Yoga is so well-integrated into Western culture that it seems like it’s been here all along. You can find a yoga class just about anywhere — at the gym, in a studio or even online — and as the popularity and commodification of the practice grows, fresh trends and fads emerge including hot yoga, couples yoga, as well as the eyebrow-raising “goat yoga.”
If you’re not familiar with the trend, then the phrase “goat yoga” probably sounds like an odd combination. And it is. The practice involves people paying to practice yoga poses — usually in a barn — while baby goats run around and jump on them. Admittedly, it’s adorable; however, goat yoga is one of the numerous examples of how yoga is being culturally appropriated.
The reason being, as much as some might believe, yoga has not been a part of Western culture forever. If we really want to get technical, it doesn’t belong to the West at all.
Cultural appropriation is a hot-button topic, but it’s important to understand what the phrase truly means. Appropriation (or misappropriation) occurs when one culture adopts the customs of another. This is not simply a cultural “exchange” (which is mutual and equitable) however, but rather, is performed by a dominant group against a marginalized one, effectively detaching the latter from their own culture. Essentially, it’s a form of colonization.
In this case, the hegemonic white population that makes up the “West” (that is, North America and Western Europe) has worked to strip yoga away from the Indian/South Asian culture that birthed it.
Yoga has endured a battle against colonialism for centuries, first occurring during British colonization of India during the 1700s. Colonizers effectively banned the practice in India because of its ties to non-monotheistic religion, which in-and-of-itself is misunderstood, because while yoga is connected to Buddhism and Hinduism, the practice started out as secular, harboring ties connected more with an individual’s spirituality, not the worship of a god. While the religious affiliations of yoga are debated among yogis and Hindus alike, its history precedes most modern religions, as yoga traces its lineage back 5,000 years.
Nevertheless, this ban continued into the 1900s, around the time when Indian monks began bringing yoga overseas. Consequently, yoga was introduced to the West in the 1890s, where it would take hold and be colonized a second time. Capitalism gained a foothold and completely reframed the way people interpret the ancient practice.
Today, the Western concept of yoga evokes the image of thin, able-bodied individuals posing in name-brand yoga pants. Other trends, like goat yoga, drunk yoga and, yes, snake yoga, have shaped and reshaped our perception of what yoga really is.
Despite how fun and harmless those activities and evocations might seem, they detract from the truth behind yoga. Whereas yoga teaches people to free themselves from materialism, some would argue that capitalism has deemed it necessary to buy and sell yoga. Accordingly, an aspiring yogi should pay to take lessons from a corporate institution, and in turn dole out hundreds of dollars to pay for clothes, mats and accessories. Granted, there’s nothing wrong with purchasing equipment, but the colonization of yoga implies that such necessities are a mandatory aspect of practicing yoga, thereby reserving the practice for the elite and wealthy.
As the image of yoga has been repurposed for the Western world’s benefit, so has the concept of its practice. Essentially, it has been repackaged and marketed as a trendy fitness program, a way to lose weight or even a way to increase one’s libido. But, such a definition does not quite capture the whole scope of the practice.
“Yoga is also commonly understood as a therapy or exercise system for health and fitness,” explains Dr. Ishwar V. Basavaraddi, Director of Morarji Desai National Institute of Yoga. “Yoga is about harmonizing oneself with the universe. It is the technology of aligning individual geometry with the cosmic, to achieve the highest level of perception and harmony.”
We think of yoga as simply the performance of “asanas,” or postures, and believe it only applies to our fitness routines. However, yoga is a deeply spiritual, comprehensive practice that is made up of eight attributes, or limbs. The limbs cover everything from ethics and morals to reaching a state of enlightenment. The fact that most people know what “downward dog” is but don’t recognize the term “pranayama” proves that the colonization of yoga has erased these key components.
Should Westerners even practice yoga, then? While yoga is not derived from Western culture, and has been grossly misappropriated because of it, that doesn’t mean Western culture should stop practicing. To completely erase yoga from Western life is not the answer, because yoga is meant for everyone. What we need to look at instead is how we practice, and start listening to South Asian people whose culture has gifted this wonderful thing to the world.
How do we reshape our practice? To start, you should probably stop going to goat yoga class — or drunk yoga, dance yoga or whatever hybrid the industry cooks up next. Learn about the values yoga promotes, starting with its eight limbs. Then, look for an instructor who holds those same values. Usually, these more authentic types of yoga classes are found at private studios rather than the gym, so you might have to dig around a bit to find an authentic class. Better yet, conduct some research into local colleges in search of free classes.
Afterward, as with any type of foreign cultural experience, acknowledge that you are borrowing another culture’s practices and strive to stay learned. Don’t stop asking questions. And above all, be respectful of a practice that is held by many in high regard.
Yoga is proven to be powerful, enlightening and healing, and the practice has done wonders for those who devote themselves to it. Therefore, respectful enthusiasts should encourage anyone to practice it, but to do so correctly, in a way that resists colonization and cultural appropriation.