The Appropriation of Yoga
Have you ever walked into a Yoga studio as a person of colour and had a weird feeling that something wasn’t right? But all the white women around you were deep in weird chants and didn’t seem to have an issue? You are not alone. Across Australia, yoga studios run by white women for mostly white customers are engaging in a deeply cultural and religious practice with no clue of the origins or history. For many years South Asians have been ridiculed for their accents and culture, and while BIPOC yoga instructors are able to take the time out to understand the cultural origins, white yoga instructors seem to be more concerned on what Lululemon tights they’ll be wearing. Well, it is time to really understand how this modern-day exercise is connected to colonisation and what is off-limits.
What is Appropriation?
In the broadest sense cultural appropriation is the adoption or taking of specific elements (such as ideas, symbols, artifacts, images, art, rituals, icons, behavior, music, styles) from historically oppressed populations.
Important to note:
Cultural exchange is different from cultural appropriation. Things like tea, gunpowder and pasta have been shared between different cultures throughout history. These ‘borrowings’ aren’t the same as cultural appropriation, because they don’t involve power. When different cultures come together on an equal footing, exchange happens. But when dominant groups take from an oppressed group, we’re dealing with appropriation.
Cultural exchange is also very different from assimilation. ‘Assimilation’ describes what happens when minority cultures are forced to adopt features from a dominant culture in order to fit in. This is different from appropriation, because it’s done to ensure survival and to avoid discrimination.
Appropriation of yoga happens in two ways: firstly disconnecting it from its origins and secondly, glamourising and commercialising it for new mostly white audiences. This is the process of white-washing.
Wait.. is appropriation the right word? Or is it exploitation?
According to Rumya S. Putcha, PhD, a scholar of postcolonial, critical race, and gender studies, we’re still asking the wrong questions. “The terminology ‘cultural appropriation,’ in and of itself, is a way of diluting the fact that we’re talking about racism and European colonialism,” she says. “It undermines what is happening as only ‘culturally inappropriate’ so as not to disrupt mass yoga marketing, leading us to ask surface-level questions like ‘I don’t want to be culturally inappropriate, so how can I show cultural appreciation appropriately?’ It’s not about appreciation versus appropriation. It’s about understanding the role of power and the legacies of imperialism.” (Yoga Journal)
Interesting Historical Facts:
Yoga is intertwined in thousands of years of history throughout South Asia. The yoga most practiced today can be classified as hatha yoga - the practice of physical yoga posture. However, many of these poses are only 100 years old. Why?
Hatha yoga flourished in India from the 13th century until its decline in the 18th. When British rule in India began in 1773, hatha yogis were actually viewed negatively by both Westerners and Indians (internalised oppression). The British government went so far as to ban wandering yogis. As colonial powers grew in India, poor hatha yogis were increasingly forced to settle in urban areas where they often resorted to postural yogic showmanship and spectacle to earn money panhandling. As a result, physical hatha yoga practices became associated with the homeless and poor. Fast forward to today, modern yoga is actually the morphing of the West’s obsession with physical culture with the word 'yoga' tagged onto it to promote a new modern, independent India. This was done to remove any of the “negative” associations of earlier centuries. (Source: The Sociological Yogi)
But come on, it’s 2020! says the white woman
The issue arises when white yoga practitioners don’t stop to look beyond themselves and how yoga is linked to larger forces namely “colonization, oppression, and the fact that a devotional practice that was free of cost for thousands of years is now being marketed and sold.” (Yoga Journal, Shreena Gandhi, PhD)
If you think you’re appropriating culture, then you are. Noone is saying stop doing yoga. But here’s a list of what you can stop doing:
Using Hindu gods as decor (for anything other than prayer)
Wearing bindis (no exceptions)
Don’t compare your yoga practices to Hinduism, Buddhism or Sikhism
When doing ‘goat yoga’ or ‘slutty yoga’ or any yoga for fun, don’t call it yoga and leave traditional and religious references out of it
Take time to learn and pronounce the asanas real names (not the English versions particularly if you are a yoga practitioner)
Using words such as ‘Tribe’
Take time out to educate yourself on South Asian history and culture
Understand the history of words such as yoni
Ask for forgiveness if you’ve ever been racist towards South Asians (did you call someone a curry muncher in school? Time to say sorry.)
“As we live in an increasingly globalised and hybrid world which sees a borrowing, exchange and profiteering of cultures and identities, it's important these exchanges are celebratory and not exploitative and do not take advantage of power disparities between the global north and south.” Sarah Malik, SBS