Part of my work as a yoga teacher and researcher is to lead classes at various law firms, companies, and schools in New York City. Recently, at the end of a short yoga practice in a corporate setting, a gentleman laughed aloud as we put our hands together and bowed.
“Namaste?” he asked. “Is that for real? I thought it was a Brooklyn yoga studio thing.”
This man happened to be white, and while I could tell his intention was not to offend me, he did. Like I’ve done innumerable times as an Indian American, I stepped around the hurt to answer his question. “Nope, not a Brooklyn yoga thing, » I said. « It’s Indian.”
His response gutted me: “Yoga’s Indian?”
This man’s statement wasn’t charged because he was a jerk or trying to be rude, but because without even realizing it, he was exposing how yoga is often marketed in this country—and appropriated in the process.
Like mine, yoga’s roots lie in India.
Yoga is estimated to be at least 2,500 years old, originating in the Indus Valley Civilization. But if you google yoga, check out yoga magazine covers, or scroll through yoga-related hashtags, you often won’t see an Indian person. Much of the time, you’ll see white, flexible women practicing postures—the more physically demanding, the better—in expensive stretch pants on beaches or in chic workout studios.
Growing up in Florida as a first-generation Indian American, I was raised to practice yoga, but it never required breaking a sweat, nor did it involve special attire or equipment. My family learned yoga by lecture and practice, but mostly it was embedded—hidden, really—in everything we did. This is because true yoga is not just a workout. Yoga, meaning “union” in Sanskrit, has many forms. But classically, it is an ancient Indian philosophy espousing an eight-limbed approach to conscious living.
When I was young, my yoga practice was a source of ridicule. Once, my parents had a guru host a yoga lecture in our house, which brought Indian women in saris with their husbands and children down our walkway and into our home. Chants of “om” echoed through open windows. The boys on my block mocked me relentlessly for the rest of the week. Kids also teased me about my parents’ Indian accent, my name, my Indian clothes, the color of my skin, the turmeric in my food, and the “dot” (bindi) on our foreheads.
I grew embarrassed to talk to my parents in public in anything but English. I became conditioned to see my culture and the philosophies within it as inferior. To blend into the mainstream American culture, I’d hide a T-shirt and pair of jeans in my bag on the way to the temple so I could change right away.
Years later in my early adulthood I adopted a regular yoga practice as a way to manage my anxiety and state of being. Not only did it transform my habits of mind and health, it made me feel proud to be an Indian. And now, yoga philosophy—a part of my culture!—was valued by so many in the United States. The sound of “om” at the end of class brought me to tears. For so long, I had deprived myself of this deep aspect of my own heritage. Returning to yoga brought me back to a part of myself that had long been neglected.
Over the years I have grown to love and respect my teachers and friends who practice yoga, many of whom are non-Indian and many of whom are. I’m happy that people find healing and spiritual freedom in something from my cultural roots. But I still find myself resentful that I was made to feel shame for my culture, including my yoga practice, and now it is frequently seen as glamorous, trendy, and often has been divorced from its true meaning.
Unfortunately, cultural appropriation has done much to obscure yoga’s true origins.
Though it often seems like a recent trend in the United States, yoga was actually introduced to this country in the 1920s when Paramahansa Yogananda brought the practice stateside as a path to self-realization for any and all. Sadly, due to cultural appropriation, especially in the last decade, the Western culture of “yoga” often feels exclusionary to me, and I’m sure to many longstanding practitioners of all races.
Yoga, a practice based in large part on self-awareness, self-love, and freedom from material trappings, is now mostly depicted with stylish athletic apparel and spun toward white populations as a spiritually and physically elite activity. I’m not saying that yoga is only for Indians, isn’t for white women, or that it should never be a workout. Yoga is for everyone, no matter what you look like. But yoga is also far more than a trendy physical practice. Yet much of the marketing around yoga unfairly favors and glamorizes these components to the point that the entire practice is often misunderstood.
Cultural appropriation is when borrowing and sharing between cultures becomes exploitation. It’s cherry-picking what looks cool in a cultural practice without learning and acknowledging its complex history. Cultural appropriation in yoga happens on many levels, from the messaging we receive from many major brands and media to the Sanskrit mantras printed on T-shirts.
Many forms of yoga cultural appropriation are subtle; they involve knowingly glamorizing a cultural practice but rationalizing it as harmless and fun. A friend of mine recently told me about an experience she had at a yoga studio where the teacher threw glitter on students at the end of class to resemble akshatha, the religious blessing of colored rice in Hinduism. While yoga and Hinduism may share some elements, they are not one and the same. This might seem benign, but it would be like offering chips and grape soda as if they were blessed bread and wine, which is sparklingly clear in its irreverence and irrelevance.
There are many who claim that cultural appropriation is meaningless whining from nonwhite people. What these claims refuse to recognize is that many nonwhite cultures are still fractured or repairing themselves, facing continued prejudice in the present day. Rejecting cultural appropriation as a problem also rejects that many communities, often nonwhite ones, have been historically oppressed, colonized, and had their cultures ransacked for profit.
Perhaps most damaging is how yoga asana—physical posturing in yoga—has been appropriated in its entirety by the fitness industry and mainstream media.
According to yoga Sutras (classic texts), yoga asana is just one of yoga’s eight limbs. Unfortunately, it has now been glorified to the point that the very definition of yoga has been usurped. The yoga I knew from my Indian upbringing—the spiritual philosophy embedded in everyday experiences—is no longer seen as yoga. Practices in the other limbs of yoga—such as purification of body, mind, and speech, controlling human impulses, the practice of breathing to control the life force within, supporting collective humanity, and mental exercises through meditation—are often cast aside or forgotten in many forms of modern practice.
One reason for this shift is that typically when people walk into a yoga class, they’re expecting a workout. Pumping music while moving in vinyasa or “power” flow is fun, but it’s cardio on a rubber mat rather than the spiritual practice of yoga. Asana in silence can seem boring—even scary and uncomfortable. But that’s where space for self-awareness and transformation lives.
Filling the nakedness of silence with loud music and intense exercise isn’t wrong if that’s what you like, it just isn’t yoga. I design yoga curricula at Massachusetts General Hospital, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School, and one of the primary considerations of what makes yoga different from regular exercise such as dance, aerobics, and running—all of which are beneficial—is that it is not just physical movement, or even the mental acuity needed to accomplish fitness goals. Yoga is as much about spirituality as it is about shaping your mind and body.
Even in communities that value the spiritual aspect of yoga, appropriation is sometimes wrapped in appreciation and unintentional offense.
I understand why cultural appropriation can be confusing, especially when one’s intention is not to offend. In many cases, students and teachers are likely not even aware of how certain words and actions can mar the religious or spiritual significance of yoga.
The average buyer of mala beads may not be aware of the spiritual meaning behind the numbers of the beads—18, 27, 54, 108—designed to develop rhythmic contemplation around the number nine. This connection makes the beads more similar to a rosary rather than a visible piece of jewelry.
Another common example is when I see a statue of Hindu deities, such as Ganesha or Lakshmi, on clearance at a boutique, at the front of a yoga room, or printed on a yoga tank top. I am both warmed to see India so vividly accepted and also uncomfortable. In my family and as widespread practice for millions across India, these deities are sacred. You remove shoes in their presence as a form of respect. They are usually kept in temples or altars. You don’t pick them out of a sale bin or wear them on your body as you sweat, and you definitely don’t direct your feet at them in Corpse pose. I’m sure that teachers of any race who have diligently studied in various ashrams (monasteries) of India or with Indian gurus would agree.
If someone has these deities in a studio or store, I would hope that they understand their spiritual significance. For Hindus, these deities are not just cultural symbols or myths. They are God.
To avoid appropriating yoga, the best thing teachers and practitioners can do is learn the history of their practice and ask questions to make informed, inoffensive decisions.
Addressing the problem of appropriation requires the kind of study that, like yoga practice itself, is ongoing. If your teacher guides you in a Sanskrit mantra, inquire about its meaning, pronunciation, and history. When you choose yoga apparel, consider what the deity or printed symbols represent. If you devote hours toward perfecting an inversion in your physical practice, try spending a fraction of that time exploring a yogic text.
I try to do my part by voicing my perspective with friends, students, and in my writing. Some say that the “yoga trend” may ultimately dissolve, just like any other fad. If it does, I’m confident that the timeless spiritual principles beneath yoga’s surface will remain for all who choose to seek them.
Rina Deshpande is an RYT-500-certified yoga teacher, researcher, and writer based in New York City. She began her yoga practice in 2004 and earned her Master’s degree from Harvard’s Mind, Brain, and Education program. She continues designing yoga and mindfulness research and instructional curriculum for Massachusetts General Hospital, the Marines, preK-12 schools, and more. Read Rina’s mindful, whimsical illustrated poetry @RinaThePoet on Facebook and Instagram, and check out her website, Rinadeshpande.com.