On Yoga and Cultural Appropriation

This past week I got into a debate with some friends about cultural appropriation. It was on a Facebook thread, so it wasn’t an ideal forum for the conversation, but it began when I (a white person) posted something to my friend’s wall (another white person), and then a Chicano friend of ours stepped in to say, “Hey, hold up, this is cultural appropriation.” As a person who has spent over a decade immersed in anti-oppresive activism and education, I was quick to be accountable to the critique. I realized immediately that what I shared could indeed be understood as cultural appropriation, and I knew that it was a privilege that I didn’t think about that right away. As a white person, I don’t have to think about appropriation everyday, so sometimes I miss it.

Between this exchange and a couple other universe-nudges, I felt moved to revisit my relationship to yoga. When I started a regular yoga practice I had enough forethought to consider the cultural appropriation inherent in engaging in a practice that is usually understood as something emerging from communities of color in India. What did it mean for me as a white person to practice this thing that didn’t belong to me? What did it mean to hear young white women use Sanskrit words whilst sporting racist, Randian Lululemon apparel? How could I engage in something that has become a $6 billion dollar industry in the West by de-linking it’s philosophical/spiritual roots, and usually servicing white people?

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Yoga Journal: “Some would say you’re missing the point by removing the cultural and philosophical underpinnings of the asana you teach. How do you respond to this?” Tara Stiles: “I kind of don’t care….” (actual part of the featured interview)

I struggled with this in the classes I took. I struggled when I heard white Bikram instructors take on what sounded like the caricature of an Indian accent and tell me to “fold [myself] in half like a Japanese ham sandwich.” (wtf does that even mean?). But amidst my struggle, I was transforming. I was experiencing life changing breakthroughs and real healing in those spaces, and I didn’t want to give up that feeling for anything.

About three and a half years after I started practicing yoga, I decided to go through yoga teacher training. I still wrestled with these questions, but part of me thought that doing teacher training would educate me in a way that would provide me some more clarity on the subject. I was right.

On the first day of training we got a giant binder with all our study materials. One of the first pages included a timeline of yoga history. I saw the words ‘British empire’ and zeroed in. “Hatha yoga is greatly influenced by the gymnastics of the British empire and hybrid vinyasa styles of yoga are born out of the British occupation of India,” my manual read. Oh fuck, I thought. I am participating in something that is literally the product of imperialism. I was awash with white person guilt.

Over the next eight weeks, I would learn mostly about asana (the physical practice of yoga), but in order to get an official yoga certification, it’s required that you learn about the many other (and equally important) elements of yoga as well. I started studying in earnest the teachings of Patanjali, learned more about chakras, delved into the teachings of ayurveda, and memorized sanskrit. As I learned more about the various philosophical underpinnings of the practice, I was overcome with an incredible feeling. I’m sure it’s how many people feel when certain religions call to them–and, indeed, yoga has become a spiritual practice for me. Through the hard study of yoga, my practice began to feel humble rather than appropriative.

I was able to feel good about this in my personal practice, but what about the fact that I was part of a larger phenomenon of Western yoga that enacts appropriation co-optation? What about the fact that many yoga studios across the US ban sanskrit to make yoga more “accessible” (to white people)? What about the fact that it was still mostly white people that were getting rich off of this? I didn’t know how to reconcile these things.

But then I went back to that thing about empire that I read in the binder on my first day of practice. And it hit me. Yes, it’s not a great feeling to participate in something that was actually a product of imperialism, but if contemporary yoga practices are a product of imperialism, then what “culture” are we actually appropriating? That is to say, maybe this “exotic Eastern pure and untainted Other-yoga” isn’t actually real. Maybe, as Melissa Heather writes,

“We need to realize that Jois and Iyengar are products of a particular time and place, and that their teachings are not ancient, timeless pieces of wisdom. We need to move beyond the binary of everything Eastern being inherently wise, perfect and static and everything Western being devoid of any spiritual knowledge or content. We need to embrace the fact that yoga is and has been many different things to many different people and will continue to shift and change with time.”

Oh right. Here’s this other thing I’ve learned throughout my anti-oppresive activism and education: don’t fucking essentialize people and cultures. When we suggest that we’re stealing a culture it assumes that there is a monolithic culture to steal. It suggests that a praxis-oriented philosophy is static. And those things just aren’t true.

So does this let me and other white people off the hook for practicing yoga? No. Because regardless of the British influence on what we now call yoga, it’s still a practice that is not indigenous to this land. And those of us who practice yoga need to be accountable to history. It is our responsibility to educate ourselves about the roots of the things in which we engage. The same goes for yoga teachers who make money off of teaching it. It is our responsibility to remember that “only developing a physical practice is itself a result of privilege.” And this goes for teachers of any kind–if you’re going to teach something, you better have a seriously holistic understanding of what it is and always attribute knowledge to the rightful knowledge-producers. Critical pedagogues have the ability to do that in classrooms pretty easily, but yoga teachers can do it too by practicing and teaching yoga beyond asana.

When we feel upset or guilty about our own personal practice (or teaching), we also need to ask who else is upset by it. The Hindu American Foundation created the Take Back Yoga campaign in an effort to call out Westerners (not just white people) who practice yoga and don’t acknowledge it’s ties to Hinduism, but didn’t call on people to stop practicing. Decolonizing Yoga is an amazing website/organization that has a mission that the name suggests, but does so in a way by urging US yoga communities to be better, not to shut down. (And one of the better practices means being more inclusive in terms of race, class, ability, etc….Inviting more people to do yoga, not less).  And South Asian Art & Perspectives in Yoga in America (SAAPYA) is doing really bad-ass work, but none of it involves telling white (or other non-South Asian) people to stop practicing.

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Rather, it’s our responsibility, as yogis in the West, to ensure that yoga is not just the athletic, yoga-butt-striving, asana-only, ahistorical, de-contextualized, expensive version.  It’s our responsibility to be diligent to work against any kind of microagressions we may perpetuate. It’s our responsibility to make sure that we step back when South Asian communities say what we need to do or not do in relation to it.

And it’s our responsibility to make sure that we don’t focus exclusively on our personal, individual relationship to things without looking at how power is operating structurally. Because I think the way we approach the conversation about yoga and cultural appropriation can veer us off course; it becomes too much about individuals and it has the potential to distract us from fighting the structures that leave white supremacy and imperialism in tact….And it’s imperialism and white supremacy that create the foundation for cultural appropriation. As Chiraag Bhatka, the artist behind an instillation called #whitepeople doing yoga, said of his project:

“….it’s not even about yoga really, it’s about colonization. Yoga’s just the vehicle.” 

Here are some good reads with various points of view (not all in agreement with me) on this general topic:

Like it or not, Western yoga is a textbook example of cultural appropriation

“The yoga debate: An existentially challenged Desi chimes in”

“My practice: Yoga and cultural appropriation”

“Yoga’s extreme makeover”

“White folk wearin’ dreadlocks irks the shit out of me”  

“Dear Racist Yogini: It’s South Asia calling and we want our yoga back” 

Do you practice yoga? How can yoga in the West be better accountable to yoga’s original roots? 

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10 thoughts on “On Yoga and Cultural Appropriation

  1. FoodFeud says:

    Awesome piece and a lot to think about. It’s very brave of you to own up to making mistakes – everyone does, but some people (myself included) can get huffy and blameful when called out on things.

    • raechel says:

      Unny, thank you so much for sharing this! That organization sounds incredible! I love this on their site: “Yoga is for all. I believe that by training more people of color as yoga teachers, the empowering, healing practices of yoga will spread farther, wider, and more evenly, as it was meant to.” Yes, yes yes! Thank you again, I hope you’re well!

  2. Jess says:

    Wow—thank you for sharing this! I’ve wrestled with some of these questions/issues, and I admire the way you laid out your thoughts. What resonated with me the most was the part about understanding the roots and educating others about them.

    I have a difficult time articulating how I feel about this subject, but every time I attempt, my mind goes back to this church in a small city I visited in Italy a few years ago—in the varying types of architecture (styles of columns, tiles, etc) within this one structure, you could see the influence of past groups/countries who had been in power there throughout the centuries. I found it really moving.

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