Yoga and Cultural Appropriation

Written by Roel Smeets

4:30 AM. While my 5-month-old daughter is still asleep, I go downstairs to do my daily meditation and yoga practice before she wakes up. Since three years or so, I practice Ashtanga Yoga, a dynamic sequence of postures characterized by a synchronization of breath and movement. This style of yoga originates from the Indian southwestern city Mysore, where Sri K. Patthabhi Jois (1915-2009) founded the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in 1948. In Ashtanga Yoga, ‘Mysore’ refers to the way it was originally taught by Patthabi Jois. Whereas most yoga nowadays is taught collectively in led-classes with teachers indicating the pace, Mysore style Ashtanga Yoga is practised individually and taught one-on-one within a group setting.

When I first set foot in a Mysore room early one morning, I was struck by the electricity in the air. People breathing like Darth Vader (called ‘ujjayi
breath’). Sweat dripping from strong, supple bodies. Energetic, flowing
movements. Initially, I was primarily drawn to the physical aspects of the
practice. I felt that there was something poetic about folding your body into a variety of geometrical shapes. As I continued to practice, my interest in
yoga’s cultural roots grew. Obviously, I knew that yoga was more than just a
physical workout, but the exact nature and history of this spiritual tradition
were largely unknown to me. I started reading some of the classical yoga texts, such as the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali (400 CE), and delved into yoga
scholarship. I learned the Sanskrit words of the Ashtanga Yoga chants by heart. Meditation gradually became a more important part of my practice. But as I emerged myself into the history and customs of this tradition, a feeling of unease started to grow upon me.

This is why. Modern yoga as practised in the West is an obvious example of cultural appropriation, in the sense that elements from a minority culture are adopted by the dominant culture and transformed into something differently. The rationale is this:

– Yoga is a spiritual tradition originating from India

– People from India are minorities in Western countries, and
India has a history of colonization by Westerners

– Yoga is practised on a large scale in the West and has
become a billion dollar industry

– In the West, the term ‘yoga’ now denotes something that is
different from its original meaning and uses

To be clear, I am definitely not the first to point this out. Especially in light
of India’s colonial history, it is striking to see that this spiritual tradition is now subject to modern forms of colonization and appropriation. It is thus not strange that India has uttered the wish to reclaim yoga.

Still, practising yoga as a Westerner, or as someone who does not have Indian roots, does not necessarily make you a bad person. As most cultural phenomena, yoga is not a stable, fixed practice, it is in constant flux and has witnessed many transformations over the centuries – arguably, the recent Westernization of yoga is just one of those changes. However, I think that yoga practitioners do have a moral obligation to be aware of the the way yoga has changed as a result of its appropriation by Westerners. To help raise such awareness, I will outline one of yoga’s transformations that took place during its rise in the West.

Most people nowadays associate yoga with physical postures on a mat. This association is, however, something fairly recent. As scholars James Mallinson and Mark Singleton describe in Roots of yoga (2017), most ancient writings on yoga instruct students in a multifaceted system of which physical postures is just one of several ‘limbs’. These range from fourfold to fifteenfold systems. Ashtanga Yoga, for instance, is based on an eightfold system as described in one of the most well known yoga texts, the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali (400 CE). The first two limbs – niyama  and yama
relate to behaviour towards oneself and others, such as discipline (tapas) and non-violence (ahimsa). These limbs bear similarities to the moral codes prescribed in various religious strands, such as the Christian ten commandments. Postures (asana) is the only limb referring to the physical postures that most people associate yoga with today. Interestingly, the Yoga Sūtras do not contain any instructions about how to do a headstand or to how put your leg behind your head, asana simply refers to a ‘steady and
comfortable’ seated position. This seated position is perfect for working on
the other limbs such as breath-control (pranayama), sense withdrawal (pratyahara), focus (dharana), and meditation (dhyana). Finally, the goal of all of this is to reach a state of samadhi, commonly defined as union, absorption, or enlightenment.

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Physical postures are just one element of yoga. Although later yoga texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (1500 CE) describe more complex postures than just the seated position described in the Yoga Sūtras, it is clear that the focus on the physical aspect of yoga only came into being in the twentieth century. In most Western countries, yoga today seems to  exclusively refer to asana, and is commonly considered as just one of many physical workout routines, which is exemplified by the fact that fitness studios and sport centres often provide yoga classes (also at Radboud Sports Centre). The clearest example of modern-day Western yoga’s
prioritization of the physical aspect is the existence of yoga championships, where ‘yoga athletes’ are judged merely on the physical appearance of the postures.

The physical aspect of yoga drew me to the practice in the first place, and this is probably also what attracts other (Western) practitioners to it. I primarily saw it as workout, used it to train my body, and it gradually replaced my long distance runs and fitness sessions. Was I doing yoga, or was I just doing some stretching exercises? Probably the latter. But although I was not fully aware of the importance of the other limbs of yoga, breath-control (pranayama), sense withdrawal (pratyahara), focus  (dharana), and meditation (dhyana) started to become equally important aspects of my daily practice. Do I now have the right to say that I am doing yoga? I am not sure. There is a huge gray area between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Who draws the line, and where should the line be drawn?

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