By: Ally B.
I like to think of myself as well versed in cultural appropriation politics. I consider it my duty as a person with privilege to make sure I think critically about cultural appropriation versus cultural exchange, and to call others out when they cross the line. I also like to partake in yoga as a primary form of exercise, centering and self-care. Imagine my surprise when one day I came across a post on Tumblr pointing out that one of my favorite practices was also something that could be doing a lot of damage on the cultural appropriation front.
So, what exactly is the deal with cultural appropriation and yoga? Well, I did some diving into the subject and turned up quite a bit of information. Let me preface this next section by stating that I am by no means an authority on this subject. As a white person, I do not get to decide where to draw the line on this. Instead, I simply offer the information and resources I found in hopes that others will join me in thinking critically about if the way we are practicing yoga is harmful or not.
Perhaps the most important place to begin is to take a look exactly what yoga is in the first place. Luckily, the Hindu American Foundation created a video on the topic as part of their Take Yoga Back campaign. As you’ll see, the practice is deeply rooted in Hindu tradition and philosophy. The Himalayan Academy also add in that:
"The term yoga actually refers to a wide range of Hindu practices; so it is important to specify what kind of yoga is being discussed. In common modern usage, yoga typically refers to hatha yoga—the performance of yoga postures, or asanas, which are drawn from ancient Hindu scriptures. Hatha yoga has always been performed by Hindus as a preparation for meditation; today, especially in the West, its health benefits commonly supersede the spiritual. Hatha yoga is just one facet of a broader body of knowledge and practice known as ashtanga yoga, which consists of eight stages. (Ashta means eight; anga means limb)."
Obviously, the yoga we see popularized and practiced in main-stream Western media and cultural is a far cry from the spiritual yoga we just spoke of. This yoga is generally divorced of its religious meaning and practiced without respect for its historical and cultural context. It has been appropriated to fit the demands of people who often simply see it as nothing more than an exercise routine regulated to the privileged who can afford expensive classes.
We also have seen a huge erasure of South Asian people from Western and “New Age” yoga. According to the South Asian American Perspective on Yoga in America, “In a survey review of over two years worth of yoga journals, no South Asians were featured on covers and furthermore no articles were authored by South Asians. Similarly, at a major yoga conference, out of sixty-four presenters, only seven of them were people of color and of those three were of South Asian origin and none were women.” (1) When South Asian people aren’t entirely erased from the picture, they are often propped up as “The Other” in deeply problematic and racist ways that feed into Orientalism.
In addition to appropriating yoga and removing its important context, there are also many problematic aspects to yoga as perpetuated by the media. In her article "Towards a Feminist Yoga Practice" Natalia Thompson, discusses how the commercialization of yoga has led to it becoming sexualized. She writes that,
"There’s a reason that yoga is a contentious topic on many feminist blogs: not only is yoga a “bougie” trend (striving to “just be” is a pretty privileged state of existence), but the commercialization of yoga carries distinctly sexist undertones. American Apparel’s recent reappropriation of yoga poses in their notoriously sexist ads is hardly the only offender; Yoga Journal is also guilty of “tapping that yoga ass.” The feminization of yoga has become all too common: as one blogger notes, images of yoga frequently depict women in “bounded, contorted, sexualized positions.”
Not to mention, there is a booming industry for related gear in the United States (estimated to be worth 5 billion dollars) where manufacturers like Lululemon are making millions of dollars while fat-shaming their customers. Commercializing and sexualizing yoga in these ways to make it more consumable to the West is disrespectful, disgusting and often racist.
So should you toss out your yoga mat? There is no easy answer to this incredibly complex topic, and this is simply not something I get to decide. Yoga most certainly does have tremendous healing and health benefits, but that does not discount it as something that could be appropriative. Yoga continues to be important to the mental and physical health and wellness of many. It has an incredible history of helping those in need of spiritual and physical healing after trauma and sickness (specifically PTDS and sexual assault/abuse). However, the Westernized version of yoga practiced by most in the US is not the same yoga practiced in its original form. What we most often see here is just a trimmed-down trendy yoga that is divorced from most of the tradition and spiritual practices that come with it. So yes, yoga does have great health benefits but it can also be appropriative (and often is).
What we can do about it is also not a simple answer. Most importantly, we must listen to South Asian people about this issue (although there seems to be mixed opinions out there on it). Is this something they want to share, and if so, is the way we are practicing it respectful and mindful of its historical and spiritual context? You can’t just take the parts of yoga you find useful.
Youarenotdesi has offered some suggestions on practicing yoga respectfully. They write that:
Yoga is South Asian and therefore the only people who should be sharing it with others are South Asians.
A way to tell if your white girl yoga teachers are ANY good and actually respect the traditions they’re drawing from is that they’ll pronounce namaste correctly (not like ‘nah-maas-té’ but like ‘nuh-muss-thay’). If you’re going to learn yoga and do it on the regular AT THE VERY LEAST read up on the origin, history, traditions, prayers, etc. of yoga. Learn about it as you would anything else that’s highly cultural. Don’t just pop in a DVD and do it because it’s ‘exercise.’ There’s pilates for that.
So in the end, the jury is still out of this one. I can’t give you a final word on something I have no authority over, but I hope that the next time you roll out your yoga mat you think twice about the way you’re practicing and who it may be impacting.