The ongoing debate around yoga and cultural appropriation may not be quite as old as the practice itself, but it still feels ancient. Few questions have reliably generated more ink, and more continuous angst within the controversy-hungry media class, than the question of who is permitted to do yoga and how — even if practitioners themselves tend to be too busy doing sun salutations to pay much attention.
The old arguments were dredged up yet again last week, when the Guardian ran a story under the headline, “‘Cultural appropriation’: discussion builds over Western yoga industry”. The description of this discussion as building is, I guess, technically true, in the same sense that a news item about a certain unfortunate mythological figure might be titled, “Man pushing stone uphill nears summit”. It is a construction project without a conclusion, without even the dream of one. Consider another headline, also from the Guardian, this one from 2010: “Yoga heritage: don’t even think about stealing it, says Indian government.”
Even in this decade-old account of the efforts of the Indian government “to provide irrefutable evidence for anyone hoping to patent a new style of yoga that the Indians got there first”, one gets the sense of a barn door being closed after the horse had escaped. Yoga was already a global phenomenon then, and it has only grown, both in terms of its market share and its place in the cultural discourse. The latest estimates put the number of yoga practitioners at more than 300 million worldwide, with the industry valued at just shy of $90 billion. Before the pandemic, yoga was ubiquitous — not just at dedicated studios but in hotel fitness centres, universities, care homes; during the pandemic, it became famous for being one of the few forms of exercise you could do without leaving your home.
Given its ubiquity, it’s hardly surprising that it’s had its fair share of controversies. The hot yoga guru Bikram Choudhury was best known for his failed attempt to copyright his signature 26-asana sequence in the US, which is cited in that 2010 piece as having catalysed the Indian government’s protective instincts surrounding yoga’s origins. But in 2017, Choudhury became one of the more deserved casualties of the MeToo movement, and fled to India after losing a lawsuit brought by one of his accusers. (Choudhury is now attempting a comeback campaign, which is called “Bikram is back: the unapologetic tour.” Unfortunately for him, this news is buried in his Google search results beneath mentions of a 2019 Netflix documentary titled Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator.)
Considering the global saturation of the practice, the idea that Westerners doing yoga represents a form of cultural theft is surprisingly resilient. After a 2013 essay on the now-defunct XOJane website declared, “LIKE IT OR NOT, WESTERN YOGA IS A TEXTBOOK EXAMPLE OF CULTURAL APPROPRIATION”, a painstakingly-researched rebuttal by Michelle Goldberg should really have put an end to the discussion once and for all. Among Goldberg’s acerbic observations was that yoga had been strategically pushed by India to Western audiences, not least because its popularity acted as a flipped bird of sorts to the contemptuous attitude of colonial Britain toward Indian traditions and religion. The same year Goldberg’s essay was published, 2015, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi successfully campaigned to further globalise yoga with the UN-approved International Yoga Day, which has since been recognised annually with mass yoga demonstrations worldwide. Modi’s campaign wasn’t without its critics, who believed that the celebration was in fact an act of oppression against India’s Muslim population — but, per Goldberg, it at least demonstrated “that the spread of yoga in the West is not just a story about Westerners raiding some pristine subcontinental reservoir of spiritual authenticity”.
And yet, in these final days of 2022, here again is the now-familiar narrative of an awakening to the unwokeness of yoga. The featured complainant, an author named Nadia Gilani, was alarmed to realise that “not only were most yoga teachers and students in the UK white, but the accompanying wellness narrative has divorced yoga from its 5,000-year-old roots”. Beyond that “wellness narrative”, which puts yoga in the same category of commercialised self-care as juice cleanses and jade yoni eggs, Gilani is also especially peeved about t-shirts bearing the ubiquitous Om symbol and tattoos featuring Hindu gods. “It’s cultural appropriation and it’s offensive.”
This is an interesting moment, with interesting rules about which religions and cultures are deserving of reverence. On the one hand, tattooing an image of Ganesh onto your body is offensive cultural appropriation; on the other, a hilariously blasphemous sweater featuring Jesus himself in a baby bjorn is available for $60 and will make you the life of every holiday party. Ironically, the people who believe that Eastern cultures are too precious, too exotic, to be subject to this sort of playful remixing are the same ones who tend to hurl allegations that Western yogis are “fetishising” the practice. There is also the question of who is more guilty of failing to acknowledge the roots of yoga: the yogi so invested in its cultural background that he gets a Ganesh tattoo, or the yogi who couldn’t pick Ganesh out of a lineup.
But it is also strange to describe yoga as divorced from its roots, when every breed — from hot to nude to power to goat — derives from just one ancient practice, which has evolved in its native habitat just as much as it has spawned offshoots on other continents. Even contemporary yoga in India differs hugely from the practice described in ancient texts, which is one of the reasons the Indian government had such a hard time defining it in 2010. But far from being forgotten, what is incredible is how easily those roots have grafted onto other movement styles, other cultures, and other forms of community building. In a world where human ingenuity and imagination has given birth to everything from water ballet to jazzercise to competitive cheerleading to cat dancing, yoga stands out. The accessibility of it, the many paths that lead people to it, its infinite adaptability to any body or lifestyle, have allowed it to become not only one of India’s chief cultural exports but the living embodiment of that saying about letting a thousand flowers bloom.
And while, yes, one of those flowers is the fancy boutique studio where a moneyed clientele with fawn-like bodies practise handstands in $500 spandex jumpsuits, this is at worst a conceptual annoyance. It doesn’t stop anyone else from rolling out a mat, from taking a breath, from exhaling against the limits of a stretch until the body opens. The latest Guardian article features one yoga instructor lamenting the scourge of “$100 Lululemon leggings and an equally expensive mat”, while Gilani describes group classes at a flashy studio as “gatekeeping, in a way” — but is it? More so than demanding religious or cultural fealty in exchange for the privilege of practising? More so than aspiring to make yoga off-limits to people of certain socioeconomic backgrounds, who are wearing certain pants?
This is somewhat personal to me: I’ve been practising yoga regularly for just over 10 years and teaching group classes for five — it seemed in the pre-pandemic times like a reasonably secure alternate source of income should the writing work dry up. My teaching style is focused on movement, anatomy, and choreography; I don’t Om or chant or pray, which is either an egregious failure to acknowledge yoga’s heritage or a noble refusal to appropriate another culture’s spiritual practices, depending on who you ask.
But then, every teacher at the studio where I work approaches the practice differently. There’s the one who leads long, guided meditations that make 15 minutes feel like five hours, seamlessly dipping in and out of consciousness until even the sensation of the floor underneath you completely disappears. There’s the one who brings little gifts to her students, shells or stones or paper butterflies, so that her classes feel a little bit like yoga but also a bit like nursery school. There’s the one who reads aloud from poetry books and punctuates the end of savasana with a Tibetan singing bowl. The thing about yoga is, it leaves room for all of us. There is no one path to the sense of peace and connection that comes from the practice, no one right way — and, crucially, no wrong one.
But it’s difficult to build a marketing campaign on that, and here it is worth noting that Gilani’s appearance in this article is tied to a book release. Of course it is. After all these years, this might be the biggest reason why the debate about yoga and cultural appropriation won’t die: because bringing it up is too valuable a promotional tool to let it go entirely. What is being built in these endless relitigations of the same set of talking points, these arguments over who owns what, is not a discussion, but a brand. Yesterday it was Bikram’s. Today it’s Gilani’s. Tomorrow, it will be someone else’s.
My favourite of the yoga sutras goes like this: By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness. I can’t speak to its spiritual meaning; it just strikes me as good advice, a variation on that Alcoholics Anonymous prayer about knowing the limits of one’s control. Disregard toward the wicked: an acknowledgment of the existence of wickedness, but a refusal to dwell on it, to obsess over it, to let it spoil everything else.
This doesn’t just work as a means of staying sane and centered while the latest outrage cycle churns — but for that, it works very well indeed.