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How To Do Yoga and Not Be a Dick

The idea that yoga is cultural appropriation isn't new, but learning more about it is important.
Hannah Ewens
London, GB

Western yoga practice has been hijacked by skinny young white women with a vague new age philosophy, a raw vegan diet and a set of Instagram filters. It's become so commercialised that you'd no longer be surprised to see a class in London priced at £25 [€32] or a pair of designer yoga pants for £400 [€520]. However, attached to that discussion of privilege and race lingers the related but distinctly different question: is the actual practice of yoga religious or cultural appropriation?


This isn't a new concern. See xojane's op-ed "Like It Or Not, Western Yoga Is A Textbook Example Of Cultural Appropriation", or a recent VICE report on Jennifer Scharf, a yoga practitioner who had her free weekly sessions to students at the University of Ottawa cancelled being culturally appropriative. According to the student union, yoga had been "under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practised" and that it was often sacred and spiritual practices that were taken from cultures which "have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and Western supremacy". Take Yoga Back is a campaign run by the Hindu American Society. It was set up in 2003 in a response to the proliferation of new forms of yoga to protect the underlying meaning, philosophy, and purpose of yoga from Western dilution. As Sri Pattabhi Jois, a famous Indian yoga teacher who developed Ashtanga yoga, once said: Westerners "practice yoga primarily for their health, which is okay. But to really understand the heritage of India, one must also understand its ancient tradition. Some Westerners overlook this great heritage and have no idea what are the roots of yoga."

Certainly, this accusation rings true for 99 percent of IG yogi warriors posting photos of them in crow while eating their chia seed pudding. So we got in touch with some yoga scholars to find out how yoga became a thing in the West, and what you need to know to be able to practise it without being a dick.


Modern Yoga Is a Response to Colonial Stereotypes

"Before colonisation, yoga was mainly a spiritual practice, bar beggars and contortionists who worked the urban streets for cash. But around the 20th century, it was used as a way for young men to bulk up and fight the British," says James Mallinson, lecturer in Sanskrit and Classical Indian Studies at SOAS. "There was this idea propagated by the British that Indians were lazy and weak," she adds. Reappropriating hatha yoga became a larger project of Indian nation building and the construction of a "new Indian man". This meant a blended yoga with martial arts of various sorts.

Yoga Borrowed from Western Physical Culture, Too

At the same time as Indian men were bulking up, parts of Western culture – like Ling gymnastics and drilling, which was very popular in Europe at the time – were making an impact on traditional yoga, too."India actually included some aspects of western 'physical culture' into their yoga practice," says James. "Cultural appropriation suggests there are pure essences, but the borrowing here kind of cut both ways." Professor Waltraud Ernst, an Indian history expert at Oxford Brookes university, says that even now modern Western new age yoga practices are being "re-imported into India for westernised Indian elite groups".

There's No Such Thing as 'Authentic' Yoga

So much cultural cross-pollination has happened as yoga has developed that it is impossible to pin down its true origins. "Postural yoga has such a twisted history going back to the 9th or 10th century that there is really nothing that can be said to be 'authentic'," explains Joseph Alter Stewart, Professor of Social Sciences at Yale. "At one point in time it was alchemy, then a martial art, then a form of spiritual exercise, then physical fitness, then self-development, then medicine. And all of this before it was brought to the West." The poses we do in yoga now – downward dog and sun salutations – have barely been around for 100 years. "There is no 'pure' yoga that you can identify as having been around for long," he says.

Indian Teachers Wanted to Bring Yoga to the West

Another point to remember in this loose, confused timeline is that Indian yogis actively promoted their practice in the West. Swami Vivekananda was one of these people, adapting traditional Hindu ideas to suit the needs and understandings of Western audiences, who were especially interested in movements like transcendentalism and new age thought. He travelled around Europe and America sharing his ideas and in 1896 he published the book Raja Yoga, which was central to the West's idea of yoga. "He liked to have himself depicted in oriental dress when he was in the West, and in modern, Western dress in the East," says Professor Ernst. "So, some of the main protagonists in sharing yoga with the West were very aware of how to market themselves to Western consumers."

Professor Mallinson says the yogis "knew exactly what they were doing: they were tailoring their practice for an audience that included Westerners and made it more palatable for them. In fact that's a duplication of the history of yoga. For centuries it has always been adapting to the context where it finds itself. To claim that the West has nicked yoga betrays someone who a political agenda. They are actually denying agency to the Indians who were responsible for spreading yoga."

New Yoga Fads Trivialise Spirituality

Understandably, many people, such as the Hindu American Society, have anxiety surrounding their spiritual positioning in the world being associated with something as frivolous and commercialised as what white western yoga has become. Light trends like voga and naked yoga, which are hurtling through gym timetables quicker than it takes to blend a green juice, belittle colonial history. Ironically, taking yoga's convoluted past into consideration, one big problem is the idea that there's some kind of unbroken tradition of yoga that gives it a sense of religious authority. Westerners want to feel like they're doing something traditional. They sort of are, but they're also not. And understanding that paradox is the crux of practising something so entwined with religion with the respect it deserves.

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