Going With the Flow: Lumen Scholar’s research explores the evolving role of yoga in global society

Elon University Lumen Scholar Anya Fredsell ’18 is drawing connections between yoga communities in Greensboro, Atlanta and South India.

By Sarah Collins ’18

India’s ancient tradition of yoga has long been practiced in the United States. During the past few decades, however, yoga in America has rapidly evolved into a multibillion-dollar industry. Anya Fredsell ’18, an Elon University College Fellow and Lumen Scholar, is exploring yoga’s changing role in global society through an ethnographic study of yoga communities.

“These changing times beg the questions of who has the authority to decide what yoga is and who has the authority to teach yoga,” says Fredsell.

After completing a 200-hour yoga teaching certification course while in high school, Fredsell came to Elon with the desire to answer these questions. She set out to do this through tracing yoga back to its roots – in India. Her travels have been supported through the Lumen Prize, a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate academic and creative endeavors. Lumen Scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete undergraduate research projects.

Through the course of her Elon experience, Fredsell has had the chance to travel to India four times. Her first trip to North India, through a partnership with Loyola Marymount University during the summer of 2016, gave Fredsell the opportunity to study yoga and Jainism, a minority religious tradition. She returned to the country in January 2017 through Elon’s Winter Term Course “India’s Identities: Religion, Caste and Gender in Contemporary South India.”

On her third trip to India in the summer of 2017 Fredsell went solo: she conducted participant-observation and engaged in fieldwork that examines gendered authority and the political, religious, and social dimensions of contemporary yoga traditions. She returned to India for a fourth time in January 2018 with her research mentor, Associate Professor of Religious Studies Amy Allocco. “I am impressed by how easily Anya has adapted to India’s rigors and rhythms, how many friends and contacts she amassed there and how thoroughly she delights in cross-cultural learning and exchange,” says Allocco.

Fredsell’s findings have the potential to illuminate an area that has been somewhat overlooked. “While some of yoga’s gurus and its transnational reception, adaptation, and commoditization have been the subjects of recent monographs and edited volumes, yoga as it is conceived, categorized, and contested in India has been relatively understudied,” says Allocco. “This is an extraordinarily interesting moment to undertake such a research project, particularly because the last two years have seen remarkable developments for yoga, including the inauguration of International Yoga Day, questions about to whom yoga ‘belongs’ and competing claims regarding its potential ‘religious’ character and political resonances.” 

After conducting dozens of interviews in India, Fredsell is comparing her findings to her own yoga communities in Atlanta. Growing up in the Georgia capitol, she developed a different yet parallel understanding of the practice. Her research reconciles the changing perceptions and meanings of yoga for different populations around the globe.

“Coming into Elon and into the College Fellows Program, I had a notion that research had to be data-driven and scientific,” says Fredsell. “It was exciting for me to learn that research could be interacting with people and observing them and interviewing them. And now, research has really become my central focus throughout my time at Elon.” 

In total, Fredsell’s research has entailed hundreds of hours of participant-observation, resulted in more than 60 interviews and will culminate in eight academic conference papers and two article manuscripts.

Fredsell is in the process of applying to graduate school to continue her studies. “Anya’s Lumen Project brings her academic training and challenging coursework together with her own identity as a yoga teacher and practitioner, and will lay the foundation for her future graduate work and career as a teacher-scholar of South Asian religions,” says Allocco. “Her findings offer promising and important new insights and are a significant contribution to the yoga studies subfield, especially as it intersects with feminist ethnography.”