In reference to this morning’s article on a canceled yoga class for students with disabilities, it got me thinking about an uncomfortable gray space between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation and where that line may fall when it comes to yoga.
At the moment it is difficult to find many of the articles I’ve read before, because googling “yoga cultural appropriation” results in a bunch of hand-wringing or overblown knee-jerk outrage on the above mentioned story. But colonization and commercialization of yoga as a practice is and has been a legitimate concern that can’t be hand-waved away with “what, am I not supposed to make Indian food at home too?”
Not long ago, yoga was banned in India under British rule. Even today, Western and largely white practitioners consciously strip away the cultural and spiritual meaning to make it more palatable to westerners and particularly to Christians who may be uncomfortable with yoga’s Hindu roots. Yoga as it is popularized today focuses on the body, on outwardly achieving perfect postures and contorted shapes, usually documented with photographs of thin, often white bodies and fashionable, expensive exercise clothes. There are tons of classes advertising “blacklight/rave yoga,” “sexy yoga,” “naked yoga,” “circus yoga,” and various claims to be able to tone and beautify one’s body. Most studios are expensive, with a high cost of entry to learn a practice that should be free with expectations, not to mention a multi million dollar market of expensive, body flattering work-out gear added in. There are 100-hour certification courses for a practice which takes a lifetime to master. All of which is antithetical to yoga as a practice to prepare the body for reflection, meditation and unity. It is essentially the opposite of the capitalist, outward- and attention-seeking western yoga culture as it exists in Lululemon, yoga magazines, blogs, and probably in many of your local yoga studios. Few classes offer genuine insight into the origins, meaning, or purpose of yoga beyond a few sanskrit words and mild throwaway references to opening chakras, without any further education or inquiry into their cultural context and meaning.
At the same time, yoga purely as an exercise is undoubtedly beneficial to the body, especially those who struggle with aches and pains, and with mental scars. I have also read opinions from south asian yogis and gurus who believe that yoga is for everyone, and the more people who can practice it in some form, the better. Or that those who practice yoga at the surface level, with only the asana, are doing something beneficial, but they are not really doing yoga. Others still believe that most western yoga is appropriative and denies the importance of its cultural heritage, leaving people who do not fit the bill of young, thin, wealthy and white feeling like strangers in a practice came from their own ethnic heritage and alienating other people of color.
For me as a practitioner of yoga this is a constant point of inquiry that I periodically return to and that I believe all yogis should seriously reflect upon. I think people get really defensive about this because many people who benefit from yoga already consider themselves liberal, and do not look deep enough to ask the tough questions about what they are doing. Not that there is an easy answer.
What say you?
Some further reading:
SAAPYA’s website appears to be gone now, but the blog is still up, and you can probably find some old versions of saapya.com on the Way Back Machine: