Cultural Appropriation and Westernized Yoga: Why I Thought Twice About Becoming a Yoga Instructor
A couple of years ago I decided I wanted to become a certified yoga instructor. I really enjoyed the yoga classes I had attended, and thought I could do a good job leading classes. I felt like I had found an occupation (or side job) that I could see myself truly enjoying.
I still feel this way, but I’ve since decided that I will not become a yoga instructor. Even though my teachers were truly wonderful people, and they did their best to incorporate history and spirituality into their classes, the Westernized version of yoga to which I had been exposed is culturally appropriated. It is a romanticization and an erasure of the experiences of previously colonized people, a system in which yoga is stripped from its religious roots and colonial history, commercialized, and made accessible only to people of privilege. If I, a white woman, became a 'certified instructor,' I feel I would only contribute to this whitening, secularization and commodification of yoga.
I am not arguing that no white people should be yoga instructors, and definitely not that white people shouldn’t practice yoga. But by providing an explanation for my personal decision, I hope to complicate the dominant conceptions of yoga in the Western world, and encourage white readers to think a little harder about how their yoga practices figure into this system of oppressive, post-colonial cultural appropriation.
I am also not trying to claim that I am any sort of authority on the historical and spiritual meanings of yoga—far from it. I have a lot to learn, and reading more primary texts about yoga as a religious practice is one of my goals, especially if yoga continues to be a central part of my life. As a white person initially drawn to the physical and mental benefits of yoga, I hope my voice on this subject will call attention to the limited viewpoint people like me will always have when it comes to this ancient practice. In terms of the promotion of a less appropriated, ‘decolonized’ form of yoga in the Western world, other voices need to be amplified far more than mine. (Check out South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga In America (SAAPYA). Here's their website and an article describing their initiative.)
Yoga in Historical Context
It’s impossible to pin down a clear or single origin for the practice of yoga, but many believe its history stretches back as far as 5,000 years ago. Several texts were central to the establishment and preservation of classical yoga in India. The Rig Veda (written around 2000 BCE) presents the first written account (though practices could have been passed down orally long before this time). The Bhagavad Gita (written sometime between 400 BCE and 200 CE) is a Hindu text that presents different forms of yoga in a trajectory leading up to bhakti-yoga, or devotion to God. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (written around 200 BCE) is considered the foundational text for classical yoga; it introduces the 8 limbs of yoga practice, only one of which is asana (the physical poses that we in the Western world tend to call 'yoga').
Importantly, these texts present yoga as a set of spiritual practices used to liberate oneself through connection with a higher power. The word ‘yoga’ is roughly translated as “union" i.e. of the individual soul with the 'universal soul'. Only the modern Westernized account of yoga separates the practice from religion or spirituality; yoga still figures prominently in Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and Jain religious traditions. (For more on the religious history of yoga, check out this article.)
British colonial rule in India was characterized by a devaluing of Indian culture and practices—including yoga. In the late 18th century, hatha yoga (the most physical kind of yoga practice, centered around the asanas) was banned by the British government; it was then re-appropriated over 100 years later as a fitness regime. As a result, many of the physical postures central to Western yoga today are only about 100 years old, initially the result of an attempt to ‘modernize’ Indian culture and make up for the outright subjugation of cultural practices that was characteristic of colonial occupation. (See 'Colonial Flavoured Yoga' and 'Yoga as the Colonized Subject'.)
In short: yoga has an extremely long and diverse history, primarily as a spiritual practice necessarily intertwined with religious meaning. The fact that yoga survived British colonial occupation is due to the bravery and persistence of people who continued their practice, even as it was systematically subjugated and criminalized.
What is Cultural Appropriation, Exactly?
'Cultural appropriation' can be one of those topics that’s easy to shrug off as evidence of people just being “too sensitive” about their cultural practices. Cultural exchange occurs all the time, of course, and yoga was never meant to be limited to a certain group or place. You could ask: why isn’t the ‘Westernization’ of non-Western cities (clothing styles, McDonald’s, etc.) considered cultural appropriation, but the adoption and transformation of yoga in the West is?
The difference lies in historical context and power relationships—which culture is dominant and which is marginalized. Cultural appropriation occurs when the dominant culture of the oppressor adopts, in a non-contextualized and romanticized way, the cultural practices of the oppressed. It’s how the Western world can pull off such a quick turnaround from devaluing and criminalizing yoga practices to adopting and celebrating a stunted version of them, all the while erasing histories of oppression. It’s how yoga has been so swiftly turned into a vehicle for capitalism and an ideology of self-improvement, and completely detached from religion. It’s the fact that this incredibly new narrative of yoga as a physical, nonreligious practice dominates all others, reflecting the unequal power of different cultures to contribute to the discourse.
There are a lot of people out there arguing passionately that Western yoga is an offensive instance of appropriation, but that the solution is merely for white practitioners to pay more attention to the historical roots and religious aspects of yoga, and make sure not to hang the Om symbol upside-down. I found that even these pieces of advice weren’t enough to ease my qualms about being a white yoga instructor.
Even if I became an expert on the Bhagavad Gita and incorporated all 8 limbs of yoga into my classes, I would still be a thin, white, able-bodied yoga instructor, implicitly promoting my own image as the face of yoga. I would still be necessarily involved in the commercialization of yoga, relying on expensive class prices to make money (thereby excluding people who can’t afford my classes) and probably wearing popular brands of athletic clothing, solidifying the connection between yoga and consumerism. (When I envisioned myself as a yoga instructor, I always looked super cute in expensive sports bras and patterned leggings.) I would be able to find jobs more easily than instructors of color who had been practicing yoga their entire lives as a spiritual practice, not a fitness regime—because I am what the market demands, not them. Through my involvement as a ‘certified expert’, I would contribute to the further silencing of people for whom yoga is a religion and a way of life, not a way to de-stress or work out.
It's a problem that the image of yoga in the Western world is white and skinny, lending support to hegemonic beauty standards. It's a problem to consider yoga a purely physical practice—using the asanas and Sanskrit terminology of classical yoga without acknowledging where it came from or its religious and spiritual meaning. It's also offensive to half-ass spirituality (for example, using deeply religious symbols as decoration for a yoga studio). But the problems go deeper than this, and they don't have an easy fix. The problem is that we use yoga as a coping mechanism for our fast-paced, stressful capitalist society, a society built on the backs of the very colonial subjects who originated this practice. We exoticize and romanticize the same cultures that our ancestors (or those to whom we owe our nationhood) tried to eradicate. Until we acknowledge colonial history, there will be no truly unproblematic way to practice yoga in the mainstream Western tradition.
I plan to explore and discover the practice of yoga on a personal level. But I will not work for an industry which profits off of the cultural and religious practices of historically oppressed minorities, repackaging them to be profitable in capitalist society. Many white yoga instructors are wonderful, giving people who truly love using their extensive knowledge of classical yoga to help people. But no matter how much history I know or how much I live my life in accordance with yogic philosophy, my identity matters. If I became an instructor, I would necessarily be emboldening the institution that marks my white body as a superior vehicle for teaching yoga than the body of a person of color.
If you are a white yoga instructor, I hope I haven't already lost you. Every effort you make to 'decolonize' yoga by giving credit where credit is due, promoting an understanding of yoga as inherently spiritual, teaching as much as you can about its deep, rich history, and being inclusive of students of every race, gender, body type and socioeconomic status is extremely important. DecolonizingYoga.com is a great resource to use as you work on improvement in these areas. I just hope you also understand that your whiteness positively impacts how society will value your yoga practice; that you can never fully untangle your constructed identity from the ugly history of colonialism; and that sometimes your voice is not the one that needs to be heard.