In 2016, Yoga was listed in the intangible cultural heritage list by UNESCO as part of Indian cultural heritage (ICH, 2018). Intangible cultural heritage is “tradition-based creations of a cultural community” and it is important in reflecting the cultural identity of a place or people (UNESCO, 1998:5).

The Indian Prime Minister demonstrating at the International Yoga day in 2015 (Abidi, 2015)

Meaning of Yoga

The traditional values practiced in yoga of physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing are adopted widely within Indian culture (ICH, 2018). The word itself in Sanskrit means “Union” and most often includes a connection between mind, body, and soul (Borohhov, 2018; ICH, 2018). There is a tradition of a master-pupil relationship, where teaching is a major component of yoga (ICH, 2018). This has sparked the rise of many yoga schools and retreats worldwide (ICH, 2018).

The Agama Yoga Scandal

Agama Yoga, a yoga school in Thailand, is now under independent investigation after several reports of sexual abuse and assault by Swami Vivekananda Saraswati, whose real name is Narcis Tarcau (Ellis-Petersen, 2018). Visitors of the school likened it to a cult, where they were brainwashed and told to perform sexual degenerative acts, all in the name of enlightenment (Ellis-Petersen, 2018). Often visitors would trust this judgement as they were told it would heal them spiritually (Ellis-Petersen, 2018). Contrastingly, if these advances were rejected, visitors were told there would be karmic retributions and they would feel shamed into participating, due to the Swami’s authority and perceived expertise (Ellis-Petersen, 2018).

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Narcis Tarcau, founder of Agama Yoga School (Coconuts.co, 2018).

Bending the meaning of Yoga

It could be argued that the over-commercialisation of yoga may affect the authenticity of the cultural practice. Askegaard and Eckharddt (2012) explain that there are numerous ways of re-appropriating Yoga, one example of this being a market-oriented approach. This approach is pursued to make the practice consumer friendly primarily in the West (Askegaard and Eckharddt, 2012). It may also have a positive impact on market forces and in bringing attention to the practice (Askegaard and Eckharddt, 2012). However, there is the worry that by commercialising yoga, the practice will lose its authenticity. This is especially significant as gurus would live in secluded areas and not teach to large masses of people (Askegaard and Eckharddt, 2012). Looking at this through a post-colonial lens may help, as Indians are alarmed that the West is only looking to benefit from the practice and aiming to take over the practice as their own (Askegaard and Eckharddt, 2012).

The Agama Yoga school is a part of the problem discussed above. The school itself represents the commodification of yoga, as they offer courses for high prices and attract thousands of visitors every year (Ellis-Petersen, 2018). Furthermore, Narcis Tarcau and two other male teachers, who were accused of similar charges to Tarcau, have purposefully bent the meanings associated with yoga to fit their personal benefit and take advantage of the visitors’ curiosity and respect for the master-pupil relationship (Ellis-Petersen, 2018).

Restoring authenticity

It is not surprising to find that Indians feel that yoga is being seized and the traditional values are becoming more and more diluted as the West intervenes. There is an importance of ensuring that the practice is carried out and taught safely and in a non-discriminatory way. This could be done by ensuring staff for yoga schools have been trained at an authentic place and in following of the traditional ways of practicing yoga to continue the progression of yoga in a sustainable way.


References

Askegaard, S., & Eckhardt, G. (2012). Glocal yoga: Re-appropriation in the Indian consumptionscape. Marketing Theory, 12(1), 45-60.

Borohhov, D. (2018). Yoga — What is Yoga? — Definition of the Sanskrit Word. [online] Ananda. Available at: https://www.ananda.org/yogapedia/yoga/ [Accessed 17 Oct. 2018].

Ellis-Petersen, H. (2018). ‘Under Swami’s spell’: 14 tourists claim sexual assault by guru at Thai yoga retreat. [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/07/under-swamis-spell-14-tourists-claim-sexual-assault-by-guru-at-thai-yoga-retreat [Accessed 17 Oct. 2018].

ICH. (2018). Yoga. [online] Available at: https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/yoga-01163 [Accessed 17 Oct. 2018].

UNESCO. (1998). Draft decisions recommended by the program and external relations commission, 155th Session of the Executive Board. November 2, 1998, Resolution 3.5.5. World Heritage Committee. Kyoto, Japan.

List of illustrations

Abidi, A. (2015). Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a demonstration in New Delhi for the International Yoga Day. [image]

Coconuts.co (2018). Narcis Tarcau. [image]

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