Munir, Ansari, and Brown (2021) From Patañjali to the “Gospel of Sweat”: Yoga’s Remarkable Transformation from a Sacred Movement into a Thriving Global Market

Kamal Munir – University of Cambridge, Judge Business School
Shahzad (Shaz) Ansari – University of Cambridge, Judge Business School
Deborah Brown – University of Cambridge, Department of Politics and International Studies

Hamza Khan – Boston College, Carroll School of Management
Rohin Borpujari – London Business School

Article link:

Interviewers: Our first question is about the context. Could you please share how you came up with this idea to study yoga? Whose idea was it and how did it develop?

Kamal: It all, it all started when a PhD student came in. And she originally wanted to study micro finance. But then at one point, she said, I don’t want to study micro finance anymore, I want to study yoga, she just happens to be sitting next to me (Deb). So she knew all about it.

Deb: So I had done my Masters in micro finance, and had this wonderful research design working in Andhra Pradesh, in India and in Mexico. And then it dawned on me, after having Kamal, as my PhD supervisor that perhaps the research design is a bit ambitious with a two year old and a six month old at home. And so then I thought about what my interest was in microfinance. It was really the ‘commercialization of a practice’. That microfinance is counterintuitive, it is commercialized. It is supposed to be about poverty alleviation but all of a sudden is leading to huge profits. Yoga has been a part of my life now for over 20 years, at the time for over 10 years. And I had said to Kamal that literally the day before my course was due to begin: “Well, Kamal, I have this issue with the research design, what do you think, if I were to write about yoga?”, and he looked at me, and I will never forget his reaction. “It’s sort of like cupcakes. It was nowhere now it’s everywhere.” But I think that the idea behind it was, in some ways, similar to micro finance. We drew some parallels. Micro finance has transformed to the extent where Muhammad Yunus has called micro finance lenders the “new loan sharks”. And similarly in yoga, there was this practice that goes from being aesthetical to becoming a market, where you had key figures in yoga that were key and instrumental in actually creating the market (for yoga).

Kamal: One thing you should also know, Deb has been doing yoga for 20 years. She’s a certified yoga instructor. So she’s done those courses that we are writing about, and she’s been doing yoga pretty much all over the world.

Interviewers: A lot of qualitative researchers, including both of us, are interested in unique contexts. The question that we always get is “how is what you are studying organizational”? Or “how is this related to management?” Could you tell us about how you convinced your readers, the reviewers and the journal about the relevance of this context to management and organizations?

Kamal: There are multiple streams in management and organizational research. Some of them will delve deep into organizations, which is also something that we’ve been doing over the years. Some of them will talk about formation of markets. And some of them will talk about social construction of technologies and, organizations are always somewhere in there. So here too, what is the market? A market is essentially, you know, not just individuals, transacting with each other. So when you go to do yoga, you generally are dealing with an organization. The Yoga Journal that we relied upon hugely for for our data is an organization and all these organizations have transformed over time. The market is essentially a collection of organizations. There are individuals, but they are consumers in every market. Consumers will tend to be b2b or b2c cases. Consumers will be individuals, but those who are producing, are supplying or are providing, they will tend to be organizations. So the organization is still there. Except that we don’t go inside the organization very much in this paper. But we talk about, how a particular configuration of organizations develops. They were organizations before too except that they were not transacting but just teaching yoga for free. So these gurus, who used to come mainly from India and live in the US, they would be part of organizations. But the very nature of these organizations completely changed. Except that, like I said, we don’t talk too deeply about organizations. We talk about how a particular movement that was antithetical to capitalism and to consumerism, ended up becoming a multi-billion dollar market.

Shaz: Later in the paper we talk about corporate actors entering this as well. So a key organization, was Lululemon and how they ran this Yoga event in New York City. I actually use this example in the strategic management course we teach to our executive MBAs as a way of how corporates can use this as a differentiation strategy. So Lululemon kind of made a smart decision by associating itself so strongly with yoga, even though it completely changed the way they positioned yoga and the way they marketed yoga. But the idea is that these corporate actors, along with other studios like Tara Stiles, played a huge role in this shift and profited from it as well.

Kamal: Yeah, that’s right. If you look at its first issue of Yoga Journal back in 1975, it has a guru and abstract covers with Sadhus (holy men) and these people, mostly men, essentially meditating on the cover. And if you look at the mid 2000 onwards, it’s basically these acrobatic, athletic, good looking women in all sort of poses, most of them are not even yoga practitioners. They’re actually models or gymnasts. So how was Yoga being portrayed by these organizations? How was it being sold? What was being sold, and who was practicing it, and for what ends? Everything changed.

Deb: In Harlem New York, Lululemon hosted this event, where literally they had Bibles (Lululemon Gospels of Sweat) on pews. So it was in this church, and people came in, and they had inspirational speakers from SoulCycle. So nothing even to do with yoga. But when you listen to it, it’s vacuous. It’s not about the sages and Patanjali. And the Foundations of Yoga, it’s kind of inspirational speak. And again, I think a lot of that was to include people. So in interviews with professionals in the yoga space, particularly in apparel, they would say, listen, it’s about fitness. We don’t exclude anyone. So at another Lululemon event I went to, Ganesh (Hindu Deity) was described as a harmless little guy, ‘he’s really cute, like, he’s an elephant’, rather than actually delving into what the history is. So it’s giving a veneer of authenticity of like, ‘look, we’re very sacred and spiritual, but oh, don’t worry, because he’s just this cute homeless guy’. This is really offensive, but certainly is accommodating to the market because you’re saying you don’t need to be strictly spiritual. It is kind of like, ‘we’ll just give this to you to add value to our fitness practice, but it is not a requirement for you to understand what it means.’

Interviewers: Inductive research develops over time. So was this always the puzzle that you were trying to solve? Or did this emerge after you started to look at the data? In other words, how did this paper develop over time?

Kamal: The central puzzle was always this but in our conversations we did realize that yoga was actually anti consumerist. Yoga was about how little you can live on. It’s not about you know, buying more things and buying more expensive yoga mats and paying more for your yoga lessons and buying Lululemon and so on and so forth. It wasn’t about that but it was a denunciation of all that. I don’t know how big the market was at the time when we started but now it’s almost $100 billion. So how did it actually form? There must have been resistance to that. So then we started looking for data sources, and so on. So Deb, had done a lot of interviews. We still haven’t done very much with those interviews. Hopefully, soon, we can, we can use those as well.

Deb: It was an interesting process, because in interviews, I was trying to get as wide a range of perspectives as possible. So it was from local studio owners to literally the Dalai Lama, talking about yoga, who said that, ‘yoga, without spirituality, is like a dog running meaninglessly’, which is actually quite a profound statement in and of itself. It was in some ways very much grounded theory. We knew we had this puzzle, where something that’s antithetical to the market creates such a large market. And then certain trends became clear, certain themes started to emerge over and over again. For example we started to examine how different movements such as fitness, spirituality and holistic health interacted with each other. I think it’s something that we started to discuss fairly early on in the paper, because it became clear to us that the original yoga that came at first in the US with Vivekananda, in the 1890s, was completely antithetical to Western materiality. And there’s a lot of discussion by Vivekananda of Patanjali, because his teacher talks about moral precepts that should be observed. And then just trying to see how did this that began as a social movement antithetical to the west, now became really an identity movement. Where your identity is one in terms of clothing in terms of where you practice and how you practice, rather than necessarily like a deep engagement with the spiritual aspects.

Kamal: But the idea itself was born, you know, sort of out of those interviews because people (yoga instructors and studio owners) started telling Deb that these women come here because they want biceps like Madonna’s or they want a body like Sting’s, and so on. And that got us thinking, right? I mean, where does Madonna come into all this? Where does Sting come into all this? And that’s why we started going into the archives, and we started looking at, how did we come to this stage (with Yoga)? We had a faint idea of what it was, at least, Deb had a better idea of it than we did. Then we started going back into, and we found a really good data source, which was the Yoga Journal. And because it started publishing in 1975, yoga was still anti commercial. I mean, look at the initial issues of the Yoga Journal, and it’s all anti capitalism stuff, right? It’s everything that the Occupy movement, and you know, sort of other environmental movements would stand for. And slowly we saw the journal itself transforming the kind of articles and the kind of debates that they were having. We also looked at the devices and mechanisms they use to justify their changing position (about Yoga). So for example, at one point, these guys wanted resources, all movements need resources. So we talked to the original founder and they were using their own credit cards to run the journal. And so they wanted ads, but here the readership did not want ads. Earlier the ads of were of environmentally friendly yoga mats, and, you know, all the stuff that a very committed, ‘eco warrior’ would be using in their lives. And now it was advertising Vodka and absolutely anything under the sun like Nissan Leaf the electric car and so on and so forth. So it was it was changing. And at one point, these guys in order to attract and become a player, started distributing karma points or karma credits on companies that took out new lines of yoga wear. Banana Republic took out the new line of yoga wear 20 odd years ago. And these guys bestowed karma points or karma credits on them, and the readership was horrified. They said, “What are you doing? These are the guys who run sweatshops all over the world”. And the editor’s response to this protest was very interesting to us. Because she said, “Well, you know, yes, yoga teaches us to be one and we could be one with Banana Republic as well”. So they were trying to completely do away with all these conflicts that were out there. Somehow they came up with these arguments that we call ‘syncretic’ in the paper.

Shaz: Just to build on Deborah’s point that we did struggle with categorizing the movement. Deborah mentioned identity movement. So this an identity movement, but at the same time, it’s also a Counter Cultural Movement. So what we thought how this movement would have differentiated itself from others was that it was against a market culture, so to speak, or materialist culture. So in this category we looked at religious movements, veganism and microfinance that you could argue was not supposed to be what it is today. So we looked at these counterculture movements as a category which fit best into understanding this. Something like the hippie movement that completely got transformed in modern incarnations in California. And as Kamal is talking about all these advertisements, that’s not how the LGBT movement started. But then it became an advertising haven for all kinds of markets to develop around products. So we can see this in many counterculture movements, but yoga was interesting as it is a rather extreme case.

Interviewers: You have collected and analyzed an immense amount of data spanning four decades. A lot of historical case work involves deciding what NOT to put into the paper. How did you go about the process of leaving stuff out so that the paper stays succinct and to-the-point?

Kamal: We started with the interviews, and we ended up not using many interviews. In the paper, we used a few, but we had hundreds of interviews. But then we started tracing the evolution and emergence of this thing. And then we chanced upon several different magazines, but the one that was really the flagship journal of the movement was the Yoga Journal. And it started out in 1975 and we took it up to 2015 or so. And it gave us a really nice catalogue of everything that went on. But, you know, there isn’t always too much data. So, for example, another archival study that I did previously was on Kodak, and, and the birth of the Kodak moment. And I remember going through, you know, magazines from the 1800s, sitting in the basement of the New York Public Library. There are bits and pieces here and there that you need to piece together. So in yoga, too, there wasn’t much before 1975 that we could get our hands on.

Deb: Yeah, that was interesting we went through the Times, The Guardian, and all articles published on yoga, and it was very scant references from 1975, through kind of the 1980s. A few references started from the 90s. And then in the late 1990s it really picked up. Certainly going through the history of yoga, it is a real challenge, when you are looking at historical setting and you’re trying to find your defined topic. The history of yoga could take up volumes and it’s a challenge to look for relevant data.

Kamal: And a lot of this data is in books that people have written so how much can you rely on that? You don’t want to rely too much on that? You want to go back to primary sources. And there wasn’t very much. So yoga manuals, for example, there are not very many from that time that you can get your hands on. So you need to piece data together. We were also looking at codes that yoga movement borrowed from various other movements. So it wasn’t just yoga that we were looking at. We were also looking at the fitness movement, domestic health movement, the New Age movement and so on. It was difficult piecing it all together. Again, we did not focus on the early history, right? Like, initially, we did have some sections on what happened from the time of Vivekananda to the time it started to intersect with these other movements. And we then sort of decided to focus more on 1975 onwards rather than the earlier narrative from the time Vivekananda launched this in America. So in earlier versions, we used to talk about what happened in the 50s, 60s too but we had to take all of that out.

Shaz: We had this tension at the beginning, whether this is going to be a story about how markets emerge? Or how a movement which is antithetical to markets gets marketized? So it was to almost a dichotomy. Through the review process, we had to pick a side. So it’s not so much about how markets emerge, but rather, how a movement gets de-essentialized before it can be marketized. So that became the key focus, which helped us have a narrower focus on what we were trying to describe here. And of course, the different movements again is part of the story. But that was how meanings were not just originating from within yoga, but how the journal was affected by people saying, “Well, my back got fixed by doing yoga and why not give this benefit to people beyond this one person who had a back issue solved by yoga.” So the idea that this movement was allowing the meaning of the yoga practice itself to filter into other spheres worked to widen the market. Some reviewers asked if we could write this paper from other movements’ perspective. I think other movements didn’t grow to the same degree as yoga. So one argument that we gave back to reviewers was that this market is much bigger relative to, let’s say, holistic health. However you could write a completely different paper on the fitness group and how it has exploited yoga.

Kamal: Eventually we decided to focus on the yoga movement in the West, and within that specifically on the US, because, you know, as soon as we started looking at different continents, reviewers would come to us and basically, tell us that we can either do this, or can do that.

Shaz: But I mean, we do mention the idea of sort of reverse fusion in a way that if you look at how yoga is being practiced in India, a friend of mine visited this practice, which was supposed to be ‘pure’ Yoga. And she thought it was just a bit boring, right? You know, you didn’t work out. You just breathe in and out for hours. Actually, people in India are also looking for the more westernized version of yoga, which is sort of a reverse diffusion on the home base of yoga. So if you look at what’s happened over there, a Yoga Guru Baba Ramdev has exploited nationalism and Yoga itself to create a large consumer products company (Patanjali Ayurved). Patanjali, I think is the third largest consumer products company there after Procter & Gamble and Unilever. It’s not the focus of the paper, but there are implications of how you can even have reverse diffusion to where it was born. So you have more westernized versions of yoga back in India now, which they wish to fight against. I think they appointed a Minister for Yoga to protect the Indian heritage from being corrupted and westernized. So there is a movement there to bring back Yoga’s original and authentic varieties at the same time allowing the commercialization of Yoga.

Interviewers: In extreme historical case studies like your paper rich illustrations and illustrative comparisons play an important role to make an extreme case relatable to audiences. We thought you did a great job of sprinkling in examples of other social movements–ranging from Occupy Wall Street to megachurches to organic foods and punk fashion–that are likely to experience some of the same forces that you uncover in your case study. For the benefit of our readers who are doing historical case studies of a similar nature, how did you go about finding these analogical cases?

Kamal: It was actually coding of the data. I mean, we coded about 240 issues of the Yoga Journal. These categories essentially emerged out of first order codes. We knew, broadly, what we were focusing on, which was emergence of new categories, and how our discourses on a movement were changing. So something like selective desacralization emerged out of that. So some aspects of Yoga were considered Hindu baggage, which you had to get rid of if you wanted to build a big market that appeals to everyone. Also there was individualization going on. So movements are about collective interests and collective goals. But this was being brought down to the individual level. For example Tara Stiles quote from the paper, “There are no rules in life and you need to follow your intuition and what makes you feel good.” So how do you get from Yoga’s original philosophy down to do whatever works for you

Deb: I think, when you’re working on research, you see your research everywhere. And so you would see pictures of Christmas around the world, and you’d literally see Christmas in Dubai, and you think, well, that doesn’t make sense, or the Buddha bar in Paris. Holi runs that you started to see in the UK called ‘color runs’. Before working on this, I wouldn’t have necessarily thought about that as tying into our research but eventually became just a list of things that we could draw upon to explain our research.

Shaz: I think that’s a great point. You start noticing more what might resonate with what you’re trying to argue, but I think if you look at the literature, you start noticing and picking up things. Right. So veganism was another movement that we related back to individualization. I think that’s a pretty key issue, because this collective versus individual is almost a shift in veganism, which was a movement and a collective change in society but now veganism is an individual tool to improve your health. So this collective to individual is a mechanism that we saw being enacted in different spans and veganism is one of the movements where individualization is important but that’s not how veganism started as a movement. So if you go back to the origins, it’s a completely different movement for collective change, just like yoga and now it’s like, ‘okay, I can be healthier through veganism’, which is much more individualized.

Interviewers: Can you take us through the review process for this paper? What were some of the issues discussed and how did you tackle them? What can the readers of this blog learn from your experience of the review process?

Kamal: The reviewers, you know, they made us work very, very hard on this. So they wanted us to show the data more and rethink our contributions, and so on. I’d say, overall, they didn’t want us to put all our ideas in the paper.

Shaz: So this was a PhD thesis and Deborah had multiple interviews and multiple other things that you could write several papers from. For students going through the review process I would say the reviewers want you to hunker down to your key focus? So I think PhD students and early career academics have this idea of trying to put several exciting ideas into one paper, which becomes cognitively impossible to evaluate for the reader. So I think one of the key suggestions is to try to find a clear focus. And, you know, we did that in the review process. It was originally a longer story, but then we cut down the parts from the 1900s, to the 60s. They wanted us to focus on how our paper was different from other ‘movements to markets’ papers like grass fed beef etc. So we had to dig down and figure out what this is an extreme case for.  We stumbled upon counterculture movements, and thought that maybe that’s a better category for us to think about than maybe grass fed beef or organic food, so we had to figure out how to position that and that didn’t happen all at once. It’s something that emerged from the back and forth of the review process.

Kamal: I guess that a lot of the new modes of data collection for us came about because of the review process. Because they pushed us to actually show incontrovertible evidence that something did happen. And they pushed us towards building causal explanations and so on. I mean, they would send us 10 page long reviews and so just engaging with them took months and months of work.

Shaz: Yeah I think they wanted us to focus more and more on real time information. So, a lot of times I think Yoga Journal was giving the story as it was. Whereas, I think interviews, the problem was the retrospective bias. So it’s asking people to recall something that happened years ago versus being able to track down real time information that is unfolding at that time, people were saying at the time. I think that helps persuade reviewers that you’re not asking people to recount the story, but actually tracking the primary source at the source itself. Maybe it’s an archival interview that happened at the time, rather than asking someone what happened 20 years ago.

Kamal: You know, you’re lucky if you can find that kind of data which we found with the Yoga Journal. And the editor basically thought, okay, now you guys have something because it starts in 1970 and goes all the way. All the issues are there and can be coded so this really gives you something.

Deb: A lot of historical study reviewers these days are cognizant of retrospective bias but I think as a note of caution we should also be wary of real time bias with our data. So depending on how the interview was framed there could have been a lot more discussion of spirituality in the early issues. Or I participated in over 400 Yoga classes. And I can almost invariably say that if a teacher knew I was there, and I was reading a PhD on Yoga, there would be a lot more Patanjali than there would be otherwise. A huge difference in terms of the tilt of the class and the nature of the class, actually.

Interviewer bios:

Hamza is currently a fourth year PhD candidate in Organization Studies at Boston College Carroll School of Management. He is interested in research questions and issues pertaining to how individuals derive their identity from the work that they do and on how they identify with their professions or occupations. Hamza’s work aims to understand how individuals integrate their non-work identities, specifically religious identities, in their work and workplace.

Rohin is a PhD candidate in Organizational Behavior at the London Business School. His dissertation examines the organization of secretive knowledge work. Amidst rising global debates around privacy and transparency, and open versus closed approaches to collaborative work, Rohin’s research aims to understand how people navigate knowledge sharing and concealment while managing associated social dynamics of inclusion and exclusion within and across organizations.

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