In recent years, yoga has become one of the most popular forms of exercise in the United
States and the trend is only growing. As an industry, yoga generated a revenue of 6.9 billion
USD in 2012, 9.09 billion in 2015, and is projected to grow steadily to 11.56 billion in 2020.
Similarly, the number of people who practice yoga is also on the rise, from 18 million in 2008 to
a projected 55 million in 2020. The benefits of yoga are manifold: physical, mental, and spiritual,
but as the practice becomes more widespread, a conversation about the potential cultural
appropriation that occurs in the practice of yoga in Western countries has emerged. Shreena
Gandhi, a Religious Studies professor at Michigan State University, and Lillie Wolff, an
organizer for the foundation Crossroads Anti-Racism, co-penned a controversial article in 2017
titled “Yoga and the Roots of Cultural Appropriation” which received much backlash on social
media and in the news for its radical standpoint that the Western “cultural appropriation of yoga
is a continuation of white supremacy and colonialism” (Gandhi & Wolff). While much of the
criticism of the article was based on quotes taken out of context in order to portray the article as
an anti-white message which condemns white practitioners of yoga, the first sentence of the
article is a personal appeal: “To the so many white people who practice yoga, please don’t stop.”
The article presents an interesting perspective on how yoga in the United States is undeniably a
form of cultural appropriation, especially in the context of the history of yoga’s spread to the
West, the lack of diversity present in certain yoga communities, and the commodification of
religious symbols and ideas. The article also provides ways for individuals to question whether
their practice may be culturally insensitive or appropriative and ways to be a more considerate
practitioner of yoga.
The foundation of Gandhi and Wolff’s argument that yoga is cultural appropriation
focuses on the history of the spread of yoga from India to the West during the period of India’s
colonization. Yoga spread towards England and the U.S. in the late 19 th and early 20 th century as
yogis traveled to bring the knowledge of yoga to the West to demonstrate the immense wealth of
Hindu knowledge on religion, the mind, and the body. While this knowledge should enrich the
wealth of knowledge of the West, yogis were often coerced into adopting the position that the
West is scientifically superior and the east as spiritual but scientifically (and thus empirically)
inferior. During this time, the British also suppressed the culture and religion of the Indian
people — even the concept of a “Hindu people” or Hinduism as a singular tradition is a
homogenization of many distinct groups in response to British occupation and involvement in
the study of the Indian religions.
Contemporary consumerism further distances the practice of yoga from its religious roots
as yoga—and its branching industries: clothing, technology, studios, etc.—is Westernized in
order to sell it more easily to white audiences. For example, on the opposite end of the spectrum,
there is another debate on whether practicing yoga as a Christian is sinful because of engagement
with the Hindu religion. To mitigate this problem, instructors may remove traces of Hinduism in
order to placate anxious Christians, even leading to a tendency of secularizing or Christianizing
yoga. This erasure of the meaning of the yogic practice is particularly concerning as the West
continues to profit off the teachings and progress of the East in a structural relationship similar to
the relationship of colonization as the memory of the oppressive and painful colonial period is
pushed into the distant and forgettable past.
The introductory-level yoga taught in most Western studios only focuses on asanas,
which make up only one of the eight branches of yoga. Additionally, many yoga instructors,
especially those who have received training only in the United States or other Western countries
from white instructors, do not have any instruction in the other branches, all of which are
important in a holistic yoga practice. They also may not be educated in the history of the spread
of yoga to the West and may be ignorant of India’s culture and history in general, but also
specifically the period of colonization. Even more concerning is the fact that instructors of Indian
descent find themselves in a minority demographic when teaching in the West, yet their attempts
to address the cultural appropriation of the Western practice are often silenced by the majority or
ignored. Since most instructors and practitioners in the West are white, it becomes their
responsibility to hold a space and an environment where minority voices are heard and
While these debates about cultural appropriation are nuanced and complex, certain
aspects of Western yoga are undeniably offensive to the Hindu culture. For example, the use of
the images of deities on fast fashion yoga clothing is a clear insult to their deep religious
meaning and symbolism. Additionally, Western studios which do not place an emphasis on the
Indian culture often use ‘decorative’ interior design elements such as scriptures, crystals, and
statues of deities without respect to how these are used in the Eastern tradition are insensitive.
Gandhi and Wolff recommend that yoga instructors and practitioners educate themselves
on the history of yoga, of colonization, and of the non-physical branches of yoga, as well as
encourage conversations about cultural appropriation and accountability. After all, yoga is a
living tradition which continues to evolve. But just as you would visit a Hindu place of worship
as a tourist or attend a Jewish bat/bar mitzvah as a guest with mindful respect for the religious
intentions of the space and its people, entering a yoga studio should be treated with the same
respect, curiosity, and intentionality, rather than simply seeing it as a practice to benefit the self
or the physical body. Above all, white people must stop responding to accusations of cultural
appropriation with the reaction of becoming defensive or dismissive, but accept that
appropriation occurs almost inevitably in a multicultural world while recognizing the real
negative effects cultural appropriation perpetuates. Every culture appropriates, but we should
attempt to mitigate the harm inherent in appropriation while treating the opportunity of being
able to participate in the practices of another culture with immense reverence and gratitude.
I've been reading so much about Ashtanga Yoga lately and I'm always inspired by everything I read. Here's what I uncovered today by David Garrigues:
"Ashtanga Yoga is a complete Yoga method based on Bhakti (devotion) to a breathing and movement system called Vinyasa. Through Ashtanga yoga you come to realize your Self and your purpose by learning to systematically combine several internal and external techniques including: breathing, internal locks, meditation, posture, conscious movement and gazing.
When these basic techniques are applied with discipline, subtlety and skill, they are excellent tools for becoming physically and mentally strong and perceptive. When you've developed your practice, you learn to 'inhabit' your body like a animal moving freely in the wild and at the same time your mind becomes strong and fit for meditation.
Practicing to create this combination of physical grace and power and mental clarity and openness leads to spiritual awakening. The method consists of learning a rigorous, well balanced sets of postures and the vinyasa positions that form the set sequences. The alternating, opposing movement and breathing patterns within the given sequences help you to internalize your mind and to gain depth and wisdom by observing the true nature of what is happening within you."
Tell me your thoughts below. As always, Namaste!