Why not apply ‘Local for Global’ in yoga services exports?

ICRIER’s Dr Neha Gupta opines yoga is connecting us with people of different cultures in different countries who are unaware of our language or culture. However, she believes a kind of standardization or structure is a must for Indian yoga institutes and their instructors to protect or proclaim the space in yoga & boost yoga as a service export.

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IBT: What impact have the forces of globalization and modernization had on Yoga? 

Dr Neha Gupta: Although how yoga originated has been a matter of debate, its birth in India can be traced to around the 5th century BC, which relates to the dissemination of knowledge by saints/sages. From the 20th century, owing to modernization trends, yoga services included more physical postures (Hatha Yoga) and thus actively started to move towards the western world. This was propelled by the efforts of Swami Sivananda and his disciples and by Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (the father of Modern Yoga). The classical period of yoga corresponds to Sage Patanjali’s yoga sutras, which provided guidance on practicing eight-limbed yoga that covered postures, meditations, rules, and ways towards enlightenment. This further developed the base for modern-day yoga, which can be dated back to the late 19th or early 20th century when Indian teachers started to travel abroad.

Swami Vivekananda actually took yoga outside India around 1893, when he gave a lecture in Chicago. During 1920, in order to impart knowledge of Kriya Yoga, Paramhansa Yogananda was sent to Boston. Later, many texts on yoga and ashrams/centres started to come up, more particularly during the early-mid 20th century. During the ’50s, many countries created special associations to spread the teachings of yoga, where foreigners, after completing their education in yoga from India, actively promoted this science by writing books. In later years, more connections between foreign nationals and Indian yoga teachers (such as BKS Iyengar) developed and there have been quite impressive cross-border movements and investments during the 60s-70s and onwards.

After endorsement in 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the United Nations General Assembly, the International Day of Yoga (IDY) began to be celebrated on June 21 every year since 2015.  The success of IDY, in terms of unanimous approval by 177 countries, indicates the growing linkages among the global economies in the sector of health and wellness. IDY has had a transformational impact on the spread of yoga not only in India but most importantly overseas mainly in Asia, Europe, and America. This took yoga also in African countries, such as in Mauritius due to the efforts of Indian yoga schools which operate over there. Even PM Modi once stated that yoga is connecting us with people of different cultures in different countries who are unaware of our language or culture.

IBT: What are some of the key trends in its evolution over time?

Dr Neha Gupta: Apart from the traditional Ashtanga Yoga practices, due to growing modern lifestyle habits, many variations of yoga have come up over the last decade. To illustrate, in the US, Power Yoga, Bikram Yoga, Wellness Yoga, Acro Yoga, Aerial Yoga, Forrest Yoga, Yin Yoga, Flow Yoga, Jivamukti Yoga, Hormon Yoga, etc. are being practiced. This shows the changing landscape in the demand and supply of yoga services, mainly in international markets, which is now spreading to India as well. However, the pandemic has led to a renewed focus on conducting ancient yogic practices by Indian yoga schools.

Note that many foreign nationals have been coming to India for yoga vacations, for joining Teachers Training Courses (TTCs), etc., especially since the launch of IDY. Language is no longer a barrier to study, as many prestigious institutes of yoga in India such as Sivananda Ashram, have language translators and specialized manuals to cater the needs of international students.  Further, in recent years, many Indian institutes also have trained foreign staff to teach. Many foreigners also go back and open yoga centres in their respective countries. A strong relationship has thus built up as Indians are called up for conducting classes in those countries. This has been the effect of globalization on yoga. However, the pandemic has led to ‘e-globalisation of yoga’ in the last 2 years.

IBT: Over the last few years, India has regained the lost spark when it comes to embracing Yoga as a form of wellness as some international forms of wellness such as Kung-Fu, Aerobics & Gymnastics gained prominence. What were the reasons that led to its comeback in India?

Dr Neha Gupta: Before understanding the reasons for its comeback, one must agree that it was primarily the lack of interest and efforts of Indians, vis-à-vis westerners, to capture the knowledge and education in the field of yoga sutras. 

IDY’s launch in 2015 led to the proper restoration of this ancient Indian science, and the setting up of the Ministry of AYUSH in India further facilitated the promotion of yoga practices within the country. These endeavors helped it to gain required recognition and space, which has been largely dominated by foreigners. Since the 2nd or 3rd IDY event, India also started to manufacture and/or use its homemade yoga mats, instead of just relying on mats that have been imported from China.  

The pandemic has also been a blessing in disguise for yoga services – this almost became an essential services sector. Even yoga-averse people, to boost their immunity and prevent the negative effects of the virus, started practicing yoga at home, mostly by learning from free online sessions or by attending yoga classes. Now, more and more instructors are conducting online courses for people within and outside India. So, more awareness about the benefits of yoga practices as well as greater branding by both the Indian government and private yoga institutes helped India to reclaim its power in yoga. Also, the rise in stress levels, the need to heal multiple lifestyle disorders, and the urge to turn towards spirituality have led to the rising demand and popularity of yoga services.

The Indian wellness market is almost considered to be more than INR 500 billion and the way people are enrolling for courses, yoga is now considered as one of the most preferred career options. Indians are now realizing its importance and are ready to cater to the world chains in order to earn more foreign exchange. 

IBT: Which are the key countries that have embraced Yoga as a form of wellness? How do you view the non-standardization of yoga practices as a challenge to its evolution? Can the standardization of the various schools of Yoga help in enhancing its penetration in the global market?

Dr Neha Gupta: Among various western countries, the United States (US) stands out in terms of how it embraced this cultural heritage of India and even gave birth to the famous Certification Agency, Yoga Alliance, which is recognized worldwide, even for teaching in India. This is followed by a number of European countries, which are at the number one position in terms of spending on wellness.

All around the world, people are becoming yoga instructors without a formal process of standardization. For instance, one can be a yoga instructor by just undergoing 100-200 hours of classes with any yoga Institute, which need not be Indian. There are around 10-15 universities in India that offer degree courses in yoga; however, this is still an open unregulated field that does not have any barriers to entry. As a result, there are now so many yoga teachers/instructors in every corner of the world, who are teaching their derived versions of yoga. What concerns me is that due to lack of formal training and experience and lack of skills about the treatment of specialized diseases, there can be some harm to the student/patient/learner. That is, some teachers possess the knowledge and are well-versed but lack skills/training; while some can communicate well, teach proper asanas, and have training but lack theoretical knowledge.

Further, as yoga has been an ancient knowledge base for India, different Yoga Schools teach their own styles of traditional yoga practices, which is definitely not a wrong approach but more coherence must be established between yoga schools in India at the Central Level, in collaboration with efforts of the States, to bring all the expertise at one place. Already, there is an Indian Yoga Association which is recognized by the Ministry of AYUSH, Government of India (GoI), but most of the efforts are still voluntary in nature. So, a kind of standardization or structure is a must for Indian yoga institutes and their instructors to protect or proclaim the space in yoga, which has been largely taken up by foreigners or western institutes, who are charging hefty amounts from their students.

So, the need of the hour is the ‘Regulation of Yoga’. The Indian government in collaboration with yoga institutes has to create awareness and make yoga a regulated field. Universities must launch more mandatory and formal degrees based on different levels of yoga instructions as well as bring specialized modules for different kinds of diseases. Curriculum of studies should be standardized-design based. India must unleash its competitive edge in the theoretical aspect of yoga.

Government can allow around 10,000 plus hours or so (including lectures and practical sessions, medical study) for yoga instructors to deal with western countries. That is, let’s allow some imperfect market competition in yoga services, but with no hands-off policy by the government.

Also, at the global level, there are a few Indian brands such as Art of Living, Isha Foundation, and Patanjali. And, these also lack strong franchises in many countries for proper teaching of yoga. India thus must now focus on building good brand yoga schools that can teach traditional yoga (asanas, yama/niyama, etc.), intense ones, both theoretically and in terms of practical training sessions. But this cannot be fully achieved if continued with non-standardization of yoga services.  More intellectual property protection must also be acquired by Indian yoga schools to penetrate globally.

IBT: How can FTAs & RTAs be leveraged to boost yoga as a service export from India?

Dr Neha Gupta: Trade agreements, whether bilateral or regional, can definitely help to boost the exports of yoga services from India, provided that we make rational commitments regularly followed by proper implementation of those commitments. For example, India negotiated commitments under the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) for the inclusion of exports of services by professionals in the field of yoga, dance, etc., which are yet to be operationalized, thereby indicating barriers to increasing investments and exports of yoga services. That is, during 2011, under India-Japan CEPA, it was agreed to liberalize all services modes to cover the movement of yoga teachers/services providers; and most importantly, in 2018, under the early harvest package of upgraded India-Korea CEPA, commitments were made to allow Indian yoga instructors and institutes to open centers in South Korea, to provide lessons and offer guidance in Korean hospitals in return of allowing Korean Taekwondo teachers into India. Apart from social media coverage, there has been a lack of proper documentary evidence to mark progress on these negotiations. Information is too scattered to conceptualize success in yoga services under the trade agreements. Thus, negotiations based on FTA partners’ demands and supplies have to be monitored and implemented.

I would like to point out the signing of the India-Mauritius Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and Partnership Agreement in 2021, where services providers from India will be getting access to the yoga services sector. As this is a newer agreement and involves exchanges between Asia and Africa, it can serve as a good starting point to capture the actual capacity of FTAs in terms of improving the trade of yoga services.

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly changed the mode of exports of yoga; before this, the supply of yoga services by India under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) was mostly under Mode 3 (investing abroad by opening centres) and Mode 2 (consumption abroad), which have been the major sources of earning for Indian yoga services sector. However, there are no official data to support this. But, note that the movement of India’s yoga professionals (Mode 4) also got boosted post-2014 when Indian embassies abroad agreed to have a Teacher of Indian Culture.

While interacting with one of the most prestigious globally recognized yoga schools in India at the end of 2019, I got to know that a greater proportion of India’s yoga trade was happening through Mode 2, where people mostly traveled to India for learning yoga or attending TTCs. They were mostly from European countries, as well as from Asian economies like Japan, Taiwan, China, etc., Russia, and also a few American economies. However, foreign nationals after attending TTCs open their centers abroad, which can be treated as equivalent to India’s forward linkages in yoga services value chains.

During the pre-COVID phase, many yoga institutes used social media largely for promotional purposes and refrain from adopting online classes/courses. But the norm has changed now as pandemic brought forward the importance of Mode 1 (cross-border supply). As demand and popularity of yoga have increased tremendously through telecommunications and internet usage, the negotiations under FTAs must escalate. Why not apply ‘Local for Global’ in yoga services exports?

WTO trade negotiations can now include yoga too; however, this would require proper categorization. To explain, despite few commitments under FTAs on yoga services’ exports, the negotiations remain weak due to the difficulty in classifying this sub-sector under WTO agreement, i.e., whether to classify it under health services or recreational/sporting services. All these causes hindrances in assessing country-wise commitments on yoga services under the WTO GATS framework. Also, some literature suggests including certain matters relating to yoga services under the education services head. The questions thus arise: what is the right way of classifying yoga services to initiate better negotiations under FTAs and to know about other members’ commitments? What are the key barriers preventing India from harnessing the export potential in this industry and how can these be addressed? Can a comprehensive policy be formulated (which can also cater to certain country/region-specific factors) to guide India’s export strategies in yoga?

IBT: What are the other things that can be done to boost yoga exports from India?

Dr Neha Gupta:To improve exports of yoga services of India, apart from pushing Mode 1 commitments under FTAs, it will be useful to create Indian brands. GoI even in its Foreign Trade Policy 2017 emphasized facilitating exports “of services in which India has traditional strengths, such as yoga”, and for this, the document suggested using branding/marketing campaigns.  I further suggest that the Certificate Courses in Yoga by Indian Institutes to international trainers can be actively publicized so as to help imprint our brands, foster recognition and maintain quality internationally.

To boost exports, yoga instructors also need to be accompanied by language translators. Further, to push exports, identify and prioritize the potential markets based on their demand for yoga services and growth in the next 5 years and identify the barriers to access those markets. Case studies are needed in the field of traditional/alternative medicines or yoga-related subjects to assess how those fields could successfully venture into the international markets (such as the case of Traditional Chinese Medicine). Other countries’ export commitments under FTAs for traditional practices of Tai Chi, Taekwondo, etc. must be considered to gain more insights for India. There is also a need to create centers of excellence and promote Startups in yoga. Some key institutes must be allowed to undertake research, publish their work in scientific journals, and for this, they must be given good funding and opportunities to showcase their services on a global platform.

IBT: How can Yoga Tourism be augmented in India? 

Dr Neha Gupta: Over the years, Europe has recorded maximum wellness trips, while Asia has gained in tourism and revenue – China and India have been at the top during 2015-17 by each adding more than 10-12 million trips, according to the Global Wellness Economy Monitor Report of 2018. However, COVID has impacted this fast-growing region. Importantly, the wellness tourism expenditure for India declined from USD 11 billion in 2017 to USD 7 billion in 2020.  This is a matter of concern. But India has an untapped capacity, which needs to be unleashed by government efforts along with the efforts of yoga institutes (government-private partnership). For this, education on yoga must be transmitted at a larger scale to create awareness of traditional yogic knowledge and techniques and about key locations in India meant for yoga vacations, including places in Uttarakhand, Kerala, etc.

As traditional yoga has been losing prominence due to modern versions, it is high time to bring forth India’s niche in this area to present yoga as a whole package to unite body, mind, and soul.  Indian yoga institutes and teachers should not miss the bus during the pandemic. Also, advertising and speeches by experts must not happen only near the IDY event, rather the promotion of the AYUSH system must continue throughout the year to provide the required boost to Indian yoga services as well as to promote tourism.

Further, I feel social media, TVs, and apps should be used to showcase India as a yoga destination. For instance, interesting videos can be regularly uploaded on the success cases within India, such as coverage of the story of a yoga village in India, i.e., Kunnamthanam in Kerala, which was declared as India’s first ‘Complete Yoga Village’ on IDY 2017. During the following IDY, about 4000 people from the village lined up on the streets to perform the yoga asanas.

As awareness is the key, holding conferences and seminars can help to scientifically validate the efficacy of yoga as holistic medicine, which has no side effects. Even large yoga melas of international level can create wonders – foreign delegates can be actively engaged therein.


Dr Neha Gupta is a Fellow at Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) who works on international trade issues in manufacturing and yoga services (Views expressed are personal)

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