convention, and human attachments.111 Is it possible, then, that the marrying of postural practice to classical
yogic philosophy can end up depoliticizing the subject in ways that might
comport conveniently with neoliberalism?
Certainly one narrative holds that the classical yogic philosophy encourages a withdrawal from the phenomenal world and an indifference to, if not
emphatic prejudice against, socio-political engagement.112 However, this narrative ignores the lively contestation in classical texts about combining the
renunciatory project with a concern for worldly ethics. The Bhagavad-Gt
bears out this multivocality, for despite what is often thought to be a reduction
of the socio-political world to the status of an illusion or cosmic spectacle, the

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Gt simultaneously propounds the doctrine of karma yga: disciplined action


according to the dictates of duty and ethics, while renouncing attachment to
the consequences of ones actions.113 The seeker must act ethically but with
complete detachment from desire, and the detached pursuit of transcendence
must lead to un-self-interested action promoting the worldly welfare of all.
Perhaps no thinker was more creative in combining Hinduisms renunciatory
heritage with political activism than Mohandas Gandhi. Like many of his contemporaries, Gandhi relied selectively and eclectically on a variety of classical
sources, including and especially the Gt, to create a unique political project
often characterized as ascetic activism or this-worldly asceticism: a project in which renunciation of desire was combined with tireless effort toward
socio-political change.114 Gandhi was among a generation of Indian reformers
for whom the Gt acquired new life for reconstructing a normative language
of ethics and politics,115 as the concept of action-within-renunciation, or
detached yet dutiful action aimed toward the welfare of all, was enlisted to
show that devotion to ones individual spiritual duty [dharma] was not incompatible with devotion to socio-political causes.116 The deployment of yoga
during the anticolonial and postcolonial periods underscores these abundant
political possibilities within yoga, possibilities also evident in contemporary
activist yoga, which expresses an ethical agenda that impels collective
action toward social justice.117
Like any tradition of thought, yogic philosophy lends itself to a variety of
interpretations. Following Gandhi, then, we may read the Bhagavad-Gts
doctrine of karma-yga as a call to socio-political engagement. When combined with the emphasis on critical scrutiny of sense desires in both the YgaStras and the Gt, we may read the yogic tradition as containing ample
resources for critiquing and resisting neoliberal selfhood, when postural practice is directed toward the philosophical goal of inward-oriented detachment
from material outcomes and desires. If contemporary yoga is taught in ways
that keep it loosely yoked to these philosophical precepts, it contains the
potential for a counterhegemonic construction of subjectivity, one that would
stand in opposition to the norms of consumption, self-optimization, selfinvestment, and depoliticization.

Conclusion: An Authentically
Counterhegemonic Yoga?
I have argued here that the politics of contemporary yogic practice is characterized by multiple levels of ambivalence. First, forms of postural yoga practice prevalent in the West may militate against but simultaneously legitimate
forms of selfhood that are produced within neoliberal biopolitical regimes.

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Second, the convergence of postural yoga with modern Western neoliberalism


occasionally distorts certain principles and norms of the yogic tradition, while
simultaneously expressing ideas compatible with other aspects of yogas history. I have presented above a proposal for reading, teaching, and/or applying
the yogic tradition in a counterhegemonic or countercultural waya noninstrumental and non-neoliberal reading that requires marrying postural practice to particular philosophical precepts, rather than allowing it to remain
largely divorced from those precepts. Given space constraints, I have here
been able to offer only a preliminary outline for such a proposal, in the hope
that it serves as a provocation to future scholarship and practice in the same
vein. In concluding, I wish to raise some issues about the potential pitfalls of
such an approach, while suggesting a way beyond these difficulties.
Crucially, this reading of yogawhich privileges a particularly Patanjaliinspired form of anti-materialism, while connecting yogic practice to the
explicitly political rendering of the Bhagavad-Gtcannot ignore the diversity of goals within yogas long history. Anti-materialist asceticism is only
one strain within a tremendously polyvocal tradition: examples abound of
premodern yoga being pressed into service of worldly goals such as bodily
perfection, beauty, and other physical goods.118 Across yogas history,
pleasure, worldly aims, instrumental manipulation, and material gain have
stood alongside ascetic, spiritual aims, reflecting the coexistence of the
sacred and the mundane. Tantras world-affirming embrace of both embodiment and physical pleasureits elevation of bhukti (success/pleasure) and
mukti (liberation) as co-equal goals of the spiritual endeavorfurther complicates the notion that yoga has ever been exclusively focused on either transcendence or materiality.
Any counterhegemonic reading of yoga based on a revival of its ascetic
metaphysics must therefore studiously avoid essentialist claims about the
authenticity of its understanding. South Asianists have emphasized that the
attempt to define these traditions in monolithic ways is dangerousrather,
they are constructed and reconstructed through the imaginings and counterprojections of their interpreters.119 But in popular discourse, the intuition that
yoga is countercultural is often married to an anxiety about preserving its
authenticity or purity.120 Many lament that yogas cultural alterity and
therefore authenticity is being denuded as it becomes more secularized, commodified, and palatable for liberal Western consumption.121 They suggest
that if only yogic practice could remain attached to its transcendent, spiritual
imperatives, less instrumentalized or put in service of individualist, material
goals, we could kill two birds with one stone: restore yogas authenticity,
while allowing it to resist consumerism and/or commodification. The view
that yoga may contain counterhegemonic potential is often linked to the

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advocacy of a purist, authenticity-obsessed mode of yoga, and thus to precisely the same essentialisms on which much of modern yogas trajectory in
the West has been built.
But I wish to stress that the link between these is contingent rather than
necessary. Therefore, seeking counterhegemonic potential in a particular
philosophical and renunciatory reading of the tradition (as I have suggested
above) must avoid replicating facile appeals to the trope of contemporary
yoga as a commodified divergence from some authentic, premodern, monolithic, cultural ideal.122 These appeals ignore the fact that yoga has repeatedly
been reinvented, both in the West and in India.123 The modern practice of
postural yoga is built on countless accretions: what people have been getting out of yoga, whether in premodern India, modern India, or in the contemporary West, has always been subject to a variety of modes of
meaning-making by those who have undertaken its practice: instrumental and
otherwise, materialist and anti-materialist, secular and spiritual, political and
apolitical.124 Admittedly, this recognition sits ill at ease with recent attempts
to assert Indian cultural ownership of yoga,125 for if ancient Hindu yogis,
Buddhists, Jains, Muslims, Sufis, medieval Nath yogis, and Kanphata tantrics, not to mention Krishnamacharya, Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and countless
others each reinvented yoga, why should Westernized forms of yoga
involving stand-up paddleboards, silk scarves, Yogalates, and so forth not be
deemed equally legitimate? As sympathetic as we may be to the claims of
those like Vandana Shiva who point to the biopiracy of Western institutions
profiteering from indigenous, non-Western knowledge, our sympathy sits at
odds with the recognition that the very idea of an authentically Indian
yogic tradition is to some extent a retrospective reification.
If we accept this, then we must disarticulate yogas anti-neoliberal potential from its ostensible purity or authenticity. The anti-materialist and
politically compatible reading of the Yga-Stras and the Bhagavad-Gt
must be self-conscious about appealing to specific strains within a highly
plural tradition, while eschewing the notion that this appeal accurately represents an entire tradition. It must understand itself as a syncretic and piecemealyet constructive interpretation of the yogic tradition for the express
purpose of emphasizing its counterhegemonic potential, rather than being
motivated by the glib desire to authenticate ones practice.126 Instead of
presenting an authoritative understanding of yoga, our reading seeks to
selectively employ aspects of the tradition for our critical project, tempered
by the recognition of the partiality of our own perspective in light of the traditions multivalence.
The danger is that it is precisely this multivalence that allows yoga to feed
into neoliberalism by giving it many footholds. But I have suggested that not

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all forms of yoga need be complicit with neoliberal subjectivity. Meanwhile,


for every claim that neoliberalism is pervasive, ubiquitous, normalized, and
dominant,127 we find a counterclaim about its incompleteness, malleability,
vulnerability and porosity.128 Neoliberalism is continually operationalized,
enacted, performed . . . every attempt at its reiteration also provides an opportunity for resistance.129 Perhaps the foremost political task, then, is for
scholars and practitioners to treat yoga in ways that emphasize its counterhegemonic potential, steering clear of authenticity debates and instead turning
our energies to the productive task of taking up its intellectual resources for
socio-political resistance. Our counterhegemonic reading can re-enact yogic
practice to produce a series of ongoing resistances against a deterministic and
totalizing conception of neoliberal subjectivity. This political task need not
be exclusive with an intellectual honesty that admits the particularity of this
reading and its deliberate, piecemeal reliance upon certain influential components of yogic philosophy, without fetishistic claims to authenticity and exaggerated alterity.
Acknowledgments
The author is grateful to Sara Rushing, Michaele Ferguson, Andrew March, Mihaela
Czobor-Lupp, David Haekwon Kim, Bronwyn Leebaw, Keally McBride, Greg Ver
Steeg, Sarah Pemberton, Jane Bennett, and the anonymous reviewers for Political
Theory. Thanks are also due to Taryn Parks for her invaluable research assistance.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests


The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Funding
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Notes
1. David Gordon White, ed., Yoga in Practice (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 2012), 2.
2. Ibid., 2.
3. Geoffrey Samuel, Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth
Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press); Mircea Eliade, Yoga:
Immortality and Freedom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).
4. White, Yoga in Practice, 6.
5. Andrea Jain, Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2015), 18.

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6. Kenneth Liberman, The Reflexivity of the Authenticity of Hat.ha Yoga, in Yoga


in the Modern World: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Mark Singleton and Jean
Byrne (London: Routledge, 2008), [hereafter YMW], 104.
7. Mark Singleton and Jean Byrne, Introduction, in YMW, 4.
8. Jain, Selling Yoga, 21.
9. Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashram), 1992 [1896], 20.
10. Joseph Alter, Yoga in Modern India: The Body between Science and Philosophy
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 2223.
11. Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (New
York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 81.
12. Ibid., 17677.
13. Jain, Selling Yoga, 37.
14. Mark Singleton, The Classical Reveries of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and
Constructive Orientalism, in YMW, 78.
15. Jain, Selling Yoga, 4344; Elizabeth De Michelis, A History of Modern Yoga:
Patanjali and Western Esotericism (London: Continuum, 2004), 19194.
16. Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collge de France,
1978-79 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 218, 118, 94, 102. Foucault
uses the phrase liberal and neoliberal several times in his 1979 lectures on neoliberalism, a usage which suggests that the two regime types are mutually implicated in the late modern age: The Birth of Biopolitics 78, 85, 322. Wendy Brown
notes that Foucaults own usage of neoliberalism in the Birth of Biopolitics lectures is contradictory: the lectures vacillate between marking neoliberalisms
distinctiveness and establishing its continuity with liberalism, and neoliberalism
appears inconsistently as a break with, swerve from, and a modification of liberalism. Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalisms Stealth Revolution
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015), 54.
17. Stuart Ray Sarbacker, The Numinous and Cessative in Modern Yoga, in YMW,
178.
18. Thomas Lemke, Foucault, Governmentality, and Critique (Boulder, CO:
Paradigm, 2012), 1, 45.
19. Wendy Brown, American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and
De-Democratization, Political Theory 34, no. 6 (2006): 693.
20. Ibid., 694.
21. Ibid.
22. Ibid.
23. Sam Binkley, Happiness as Enterprise: An Essay on Neoliberal Life (Albany:
SUNY Press, 2015), 21.
24. Brown, Undoing the Demos, 2021.
25. Taylor C. Boas and Jordan Gans-Morse, Neoliberalism: From New Liberal
Philosophy to Anti-Liberal Slogan, Studies in Comparative International
Development 44 (2009): 13761; Jamie Peck, Constructions of Neoliberal
Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Aihwa Ong, Neoliberalism

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as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty (Durham, NC: Duke


University Press, 2006); Terry Flew, Michel Foucaults The Birth of Biopolitics
and Contemporary Neoliberalism Debates, Thesis Eleven 108, no. 1 (2012):
4465.
26. Keally McBride, Neoliberalism: Its Unnatural Life and Timely Death, paper
presented at the American Political Science Association (APSA) annual meeting,
Chicago, 2013.
27. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University
Press, 2005).
28. Brown, Undoing the Demos; Jodi Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal
Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 2009); Mitchell Dean, Governmentality: Power and Rule in
Modern Society (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2010).
29.
Raewyn Connell, Understanding Neoliberalism, in Neoliberalism and
Everyday Life, ed. Susan Braedley and Meg Luxton (Montreal: McGill-Queens
University Press, 2010), 27, 33.
30. Binkley, Happiness as Enterprise, 4.
31. Ibid., 11. See also Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling (Durham, NC:
Duke University Press, 2012).
32. Susan Braedley and Meg Luxton, Competing Philosophies: Neoliberalism
and Challenges of Everyday Life, in Braedley and Luxton, Neoliberalism and
Everyday Life, 6.
33. Ibid., 20.
34. Binkley, Happiness as Enterprise, 9.
35. Ibid., 18.
36. Barbara Cruikshank, The Will to Empower: Democratic Citizens and Other
Subjects (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999).
37. Binkley, Happiness as Enterprise, 45.
38. Ibid., 23.
39. Ibid., 24.
40. Ibid., 18.
41. Brown, Undoing the Demos; Flew, Michel Foucaults The Birth of Biopolitics;
Binkley, Happiness as Enterprise.
42. Brown, Undoing the Demos, 3334.
43. Ibid., 22.
44. Ibid., 81.
45. Ibid., 36.
46. Chad Lavin, Eating Anxiety: The Perils of Food Politics (Minneapolis and
London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 79.
47. Nikolas Rose, The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power and Subjectivity in
the Twenty-first Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 4.
48. Michel Foucault, Technologies of the Self, in Technologies of the Self: A
Seminar with Michel Foucault, ed. Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick
H. Hutton (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998), 18.

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49. Edward McGushin, Foucaults Askesis: An Introduction to the Philosophical


Life (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2007), 98, 241, 283.
50. Ibid., xix, 282.
51. Rose, The Politics of Life Itself, 8.
52. Ibid., 23.
53. Georg Feuerstein, The Yga-Stra of Patajali: A New Translation and
Commentary (Folkestone, UK: Dawson, 1979), 35, 41, 88, 118, 119.
54. Benjamin Richard Smith, With Heat Even Iron Will Bend, in YMW, 156.
55. B.K.S. Iyengar, The Illustrated Light on Yoga (New Delhi: Harper Collins India,
1997), pp. 5, 8, 12, 22.
56. Jain, Selling Yoga, 69, 7778.
57. Kristin McGee, Ethics for Yogis, Mantra Yoga + Health, Issue 4, p. 12
58. Louis Althusser, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, Lenin and
Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971).
59. Mimi Nichter, The Social Life of Yoga: Exploring Transcultural Flows in
India, in Yoga Traveling: Bodily Practice in Transcultural Perspective, ed.
Beatrix Hauser (Germany: Springer, 2013).
60. Ellen Goldberg and Mark Singleton, Introduction, in Gurus of Modern Yoga,
ed. Singleton and Goldberg (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 4, 7, 8.
61. Julie J. C. Peters, Guruji, Get Your Hand Off my Vagina: The Modern Yoga
Teacher-Student Relationship, Elephant Journal, January 6 (2012), http://www.
elephantjournal.com/2012/01/guruji-get-your-hand-off-my-vagina-the-modern-yoga-teacher-student-relationship/

62.
Yoga: Making an Investment in Yourself, http://duskyleaf.ca/blog/
yoga-making-investment-in-yourself/
63. Colette M. Herrick and Allan D. Ainsworth, Invest in Yourself: Yoga as a SelfCare Strategy, Nursing Forum 35, no. 2 (2000): 3226.
64. Lavin, 1920.
65. Christine Lavrance and Kristin Lozanski, This Is Not Your Practice Life:
Lululemon and the Neoliberal Governance of Self, Canadian Review of
Sociology 51, no. 1 (2014): 76.
66. Sarah Strauss and Laura Mandelbaum, Consuming Yoga, Conserving the
Environment: Transcultural Discourses on Sustainable Living, in Yoga
Traveling, 185.
67. Cruikshank, The Will to Empower, 89, 91.
68. Verena Schnbele, The Useful Body: The Yogic Answer to Appearance
Management in the Post-Fordist Workplace, in Yoga Traveling, 146.
69. Strauss and Mandelbaum, Consuming Yoga, 187.
70. Julie Guthman and Melanie DuPuis, Embodying Neoliberalism: Economy,
Culture and the Politics of Fat, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space
24 (2006): 444.
71. Schnbele, The Useful Body, 14344.
72. Lavin, 20.
73. Lemke, Foucault, Governmentality, 20
74. Schnbele, The Useful Body, 146.

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75. Sara Rushing, Whats Left of Empowerment After Neoliberalism?, Theory &
Event 19, no. 1 (2016).
76. Lavin, 19.
77. Ibid., 5.
78. Brown, American Nightmare, 702.
79. Ibid., 703, 695.
80. Ibid., 709.
81. Ibid., 695, 704.
82. Ibid., 699, 703.
83. Lavrance and Lozanski, This Is Not Your Practice Life, 80, 85.
84. I owe this to Sara Rushing.
85. Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and
Practice (Prescott, AZ: Hohm Press, 1998), 100, 103.
86. Ritu DasGupta Sherma, Sacred Immanence: Reflections of Ecofeminism in
Hindu Tantra, in Lance E. Nelson, (ed.), Purifying the Earthly Body of God:
Religion and Ecology in India (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1998), 95. See also
Farah Godrej, Orthodoxy and Dissent in Hinduisms Meditative Traditions: A
Critical Tantric Politics? New Political Science 38 (2), 2016, 256-271.
87. Feuerstein, The Yga-Stra of Patajali, 26.
88. Barbara Stoler-Miller, The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishnas Counsel in Time of War
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), VI.4, 63.
89. Stoler-Miller, The Bhagavad-Gita, VI.12, VI.18, 6465.
90. Jain, Selling Yoga, 6570.
91. Feuerstein, The Yga-Stra of Patajali, 59, 80, 86.
92. Schnbele, The Useful Body, 148
93. Feuerstein, The Yga-Stra of Patajali, 34, 3536, 60; Stoler-Miller, The
Bhagavad-Gita, 67.
94. Feuerstein, The Yga-Stra of Patajali, 79.
95. Stoler-Miller, The Bhagavad-Gita, VI.4, 63: detached from sense objects and
actions (sarva-san.kalpa-sannysi).
96. Feuerstein, The Yga-Stra of Patajali, 45.
97. Laura Duhan Kaplan, Physical Education for Domination and Emancipation:
A Foucauldian Analysis of Aerobics and Hatha Yoga, in Philosophical
Perspectives on Power and Domination, ed. Laura Duhan Kaplan and Laurence
F. Bove (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997), 75.
98. I owe this to Lisa Disch. See also Dean Mathiowetz, The Political Potential of
Mindful Embodiment, New Political Science 38 (2), 2016, 226-240.
99. Arnold I. Davidson, In Praise of Counter-Conduct, History of the Human
Sciences 24(4), 2011, 28.
100. Amy Allen, Foucault and the Politics of Our Selves, History of the Human
Sciences 24, no. 4 (2011): 44.
101. McGushin, xxi, xxix, Michel Foucault, The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as
a Practice of Freedom, in Michel Foucault: Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth, ed.
Paul Rabinow (New York: New Press, 1994), 282.
102. Kaplan, Physical Education, 7576.

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103. Cvetkovich, Depression, 193.


104. http://yogatothepeople.com/about-us/mantra/
105. Kaplan, Physical Education, 73.
106. Gary Kraftsow, Polishing the Mirror, Yoga Journal, February 25, 2008.
107. Frank Jude Boccio, Questioning the Body Beautiful: Yoga, Commercialism,
and Discernment; and Melanie Klein, How Yoga Makes You Pretty: The
Beauty Myth, Yoga and Me, both in Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey, eds.,
21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, Practice (Chicago: Kleio Books, 2012).
108. Aadil Palkhivala, Teaching the Yamas in Asana Class, Yoga Journal, August
28, 2007.
109. Matthew Remski, Modern Yoga Will Not Form a Real Culture Until Every
Studio Can Also Double as a Soup Kitchen, and Other Observations from
the Threshold between Yoga and Activism, in Horton and Harvey, eds., 21st
Century Yoga, 118.
110. Jain, Selling Yoga, 120; Alter, Yoga in Modern India, 8.
111. Mikel Burley, A Petrification of Ones Own Humanity? Nonattachment and
Ethics in Yoga Traditions, The Journal of Religion 94, no. 2 (2014): 20428;
Remski, Modern Yoga Will Not Form, 115.
112. See Godrej, Orthodoxy and Dissent in Hinduisms Meditative Traditions.
113. Stoler-Miller, The Bhagavad-Gita, II.47-48, II.50-51, 36.; II.9, 42; II.19, 43;
II.21, 44.
114. Veena Howard, Gandhis Ascetic Activism: Renunciation and Social Action
(Albany: SUNY Press, 2013); Lloyd I. Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph,
The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1967).
115. Shruti Kapila and Faisal Devji, Introduction, in Political Thought in Action:
The Bhagavad Gita and Modern India (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University
Press, 2013), xi, xiv.
116. C. A. Bayly, India, The Bhagavad Gita and the World, in Political Thought in
Action, 7.
117. http://www.offthematintotheworld.org; http://www.yogaactivist.org.
118. Sarbacker, The Numinous and Cessative, 173; Jain, Selling Yoga, 11.
119. Hugh Urban, Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 1112, 1516.
120. Boccio, Questioning the Body Beautiful, 49.
121. Singleton and Byrne, Yoga in the Modern World, 4; Peter Sklivas, How Do You
Like Your Sweat: With or Without Devotion? Keeping Vigorous Yoga Authentic
to the Values of Yoga, Mantra Yoga + Health, Issue 4, 56.
122. Gwi-Seok (Peggy) Hong, Yoga Tradition and Lulu-ji: Can Commercialized
Yoga Be Respectful to the Indian Traditional Practice? The Periphery, February
2015, http://www.theperipherymag.com/essay-yoga-tradition-and-lulu-ji.
123. Alter, Yoga in Modern India, 9, 11; Beatrix Hauser, Introduction: Transcultural
Yoga(s). Analyzing a Traveling Subject, in Yoga Traveling, 3.
124. Alter, Yoga in Modern India, 25; Wendy Doniger, Assume the Position: The

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Fight Over the Body of Yoga, in On Hinduism (New York: Oxford University
Press, 2014).
125. Hauser, Yoga Traveling, 6; Rob Schware, Restoring Yoga to Its South Asian
Roots, Huffington Post, October 21, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robschware/restoring-yoga-to-its-sou_b_4005329.html; https://saapya.wordpress.com
126. For a detailed treatment of methodological and interpretive issues involved in
employing non-Western texts to solve political problems within Western contexts, see Farah Godrej, Cosmopolitan Political Thought: Method, Practice,
Discipline (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
127. Harvey, Neoliberalism and Everyday Life, 35.
128. Don Kalb, Afterword, in Nicolette Macovichy, Neoliberalism, Personhood
and Postsocialism: Enterprising Selves in Changing Economies (Surrey, UK:
Ashgate, 2014), 198.
129. Connor Cavanagh, Constructions of neoliberal reason by Jamie Peck Canadian
Geographer 58, no. 3 (2014): 33.

Author Biography
Farah Godrej is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of
California, Riverside. Her areas of research and teaching include Indian political
thought, Gandhis political thought, cosmopolitanism, globalization, comparative
political theory, and environmental political thought. Her research appears in journals
such as Political Theory, The Review of Politics, New Political Science, and Polity,
and she is the author of Cosmopolitan Political Thought: Method, Practice, Discipline
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Her new research explores the intersection between politics and materiality, focusing on the role of the body in ancient and
contemporary Indian traditions of thought. She was the recipient of the 20132014
UC Presidents Research Faculty Fellowship in the Humanities.

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