Cultural appropriation, colonialism, and capitalism: Yoga in the 21st Century

“Take a deep breath, and feel your hips sinking into the floor. Now curl your toes under and press each one into the ground, stretching up to the ceiling.” Amy Orchard guides a class through a hip-opening sequence while in the background, a man chanting “Om” hums through the speakers of her phone. This is yoga.

In a nondescript Hindu temple in downtown Tucson, Arizona, Parixit Modi meditates in front of a statue of a sacred Hindu deity. This is yoga.

Tanja Bungardt-Price prescribes some gentle stretches, pranayama breathing practices, and chakra-related color therapy to a client who is experiencing back pain. This, too, is yoga.

In the United States alone, yoga is a nine billion-dollar industry, and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing. There are yoga classes on a paddleboard, in the snow, and even with Usher. And although the West may have invented goga, voga, yogat, doga, snowga, and brewga, we did not invent yoga itself — we borrowed (or depending on who you talk to, stole) it from India.

Yoga originated in what is now Pakistan, in the northwest part of India during the Vedic times. According to Indian scholars, this could have been as far back as 5000 BCE, making yoga one of the world’s oldest spiritual practices, said Susanna Barkataki, a British-Indian yoga teacher and yoga culture advocate. Yoga’s sister science, Ayurveda, is considered to be the oldest science in the world.

Aside from some scholarly debates over when exactly yoga emerged, one thing is abundantly clear — it started in the East, and has always had roots in Eastern spiritual practices.

Yoga Heads West

The yoga practiced in most Western studios today was popularized by a man named Pierre Bernard. Or at least, that’s what he called himself.

The real story goes something like this: at the end of the 19th Century, Perry Arnold Baker was working the circus circuit when he met a Syrian man in Lincoln, Nebraska who claimed to know about yoga. Baker studied under this “guru” for the next two decades, dubbed himself “The Great Om,” and marketed yoga to middle-aged white women in the upper echelons of American society. Aside from establishing some semi-legitimate schools for studying Vedic teachings, Baker’s accolades included multiple arrests for abduction, impersonation, sexual abuse, and illegal practice of medicine.

The legacy of Perry Arnold Baker, however, was a version of yoga that had been severed from its religious roots in Hinduism. Anti-Hindu sentiment was thriving during the early 1900’s, and Baker found it more advantageous (for his pocketbook) to market yoga as a fashionable new form of physical exercise with a touch of Eastern exoticism. Unfortunately, the model stuck, as evidenced by the explosion of yoga studios in the United States today.

Despite its popularity, this form of yoga couldn’t be further from the yoga practiced by Hindus like Parixit Modi.

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Parixit Modi brings his palms together in ‘Namaste’ at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir temple on Sunday, December 2, 2018 in Tucson, Ariz. The word “Namaste” translates to “bowing down to the divine.” (Photo by Hannah Dahl 2018)

“The definition of the word yoga is literally to unite with God,” Modi said. “The purpose is to connect with and offer service to God.”

This purpose has been rather lost on the Westerners, who have been busy creating things like brewga (yes, that’s beer + yoga) — a class yoga’s founders themselves would’ve been unable to participate in (Hinduism teaches abstinence from alcohol).

Deeper than Down Dog

In yoga, there are eight limbs, or categories of practice. Asana, the physical practice, is just one limb; pranayama (breathing), yama (ethics), and dhyana (meditation) are all equally important.

“Most people in the West just do the physical and mental aspects of yoga, and not many people follow all eight limbs,” Modi said. “But in India yoga is both physical, mental, and spiritual.”

“I think we in the West have this tendency, and I myself am guilty of it, to call ourselves yogis,” said Tanja Bungardt-Price, a NAMA board-certified Ayurveda practitioner and yoga teacher. “Are we truly a yogi? I think someone who is truly a yogi is someone who can sit and meditate all day, and not need anything but that.”

An Instagram search for #yogi will call up hundreds of pictures of tan, blonde Caucasian women doing perfectly posed handstands on the beach. But besides a shared love for colorful yoga pants and over-edited sunsets, nearly all these posts have one thing in common — a disconcerting lack of Indians.

“It’s not an accident that there aren’t really any Indian yoga celebrities or yoga teachers in the United States or in England,” Barkataki said. “[We may] really feel that if we are sincere, if we embody the practice then we can take it on and basically be as Indian as anyone else, but that discounts the history and the lived experiences that so many people have gone through.”

Living yoga

Barkataki’s own experiences are what have led her to become such a strong advocate for the respectful practice of yoga today. Barkataki describes herself as a “result of colonization,” born to an Indian father and British mother during a time when racial violence towards Indians was surging in the West.

Her family eventually moved to Los Angeles to escape the hate messages and fire bombings they were experiencing in Britain. Barkataki’s first experiences with yoga were with her father, as a way of finding relief from anxiety and sleeplessness during her childhood years.

“I can’t even remember a time when I wasn’t doing yoga, it was how we lived,” Barkataki said. “Yoga was meditation, yoga was what kinds of herbs and plants we were eating to stay healthy when everyone around us was sick, treating others with kindness, it was all these little daily life practices.”

This form of yoga fits more in line with the tenet of Hinduism called “karma yoga.” As Modi explains it, “Anything you are doing in your life that draws you closer to God is yoga. If I am walking down the street and my purpose is to connect with God, that is yoga.”

Religion & respect

The connection between yoga and Hinduism has recently become a hotly debated topic; some claim that only Hindus should be able to practice yoga, while others argue that yoga is an ancient practice that has been utilized by many different religions.

“I was raised with yoga as a spiritual practice for bettering oneself and the world around us as a type of service,” Barkataki said. “[But] I was also raised with an awareness that the practices that we do, sun salutations and different mantras or mudras, are religious for some.”

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Parixit Modi stands in front of Hindu deity Swaminarayan and his disciple Akshar in the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Temple on December 2, 2018 in Tucson, Ariz. Hindus believe that God manifests Himself on earth through saints like Akshar. (Photo by Hannah Dahl 2018)

Some of Barkataki’s own relatives used yoga as part of their religious practice, so she knew firsthand how important it was to treat the tools and techniques of yoga with sacredness and respect. However, most Westerners don’t seem to fully grasp the significance yoga holds for many religious people.

“I think the main way that yoga has been misused is when it is connected to just a physical fitness practice,” Barkataki said. “The way we see yoga practiced right now is mainly focused on asana, which is physical practice, and we have this image-based culture.”

Barkataki explains that for early yogis, yoga was a means of renouncing material obsessions and finding freedom from the cares and sufferings of the world.

“To do yoga to get better abs or to take a super cute Instagram selfie completely flips the reason and meaning behind why we would want to do yoga, it reduces the meaning of yoga to almost absurdity,” Barkataki said. “That would be the main concern that I have with what we’re doing with yoga today.”

Appropriation vs. appreciation

The Western world is no stranger to cultural appropriation, but in the last few decades it’s begun to experience backlash from the countries it’s exploited. The Hindu American Foundation campaigned to “take back” yoga in 2010 — a cause that, while not unfounded, would be completely impossible at this point, given yoga’s global infiltration into everything from raves to tennis.

Yoga has gone from a spiritual ritual to a billion-dollar business, one that benefits the West more than it ever did the East. And while anyone can experience the physical health benefits that come from practicing yoga, the access and availability of these benefits are surely stacked in favor of the West. So where do we draw the line between cultural appropriation and a well-meaning, albeit lucrative, appreciation for this borrowed cultural artifact?

“Cultural appropriation is when someone in a position of power takes an aspect of someone’s identity from them,” said Janelle Lamoreaux, an assistant professor in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona. “Often this occurs when one group is taking advantage of another’s inequality.”

“When we are profiting off anything connected to yoga, which is the intellectual and spiritual riches of Indian culture, if we’re not in some way giving back to India or Indians, then to some extent we’re appropriating,” Burkataki said.

Burkataki goes on to give several examples of this. For instance, profiting off mala beads made in India without paying a fair wage to the workers, or marketing clothes with sacred Hindu deities on them could be considered appropriation.

Appropriation-free asanas

Practicing yoga without appropriation is possible, but it’s going to take some effort. While emphasizing the fact that she doesn’t speak for all Indians, Barkataki offers some practical advice for anyone looking to cultivate a yoga practice free from harm or disrespect.

First, honor and explore the lineage of yoga by studying other aspects beyond just the asanas, Barkataki said.

Getting the name right is a good place to start. The correct term is “yog”, not “yoga”, according to Modi. The word “yoga” does not exist in Sanskrit — the added long “a” sound at the end of the word ‘yog’ is a completely Western invention.

Second, look for ways to minimize harm.

“For example, looking around at one’s yoga community and noticing are there Indians here, and why not? Are they anywhere in the community, and what could I do to bring them in?” Barkataki said.

The yoga community is already starting to catch on. Instagram-famous yoga instructor Rachel Brathen (@yogagirl) recently hosted Barkataki on her podcast to discuss cultural appropriation. Brathen committed to changing some less-than-respectful aspects of her yoga, such as the way she used sacred religious objects in her personal practice.

For Modi, the West’s use of yoga isn’t such a hot-button issue. Rather, he sees it as a stepping stone on the path to personal enlightenment.

“People in the West are practicing the physical and mental aspects of yoga right now, but eventually they will see the benefits of the spiritual aspect as well,” Modi said. “It’s a step towards connecting with God. It’s not perfect, but it’s a step-by-step process, from the physical to the mental to the spiritual.”

If Westerners are willing to devote the effort and study needed to de-centralize their yoga practice, yoga can be a means of achieving increased physical health, peace of mind, and spiritual fulfillment.

“Yoga is union, it’s complete union,” Barkataki said. “I believe that it is one of the most powerful tools that we have today to help us heal the division and separation that our culture is so apparently full of.”

Amy Orchard closes her yoga class by pressing her palms together at her heart and bowing her head. “Namaste.” The divine in me recognizes the divine in you. Or maybe — the West in me recognizes the East in this practice.

Written by

Freelancer from Arizona, USA. I write about health and wellness, agriculture, science, travel, and lifestyle.

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