For India to effectively claim to own yoga, Modi would need to secure what’s called a “geographical indication.” A geographical indication is a formal acknowledgement of location’s importance to a specific product—in the European Union, it’s what protects a fizzy beverage made in the Champagne region of France from imitators produced elsewhere. Geographical indications are bestowed by a country's government trade office, but there isn’t a U.N.-like body to resolve international disputes.
The U.S. Patent and Trade Office acknowledges this vagueness, and as a result there’s a lot of champagne sold in the U.S. that’s not from Champagne, and there’s nothing that France can do about it. Similarly, the E.U. has squabbled with the U.S. for selling cheeses labeled “Rocquefort” and “Mozzarella" without verifying their origins.
What’s working against Modi, in the case of yoga, is that it’d be difficult to establish a concrete geographical connection. Unlike champagne—which is made from grapes grown in a particular region with distinct weather conditions and soil content—yoga can’t be held in your hand.
Practically speaking, securing a geographical indication for yoga would be nearly impossible. “While yoga certainly originated in India,” says Sonia Katyal, a law professor at Fordham University who specializes in intellectual property, “its widespread adoption in the West—including the hundreds of types of yogas created by enterprising westerners like mommy-and-me yoga, nude yoga, dog yoga—makes it a little harder to explain how its Indian origins are always essential the practice or characteristics of yoga today.”
On top of that, enforcement would be a logistical nightmare. “India can protect [a geographical indication] within the country easily,” says May T. Yeung of the Estey Centre for Law and Economics and International Trade. “But what about country to country? You have to watch every yoga studio in the world.”
That said, a geographical indication may not be entirely out of the question. “What’s working on India’s side is the government wants to do this,” Yeung says. “The government is providing significant resources and they have clout.” Still, even with governmental might, Yeung says, forming an effective bureaucracy to regulate yoga most likely won’t happen.
So, ultimately, it looks like little will change anytime soon for the U.S. yoga industry and its 20 million customers. But it’s easy to understand why Modi would explore the possibility: Yoga classes and the accompanying products (think retreats and Lululemon pants) are a $10 billion-a-year industry.
With all that money and cultural influence at stake, it’s not surprising that there’s a debate about where yoga owes its origins, and who, if anyone, it "belongs" to. “There is something about the United States that makes it a particularly booming hotspot for the contemporary yoga market,” says Andrea R. Jain, author of the book Selling Yoga and a professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.