Cultural Appropriation and Yoga

I went to a talk last night by Nisha Ahuja at Kula Yoga about cultural appropriation and yoga. It was a really helpful evening for making us more aware of the continuing effects of colonization, how this manifests in some of the ways we approach yoga in the West, and how to minimize this appropriation.

Firstly, I thought it was really helpful to name the forces of colonialism: denial, destruction, eradication, surface accommodation and tokenism. In yoga this may manifest as the denial of the rich heritage of yoga, or even the denial of its origins in South Asia. Destruction and eradication began during the colonial regimes that disallowed and suppressed the practice of the wisdom tradition and other linguistic and cultural aspects. If we teach yoga asana without mentioning or giving some access to students of the rich, plethora of yoga practices, giving some context to the heritage of yoga, we continue with this eradication. Surface accommodation and tokenism may manifest when we have spiritual objects or mantras that we don’t explain or treat as trinkets during class, thus paying lip service to yoga’s rich heritage without sincerity or real knowledge. This also gets into the area of access, and diversity in the yoga spaces in the mainstream.

I admired Nisha’s bravery when at the beginning of the talk she explained how growing up hearing a bindhi and tilak referred to as a ‘Paki dot’ creates a painful separation, or making it painful to think about connecting to the Third Eye. This and the knowledge of how yoga and Ayurveda were suppressed during the colonial regimes in India may also make the mainstream, decontextualized yoga fad also painful and may distance South Asian people from wanting to participate in yoga classes or studios that don’t full represent them. This creates a continuing disparity in who has access to yoga (even in a diminished form). One participant mentioned that in a way this caused her to search out authentic offerings of the wisdom tradition, which made me think of the many very authentic, holistic and non-commercial yoga missions, such as Chinmaya Mission, Ananda Marga, Shri Chinmoy et cetera. I am often surprised how little awareness there is of such longstanding organizations in the mainstream. But this talk gave a different insight into that successful mechanism of commodification of a highly diminished yoga. I hope I have represented this piece of the talk. I am recounting what I heard and understood. It was live streamed, so I will post where/if it becomes available online.

Nisha asked us to write out what we thought cultural appropriation was, and who benefitted. The group put out words such as decontextualized, exploitative, gratuitous, entitlement.  There was difference of opinion on who benefits. In a very real sense, no one benefits from failing to acknowledge the rich heritage of the Indian wisdom traditions, or of the burying of huge aspects of it in the popular consciousness. I do believe there are derivative benefits to the popularization of yoga. They are diverse, but that still doesn’t mean we should not continue to work towards de-colonization. One participant mentioned that even though people were getting access often to highly diminished forms of yoga that did not acknowledge yoga’s roots, the glimmer of it may cause them to search further. The issues here are with exploitative commodification (gross overcharging for yoga teachings, attempts to make proprietary measures over sequences or things like medicinal use of turmeric!), and often the mainstream lack of understanding of the history of discomfort with Hinduism in relation to Abrahmanic religions. I won’t go into this here as I’ve written previously on this, but lack of understanding of this and the colonial legacy obfuscates the real negative effects and perpetuate anti-Indian stances and gross generalizations about Indian history within the yoga community.

One thing I mentioned in the evening was that ironically the yoga boom in the West and the success of the yoga industry have had an echo in India. This is not un-problematic, as it partly due to the legacy of colonial power disparity and internalized racism (feeling lesser than the colonizers). As yoga became popularized in the West, it created more interest in yoga in South Asia. Also, business people have propagated the ‘yoga for health’ model creating TV-gurus like Baba Ramdev, giving millions of South Asians access to teachings on pranayama for example, to which they previously had little access. Although it is not un-problematic, it does tie into the cultural revival of aspects of the wisdom tradition in India. 

At the end of the evening Nisha offered a list of things to reflect on and commit to decolonizing yoga, and I’d like to say that some of these were already important to me. The discussion re-enforced and gave texture to the reasons.

– humility

– acknowledging where something comes from and at the limits of what aspect you are sharing

– acknowledging the sacred objects in the space and explaining what they are (if you don’t know, that is problematic and you should consider how it may be tokenism

– acknowledging mantras, their meaning and why we do them and where they come from

– acknowledging the privilege we have in access to this teaching when some don’t have access or have historically been denied access due to colonization

– cultivate relationships with people who are related to the heritage tradition

I am grateful to have had such a skillful facilitator of this meaningful and important discussion. Thank you Nisha Ahuja. 



3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. modgepodgefeminism
    Jan 26, 2014 @ 15:55:42

    Reblogged this on modgepodgefeminism..


  2. Julie
    Jan 28, 2014 @ 15:08:34

    Dear Chetana, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about appropriation and Yoga. I also agree that as practitioners and teachers of the practice that we need to teach from a place of knowledge and become aware of tokenism. Part of this could be cultivated by looking deeply into our own habit patterns and also to commit to teaching in a more holistic way, honoring the richness of the roots of the tradition with curiosity and exploration.


  3. Toby Wiggins
    Jun 18, 2014 @ 15:34:44

    thought you might be interested in the new video!

    You Are Here: Exploring the Impacts of Yoga & Cultural Appropriation

    has grown out of many channels.

    Most importantly through a channel of love.

    This is an act of love.

    This is an offering and gift to ask us to love deeper and grow our hearts and minds so our individual practices encompass our collective well-being.

    When we ask ourselves to love more expansively, we can examine how we have been conditioned with patterns, for some patterns of entitlement and privledge, that harm others and ourselves.

    Through love we can move our thoughts and actions to lessen harm on others and ourselves.

    This not only applies to a Yogic practice but also how we move through the world that has a 500-year legacy of colonization that is perpetuated on Turtle Island/North America everyday.

    nisha has been sharing her examination of Yoga & Cultural Appropriation for over a decade and notably through the national tour of her play Yoga Cannibal (Directed/Dramaturged by Yvette Nolan), a playful and cutting look at the consumption of cultural in the quest for spiritual fulfillment. There was a huge in-person and online response to nisha’s workshop “You Are Here: Examining Cultural Appropriation and Yoga” in January 2014, with many reuqests for the live streaming video to stay online. This video was created in response to that request. nisha shares this with gratitude to the many many many others who share a practice that is much more expansive than commonly sold the diluted versions of the Yogic path.

    “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public” – Cornel West


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