When Yoga Is Actually Just Cultural Appropriation

Despite its massive popularity, Western yoga culture is still perpetuating the damage of colonization.

October 31, 2017
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When you think of “yoga culture,” you may very well picture a thin, most likely white woman clad in $80 lululemon leggings, green juice in hand as she heads to her boutique yoga class. Perhaps this imaginary woman bears a striking similarity to former model Tara Stiles, who’s now one of the most famous yoga teachers in the world.

In reality, the yoga culture that most people in America are familiar with is a far throw from the practice’s origins. Hailing from India, yoga is said to have originated thousands of years ago. It is thought, religion, and philosophy all embodied in movement—a practice so multi-faceted that it’s hard to describe with words.

While many of today’s Western yoga teachers are more than happy to string up prayer flags in their studios and exercise their limited vocabulary of Sanskrit words for each pose, it’s not quite as close to the real deal as it could be.

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And this is where the problem lies: cultural appropriation.

What exactly is cultural appropriation?

Western society’s fascination with other cultures often pushes boundaries to the point of being offensive. Cultural appropriation has become one of the most talked-about subjects both on the internet and in real life, and for good reason.

But what is cultural appropriation? Dictionary definitions are often limiting, but Oxford Dictionaries actually explains it pretty well: “The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”

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Everything from hairstyles to headdresses have been involved in accusations of cultural appropriation, and the debate is never-ending.

Some people would argue that some forms of cultural appropriation are more damaging than others—for example, adopting sacred customs from marginalized cultures for fashion (such as Native American feather headdresses).

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Others say that even adopting everyday cultural aspects from a group that could be considered a minority isn’t okay. Remember when Miley Cyrus started twerking and was accused of appropriating black culture?

Whether it’s slang or clothing, the cultures those things originated from have all, at some point, experienced discrimination for associating with these cultural markers. And therein lies the difference between appreciation and appropriation.

This is why it can be hurtful when Western people use these cultural markers. They’re borrowing an important part of a culture’s identity and benefitting from it, while the original culture continues to experience persecution for doing the very same thing.

“Yoga is not about the yoga pants. It’s not about getting a yoga butt.”

-nisha ahuja

There’s no denying that Indian culture has been highly appropriated by the West. Bindis, henna, and the Om symbol have all become fashion trends in recent years. And while many people understand the potential problem with adopting these things as fashion symbols, the same careful thought is rarely given to yoga—despite the fact that it’s one of the oldest parts of India’s history.

The Cultural Origins (and Erasure) of Yoga

To understand the potential for yoga to be culturally appropriated, it’s important to acknowledge its historical significance.

The spiritual custom of yoga was practiced throughout India for thousands of years and was strongly connected to wisdom, philosophy, and mastery of the mind. It wasn’t so much about physicality as it was energy.

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Under British rule, practices like yoga and Ayurveda were demonized and even banned in India. This was just one of many steps taken to erase and control Indian culture during colonization.

British rule of India officially ended in 1947. Just over a decade later, as India was still working to reclaim and rebuild their culture, yoga was trending in America thanks to the New Age obsession of the ’60s.

Nowadays, yoga in the West looks very different. It’s mostly viewed as a form of exercise—ever heard the term “yoga body”? Luxury yoga retreats can cost thousands of dollars; every man and his dog are becoming certified yoga teachers; YouTube videos offer yoga classes to anyone with an internet connection, garnering millions of views; “drinking yoga” classes are now a thing in Germany (though this is hardly surprising considering Germany’s love affair with libations).

Amidst all of this, Indian yoga teachers are still the minority in today’s Western yoga culture.

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For Indian teachers like nisha ahuja, co-founder and co-director of SOMA Ayurveda and Integrative Wellness, the way that ancient practices like yoga have been adopted into Western culture can be difficult to deal with.

“Witnessing Ayurveda and yoga become more of a trend brings up complex emotions,” she says. “There is part hope of societal transformation, but given how these medicine/spiritual systems are being practiced, it is often painful. It is painful to witness these 5,000-year-old medicine systems and spiritual paths—that my ancestors could have been killed or imprisoned for practicing during colonial rule that many teachers had to secretly keep alive—now being sold as a diluted version to be consumed by the masses and thus becoming void of its essential purpose as a spiritual path.”

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Even when the spiritual purpose of yoga is acknowledged, it’s often misappropriated by those with no cultural ties to its history:

“It is equally painful when these practices/medicines/sciences are revered as spiritual paths, but Western teachers or practitioners have placed themselves or accepted the position of being spiritual leaders and gate keepers to traditions that South Asian people in that region diasporically have to navigate.”

We use these funds ahuja has spoken at length about decolonizing yoga. In fact, SOMA uses donations from its supporters and customers “to support sliding scale appointments and youth programs with marginalized youth in both the West and India (hopefully South Africa soon), so that more young folks who are excluded from the Western Yoga Industry can have holistic access to the teachings.”

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She also appeared in a video on the subject called You Are Here: Exploring Yoga and the Impacts of Cultural Appropriation. She’s a firm believer that appropriation of many cultures is a product of colonization.

“It is important to recognize that this is not happening in isolation, but comes from a long history of colonization and a subconscious sense of entitlement embedded in Western/colonizing cultures of owning and having what others have,” she says. “Today, at this moment, this is widely seen in the consumption of African American cultures and cultures of the indigenous peoples of North America, and other People of Colour.”

It isn’t just Indian yoga culture that’s being exploited, either. Yoga’s diverse cultural roots are often ignored.

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“Kemetic Yoga from East Africa is rarely recognized within yogic traditions by South Asian people, as well as in the ‘trendy’ yoga industry we see all around us,” ahuja says. “And I imagine for black diasporic people this is doubly painful to have another place of erasure.”

Yoga in India today is a little different from both modern American practices and its own cultural origins. There’s still a lot of debate in India over how yoga should be taught and practiced. But regardless of the debate, yoga in India is far from a fashion statement or gym alternative. It was always primarily a spiritual practice—not, as ahuja says, a method of getting a “yoga butt.”

“Yoga is not about the yoga pants,” she says. “It’s not about getting a yoga butt. It’s not about competition. It’s not aerobics or a good workout. It is not about attachment to the body. So make time to learn, study and practice the depth of the teachings of yogic paths from both South Asia and East African Kemetic Yoga traditions.”

The Appeal of the Exotic

Western wellness culture has an undeniable fascination with India. Ayurveda has become popular among proponents of natural medicine, and meditation—while not exclusively part of Indian culture—is experiencing a serious boom in popularity thanks to the mindfulness trend.

The documentary Kumaré perfectly captures America’s fascination with Indian spirituality. American-born Vikram Gandhi impersonates a spiritual teacher in order to verify if Americans will blindly accept his “teachings” as a supposedly wise, sacred Eastern guru, despite not knowing anything about him or what he’s talking about. (Spoiler alert: they do.)

Where does this fascination come from, and how is it causing yoga to be appropriated in both practice and beyond? One explanation that ahuja gives is that this obsession with yoga’s exoticism is a reflection of how Westerners hold onto the notion of “other”—a desire for the mysterious.

She also thinks that Westerners may feel more comfortable turning to Eastern practices in search of stress relief and spiritual connection rather than their own cultural roots—something that brings a sense of achievement.

“There are many European spiritual traditions that have that potential to offer this deeper connection, but many people of those lineages have also been severed from their ancestral traditions and knowledge systems,” she says. “So turning to another culture that has already been colonized allows a subconscious, continual extracting of parts of spirituality that suit their individual need for something more or for better health.”

Are Western yogis honoring or appropriating Indian culture?

It’s not that Western yogis—especially white women—should be banned from practicing yoga. Like many Indian yoga teachers, ahuja firmly believes that yoga is something that can benefit all of humanity, regardless of ethnicity.

But the problem lies in the commercialization of these culturally significant practices. Turning them into money-making schemes in the West tends to benefit those who are already in places of privilege.

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It’s all too easy to claim that cultural appropriation is simply “political correctness gone wild.” But as ahuja points out, it’s important to remember the subconscious sense of entitlement that comes with an inherited position of power.

What about using yoga purely as a physical practice without the spiritual connotations? Well, that’s kind of the exact definition of cultural appropriation—taking one single aspect of a culture out of context.

That’s not to say that yoga can’t be practiced for physical purposes. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to acknowledge the rich philosophy and culture behind this ancient tradition.

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One way to consciously practice yoga while acknowledging its roots is to include just one small but powerful element of its core philosophy: humility.

“Invite immense flows of humility into your day to day and your yoga practice,” ahuja says. “If you think you know a lot, are an awesome yoga practitioner, want to be known as a great yoga teacher, pause and witness the dance your ego is doing that it is leading you down a path that is the opposite of yogic teachings.”

She continues, “If others put you on a pedestal as someone who knows a lot about yoga or mediation, actively point out the 5,000-year-old traditions that millions of people have observed and practiced and maintained before you. And remind yourself of it, too.”

As for the Indian garb? Well, maybe leave that at home—unless you’re in an appropriate environment to be wearing it, of course.

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“Because racism is an atrocious and painful experience People of Colour are subject to on a daily basis in the West,” she says, “be thoughtful of not wearing South Asian or other diasporic clothing, accessories, or spiritual items as either fashion or an attempt to pay homage to a culture, because the people from that culture very likely are discriminated against for wearing the exact same items and may have had to stop wearing these to lessen the racist encounters they deal with on a day to day basis. An exception to note here is when you are visiting a country or ceremony of a specific culture, it may be more respectful to wear clothing [from] that culture.”

nisha ahuja chooses to spell her name with lowercase letters for cultural reasons. You can read more about her journey and work here.

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