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It Will Be A While Before India Starts Minting Money From Yoga The Way America Has

The Yoga ship may have sailed.

21/06/2017 6:43 PM IST | Updated 21/06/2017 7:15 PM IST
Pawan Kumar / Reuters
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi performs yoga on International Yoga Day in Lucknow, India June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Pawan Kumar

Last year, PM Narendra Modi told the US Congress that India had not claimed intellectual property on yoga yet. "It is estimated that more Americans know how to do yoga than to throw a curve ball," he had said. While the statement elicited laughs and was, admittedly, made in jest, the underlying message was clear: India, if it really wanted, has a claim to make on the rewards of this ancient Indian practice that has become a multi-billion industry in the West.

If the latest International Yoga day, the third since its launch by India in 2015 -- and the accompanying grand spectacle of fancy Yoga asanas performed by politicians to celebrities, flooding the early morning Twitter and Instagram feeds of Indian citizens-- is anything to go by, it seems India is turning up the ante another notch. It is clear that the Indian government is keen on reminding the world that this is where Yoga belongs.

While India may not technically own Yoga, the question whether yoga has been culturally appropriated by the West or exported as a form of soft power is finding more and more resonance among Indian politicians.

While India may not technically own Yoga, the question whether yoga has been culturally appropriated by the West or exported as a form of soft power is finding more and more resonance among Indian politicians. According to media reports, the Indian government had recently tasked Indian embassies around the world to make a major marketing push for the international yoga day leading up to the day-long celebration.

Despite these efforts, there's no denying that the business of yoga in India pales in comparison to the riches US companies have already made. From the success of yoga apparel brands such as Lululemon, to fancy yoga studios to unconventional forms of Yoga such as anti-gravity yoga, nude yoga and Karaoke yoga, yoga continues to enjoy a cult-like status in the West.

According to a study on the consumer yoga market by Ipsos Public Affairs, as of 2016, yoga practitioners in the US spent $16 billion on classes, gear and accessories. A whopping one-third of America's population said they were likely to try Yoga in the next 12 months, said Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, which had commissioned the study. Other estimates peg the size of the industry at $27 billion.

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But it isn't just the US or the West that is seeing gold in Yoga. Even affluent Chinese are jumping on the Yoga rage. According to Zhang Yongjian, a senior researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, there are more than 10,800 yoga schools in China today with millions of practitioners, Daily Mail reported.

But India seems intent on catching up fast. The government's AYUSH ministry, which is dedicated to Yoga among other traditional practices, said late last year it had certified and trained 734 yoga professionals. While this is only a fraction of the over 36 million Yoga practitoners in the US as of 2016, the government certification indicates India's intention to partly regulate the industry, bringing it in line with other formalised sectors. India currently doesn't release specific data on private yoga studios, but the Indian government has previously estimated the size of the wellness sector at about Rs 490 billion.

The government's AYUSH ministry, which is dedicated to Yoga among other traditional practices, said late last year it had certified and trained 734 yoga professionals.

Indeed, celebrity Yoga guru Baba Ramdev's Patanjali, which has amassed a fortune pushing "natural" and indigenous consumer products, now plans to open 10,000 Yoga studios in Haryana. Even leading Indian university, JNU, has recently announced it would start offering a short-term yoga course after initially rejecting suggestions from an internal academic committee. There are also reports of the government galvanising support for yoga entrepreneurs to make a further push in the wellness segment.

Whether all these efforts by Indian government will ultimately pay off, of course, depends on how much Indians, especially affluent Indian youth, embrace Yoga, akin to their western counterparts, especially in the absence of any fad-like novelty associated with Yoga that has come to define it in the West.

At gyms and health clubs in Indian metros, Zumba classes seem more in demand than Yoga -- for now at least. If that trend continues, India may just have to bank on reasserting international intellectual property claims -- even if it is in jest -- on world forums to earn a piece of the Yoga pie.

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