Hushidar Mortezaie artwork
Hushidar Mortezaie artwork
Hushidar Mortezaie artwork
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Yoga and the Roots of Cultural Appropriation

By Shreena Gandhi and Lillie Wolff

To the so many white people who practice yoga, please don’t stop, but please do take a moment to look outside of yourself and understand how the history of yoga practice in the United States is intimately linked to some of the larger forces of white supremacy.

The origins of yoga can be traced back to South Asia, a space colonized by the British and Portuguese. The reasons why yoga became popular, and why various Indian yogis started travelling to England and the United States to “sell” yoga, is also tied up with colonialism. Yoga was often used as a tool to show the British that Indians were not backwards or primitive, but that their religion was scientific, healthy, and rational. This was a position they were coerced into, and unfortunately reified colonial forms of knowledge – that knowledge must be proven or scientific to be worth anything.

Beyond its utility, yoga became popular, in part, because it reinforced European and Euro-American ideas of India. Early Indian yoga missionaries played on the orientalist construction of the “west” as progressive and superior and the “east” as spiritual but inferior. Yoga became — and remains — a practice which allows western practitioners to experience the idea of another culture while focusing on the self.

In today’s consumerist age, yoga thrives because one can produce many products and start businesses using yoga as the foundation. The explosion of yoga studios, yoga videos, apps, yoga pants, and other yoga swag over the last two decades is evidence of this. Yoga contributes to our economic system, but never forget this system is one built upon exploitation and commodification of labor, often the labor of black people and people of the global south.

Yoga, like so many other colonized systems of practice and knowledge, did not appear in the American spiritual landscape by coincidence; rather, its popularity was a direct consequence of a larger system of cultural appropriation that capitalism engenders and reifies. While the (mis)appropriation of yoga may not be a life-threatening racism, it is a part of systemic racism nonetheless, and it is important to ask, what are the impetuses for this cultural “grabbing”? In order to delve deeper into this question, it’s useful to look at the roots of U.S. white dominant culture, the foundation of which is rooted in enslavement of West Africans and settler colonialism. Decades of assimilation and the cultural stripping of Europeans as they arrived to the U.S. produced a white dominant culture. People of European descent replaced their ethnicities (i.e. German, Polish, English, Italian, etc.) with whiteness and the privileges that came along with that identity. This history is especially relevant right now as we are seeing white men taking to the streets in mobs shouting, “We will not be replaced.”

We would argue one of the goals of White Supremacy is to buffer white people from the pain that comes from the process of exchanging cultural grounding for the unearned power and privilege of whiteness. This looks like the hoarding of material resources and wealth into the hands, pockets, and bank accounts of white society. Meanwhile, in order to uphold the foundation and on-going functioning of white supremacist and racial capitalism, white people are taught to be ahistorical and emotionally repressed. In order to maintain the status quo, white people are taught to sublimate and anesthetize feeling. To feel — whether joy, sorrow, or grief — is to be counter cultural in this country. Dominant culture teaches white people, as well as People of Color, to numb through materialism, consumerism, entertainment, prescription and hard drugs, and alcohol. It also socializes white people to consciously or unconsciously misuse power and relate to others from a false sense of superiority. Because most white people are not taught to confront and examine the painful and uncomfortable realities of racism, and their complicity in it, the cycle of oppression, repression, and consumption continues.

This complex socio-political reality of the U.S. is key to understanding how the cultural void of white society is intimately mixed with white supremacy, capitalism, and globalization; and it is within these oppressive structures that cultural appropriation and the yoga industrial complex flourishes. People are grasping for something to belong and connect to outside of the empty and shallow societal anchors of materialism and consumerism, which do not nourish or empower people in any sort of meaningful or sustainable way. People are searching for these things without even understanding why there is a void in the first place. Few white people make the connection between their attraction to yoga and the cultural loss their ancestors and relatives experienced when they bought into white dominant culture in order to access resources. Many Europeans did not fully grasp what they were giving up and what they were investing in, yet many did, and most who arrived on these shores chose to stay here rather than return to their home country. Few white people make the connection between their love of yoga and their desire and ability to access traditions from historically oppressed communities of color.

Most yoga teachers in America do not learn about Hindu tradition or Indian cultural history. Generally in the United States, people practice the physical aspect of yoga, the postures or asanas, which comprise only one-eighth of the practice as a whole. The physical practice — think flowing from one pose to another with awareness of the breath — does help many people decrease stress, anxiety, and depression. However, when “Western” yoga teachers train other practitioners to relate to yoga only on a physical level, without exploring the history, roots, complexity, and philosophy, they are perpetuating the re-colonization of it by diluting its true depth and meaning. This modern day trend of cultural appropriation of yoga is a continuation of white supremacy and colonialism, maintaining the pattern of white people consuming the stuff of culture that is convenient and portable, while ignoring the well-being and liberation of Indian people.

We would be remiss if we did not acknowledge the far too few practitioners who go much deeper than just the physical, into the ancient yogic teachings, and do their best to humbly honor and learn from the lineage they have the privilege of accessing. It is possible for authentic, respectful, and accountable cultural exchange to occur, and for the practices to have a profound healing effect on the practitioner. Herein lies the invitation for white yoga practitioners to go beyond an unaccountable surface level relationship with yoga to a deeper, more transformative place of practice, awareness, contemplation, and engagement.

Given a deeper analysis of yoga, white yoga practitioners and teachers can engage in yoga in a decolonizing way that reduces harm and seeks greater cultural accountability.  First, they can be aware of the history, roots, and magnitude of the practice and give credit where credit is due. Humility, respect, and reverence go a long way. More yoga teachers and studio owners need to create space for conversations about cultural appropriation and cultural accountability. Additionally, there is a responsibility to explore issues around access. The cost of Western yoga classes can be prohibitive for low to middle-income people. This often includes People of Color, including recent immigrants, such as Indian women to whom this practice rightfully belongs. The result of this reality is that Western yoga is often represented and marketed in mainstream culture by thin, white, upper middle-class, cisgender, able-bodied women. Another layer to this reality is that white dominant cultural values such as competitive individualism and either/or binary thinking further distort and dilute the ancient teachings. Many people compete for the attention, time, and praise of their teachers, who are often treated as celebrities; and many teachers (and practitioners) strive to promote their style or brand of yoga as the best or most superior form of yoga. All of this conspires to create a culture of elitism and is antithetical to the true roots of yoga, which are all about yoking the mind, body, and spirit in order to remember our innate oneness and connection with universal consciousness.

Especially during this time when the underbelly of capitalism — white supremacy, cisheteropatriarchy, and xenophobia– is being exposed, it is imperative that everyone, especially those who have access to spiritual practices like yoga, ask difficult questions of ourselves and one another. We must ask, in what ways are we complicit in a system that harms People of Color, queer and trans people, poor people, people with disabilities, and immigrants? Despite our best values and intentions as individuals, our actions (and inaction) are inherently connected with a system of power, privilege, and oppression. If we want to honor the full yoga tradition and live into our values of love, unity, and fairness, we must examine the ways we are upholding “business as usual.”   


Shreena Gandhi teaches in the Religious Studies Department at Michigan State University. She received her BA from Swarthmore College, her MTS from Harvard Divinity and her PhD from the University of Florida where she focused on Religion in the Americas. She is working on revising her manuscript to focus on liberal white supremacy culture and yoga in the US, and is working on a long term project with other scholars of color, tentatively titled, Decolonizing US Religious History.

Lillie Wolff is an antiracist white Jewish organizer, facilitator, and healer. She is an Organizer/Trainer with Crossroads Antiracism and has been a student and practitioner of yoga since 2003. Lillie is passionate about decolonizing and politicizing yoga and the healing arts, and building a sustainable movement for collective liberation that is grounded in accountable spiritual practice and healing justice. She was a Joint Regional Fellow with the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership in 2017. Lillie earned a BA in Human Development and Social Relations from Kalamazoo College.

13 thoughts on “Yoga and the Roots of Cultural Appropriation

  1. Unfortunately, to set the record straight, the genesis of yoga began in kemet/egypt and not India or asia as some would falsely speculate due to being ignorantly taught. Proof is on the walls of kemetians doing poses quite similar to what is termed yoga today.At least 1000s of years prior to your actual Indian c8vilizations began to prosper. This article speaks about cultural approprition when the author has not done due diligence in examining the actual origins of this art. It’s well known that the original Indians, Dravidians, if not of actual origin, interacted with Africans and Ethiopians who ruled parts of India at one point. Thus learning arts and sciences of the Africans. Of course your heart will sink in your stomach from reading this, but doing research will show what I say is true. https://www.google.com/amp/s/amaramillerblog.wordpress.com/2014/05/02/origins-of-yoga-part-i/amp/.

  2. I’m finding that more people are becoming aware of yoga and it’s roots. But they only seem to stop at the Gita or Sutras. What about Lord Shiva, the original Adiyogi? Where ancient rishis wrote the Vedas and Agamas that hold the true yoga Shastra Pramanas. Being able to cite the true reference of where yoga originated and take us back. I’m currently a Nithyananda Yoga Teacher Acharya, who practices along with the Shastra Pramanas as I go through the vinyasa, 108asanas. Please keep tracing further back with more research. Most of the ancient Vedas and Agamas are in Sanskrit, and we are doing our research to pull and translate what we can. Paramahamsa Nithyananda mission is to bring this ancient yoga back. Great article overall.

  3. I wish you approached this in a more scholarly manner. I do not observe where you have been peer reviewed or cited material. If this is just a blog then I understand that this may not be required.

  4. What I find of extreme value in these conversations is our ability to see in what ways we HAVE engaged in cultural appropriation, not to immediately come to defense about all the ways we have not. This, like confronting our ingrained systemic racism in the west, is something that has affected us all, and needs recognition and accountability prior to deconstruciton. So when we as white identifying or non-white, non-Indian people can listen to those who have been injured by our (intentional or unintentional) actions, we have the opportunity to shift our perception, shift our actions, and reduce harm.

  5. I am confused by a few of the statements in this article. It appears that only white people(rich or poor) can mis-approriate yoga but a PoC (rich or poor) can not. Would it not been better to say American or Western cultures?

    The article links the need to study both Hinduism and India culture to get the full understand of yoga, but what about a person from Nepal that is Hindu or a Buddhist? Why was studying the Sutras not mention as a way of understanding.

    Trying to tie yoga and white supremacy/privilege ????? Again it is more to do with Western culture than anything else.

  6. Thank you for sharing your insight– it takes much courage to speak against the grain and it is nourishing to read your words.

    I began teaching yoga while I was both neuroscientist and classically trained Bharatnatyam dancer. The Gita and the Sutras inform my teaching as much as my study of the body and mind. It has been quite the challenge to share the cultural and philosophical integrity with the average yoga hobbyist– the fitness industry is not one to emphasize intellect or theory, and most students are not in class to learn. Perhaps the core of this problem is that the American culture undervalues knowledge.

    But! It is wonderful that so many people now know of yoga. And now is the time to raise the awareness of those who are in search of truth, integrity, and holistic well being.

    Looking forward to reading your future work!
    m.

  7. You make interesting points because of your passion about what you believe. But I’m prompted to say, welcome to the club. Christianity is also sold in stores and on the television.

    Here is another perspective, what does a high priced yoga class take away from true practitioners of yoga? Isn’t yoga free? Can’t poor yoga practitioners do yoga in their living rooms or in a field, on top of a cliff, by a brook…wherever they can find a peaceful area?

    People who truly care about yoga should read your article and it might bring change to those readers. But, you’ll still see the same stores selling yoga pants and mats because that will never change. Just like Christianity I mentioned earlier. Only a handful of people in this world practice true Christianity. To others, every piece of it is being sold from holy water to sandals.

    I can’t wait to read your article about liberal white supremacy culture. If it means what I think it means, that will be a good read. If it doesn’t, it will be a surprising read, which will be just as good.

  8. Personally speaking, Yoga is about uniting the body, mind and spirit. We do this, both on and off a mat. We also connect to ourselves and to others, in a climate that is inspiring and awareness-based. We accept, we practice a non-reactive mind, we clear out the sometimes ‘crazy & frantic’ that can over take our lives (and bogs us down), to see the world better and strive for peace. We do this while we strike purposeful poses and when we’re back to our everyday. We don’t group people into categories or divide. Do you?

  9. Interesting reading and certainly worth considering by all yoga teachers and practitioners in the West. However, the argument is weakened significantly by the generalities — as in “most” yoga teachers, and in its lack of empirical data. As a yoga teacher of more than a decade, I have studied with a many, many other instructors and attended dozens of retreats and workshops. It has been my experience — also not scientific — that at least a third, if not more of dedicated, loving teachers do indeed steep their instruction in the roots of yoga and try to impart it to their students. My closest yoga colleagues work hard, long hours in class planning to ensure we incorporate meditation, moral constraints and social observances into each session. We also offer special workshops on the eight limbs of yoga, encourage seva in the community — and it often the case we do this as an avocation — not for livelihood. Again, I truly believe the authors raise questions which I hope serve as a catalyst for examining our motives in teaching, Still, I don’t believe it was their intention to label an entire profession, in the West, as unintentionally racist. Self-examination and “turning inward” is the mark of a good teacher, and most of I know are leaders in the community for shining a light on racism. We did not come to spiritual, mental and physical path of yoga by accident.

  10. This is a great article. While we must understand that cultures evolve and adapt to the market (if it doesn’t adapt, it reduces demand, and could eventually die) – we must also acknowledge the history that comes along.
    I do believe that the physical aspect is the entry gate and a lot of people do seek information afterward. And thankfully, it is very readily available online.

  11. Thank you for this well-written, thoughtful piece.

    I am a white yoga teacher who cannot simply be a teacher of asana alone. Without the other 7 limbs, one is simply a poser (pun intended). This is why I love teaching yoga at George Washington University. I’m able to introduce students to the idea of aligning the postures with the Yamas and Niyamas. It does not, however, attract many students into a public studio class.

    I would love to connect with the two of you as I am also passionate about fighting racism.

  12. I swear this article could have come straight out of my mouth. Thank you, thank you Shreena and Lillie. I have been expressing this for years. I recently attended a staff Christmas party at a brewery that offered “Beer Yoga” (do asanas while drinking beer! ) I was triggered by that oh so familiar dismissiveness when I voiced my displeasure over such disrespectful and ignorant practices. Yes, misappropriation of yoga traditions is real, but it’s more than that…It’s soul crushing and violent- but who am I to say, I am just a brown girl.

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