It is becoming increasingly hard to reconcile the 2,500 year old ‘origins’ of yoga with its modern expressions. Many modern styles arise from what can be understood as the second wave of exportation of yoga from the Indian subcontinent to the ‘West’. The first wave occurred in the 1800’s. This early wave was consumed by a minority sub-culture of extremely experimental artists and thinkers in the West. It in no way lead to a mainstream movement. The way yoga was understood then was in line with the highly spiritual and religious origins of the practice - yoga being a manifold system of living that leads to union with god/the divine and a notion of ‘enlightenment’. This system prescribed a lifestyle of which movement/exercise (what we now recognise as the sum-total of ‘yoga’) was only a minute part. It prescribed ideas most people now would be highly suspicious of, including celibacy and patriarchy.
From the late 1950s there began a second wave of energy in exporting yoga knowledge and practice. This was led by a handful of Indian yoga masters who saw the potential in profit and popularity for yoga in the United States, the leading cultural influencer in the ‘West’. To succeed in there export business, they re-packaged yoga to make it appeal to what they recognised as popular drives and desires of a Judo-Christian logic-driven mind, that is, on the whole, prejudiced and sceptical of ‘other’ ‘eastern’ religions. This endeavour to gain respectability and re-package yoga to Western mindsets is where the critical disjuncture in the meaning in yoga arises from. On a fundamental level, instead of being an ascetic endeavour towards ideals of a union with divinity, it was marketed and consumed as a functional practice to improve mind-body health, and, if done regularly, infuse your lifestyle with vitality and meaning. Note the shift in orientation here: Yoga evolved from being an entire way of life leading one towards spiritual ends, to a singular functional practice that potentially improved an existing lifestyle.
Fast forward to 2018: goat, beer and suspension-core yoga. What? Let’s unpack this a little.
Over the past year or so I’ve done web copy consulting work for an Amsterdam startup, Tripaneer, who own BookYogaRetreats, the worlds’ largest yoga travel online booking platform. When I was first approached by Tripaneer, what they were looking for was a way for their UX and web copy to feel more authentically ‘yogic’ - basically, they needed yogi-speak, and yogi-knowledge to organise their UX effectively. This is because they are not yoga people, they’re tech business people. They picked up from extensive user-testing and interviews that (surprise!) when people were looking to book a yoga experience they were looking for something a bit indescribable, a feeling, a sensation of something beyond the obvious. Their business approach was not meeting that inspirational desire. I have had to wade through endless types of yoga styles, teachers, locations, retreat formats, and indescribable aspirations, to make sense of it all and propose order, a tone and voice, and user landscape that was workable and a tad inspirational.
This experience profoundly indicated to me just how powerful, yet overwhelmingly vague, the global imagination of ‘yoga’ is, and how delicately and tenuously the meaning of yoga as an ancient cultural and spiritual practice (it actually has three lineages of development Hindu/ Jain/ Taoist) hangs in the balance. It’s a colourful, confusing, and dynamic context, and there is plenty of money at stake. Just last year yoga was estimated to be 16 billion US$ industry, in the United States alone. What is clear is that you cannot control the meaning of a concept, or cultural practice. ‘Yoga’ is on a growth trajectory in many directions, for better or worse.
This massive ‘global yoga economy' is a very recent phenomenon. From the 1960s to now does not represent a steady growth curve for yoga. Rather, its a gentle incline, followed from a sheer cliff-face of exponential growth in the past decade. I have come to understand the soft incline as the twilight phase of the pre-professional era, during which a Westerner had to travel to India to learn about yoga from Swamis, masters and sages. Yoga was already packaged for the western mind and courses and retreats were accessible to western travellers, but the knowledge-power centre of yoga was still largely based in India. When you brought this knowledge ‘back home’ and set up classes, it was rarely a profitable endeavour, it was also a lot less ‘impressive’. Different bodies could find their grove. Western yoga teachers in the pre-professional era commonly held their classes in a lounge space or home garage, asking for a small fee/donation from a handful of people in the street and neighbourhood.
In the space of about a decade circumstances have shifted radically. Yoga studios, retreat venues, merchandise shops, and lifestyle centres have been popping up everywhere. If you ran classes as an independent teacher before this, you now have no chance of attracting continuous clients. You have to teach through a studio structure. Classes are pricey and people wear certain expensive clothing, which explicitly and implicitly excludes sections of the community. Teachers demand enough to be full-time professionals, and some have amassed exceptional wealth through affiliated yoga businesses, and the loyalty of huge audiences. This means that the level of teaching, and impressiveness of physique, has upped a notch or seven. There are plenty of talented, ambitious and knowledgeable people in yoga business now: Qualified healthcare professionals, ex-professional athletes, dancers, performers, executives and models.
Let’s not get started on the plethora of merchandise.
Studios in the west are now the primary locale for teacher trainings, and yoga studios also tend to create and promote an new culture of vague pseudo-spiritual, Orientalist ‘yoga chic’ (queue Buddha statues, Chinese script tattoos, dream-catchers, mala beads, and bindis). Concurrently, you can learn about ‘yoga’ in sanitised and mainstream-fitness-minded ways. You no longer have to encounter Hindu, Taoist or Jain culture to encounter yoga. These concepts have began to bifurcate, and you can now be a full-time teacher without ever having been to India, without knowing a single thing about the history of Hinduism, Jainism and Taoism. The seat of cultural and economic power in yoga is expensive, exclusive, white. If you don’t ‘fit in’ - as many folk would not - it may well feel like this new culture is ignorant and offensive.
As the ‘global yoga economy’ booms, conversations around the appropriateness of the contemporary practices of yoga are heating up. It’s getting emotional. There have been a number of commentators, within the community and looking in on the community, who have pointed out that yoga teachers and businesses are perpetrators of cultural appropriation. There’s been mudslinging from both sides, particularly on social media. People are weighing in and I’d like to add some commentary and thoughts I hope are constructive.
HOW CULTURE WORKS
When people take up an idea because they admire it, and they start embracing it as part of their own world, they add some of themselves to it, and another layer of that original idea is crafted. This is the case with any cultural practice, from sushi rolling to dread lock cultivation. It is the case whether that idea or cultural practice travels abroad, and it is the case when that cultural practice is carried out in situ. This is how culture operates. Its mercurial and it transmutes over time in pervasive, complex and malleable ways. It is never really owned or definable in practice, rather, it is always becoming something else. In the global era, when we are moving across boundaries, and drifting and integrating more than ever before, there are countless examples of cultural mash-ups, and hash-ups. We’re all doing it all the time. So some may ask, what’s all the fuss about?
APPROPRIATION AND IMPERIALISM
There are two reasons why this issue is worth deliberation. The first lies in the semantics, the second in history.
The verb to ‘appropriate’ has three meanings as per the Merriam-Webster English dictionary. They are telling, so bare with me. The first is, ‘to take exclusive possession of’; the second is ‘to set apart for or assign to a particular purpose or use’; the third is, ‘to take or make use without authority or right’. Let’s group the first and second definition together. If they applied to yoga culture, one could say that appropriation is learning about yoga through borrowing from a culture, and then using what you’ve borrowed in a way that makes it suddenly exclusive from the people who you borrowed it from. Not only have you borrowed something for ‘exclusion’, you’ve then used this new thing of your own gains - ie. wealth, personal ambition, fame. Yoga teachers and studios are doing this all the time.
I understand this point in relation to plagiarism in academia. When you read about or come to learn of an idea or school of thought, and then you apply it to your own work, you absolutely must credit the origins, and then represent what you’ve borrowed in a truthful way. You must understand it and respect its previous authors. Once you’ve done that, you’re free to apply it to your particular research context - add your own spin to it. But if you just take ideas from other people in academia and don’t faithfully represent their work, and don’t credit them, you’re committing an actual crime. You can be tried in court for plagiarism. Many have.
The third definition - ‘to make use without authority or right’ - may lead one to argue, as I have in this article, that in practice no one owns culture, and therefore you always have a right. So why would it matter? What leads an Indian woman to emotionally lash out on a Californian yogini’s instagram account (likely to be named: hotyogagirl or nakednamaste, or something equally vile) with the comment, “you have no right, white bitch”? This is where history matters. Culture, when studied over history is a study of power, exploitation, shame, indignity and pain. Yoga is implicated in this.
I’m a nerd on this subject, so I will try to limit explanation to usefulness in this context alone, knowing full well that I am not doing it justice. Imperialism was a practice and system of economic and political expansion carried out by European - and latterly, ‘Western’ - nations to seize and control foreign lands and peoples, in order to gain raw materials and/or strategic advantage from the control of the land. Its provenance dates to roughly to the 16th century, and it eventually fizzled out after WWII in the mid-20th century. The after-effects are lasting, as one can only logically imagine given the sheer scope, ferocity and breadth implicated. Imperial expansion was hard fought, usually involving a great deal of bloodshed, particularly that of those being invaded. In practice it was a system of gross injustice and pure, unashamed exploitation. It bled into the abhorrent phenomenon of colonialism, where the Imperial powers sought to establish ‘colonies’ - outposts of their culture, language and people in the annexed land. Colonial communities were placed in the ‘third world’ in order to lord over the indigenous population, tame the nature, secure lasting political might, and amplify economic gain.
At every step of this process was an assumption of superiority and righteousness. At every turn of every bloody corner on an Imperial mission was the assumption of cultural superiority of the ‘motherlands’s priceless, refined culture’ over the ‘barbarous indigenous populace’. Culture and imperialism - as giant of late 20th century intellectual thought, Edward Said, has so brilliantly argued - are inseparable concepts, and in order to understand anything about culture today (which is to say, anything about anything people do today), you have to understand Imperialism. Throughout his distinctive, groundbreaking and articulate work, Said elucidated for our post-colonial world how culture wetted the appetite for Imperialism, how culture justified Imperialism, and how culture maintained Imperialism, both ‘at home’ and ‘abroad’. Read two books in your lifetime that will radically shift how you see the world today, both by Edward Said: Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism. Both should be on yoga teacher training courses’ prescribed reading lists.
YOGA AND (POST)COLONIALISM
What is relevant for our discussion here is that the Indian subcontinent was one of the geographic areas that fell under the sword of British Imperial might. It was colonised, and in this process, the cultures from which yoga develops - Hinduism, Jainism and Taoism - were repressed, shamed, belittled, bastardised and distorted. The people to whom yoga is a vestige of cultural heritage were colonised, meaning, forced into labour, tortured, raped, exploited and dehumanised in ways that immeasurably painful and shocking to even think about now as an outsider, let alone feel in your bones through embodied memory as an Indian living anywhere today. The effects of colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent, as anywhere in the post colonial world, are very much alive. They breathe through the social, political and economic on the everyday level for the previously colonised and their subsequent generations. They still limit and undervalue, they shame and restrict, in less overt ways that before, yet if you listen carefully and observe without rose-tinted glasses, you’ll hear the blast of a British canon in the tinkle of a chai-walla’s trolley, and you’ll see the secretion of ancestors blood in the street corners after a monsoon downpour.
So this means that when a beneficiary of the massive advantage Imperialism accumulated for the western nations now adopts an expression of a culture that was previously colonised, this is loaded with historical value and emotion. It matters. It matters because that same culture that is now borrowing from Hinduism/Jainism/Taoism with free, inaccurate abandon, only to re-use and gain in exclusive ways, is the same cultural milieu that not very long ago considered all things Indian barbaric.
Imagine you’re a woman with brown skin who grew up in the US, encountering racism, prejudice, ignorance and exclusion throughout your youth - encountering views such as, you look different, you smell different, you eat different, your body shape is ‘weird’, you must be oppressed by your men, shame, you must be kept stupid. Then, one day you’re grown up and you go to a yoga class. Yoga is a thing you’re familiar with, your Granny and Grandpa did it, you were taught it on and off at school, before your family immigrated to the US, perhaps you understand how it gels into an ‘outlook’ and identity you share with your kin. Suddenly you encounter white chicks in crop tops, shouting about their abs and repeating poorly enunciated sanskrit words. Some have sacred text tattooed on their cleavage and left but-cheek. The teacher vaguely refers to ‘being zen’. You came for asana and pranayama and you realise that you don’t fit in. You don’t belong. So, where do you belong? First, you didn’t belong because you were brown and Hindu with yoga as part of your heritage, then, bam it’s 2018, and you don’t belong in a yoga class - an borrowed expression of your own culture - because you’re brown and Hindu. Let’s not begin to mention how frikkin’ offensive all that ‘namaste-ing’ is! Of course you’d be mad.
I can also totally empathise with how infuriating and damaging social media shares about yoga are. No wonder this is the space where the most heated discussions are taking place. A post that quotes a sacred text from the Sutras, or the Bhagavad Gita, beneath a video of barely clad woman writhing about on her yoga mat, whilst promoting a new vegan supplement and claiming ‘her performance’ is enhanced by the product, is bound to cause hurt and ostracise people. I can hear the screams - ‘You have no right!’, and, ‘Why are you devaluing my culture?” You have no right - to bring us back to that third definition of appropriation - is therefore speaking to this concept. In actual terms, you always have a right - you can do and say what you like inter alia freedom of expression. But, you have no right to plagiarise in a postcolonial cultural exchange - to borrow meaningful ideas/practices from people who have fought with the blood of their ancestors, with the grain of their identity, for dignity and equality, and then use these ideas/practices in damaging ways for you own ends, without crediting the origins.
You have no right because whist culture plays out in pervasive, changeable ways, the origins of a cultural practice can be grounded in place and time, and can be credited more specifically. You can say, ah, we think people first started doing this or that, around this time, for these reasons. And this grounding in place and time is so meaningful. For a people who have been oppressed by and written out of the grand historical narrative of European expansion, your authentic stake in the past is everything. It makes you who you are. It makes your ancestors matter, even though for centuries they were considered by the oppressor to be something less than human. So if you’re a white person, empathise with this. Don’t mess with it in ignorant and disingenuous ways.
WAY FORWARD: TO YOGA OR NOT TO YOGA?
So how do you now navigate this landscape of possible harm and offence-causing? Is doing yoga as a white person wrong? No. Doing yoga, like doing any borrowed cultural practice is not wrong. What you do on your own is your own business. But, if you’re a yoga teacher, studio, or business owner, I believe that you do have some pressing questions to ask yourself. I’m not claiming I’ve got this waxed. I don’t, but I’m thinking about it, and trying to adapt my teaching, influence and yoga voice accordingly. I think there are four main areas of inquiry and possible change:
1. LISTEN: Yoga practice, when done with care, is at base level a process of self-observation. Apply this lesson to your engagement in conversations over contemporary yoga culture. Open your ears, listen to the people who are feeling hurt, empathise. Give them the space to speak, maybe even use your platform and influence to amplify their voices.
2. HISTORY. Know your history. Without historical understanding of imperialism and colonialism the hurt and anger around cultural appropriation and yoga makes little sense. Also, know about the history of the practice you’re teaching/designing a brand around. No harm in doing this, you’ll only strengthen your own practice and voice.
3. LANGUAGE. Are you being lazy referring to ‘down-dog’, and wearing a t-shirt that says ‘namaste-bitches? Taking the time to learn sanskrit phrasing, and to understand its significance is vital. ‘Namaste-bitches’ on your t-shirt is obscenely offensive. Why? Namaste means “the light and love in me spreads to the light and love in you“, and its part of a pattern of words, habits, actions, and gestures that makes a huge number of people who they are.
4. INTEGRITY. If you’re only doing yoga for a hot body, or profit, this is absolutely FINE! Awesome. But then, ask yourself, who’s interests are you serving by calling this yoga? What is the benefit for others and the culture from which is derives? If you’re only serving your own gains, perhaps calling your practice yoga isn’t necessary. Acknowledge that whatever you are doing is borrowing from a vast knowledge system that is for many people is deeply meaningful and part of their contact with their religion. Ask yourself, when you are representing a cultural practice, whether you have acknowledged this with seriousness and integrity, and then be clear where you deviate.
5. LOCALISED SENSITIVITY. Ask yourself, if an elderly Indian mama were to walk into my studio space tomorrow, would they feel welcome? Who in my community am I excluding though my approach and reproduction of yoga? This question could extend beyond just the Indian community in your neighbourhood. Are you doing all you can to be inclusive in general? If not, is this yoga (back to question 4)?
In the long-run, even if you’re not convinced by my discussion on cultural appropriation, you cannot disagree that it is a good thing to always strive to make your yoga teaching, studio space, and brand as accessible and inclusive as possible. Even the most cursory and debauched yoga teacher training course today will convey the message that yoga is about ‘connection”. So why not try to make it more inclusive?