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Yoga and cultural appropriation, where do we stand?

A reflection on International Yoga Day

Yoga and cultural appropriation, where do we stand? A reflection on International Yoga Day

On June 21st, the International Day of Yoga is celebrated, an event established in 2014 by the United Nations to raise global awareness of the numerous benefits of this ancient discipline. Studies demonstrate that yoga helps improve both physical and mental well-being: it reduces systemic inflammation, improves heart rate variability, and enhances sleep quality. Additionally, through breathing techniques and meditation, it also lowers cortisol levels, reducing stress and the risk of related diseases. For this reason, it is beloved and more popular than ever. Many people started practicing yoga during the pandemic, with data from a study by the Osservatorio Reale Mutua indicating that in 2020, one in five Italians practiced yoga, and more than half decided to take up this discipline to cope with the difficult lockdown period. But it’s not just the aspect of studies, lessons, and retreats that attracts interest; the accessories and products related to the yogic lifestyle also garner attention. Clothing, mats, yoga props, food, and drinks contribute to creating a community and, most importantly, generate revenue for the global yoga industry, which is projected to reach $66.23 billion by 2027.

Yoga, the origins

Yoga, which in Sanskrit means "union" or "to unite", but also "to be connected", "to combine several things into one", according to its ancient texts, leads to the union of individual consciousness with universal consciousness, creating perfect harmony between mind and body and between man and nature. It is an ancient discipline, some suggest it may date back between 2,500 and 10,000 years. Originating in the Indus Valley, it was initially passed down orally from master to disciple. The practice has many forms. The most well-known are based on the philosophy of the eight limbs of the sage Patanjali, a sort of code of conduct for making sense of the world and living in harmony with the universe, involving the practice of physical postures (asanas), breathing (pranayama), meditation, healthy eating, and ethical behaviors respectful of all forms of life.

Western Yoga

Between the late 1800s and early 1900s, yoga masters began traveling to the West, attracting attention and followers, especially in the United States, where the divas of the time, like Marilyn, helped shift the focus towards the practical aspects of the discipline rather than the ideal and philosophical ones. Today, most Western yoga teachers limit themselves to asanas. They do not explore or share with practitioners the history, roots, complexity, and philosophy of yoga, thus diluting its true meaning. But yoga is much more than a trendy physical practice. It encompasses more than tight suits, more than cardio on an expensive rubber mat, mere performance, or other elements that make it glamorous. It also includes the practice of breathing, the purification of the body, mind, and speech, meditation, self-awareness, and much more.

A problem of cultural appropriation

In recent years, the conversation about the cultural appropriation of yoga has begun. According to Shreena Gandhi, professor of religious studies at Michigan State University, this superficial approach constitutes a form of cultural colonialism, part of a systemic racism and intimately linked with white supremacy, capitalism, and globalization. Gandhi, in an article titled Yoga and Roots of Cultural Appropriation, co-written with colleague Lillie Wolff, writes that "in today's consumerist era, yoga thrives because many products can be derived from it. The explosion over the last two decades of yoga studios, yoga videos, apps, and yoga pants is proof of this. The result of this reality is that Western yoga is often represented and marketed in mainstream culture by slim, white, upper-middle-class, cisgender, able-bodied women". This opinion is shared by many, including Vikram Jeet Singh, a renowned yoga instructor in Goa, who in an article published in This Week in Asia, highlights how colonization has wiped out his culture, repackaged it, and is selling it in a different form. The yogi harshly criticizes the Western approach to the discipline "which has become synonymous with a workout session devoid of any cultural background, where one must show up with $100 Lululemon leggings and an equally expensive mat".

Is it possible to practice yoga without cultural appropriation?

There is nothing wrong with expecting a workout session in a yoga class if that is what we like, but we must be aware that this is just one of the many components of this ancient discipline. The most correct approach to yoga is to combine athletic practice with knowledge and respect. The first step is to learn the origins of what we do, the meaning of the words we say, especially when learning a Sanskrit mantra. We can turn to our instructor if that seems easier. Instead of spending hours perfecting a pose, we can try dedicating a fraction of that time to exploring a yogic text. Another small consideration is to choose appropriate clothing and accessories: avoid t-shirts with "Namaste", images of Hindu deities turned into tattoos, or Om symbols printed on yoga mats. And remember the words of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi: "Yoga means unity of mind and body; thought and action; self-control and self-realization; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being".