The Lucrative Business of Yoga

Written by | News, Yoga

There’s no denying the popularity of yoga centres and Ayurvedic hospitals. Declared a miracle cure by the Indian government, the merits of Ayurveda are loudly contested by some doctors.

When Baba Ramdev first appeared in a headstand on Indian morning TV about a decade ago, the order of doctors was speechless. These shows are hugely successful: 20 million people partake in the yogi’s daily breathing exercises. When asked by a TV presenter about the farmers demonstrating against the government on June 21, Baba Ramdev asserted that “yoga helps fight all problems.” Although mostly followed by the upper and middle classes, he explained to the poorer classes that the practice would offer them a certain resilience. As explained by Rahul Ranjan, manager at a tourist agency that aims to promote the practice among foreign travellers, until the 2000s, “Ashrams were only attended by sadhus (respected Indian ascetics). Everything changed with the appearance of morning TV programs. Bollywood actors have also helped popularize the practice by describing it as a lifestyle.

This isn’t the case with the lower castes, who are still fighting for even the smallest scrap of bread and have other problems.” Following the boom in medical tourism, the government has largely promoted traditional medicine. “India has mountains, a desert, the ocean, palaces, temples, golf courses… Yoga, which is a part of our heritage, also presents tourism opportunities,” says Minister of Tourism Mahesh Sharma. A yogi himself for 35 years, he affirms that yoga is a way to cure depression and lower the country’s high suicide rate. Hundreds of Ayurvedic “hospitals” have opened across India, earning millions. East of Bangalore, Doctor Isaac Mathai opened Soukya, a “holistic care centre” with rooms ranging from 600 to 2,000 dollars a night. They promote their services by referencing celebrity clients like Desmond Tutu, Sting and Prince Charles.

The staff at Soukya insist on the legitimacy of their services. “This isn’t a spa. We offer medical programs from two weeks to three months in length, and six-month addiction recovery programs,” says Executive Director Suja Isaac. As the centre wants to distance itself from the image of being reserved for the rich, staff also work with a disadvantaged village where they provide free treatments. While the order of doctors insists on not giving “patients false hope,” the Vivekananda Kendra ashram in Bangalore is also home to a university and a lab intended to scientifically validate the practice. Director N. D. Subramanya states that their research aims to establish the effect of yoga on the “brain, eyes, and stomach.” To this end, researchers in a separate building measure the blood pressure, and respiratory and brain activity after the yoga sessions of patients suffering from various conditions. This research is funded by public subsidies.

Last modified: October 24, 2018