This post was first published on 12 October 2018. It has been updated with further links and resources to help continue your learning on this topic.
If I ask you to think about yoga, what springs to mind? What are the images and thoughts that first come to the forefront of your consciousness.
I’m going to make a guess that the majority of you will be imagining pretty, blonde, lithe, young women on Instagram posing on the beach, or some other social media worthy landscape.
Some of you might be thinking of sweaty studios in the city with rows of Lulu Lemon-clad fit young things.
Perhaps you even think of a draughty village hall with the local community in their leggings and baggy t-shirts.
Either way, I doubt many of you will be thinking of India.
Not many will imagine a brown-skinned yogi. Few people will be picturing a Hindu person at an ashram dressed in dhoti
And I’m not surprised.
Few westerners are aware of where yoga comes from.
When I was younger, I didn’t know that yoga is a 4,000 year old (maybe older) practice from the Indus region. Even as an adult I had an awareness of where yoga came from but didn’t really connect the dots with the fitness practice we see all over the country.
From the title of this post you can see that today I want to discuss whether yoga practice in the West is a form of cultural appropriation.
Before I get into it, my disclaimer – I am married to a British Indian man, and have embraced Hinduism as part of our family culture and religion. This is where my understanding comes from, and potential bias. Also, please bear in mind that there will be generalisations in this post as it would be almost thesis length if I went it to every single detail.
The idea of this post is to encourage you to think from a different perspective about something you may take for granted.
Quick links to information on this page
Is yoga cultural appropriation?
Indians are pushed out of a culture that actually belongs to them. I have read about Indians / South Asians feeling like they don’t belong in yoga classes, that they don’t fit in, like the practice of yoga has been so far removed from Hinduism that it’s become alien to them. Yoga is a Hindu practice and many Hindus don’t feel welcome in their own cultural space.
A major issue that strikes me the most is that Hindu’s aren’t represented in popular imagery of yoga. Their identity and connection with the practice is being erased. When we are constantly fed messages in the media that yoga is for white women we forget where it came from. We disassociate yoga from India, and Hinduism. Indians are already experiencing institutional racism on a daily basis in this country, they already face discrimination every day, and they are watching as elements of their culture are stripped of their meaning, adopted by the dominant ethnic group, and they are excluded from it.
Can you imagine what it’s like to face discrimination daily and then see select parts of your culture adopted by the dominant culture as if its their own? It’s like saying, “well… you don’t belong but we’ll take some of the best bits for ourselves.”
Cultural appropriation is the taking of aspects of a minority culture by the dominant culture for the benefit of the dominant culture whilst the minority culture remains in a position of suppression.
Patriarchal ideas, Western biases, and Capitalism all play a part in disassociating Hindus from their own cultural and spiritual practice. There has been this commodification of Hindu spirituality that is disconcerting at best, and deeply troubling.
Who profits from yoga? Same question as to who benefits from stealing from a culture that is already undermined in the West.
Yoga was brought to the West by a handful of Indian men (and Western ‘travellers’) often for their own personal profit. Out of country of now a billion people, there have literally only been a small number of Indians who have become wealthy by introducing yoga to the West.
Yoga was not necessarily shared with Westerners with the pure intention of spiritual enlightenment, rather it was reframed as an exercise fad to capitalise quickly on the fitness obsession we have in the West.
I imagine when you think of yoga you think of an exercise class. Often this exercise class will have reference to Hinduism or India or where it came from. Perhaps they say ‘namaste’ at the end. Which, I understand, is kind of weird as that means ‘hello’. (Listen to the first episode of Nikesh Shukla – The Good Immigrant).
Even if there are cultural reference points to India, it’s usually a token sculpture of a God, or worse, a Buddha head – usually these elements are placed in inappropriate places that are disrespectful to the God.
Examples of disrespectful practices of yoga cultural appropriation
I stumbled across a video on Instagram a while ago of a yoga retreat somewhere in the Med. The video featured about 20 white people sat in a circle on the beach singing. All looks pretty innocent, except they were singing a Hindu mantra which they are tuned into a song to go with the guitar. My husband was so offended. Hindu mantras aren’t just words, they are sounds. These sounds are spiritual vibrations. To take them and turn them into a hippy, clappy song on the beach is really disrespectful. And of course, this was a retreat/studio run by white people for white people with no benefit or reference to where yoga comes from or belongs to.
Other examples of cultural appropriation include those ‘namast’ay …’ or worse ’nama-slay…’ slogan t-shirts. Calling yourself a ‘yogi’ because you practice yoga, the term is supposed to be reserved for experts in the yoga practice and it is bestowed upon them.
Did you know the ‘om’ is a deeply spiritual word/sound/vibration? It’s not a word to be assimilated and thrown around like it’s a piece of fast fashion.
Hindus, Indians, South Asians, they have been marginalised from their own spiritual and cultural practice in the West. The majority of financial gain from yoga benefits white people. I hope you can see that this is really unfair.
Colonialism and yoga
As many of you will know, India was colonised the British from 1858 to 1947, with British involvement actually dating back earlier to 1612 with the East India Company. During this time of the British Raj banned some non-Christian practices such as yoga. And when it was reintroduced, or allowed to be practiced again there was interference from the British about how the practice could be shared.
Marginalisation of other groups from yoga
Furthermore, think carefully about the image portrayed in the West about yoga as a whole. Think about the messaging it sends to us all when it appears to be the practice for white women who are thin and able-bodied.
Think about how many people that is excluding in its messaging. That is not what yoga is about.
So should we stop practicing yoga?
No, I don’t think that’s the point here. Rather than ceasing yoga practice, it might be better to start acknowledging where it came from. Find ways to be respectful and inclusive of the practice. I would love to see the people who profit from yoga give back to the place and the culture that gifted it to them.
The thing is, no culture is static. Cultures evolve all the time. And yoga is now a mainstay in Western culture, whether it’s in the fitness or spiritual spheres. What we can do is acknowledge where it came from, and make an active and concerted effort to bring in the people it originally belonged to.
If you run a yoga studio, how about a portion of your profits goes into funding education for women and girls in India?
If you’re teaching yoga how can you make your classes accessible for those on low income?
If you’re a yoga teacher, how can you be more welcoming and inclusive of women-of-colour?
If you’re training to teach yoga, consider learning about the Hindu traditions and the history of the discipline?
If you run ‘wellness’ events, how can you be more inclusive in your speaker and teacher selection?
If you do anything with yoga, how can you acknowledge the people, culture, place, and religion from which it came?
Learn who the deities are and treat any images or physical representations with respect. (i.e. don’t wear clothing with pictures of Lord Ganesh, Lord Shiva, or Lord Buddha on).
And if you don’t know if you might potentially be disrespectful, ask! Ask questions, and be open to changing how you do things.
Most importantly, don’t get defensive. Listen, learn and be willing to make positive changes.
Addressing cultural appropriation feels uncomfortable
These conversations about yoga cultural appropriation can be difficult, and it may make you feel uncomfortable.
Generally I’ve found that if it makes me uncomfortable then that’s my privilege being felt. We have to own it, recognise it, listen, and find ways to make a difference. We can no longer just exist in an unfair society that continues to profit from minority cultures whilst keeping the originators of that culture down at heel.
If you feel uncomfortable, please take the time to think about this. Talk to people of colour, listen to what they have to say. Take action to make the world fairer for all.
Yoga should be inclusive, it is a beautiful practice that has so many benefits – physical, mentally and spiritually.
What are your thoughts about whether yoga is cultural appropriation?
ABCDYogi – a diverse, inclusive community of South Asian yoga & mindfulness teachers sharing their experiences to students from all over the world.
Note: this is just the start of my understanding, there are possibly other nuances I have mentioned or are not aware of. My aim is to share a perspective that I hope will allow us to recognise our privilege, increase our cultural understanding, and use our position of power to make a difference to others.