By dissecting the Yoga with Adriene channel, along with her videos, this essay tries to examine the cultural dynamics of globalization, and how globalization influences these cultural dynamics.
Jasper Steggink is an anthropologist living in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Currently working for Namasté Foundation.
How globalization is influenced by cultural processes
By dissecting the Yoga with Adriene channel, along with her videos, this essay tries to examine the cultural dynamics of globalization, and how globalization influences these cultural dynamics. This essay aims to make clear that the channel is not only influenced by global forces, but is also a globalizing force in itself. Globalization is a dynamic, contested and multidirectional process, and every encounter between two or more historically separate currents create the possibility of a new cultural form.
Mid-September 2018, Texan yogi Adriene Mishler led the largest live yoga class she ever held, with over 2.400 people joining in an event to bring “the globe together, creating a ripple effect of feel good connection” (Bramley 2018). The event, held in Alexandra Palace in north London, was rather special for Mishler, who normally doesn’t address her students directly, but online, through her popular Yoga with Adriene YouTube videos instead. On her channel, she broadcasts instructional yoga videos of all sorts, such as Yoga Flow for Detox and Digestion , Yoga for Core (and Booty!) and Happiness Boost Yoga.
These videos appeal to a large audience. Over 4 million people have already subscribed to her channel and her most popular video to date is viewed over 18 million times (Mishler 2018). Yoga with Adriene is part of a growing trend in westernized spiritual practices, coming from across the globe. Characteristic of these westernized spiritual practices is its eclectic structure. The videos appear to be heavily influenced by Indian yoga, Buddhist meditation and western sporting exercises. Due to the eclectic, heterogeneous and cosmopolitan nature of Yoga with Adriene, it becomes useful to analyze the phenomenon through the lens of globalization. Through this lens, multiple interconnecting cultural processes become apparent (Tsing 1984, 330). In order to get more insight in the cultural dynamics behind globalization, and how globalization affects cultural dynamics, this essay examines the following cultural processes: everyday spirituality; secularization; homogenization and heterogenization; hybridization; and the cultural performance of success, which are all exemplified in the case. These processes are highlighted by examining the videos that Adriene Mishler broadcasts. This is done in order to demonstrate how global flows become tangible outings, molded to fit a specific locale, and in that process, can become globalizing forces by themselves.
The reason an online case is chosen is because the spread of culture needs a medium and YouTube gives this spread trackable boundaries. About this, Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo (2007, 35) write that “while ideologies may be able to circulate rapidly, they require some sort of material infrastructure in order to move”. YouTube, thus, is the infrastructure that makes the spread of the “culture” of Yoga with Adriene possible.
Culture, as discussed in this essay, is understood in the way Clifford Geertz (1973) describes it: “a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life (1973, 89),” or differently put: man-made “shared webs of significance” (1973, 5).
In order to understand the local level responses to these cultural processes, and to give more weight to the demonstration of global forces becoming tangible in the locale, ethnographic material of those who make use Mishler’s online classes ought to be incorporated. Because of the recentness of these classes, no such information is available other than non-scientific articles and blogposts. Ethnographic writing by anthropologist Alice Burgess on westernized yoga (2016) is used instead. In her article Burgess describes both the underlying motivations as well as the individuals lived experience of participants of five different yoga classes held in Edinburgh (2016, 76). Through this secondary case study, both the globalizing forces (spread from across the globe, solidified on Yoga with Adriene), as well as the local level responses (as seen in the case study of Burgess) come to light. Thus, taking both the global and the local into account, this essay examines how to understand a secularized form of an ancient Indian practice is taught to a western audience. And, more importantly, to argue through this case how globalization is interconnecting cultural processes of everyday spirituality; secularization; homogenization and heterogenization; hybridization; and the cultural performance of success.
Similar to the New Age movement, Mishlers videos can be seen as “an eclectic hotchpotch of beliefs, practices, and ways of life” (Heelas 1996, 1). From an etic perspective, practices labeled as New Age are often analytically considered to be religious (Kemp 2004, 2). Yet, in most cases the practices are rather secular, and most practitioners do not define themselves as part of a religious group (Kemp 2004, 3). That being said, it would be confusing to label Yoga with Adriene New Age. Because the term New Age is so diverse and manifold, its use has been problematized by many (Holloway 2000, 554). So, as an analytical point of departure, and acknowledging the New Age movement as a strong influencer, contemporary phenomena such as Yoga with Adriene can better to be understood as what MacKian’s (2012) calls “everyday spirituality”. An activity “not grounded in religion or sociological accounts of conventional ‘new age’ spirituality”, but merely visible in the contours of someone’s everyday life (MacKian 2012, 12). Everyday spirituality is what’s left after the New Age movement lost its momentum.
There are three global historical occurrences that help to explain the emergence of everyday spirituality, of which Yoga with Adriene is part of. Some of which also help to apprehend the cultural dynamics that occur in the case, and the global flows that strengthened them. First and foremost, the diversification of religion in the West gave way to what Charles Taylor (2007) calls the “secular age”. Taylor argues that through the progression of modernity, religious groups started losing their authority and leverage (2007, 1).
Secondly, this secularization led to the age of authenticity, characterized by an “expressive” individualism; the “searching for the authentic way of living or expressing themselves” (2007, 473). For many this meant the start of a spiritual quest, moving away from the conforming doctrine of a church. “For many people today, to set aside their own path in order to conform to some external authority just doesn’t seem comprehensible as a form of spiritual life. The injunction is, in the words of a speaker at a New Age festival: ‘Only accept what rings true to your own inner Self’” (2007, 489).
Thirdly, it is no coincidence that the expansion and growth of the New Age (1980s and 1990s) coincides with the time in which the world started to appear as a single marketplace: the end of the Cold War (1989-91), entering an era of increased global interconnectedness (Eriksen 2007, 3–4). Seeing the world as a single marketplace makes “shopping” from a variety of religious teachings understandable, hence the eclectic structure of the New Age movement and, succeeding, the hotchpotch character of everyday spirituality like Yoga with Adriene. The New Age movement lost its momentum, but the grand mixture of secularized religious practices remained present.
These three historical occurrences are what can be seen as three global flows that paved the way for yoga to become popular in western nations. The rise in popularity of yoga is obviously more complex than just these occurrences, but what these happenings do show is that the practice of yoga in western nations is a result of the shrinking of the globe and the mixing of multiple shared webs of meaning.
Addressing of the mixing of culture brings forth the debate about the “relationship between global forces and local-level responses” (Sylvain 2014, 355): contemplating whether or not globalization makes cultural stuff to become more similar across the globe. While you could argue that, considering its popularity, online yoga classes actually are “bringing the globe together” (Bramley 2018), creating a homogenizing force which causes everyone to follow the same trajectory, the opposite can be equally true. Mishler’s channel shows clearly that new phenomena do not simply substitute existing ones. Western style yoga, with its prominent focus on health exercises, is very different than its Indian counterpart. Many stances in western style yoga are even modern in origin and akin to western exercise traditions (Singleton 2010, 161). So, instead of substitution, different styles mix to create new. This is in line with Renée Sylvians (2014, 355)view on the matter, who argues that a “focus on the interactions of global and local cultural content contributes to a picture that pits global homogenization against local resistance to it.” Even though the spread of yoga can be considered a harmless global flow, the case does show that culture can be manipulated, formed and molded into something that benefits the locale, and that culture not only flows from the West to the rest, but that western culture is also influenced by webs of meaning outside of the West.
For many people today, to set aside their own path in order to conform to some external authority just doesn’t seem comprehensible as a form of spiritual life.
This new western style yoga, emerged through interaction of external flows with internal flows, producing a unique cultural hybrid that combines their elements, is considered hybridization. In the instance of Yoga with Adriene, the mixing of external flows and internal flows is very prominent. The external flow is yoga itself; the practice is from ancient India, and entered the high-culture in the mid-nineteenth century (Farmer 2012, 150). The internal flow can be appointed to the focus on the physical focus of the practices as displayed on the videos, whereas, according to Indian tradition, the practice has a prominent meditative and spiritual core (Jantos 2012, 362). Also, in her videos, Mishler mostly wears a sporting outfit: leggings and a fitted top, and is clearly sponsored by sports brand Adidas. This is worlds apart from the simple, non-branded robes “traditional” Indian yoga practitioners wear.
Also, like mentioned before, Mishler tailors her yoga lessons for a great variety of situations, many of which have nothing to do with its Indian roots. Interesting examples of hybridization are Couch Potato Yoga , Yoga for Zombies , Yoga for Hangovers and a Halloween themed Yoga for healthy Blood Flow , in which the title is written in scary, blood dripping letters. All of which can be seen as references to American popular culture.
The emergence of new styles of yoga, with a prominent focus on the physical, become particularly clear through Burgess’ ethnography of Yoga in Edinburgh: For the Mind or For the Body? (2016). In her article, Burgess examines five yoga classes, three of which are located in sporting gyms. One of her respondents, Beth Anne, describes her motivation to do yoga as a supplement of her already sportive lifestyle. She states “I began practicing yoga at 16 because I was playing a lot of sports, and I thought the stretching element would be good” (2016, 76). Another respondent, Laura, states: “Yoga is a far more intense, tiring form of exercise than I first assumed” (2016, 76). Burgess observes that the respondents interviewed in the sporting gym place their focus on the physical side, as opposed to the spiritual/mental side of the practice. This malleable characteristic suits the practice of yoga. Perhaps it is the changing nature of the practice that makes it so popular. This is in line with what historian and writer Jared Farmer notes: “Yoga has never been a stable entity; it can mean almost anything to almost anybody” (2012, 157), making it an ideal phenomenon to understand dynamics of homogenization, heterogenization and hybridization.
Adriene Mishler puts her videos on YouTube.YouTubelinks advertisers to the Yoga with Adrienechannel. When over roughly one thousand people watch – or click – on an ad, Adriene receives money from YouTube. This way, her followers can enjoy her lessons free of charge, while she can make a living through the earnings she gets from YouTube. More viewers mean more clicked ads, thus more income. In order to get enough people to watch her channel, Mishler needs to make them excited enough for yoga to come back and watch another lesson. The way this is done is through performing success, much like Edwin Rap’s notion of performing accountability (2017, 366).
By showing with carefully selected symbols, images, and language that yoga is beneficial to one’s life and that learning the practice through Mishler’s channel is fruitful. Mishler does this in a very complementing and subtle manner. She often starts her session by praising the student for “joining her on the mat today”, and acknowledges one’s effort again at the end, not only thanking the viewer for watching, but also making clear that the viewer also ought to thank oneself for participating, even if the lesson was tough. This way of performativity is very much in line with the easy “go with the flow” narrative within western style yoga and creates a sense that viewing the video itself is an accomplishment that needs to be celebrated. Another way of performing success done by Adriene Mishler, is through carefully choosing what she leaves out of the frame when recording her videos. Obviously, she talks very positive while in front of the camera. She also places the camera in a part of her house that make her house look spacious. Sometimes she strategically puts plants in the frame, sometimes her dog. All things to display a specific kind of prestige (Beuving 2015, 336) that rings well with her viewers. She promotes a healthy, happy and stress-free lifestyle, which indirectly shows the presumed workings of practicing yoga, and which appeals to her audience.
By carefully selecting symbols, images, and language the practice of yoga is portrayed as beneficial to the viewer which in term will hopefully bring him or her back to the YouTube channel.
By dissecting the Yoga with Adriene channel, along with her videos, this essay tried to examine the cultural dynamics of globalization, and how globalization influences these cultural dynamics. This essay aimed to make clear that the channel is not only influenced by global forces, but is also a globalizing force in itself. Globalization is a dynamic, contested and multidirectional process, and every encounter between two or more historically separate currents create the possibility of a new cultural form. This problemizes ideas about culture being either a homogenous or heterogenous force, but rather shows a contestation between these two.
By also describing the effects yoga has on the locale, for which the article Yoga in Edinburghby Burgess (2016) is used, this essay also shows multiple different meaning making practices, which can be placed on a spectrum between seeing yoga as spiritual or as a physical exercise.
Lastly, this essay showed how success is performed in ways that appeals to the audience. By carefully selecting symbols, images, and language the practice of yoga is portrayed as beneficial to the viewer which in term will hopefully bring him or her back to the YouTube channel. Through this, the enthusiastic yoga teacher not only gets her inspiration from a variety of cultural practices, but also becomes an inspiration for others, creating a new shared web of significance.
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