Yoga myths, excuses and questions: #8 Is Yoga an Example of Cultural Appropriation?

I did not want this post to be called a “myth” or an “excuse.” This is a debatable topic, so I am calling it a “question,” and I am going to offer my opinion. If the idea that yoga is a disrespectful appropriation of Indian culture and that is why you don’t want to practice it, I am going to offer you a counter argument, but if that is how you feel, of course, you need to do what is right for you. You can take my response for what it’s worth. I’m happy to engage in friendly and respectful discourse if you disagree and want to share.

I decided to address this because I posted a link to a recent post on Facebook, and one of my friends commented:

“For me I don’t do it because it ‘goes against’ my faith, but because I’m uncomfortable with the appropriation and cultural piracy of a holy and deeply cultural practice. I don’t judge those who do it, but after teaching for some years I couldn’t reconcile calling myself a ‘yogi’ without being attuned and truly versed and spiritual aspect of it.”

I respect her opinion, but I disagree. Clearly, if someone doesn’t want to practice, I can’t force them to. We all have our reasons for doing or not doing things. My reason for writing these posts is to urge people to try because I believe in the goodness of yoga, but ultimately, you will all make your own decision.

For now, I would like to offer a counterpoint to the idea
that yoga is cultural appropriation.

First of all, Western (American) culture has permeated every international border, yet it is not called “cultural appropriation.” We live in an increasingly global world and cultural practices are shared. When done respectfully, it is a beautiful thing to share our cultures.

Now, clearly, the ancient and, I agree, sacred, practice of yoga is NOT the same as, say Cross Fit being shared around the world, but I also think we need to be careful when we jump to call something “cultural appropriation” when many people of many people and cultures eat the food, listen to the music, dance the dances, etc. of other cultures. Around the world people not only practice yoga but tai chi, capoeira, karate, jujitsu and other similar cultural practices. There are DEFINITELY examples of cultural appropriation, and Americans have been guilt of this plenty of times; I just don’t agree that yoga is one of these examples.

I saw a great story recently on an African-American woman who practices Irish dance. She faced loads of backlash on social media (in addition to loads of praise) when she posted a video of herself, which she handled with a dancer’s grace. Some accused her of cultural appropriation, but she says that she considers it “cultural appreciation.” Riverdance agreed and invited her to dance with them.

She posted, in response to the criticism and cries of appropriation,:

“Quick PSA: Cultural Appropriation is when an element of a specific culture is stolen and renamed without giving any recognition of or credit to its origins. An example of this is Fulani Braids being called ‘Bo Derek Braids,”

I agree. That is my exact issue with Praise Moves, which I discussed in the post about yoga not being a religion. They are taking yoga, deciding they are uncomfortable with the Indian-ness of it and its association with a religion different from theirs and renaming it. They say it is a “Christian Yoga Alternative,” but it is just “yoga” with a new name. Do you know what that is? Cultural appropriation!

Yoga was not stolen from India.
India brought yoga to the West.

In 1893, one of the most important figures in modern yoga history, Swami Vivekanada, who had been born wealthy, but became a monk necessitating a vow of poverty, came to speak, upon being invited, in 1893 at a gathering of representatives of many world religions in Chicago. He shared the teachings of Hinduism and was very well received, apparently. He traveled all over Europe and the U.S. speaking, and he began teaching and training others in New York to teach yoga and Vendanta.

In the 1920s-50s, more than one Indian teacher came to the West and set-up shop to teach yoga and Indian spirituality in different forms. Krishnamacharya is sometimes called the “father of modern yoga.” He taught B.K.S. Iyengar and Indra Devi, who was British born. At her teacher’s urging, Indra studied and became a teacher herself. She brought yoga to California in the 1950s, where Hollywood sunk its teeth into it.

Richard Hittleman, and American, came back from India and had the first yoga show on American TV in 1961. He introduced yoga as a physical form of exercise. However according to Yoga Journal, he:

Presented a non religious yoga for the American mainstream, with an emphasis on its physical benefits. He hoped students would then be motivated to learn yoga philosophy and meditation.

By the time the Beatles went to the ashram in Rishikesh in 1968, the free love, peace and harmony, flower-power spirit of the 1960s was flourishing in the U.S., and the spirit of yoga fit right in. Swami Satchidananda spoke at Woodstock in 1969 (photo above) and introduced Indian philosophy and yoga to an estimated 500,000 eager hippies.

Yoga continued to grow in popularity because of a receptive audience to Indian teachers who specifically taught yoga with the very goal of spreading the practice in the West. One could argue that far from cultural appropriation, what was happening was more of like missionary work on behalf of India. The Hare Krishnas were known for aggressively and successfully recruiting many American converts during the 1960s and 1970s. (Note: The Hare Krishnas are a religious group.)

I’m talking about “yoga” in the broadest of terms because each of these teachers came from different backgrounds, but it is important to note, that what was being taught was not Hinduism, which is a religion, but rather the ancient yogic arts, and this included chanting, meditating, singing, asanas as well as the life style practices of peace, kindness and love encompassed in the yanas.

The rest, as they say, is history. Now, yoga is everywhere, and I will agree, often times, the spirit and essence of yoga and its purpose is lost, but if you have ever eaten a pizza outside of Italy or the U.S., you will agree that things do get lost in translation even when someone does mean well.

I agree wholeheartedly with Hittleman.

I say, for the average secular or other-religion American,
start with the postures, and it may lead you to something deeper.

Maybe it won’t, but I think that is okay. India thought the West could benefit from some love, self-care, a different perspective, a different way of approaching health, and a meditative practice. I think that impulse was right, and the fact that the original gurus encouraged Westerners to learn yoga and to adapt it as needed to teach to other Westerners tells me that they do not consider what has transpired, “cultural appropriation.” They were the driving force behind it, and the best teachers and studios today still honor the sanctity of the practice, even though not everyone is a guru, master yogi or even the student of one.

I do not particularly agree with the mass commercialization of exercise that involves yoga-like moves and calling it “yoga,” but I maintain, and Indian yogis, teachers, and practitioners that I have talked to (that is not to say all) are not especially bothered by this. Many of them make their living teaching yoga, training teachers, selling products. Aside from the monks who have taken vows of poverty, most of us need to earn a living, and the yogis I know feel strongly that when we teach yoga, we are bringing far more than physical fitness, and it is not just about the money for us. How is being a yoga teacher and earning a living somehow not consistent with yoga? If the teacher is honoring the tradition and the practice, is it not a good thing that the practice is being shared widely? Should yoga teachers all be required to live like monks and take vows of poverty? Should yoga be taught for free, while people pay for karate and Cross Fit?

I will admit, there is a huge amount of corporate gain that has come that is absolutely NOT in the spirit of yoga, and that is definitely a form of cultural appropriation because the spirit of yoga is being lost in favor of financial gain. But….one of the most infamous examples of this was by an Indian Bikram was among those that came from India to teach yoga to Americans, and he opened a studio in 1971. Long story short, he created a series of 26 postures done in a hot room and tried to claim it as unique. When a student opened a competing studio, Bikram sued and lost. The U.S. Patent Office declared that yoga asanas were not patentable, and notably the Indian government agreed and “Initiated the documentation of 1,500 yoga asana or postures – from the ancient Yoga Sutras of Patanjali to present times – and is storing them in the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library to be made available to patent offices worldwide. As of 2005, one-third of the estimated 30 million database pages have been compiled by the Indian Commerce Ministry. (Note: Bikram was also accused of rape, sexual assault, harassment and more by many of his former students, so he was not exactly the embodiment “yoga.” I am not posting links, but a Google search will yield much.)

Both the U.S. and the Indian governments agreed that yoga could not be owned. So while people do make money making and selling yoga mats and other equipment, teaching, training teachers and more, no one can claim a patent on an aspect of yoga, which has been in existence for thousands of years; a new twist on an old practice is not patentable.

As a practitioner who endeavors to preserve the spirit of yoga, I try to make sure my yoga practice is a part of my life on and off the mat. For starters, my mat is made of sustainable cork, so as to not cause harm to the environment. I am a vegetarian, which started during my yoga journey; I am working towards full veganism, but while I still eat eggs and dairy (organic pasture-raised), I used vegan beauty products, eschew leather and don’t even have a pet. I have found my overall social consciousness has increased and become more focused the more I read and study, particularly when I read Buddhist and Dharmic teachings. As a teacher, I am happy right now to teach for free because I can, but I taught for a living for years. I taught in more than one setting that was either non-profit or community-based, so my rate in those places was often less than other corporate settings, which created a balance for me that was viable.

When I lead a class, I may offer readings from other teachers, inspirational quotes and passages from books that I am reading, but I personally do not chant or offer anything that even borders on religious. I don’t teach meditation because it is not something I am equipped to teach; I may lead a short guided meditation to finish an asana practice, but that is it. I have often closed classes with a single, communal, optional om and I usually end by saying, “I wish you peace. Om shanti om.(Shanti means peace.) I say that with respect to the practice, my teachers, my students, the language and the meaning of the words.

When I moved to Guyana, I had only just begun my yoga journey, and I was excited to be moving to a country with a large population of ethnic Indians and to be able to continue my practice. (Guyana is almost 50% Afro-Guyanese descended primarily from slaves and almost 50% Indo-Guyanese descended from indentured servants. There is a small Amerindian population and even smaller white population.) It turned out, that most Indo-Guyanese did not practice yoga. The local private Hindu school taught it to the students, but I believe it was boys only . There was an Indian Cultural Center attached to the embassy and they taught yoga, Indian dance, harmonium and more for almost free to the public, but that was it. I lived next door to a gym, but they had neither yoga nor Pilates on offer. I studied on-line and got my 200-hour certification (I later got my 300-hour in India) and began teaching a yoga/Pilates fusion to an eager community, starting at the gym next door. I taught private lessons to women in their homes, group classes in various locations and even in a local corporate enterprise as an employee benefit. I was HONORED a year later to be invited by the local Indian cultural group to present, along with others, on International Yoga Day. I had become known as the “slim, white yoga teacher.” The Indian Ambassador to Guyana approached me one day in a café to introduce himself. I applied for my tourist visa to go to India from there, and the Ambassador wanted to meet with me personally while I was in the office. He gifted me some yoga books and, the consular officer was happy to issue my visa to go study yoga. In a small city, I had made a name for myself in the local community as a yoga teacher. I was a brand new yoga teacher with only basic training and almost nothing beyond the asanas to offer, but I was still treated with respect by the community there, and I never once heard that anyone thought that I was out of bounds. I actually had the teacher at the Indian Cultural Center sign off on the classes I took with him as my required observation hours for the on-line training I was doing. This was the support that I got!

At the end of the day, we all must decide what we are comfortable with. I know that some people may be more sensitive to cultural appropriation if they have seen their own culture stolen, distorted, commercialized and appropriated at the detriment of their people. I am empathetic to that. I am also open to have a conversation about this because there may be people who disagree with me on this issue, and I think conversations about cultural appropriation are important, especially since I am a white, American woman who teaches yoga. (Most yoga teachers in India are men.)

I hope that I honor the tradition and the spirit of yoga, I also but recognize that what I teach is different from what is traditional in India. I learned from those teachers in Rishikesh, who understood that what I was taking was the essence of the practice and that it would be adjusted to be accessible to a Western audience.

I hope that they would be proud of me and find my teaching honors all that I learned from them.
I teach with a deep love and respect for the practice and for the culture, the country and the people who gave us such a beautiful and eternal gift.

  1. Yoga Myths (and excuses) #1 & 2#: “I’m not flexible enough to do yoga” and “I am not good at yoga”
  2. Yoga Myths (and excuses) #3: “I don’t like yoga”
  3. Yoga Myths (and excuses): #6 I am Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Atheist, Agnostic, etc., so I Can’t Practice Yoga
  4. Yoga Myths: #7 Yoga is Just Another Type of Exercise
  5. Yoga myths, excuses and questions: #8 Is Yoga an Example of Cultural Appropriation?
  6. Yoga Myths and Excuses: #9 Yoga and Pilates are for Women (and I’m a Man)

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6 thoughts on “Yoga myths, excuses and questions: #8 Is Yoga an Example of Cultural Appropriation?

Add yours

  1. Good post. The whole idea of ‘cultural appropriation’ is nonsense, as per what you have already said with regard to Western (American) culture. As David Byrne, Mr Talking Head, once said to rebut the idea, ‘tell Africans not to play electric guitars’. He of course has made a career out of borrowing from other cultures. Incidentally, it is forty years this month since ‘Remain in Light’ was released, one of the greatest examples ever of ‘cultural appropriation’. The world moves on a woman’s hips …

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