Naked Yoga in Kyoto: Perspectives on Postures, Pollution and Pilgrimage


Moving to a new country, to live, is one of the scariest and most challenging things a person can do. None of it is easy. Neither the moving to a strange new place, nor leaving behind all that is familiar and comforting. It is exhausting. Especially, when dealing with a foreign language, culture and bureaucracy.

I had been in Japan all of two weeks. After a five-hour return trip to north Kyoto from Kansai Airport, where I had just said goodbye to my wife, who had to return to Australia, indefinitely, for work; I sat, alone and naked, on the floor of our somewhat-furnished apartment. Catalysed by exhaustion and fear, I went into a state of shock. I looked out the window toward the hill in the distance for some time. The beautiful, late Autumn leaves glistened in the warm glow of the setting sun. Soon, however, it faded to black, as the sun dipped behind the range. I continued to sit there. Motionless. I started to shiver. I went numb.

This mixed bag of emotions was overwhelming. Here I was, literally living the dream, as it were. Having graduated in 2016, on my birthday, from ANU with a PhD in anthropology, I am now on a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at Kyoto University. This almost decade-long ambition to have a post-doctoral position at Kyoto University had actually come true. Yet, sitting on the floor that night, I was terrified. But, each day brings more familiarity, and the anxiety seems to be easing, as I learn more Japanese, and become more familiar with the city, the university, my project, and myself.

In February 2017, I was nominated for a Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science Fellowship (JSPS). My post-doctoral project is titled:

日本 の ヨガ スケープ

Nihon no Yoga Sukēpu

The Yogascapes in Japan project is about yoga… in Japan. It explores the imaginative consumption of wellness through a casual/serious leisure lens. And focuses, specifically, on documenting the practices, aspirations and identities of consumers of yoga-inflected lifestyles in Japan, the consumers’ broad imagination of India, and how yoga (ヨガ or ヨ — ガ for the purist) in Japan is distinct and/or similar to the inflected variants of global yoga that we know more about.

This is one reason I was curious to focus on Japan. The academic field of yoga studies is very Western-centric. More importantly, the more I looked into yoga in Japan, it became apparent that there is not much, if anything, at all, written in English or Japanese, about the anthropology or economics of modern, globalised yoga…in Japan. If you would like to know more about this project’s origins, you can find information here.

By ‘global yoga’, I simply refer to the imaginative consumption of a seemingly endless array of yoga-inspired practices that happen within a trans-national context. The chart below is a typology of modern yoga, which evolved out of a discussion between Elizabeth de Michelis and Jacqueline Hargreaves. It is a productive way to discuss and differentiate the many styles of modern yoga today.

Source: The Luminescent

While many people are aware of the popularity of yoga, globally speaking; the figures are quite astonishing. In 2015, the global wellness industry was valued at around USD4 trillion.

Global Wellness Institute

Yoga, or rather, the imaginative consumption of yoga-inflected lifestyles, plays a significant role in generating huge profit, both economically and symbolically. Through the distant-led commodification of traditional practices, the politics and economics of yoga become important focus points for exploring how the Indian state operationalises yoga as part of its expansionist, soft-power agenda. It is interesting, then, how yoga becomes political, or is operationalised as a political instrument. It is also interesting to explore the ways in which agitators work to decolonise yoga, not only from the previous colonial masters, but the current, post-colonial and neoliberal ones as well.

One problem that the self-appointed decolonisers of yoga face is the myopic and ahistorical position from which they operate, which, based on a rigid application of epistemically-relative, post-modern, identity politics, stifles much, if any, chance for dialogue. Like Andrea Smith (p. xi), I, too, am curious about unlikely alliances, and wonder if identity politics needs a reboot to ‘alliance politics’.

For the most part, it seems, at least in this early stage of this project, the discussions of cultural appropriation, which are quite prevalent in the West, are more or less absent from discussions related to the politics of yoga, and India, that I have had with people who attend a variety of yoga studios in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

Psycho-geography is a way to explore concepts related to navigation, play and the city; as well as one’s capability to fulfil a journey. I have been thinking broadly about real and imagined ‘yoga journeys’ in this way. Spinney discusses how a sense of belonging is created through experiences collected during geographical exploration, and how this enables the creation of meaningful spatial relations. Building on this, we can consider how different types of movement are nuanced by the interplay between the internal, imagined travel of the yoga consumer, and the physical travel to one’s local yoga studio and distant, exotic locations. Increasingly, there are several yoga-focused travel sites, like Book Yoga Retreats, that promise ‘unforgettable yoga experiences’ that will ‘enrich your life’.

Here, are two examples of how yoga is mapped onto other adventure-led tourist pursuits, like the traditional pilgrimage trails in Spain and Japan that have come to include daily yoga and meditation classes. The third example, is another yoga-inflected hiking tour that is marketed as an AUSTRIA YOGA & WALKING HOLIDAY. It is interesting to see how the religious idea of pilgrimage is not included.

Yet, yoga can also be mapped on to other types of holidays, such as volunteer tourism, or, as the portmanteau captures, the emergence of voluntourism, its goals, have often unspoken social, political, and economic effects. Meghan Smith has conducted an interesting anthropological study of the costs and consequences of voluntourism. Perhaps, this shorter article about the conversation we are not having about the reality of voluntourism, is more appealing.

A somewhat secular interest in spirituality is combined with traditional cultural practices, like pilgrimage routes, onsen, idyllic landscapes, and romantic villages, which stereotypically exoticise the distant, othered, landscape. A closer reading of these types of packages demonstrates that interpersonal encounters with locals is not a top priority. Instead, it is about the place, where other people might just happen to live. Or, more importantly, the enticing, imagined landscape constructed through advertising. This type of myth-making, as Brian Moeran (p. 92) explains, is:

The problem facing advertisers here is that of all those actively involved in the making of myths. They are ‘unable to imagine the Other . . . How can one assimilate the Negro, the Russian? There is here a figure for emergencies: exoticism. The Other becomes a pure object, a spectacle, a clown.’

My previous field work has mostly occurred in remote or rural areas of India. I am a little uncertain about how best to approach my ‘fieldwork’ in such an urban area and tourist destination, like Kyoto. There are many distractions, which make actually doing ‘fieldwork’ sometimes challenging. Also, as I am now a ‘local’, I have already begun to resent the legion of tourists that clog up the city and public transport, which have pushed the boundaries of omotenashi (hospitality) to the edge. This relates to the idea of ‘tourist pollution’, which is explored in this article, which says:

And while Japan is keen to play up its sense of omotenashi — the Japanese term that means “to entertain guests wholeheartedly” — cracks are appearing in the smiling facade.

While for centuries, the idea of atonement/purification-through-movement has inspired people to journey, both within and beyond themselves, in this globalised world we see the negative potential this can also have. An example involves how this yoga-inspired spiritual festival, which occurred along the banks of Delhi’s Yamuna river, has caused seemingly irreparable damage to this fragile ecosystem, which will take years to fix, and will cost several millions of dollars, is ultimately an affront to the Constitution of India, as Teltumbde explains.

The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) is the leading body in tourism-related policy development and education. Their website has some great infographics related to regional tourism.

Each year, the number of people who travel abroad, for secular or spiritual reasons, which are either related, or not, to yoga and wellness, increases. Inherent in the marketing rhetoric of tourism brochures are centuries-old religious ideals, which are, today, interpolated in a multitude of ways into a dizzying array of commodified packages for the spiritual tourist and global consumer of yoga-inflected lifestyles. The popular Yoga Journal suggests that a ‘pilgrimage to India promises an adventure like no other’.

Just like before, travel is an important practice, which allows for a self-reflexive journey of discovery and meaning-making to occur through dislocation from the mundane and quotidian. However, not everyone that incorporates yoga and meditation into their journey, to any number of tourist destinations, necessarily sees themselves as a pilgrim within a spiritual marketplace. But, rather, there is considerable potential for a hybrid embodiment of both secular and religious consumption to occur, simultaneously. As both these articles about yoga along the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route in Japan attest, we can further see how yoga is mapped onto the already secular imagination and resulting consumption of Japan through The Joyful Buddhas’ travel package.

The Joyful Buddhas’ enticing rhetoric explains that:

Serene Japan Yoga Retreat

Turn inward to find serenity and wisdom through your own spiritual pilgrimage to old Japan with this 9-day yoga and meditation retreat. Slow your pace deep in the mountains and in heritage sites in Saitama and Kyoto through connecting with Japan’s ancient earth, healing energies of natural hot spring baths, rejuvenating mind and body, daily yoga practice, seated and wilderness walking meditations, sutras, energy healings, and mind empowerment sessions.


  • Daily yoga sessions
  • Daily meditation sessions
  • Star gazing and Buddhist teachings
  • Learn sutra chanting, sutra copying & smudging energy clearing
  • Individual intuitive vibrational healing sessions
  • Group mind empowerment sessions
  • 8 nights’ accommodation
  • Most meals

The marketing of tourist-focused movement in Japan, as in other parts of the world, is normally promoted as an ephemeral, secular consumption that entails the possibility of a re-enchanting spiritual experience through trekking to discover sacred Japan, which also offers the opportunity to experience magic through yoga.

As Basil explains, when coupled with visiting Japan, to experience the cherry blossoms, this takes on the form of a quasi-pilgrimage, which is woven into the commercial nationalist operation of ‘selling the national story’. It is also another way to entice global yoga consumers to Japan. So too, is the opportunity to try ‘castle yoga’ and help restore some of Japan’s cultural monuments. Or, better yet, one can have a Healing Meditation, Yoga Session and Japanese Cooking Class, all at the same, convenient location. Or, instead, one could combine castles, cherry blossoms and yoga.

Source: Sakura Yoga

The secular, spiritual, religious or hybrid consumption of tourism/pilgrimage-related movement in global yoga relies upon a sense of re-enchantment through ‘the globalization of intermittent co-presence’ (Urry). Wanderlust is a perfect example of a globalised, syndicated yoga festival, which occurs in several locations around the world, offering what can be described as an ‘endless summer of yoga’.

While a global network of yoga festivals becomes the context for ‘conscious living’ and ‘guilt-free partying’, Yogafest Japan describes their ‘mission is to keep people involved with yoga holding yoga with peace of mind and hope while holding various events to foster a healthy community’. In concert, Wanderlust explains through their website, that it ‘is a leader in the yoga lifestyle space–encompassing events, centres, and media’, which focuses on cultivating a yoga ‘practice to inspire connection’. The popularity of this growing number of globally-available yoga festivals is neatly summarised by the following advertisement related to the:

Source: Do You Yoga
There’s nothing quite like a good yoga festival to reignite your passion for your practice. The sense of belonging that you feel with others around you from all over the country (or even the world) really brings the uniting practice of yoga to the forefront. Being present at a yoga festival allows us to celebrate that fact with other like-minded people, while celebrating the wonderfulness of the practice itself. (DoYouYoga)

It is interesting, then, to briefly turn our attention to Yoga in Japan. According to some of the people I have already spoken with, ‘Temple Yoga’ has only really had an online presence since the last 5 years, or so. This is regardless of some yoga teachers, who do not advertise their yoga class in a temple, but have already been offering this for more than 10 years, and probably also do not have a website. If you are interested in knowing more about the various types of ‘Temple Yoga’ in Kyoto, click HERE.

It is worthwhile speculating on how individuals might rationalise their yoga-inflected journeys, and whether, or not, they consider them to be religiously, or even spiritually motivated or focused. The reason this is interesting to me, at least, is because many people I have spoken to, do not necessarily consider their holidays to be of a spiritual or religious nature, yet they acknowledge how they are enticed by the rhetoric that relies upon specific, non-secular narratives.

Bakker explores the idea that the study of South Asian pilgrimage and sacred places requires developing a more robust framework that includes understanding local faith and belief systems. By problematising this through observing distant-led, cosmopolitan commodification of knowledge, which has, at its core, in this context at least, a contest over yoga’s narrative power to link the past, present and future, across several continents and cultures, we arrive at a fascinating intersection.

Rhetoric around tourism and pilgrimage is also part of a deeper strategy by various governments to produce ‘good citizens’ and inculcate particular normative values through the linking of ‘folk religion’ and nationalism. This aligns with Godrej’s thoughts on neoliberalism and the politics of yoga, which in this context, relates to creative readings of primary yoga texts to subvert becoming docile consumers that could, possibly, subvert the neoliberal project. This resonates with Comor’s (p. 8) thoughts on consumption, consent, globalisation, and hegemony:

More than this, under this neo-imperialism, civil society itself becomes the site of institutions, organizations and technologies whose mediation of relationships generally legitimize and enculture ways of thinking and acting that deepen inequalities.

Yet, yoga, for all its promises of uniting disparate groups and cleaving social inequalities, is left wanting, as this article discusses social asymmetry, in relation to the utopian aspirations of global yoga consumers.

In relation to Japan, Dorman (p. 47) explains how this push to create state-sanctioned citizens occurred through promotion of Shintoism during the earlier part of the 19th century. So too, Jaffrelot extends Victor Turner’s somewhat controversial ideas (Albera & Eade, p. 4) of pilgrimage and communitas to explore how relative and temporal obliteration of social cleavages allows for a sense of belonging to possibly emerge, and how this is consciously exploited by nationalist groups in India. How, then, does the global fascination with yoga, and secular-spiritual pilgrimages to various parts of the world, fit into this ethno-nationalist expansionist agenda to first create a Hindu nation (India is a secular, socialist, democratic, sovereign republic) and a pan-global Hindu theocratic state? Since globalisation, neoliberalism and the appeal of yoga is in many ways Hindufying the global imagination of India, it is necessary to consider how this then links in with ethno-nationalist aspirations, like the one below, which is shared by many prominent public and religious figures in India, who increasingly lend their support to the idea that:

Source: Indian Express

The problem, for millions of India’s citizens who are not Hindu, is this:

The unwitting, tacit support by global yoga consumers of a Hindu supremacist ideology occurs via consumption of banal nationalist rhetoric that is normalised through the official discourse of the Indian state (The Ministry of External Affairs, The AYUSH Ministry, and the Ministry of Tourism).

There also seems to be an ‘unlikely alliance’ between the global yoga industry, which has a commensalic relationship to the Indian state by also relying upon the same romantic and ahistorical narratives as part of its own marketing strategy. This is something McCartney discusses, which involves a combination of the ideal yogic disposition as being weighted towards an antipathy towards politics, as the normative rhetoric of Yogaland asserts that politics is distracting to the spiritual journey. This antipathy, combined with spiritual bypassing, which is the preference not to focus on any challenging or perceived negative phenomena, plus the unbalanced power structure of the guru-disciple relationship, and group think, create an opportunity for unwitting consumers of yoga-inflected lifestyles to support a political theology they might consciously find abhorrent. Considering this, in relation to the production of legitimate knowledge, the commodification of space and self-identity, and the neoliberal governance of consumer spaces, it is worth exploring the suggestions of McDonald regarding consumer spaces as political spaces, regardless of whether the individual consumer acknowledges this.

It is clear that there is much more to the internal and external imaginative consumption of yoga-inflected lifestyles and yoga-related movement, if we dare examine beyond the glossy veneer. For all the potential good yoga might be able to offer, it has indelibly deeper links to both ethno-nationalist and neo-liberal projects than first considered. Also, travelling, even if done as a quasi-pilgrimage that has the intention of purifying one’s self, or finding oneself through movement, ultimately creates its own set of pollution, which no amount of green credits the consumer selects when purchasing a flight ticket will ultimately recuse. Still, as the curious creatures we are, we have an inherent predisposition towards movement, both on and off the mat.

Patrick McCartney, PhD is a JSPS Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies, Kyoto University, Japan; a Research Associate at Nanzan Anthropological Institute, Nanzan University, Japan; and a Visiting Fellow at the South and South-East Asian Studies Department, Australian National University, Australia.

Building upon an anthropological premise, Patrick’s work intersects the commodification of desire and consumption of yoga-inflected lifestyles. It explores the consumption of global yoga through the politics of imagination and the sociology of spirituality. Patrick’s current project focuses specifically on the Japanese yoga industry, which includes understanding the aspirations of Japanese yoga consumers and how modern yoga is reconstituted in unique ways into Japanese culture. You can follow this project at Yogascapes in Japan, and also find his articles and films there too.

Patrick McCartney

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