Al Jazeera Correspondent

Who Owns Yoga?

We explore the impact of our modern obsession with one of the world’s oldest physical and spiritual practices.

The ancient practice of yoga has been packaged and commercialised in a myriad of different ways over recent decades.

But while this has enabled it to reach millions of people, it has also brought with it the pitfalls of operating in a modern capitalist world.

In this film, we explore the obsession with yoga and the impact this is having on one of the world’s oldest physical and spiritual practices, and ask: Who owns yoga?

The science behind yoga and meditation

By Bhanu Bhatnagar, correspondent

Yoga is so utterly vast as a discipline and so old as a practice, that it was a tall order to make a film about it in all its diversity and complexity. And there is one important element that was left unexplored in our film which deserves mention: the science behind yoga and meditation.

The last decade has seen an explosion of research into how and why yoga, mindful breathing and meditation impact our brains, bodies and behaviour. It’s long been believed that yoga and meditation can positively affect a person’s mood. But now, cold hard evidence appears to be confirming what sages and saints have been saying for thousands of years.

In 2012, 68-year-old Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard was named the world’s happiest man.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin wired up the Frenchman’s skull with 256 sensors.

The scans showed something remarkable. Daily meditation has given Ricard an exceptionally large capacity for joy and reduced his propensity towards negative emotions. Researchers showed that regular yoga and meditation can lead to increased activity in the brain’s left prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for memory, mood and emotions, among other things.

And you needn’t be a Buddhist monk to benefit. Research suggests that just three weeks of 10 to 20 minutes of daily meditation can positively alter your brain.

Neuroscience is taking us deeper into the inner workings of our minds. And it’s revealing fascinating truths about our innate ability to heal ourselves, alter our dispositions, and according to Dr. Deepak Chopra, even change the expression of our genes.

Chopra is part of a movement that aims to provide evidence of consciousness – a term thrown around loosely in the world of yoga and meditation that basically means an intense form of self-awareness, starting with the body and eventually encompassing all of existence.

Yoga and meditation are bringing the usually hostile worlds of religion and science together; showing us that each individual has the capacity to heal themselves, physically and emotionally, through self-awareness and reflection.


Yoga journeys

By Marie-Helene Carleton, filmmaker

While working on this film and talking to people about their yoga journeys, I became intrigued by tales of their first time on the mat – and where it led. Just as there are multifold ways of doing yoga, so there are many stories of how one comes to it.

But I started to notice a trend. Men often came to yoga to heal a physical injury, while women sought to heal an emotional one.

A male professional wrestling champion who hurt his back needed to save his career. A troubled young man who described his upbringing as racist and violent fell off a building while high on drugs, broke his back, and couldn’t walk. A young boy with debilitating health problems was given a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals that made him sicker.

A young female dancer struggled with an eating disorder resulting from a sexual assault. An actress battled a deeply negative self-image. A female journalist needed to find a way to cope with the trauma of 9/11 and the death of her friends.

But while these gendered starting points may seem like a dichotomy – I started yoga to heal my back, or I started yoga to heal my heart – people often discover that the physical and mental benefits converge over time as the physical practice leads to an emotional awakening.

Through the physical practice, the wrestler heals his back, and then creates his own form of yoga in order to bring it to men who regard it as only being for women. The troubled young man finds he can walk again, and evolves his perspective of others, becoming a peace-loving vegetarian, teaching a rigorous form of yoga and breathing techniques at Ted talks.

The sick boy heals his body through yoga and becomes a world-class yoga athlete who champions the spiritual aspects of his practice.

And the emotional, internal journey leads to physical wellbeing and integration with the body. The young dancer finds a way to cope with her trauma, and the loss of control, creating a new and popular form of yoga that is about ease and simplicity. The actress learns to love her body and becomes a popular yoga instructor and body model for yoga brands. The journalist finds acceptance of the past and peace in her life, with a rigorous two-hour yoga practice every day.

The physical and emotional journeys intersect.

In recent years, the starting point for yoga has shifted as well. Returning combat veterans are using yoga to heal the emotional and psychological wounds of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The way people talk about yoga – as a spiritual technology, a science of the soul, or body prayer – are different narrative roads that lead to a similar point.

What makes yoga distinctive is the mind-body connection led by the breath. Here, the mind and body are not in opposition, but unified through the act of breathing. Yoga is an experience of a special connection that happens when the physical and the mental come together and become something transcendent.

Micah Garen, Co-filmmaker contributed to this article.

Yoga at The Shard, London, UK [Marie-Helene Carleton/Al Jazeera]


Kajza Ekberg, Boxing yoga, London, UK [Marie-Helene Carleton/Al Jazeera]


Diamond Dallas Page, DDP Yoga, Venice Beach, CA, USA [Marie-Helene Carleton/Al Jazeera]


Praise Moves, a Christian alternative to yoga, Barstow, CA, USA [Marie-Helene Carleton/Al Jazeera]


Sri Dharma Mittra at the Dharma Yoga Center, New York City, US [Marie-Helene Carleton/Al Jazeera]