Flexible Labor in a Spiritual Economy: Peace, Work, and Inequality in Globalized Yoga

Date of Award

June 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Cecilia Van Hollen


Gender, Globalization, Inequality, Modern Yoga, Peace, Vishnudevananda

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences



This dissertation is based on ethnographic research in the South Indian branches of the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres (SYVC), an international non-profit institution with a mission “to spread peace, health and joy through yoga.” The project describes the lived dimensions of relations across difference in the SYVC, offering an intimate perspective on the inter-cultural relations of globalization. I argue that imaginations of spiritual India at work in the production of transnational yoga eclipse power relations that frame and support the situation of middle class Westerners' escape to a spiritual place while others labor to make this escape comfortable. As a transnational organization, the SYVC also participates in a wider global complex of relations between wealthy and poor nations, catering to students and guests from both India and abroad, as well as managing both voluntary staff and paid workers from widely varying backgrounds. This makes the SYVC an important case for a study of the intercultural relations of globalization, even as organization founder Swami Vishnudevananda’s own mission for the organization was to overcome the divisions of nation, culture, and history. Yet, unlike the Free Trade Zones of neoliberal policies where cheap production is enabled by global political economic forces, the SYVC structure is situated in a spiritual economy of karma yoga, or selfless service, and peace is the stated goal. Here, low wage “flexible labor” contrasts with the work of volunteer staff with a spiritualized mission, whose cultural capital and/or greater economic flexibility allow them to give their time and labor for free. This transformed economy with a focus on the “spiritual” makes the SYVC fertile ground for consideration of ethical issues in our global political economy and an examination of the limits of cosmopolitan ideals.


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