Year : 2019 | Volume
: 51 | Issue : 1 | Page : 34--37
Is yoga cultural appropriation?
Department of Counseling, Gallaudet University, Washington, DC, USA
Gallaudet University, Washington, DC,
Introduction: Yoga was originally founded in South Asia and it was practiced by various South Asian individuals. It is a spiritual practice about the mind and body, as well as the meaning of life and the nature of the universe. The intended belief was yoga assist with self-development believed to reduce stress, increase beauty, strength, and muscle flexibility.
Aim and Objective: The main objective of this article is to highlight how yoga has transformed into controversial, elite, counter cultural and pop culture varieties with undertones of cultural appropriation.
Argument: The case of yoga and its appropriation by the Western culture creates a paradoxical situation. In this situation, approval and adoption of yoga in the West has made the practice more trendy and popular among middle-class urban Indian consumers and helped re-brand the practice. Such re-marketing has allowed to make yoga more appealing to the modern consumer and more concerned with the aspects related to physical performance, health and scientific explanation.
Conclusion: Although the notion of cultural appropriation can be discussed in the negative light, the article explores how yoga has transformed from a sacred practice to cultural appropriation by Western culture.
|How to cite this article:|
Thompson-Ochoa D. Is yoga cultural appropriation?.Yoga Mimamsa 2019;51:34-37
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Thompson-Ochoa D. Is yoga cultural appropriation?. Yoga Mimamsa [serial online] 2019 [cited 2023 Jun 5 ];51:34-37
Available from: https://www.ym-kdham.in/text.asp?2019/51/1/34/260363
Yoga was first introduced by Vedic priests in northern part of India approximately 5000 years ago. The practice became more popular in India during the colonial period because Indian yogis wanted to show colonizers that their spiritual connections were healthy and scientific. Yoga gradually found its way into Western mainstream culture, and is currently popular among different segments of Western populations (Askegaard & Eckhardt, 2012, 45). While some practice yoga for spiritual reasons, others focus on its physical aspects and the contributions yoga has made to human well-being. According to some researchers, yoga's popularity and its place in modern culture raises certain concerns regarding whether the phenomenon can be described as a case of cultural appropriation (Young & Brunk, 2012, 56) In addition, emphasis and focus on the physical aspects of yoga within modern culture may compromise its original spirituality and philosophical aspects (Antony, 2014). Accordingly, this report will explore whether non-Indian yoga practices can be viewed as cultural appropriation; an attempt will be made to understand whether contemporary adopters of yoga commit to spirituality and the philosophy of yoga when practicing it in classrooms or at home.
Before any investigation can undertake to determine whether yoga has been culturally appropriated within non-Indian settings, the Hindu practice and philosophy must first be defined. Askegaard & Eckhardt define yoga as “a set of physical and mental practices which originated in India between 200 BC and AD 200 ”(Askegaard & Eckhardt, 2014). Furthermore, yoga was originally created to enhance and help its practitioners achieve spiritual enlightenment. The practice of yoga has developed through the intersection of India's three main religious traditions: Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism. Originally and essentially, yoga was practiced to train the practitioner's mind to better experience the complex world surrounding them. The practice of yoga is deeply intertwined with religious spirituality and remains dynamic regarding its manifestation among individual schools and according to different modes of practice. These different modes of practice have resulted in tremendous covariation in how classical yoga is practiced and taught in India (Askegaard & Eckhardt, 2014, 47).
The practice of yoga spread quickly throughout the West in the last century. A specific moment that resulted in yoga becoming significantly more popular among non-Indian communities was Vivekananda's yoga demonstration that took place during the 1893 Chicago World Fair. The demonstration had a significant impact on the subsequent perception and marketing of yoga; once a spiritual form of religious practice which was predominantly male, became a new marketing tend on health intervention among both men and women (Merry, 1998).
According to Merry, within the context of modern Western culture, yoga practices are generally of a specific type – asana yoga (Merry, 1998). Furthermore, asana yoga has been further simplified and modified to become a highly physical practice. Few practitioners acknowledge the origin and essence of yoga and pay attention to different aspects of the practice, such as breathing. Within the context of the West, yoga is perceived as a means of combining physical exercise with one's spirituality, strengthening health, and coping with stress.
Cultural Appropriation, Hinduism, and the Harms of Cultural Appropriation
The global “consumption space ”is being transformed as a large number of international economic, cultural, and technological flows connect consumers and businesses from all over the world. Such flows facilitate cultural exchange and connect consumers from distant cultures. According to Merry, such a transformation also concerns how yoga is perceived and practiced outside of its original context (Merry, 1998). The increasing popularity of yoga practice in the Western world has arisen a question of whether such practice has indeed been culturally appropriated (Askegaard & Eckhardt, 2014).
According to Tupper, cultural appropriation can be defined as “…the taking – from a culture that is not one's own – of intellectual property, cultural expressions or artifacts, history, and ways of knowledge ”(Tupper, 2009). The issue with cultural appropriation is that nonnative peoples may not possess the ethical or moral right to appropriate elements of a culture developed and practiced by a specific ethnicity or group of individuals. Moreover, the appropriation of such cultural elements cannot be protected by laws or regulations, leaving indigenous cultures unprotected against cultural appropriation and domination.
However, cultural appropriation is not limited to simple borrowing of a practice. Instead, cultural appropriation commonly involves taking (borrowing) certain elements of a culture before modifying them according to the demands and expectations of a specific consumer segment. This process is precisely what is happening regarding non-Indian yoga practice. Askegaard & Eckhardt highlight the connection between yoga and globalization, arguing that it is not merely geographical dissemination that has resulted in the transformation of yoga as a practice (Askegaard & Eckhardt, 2014). Instead, this transformation has been influenced by other cultural trends within the Western world, an example of which is the so-called trend of healthism. Healthism is concerned with different practices and lifestyle changes that allow consumers to strengthen both their physical and psychological health. In addition, the cult of body performance and image is another Western trend impacting the way yoga is presented and marketed (Orzech, 2006).
Therefore, yoga is currently branded as a set of techniques that can help individuals increase and optimize their health and physical performance. Interestingly, Askegaard & Eckhardt propound the argument that such remarketing makes yoga appealing, not only to Westerners, but also to Indians. The modern-day yoga is associated with de-mystifying old paradigms and views and instead offers pragmatic and science-based solutions for various health-related problems. Even in the modern-day India, many local yogis present their teachings to their contemporaries as a scientific method after having been heavily influenced by the Western world.
Researchers debate as to whether the practice of yoga within a non-Indian modern setting can be considered an example of cultural appropriation or appreciation. One of the arguments against yoga being considered an example of cultural appropriation cites the tremendous variation among classical yoga practices as taught by different schools in India (Jain, 2014). Such variability emerges from an absence of any central (religious) authority that could establish specific guidance for practicing yoga. Consequently, yoga practices have been actively evolving in India down the centuries. Such variation and evolution of yoga serves as a basis for the argument that the practice of yoga as it exists in contemporary Western countries simply continues the yoga's tradition of development and change in different contexts; therefore, such a transformation cannot be considered cultural appropriation (Fish, 2014).
Another argument against the view that yoga has been culturally appropriated concerns cultural appropriation itself. According to such arguments, researchers discuss modern attitudes toward cultural appropriation as a crusade against the very meaning of culture itself. In line with such argument, it is only necessary to address the problem of appropriation only in relation to those elements of a culture that are deemed highly important or else have some deeper spiritual meaning (Fish, 2014). Accordingly, it can be argued that, because yoga cannot be regarded as a religion, its appropriation cannot truly offend Indian people. The argument against such a position is that, although yoga is indeed not a religion, it is still deeply rooted in the spirituality of Indian people, and therefore should be regarded as an important element of their culture and religious heritage.
Some researchers believe that contemporary non-Indian yoga practices are a clear case of cultural appropriation and the one that raises several ethical concerns. First, contemporary yoga is often practiced in a way that is completely removed from yoga's original spiritual context; in the West, the practice of yoga mainly focuses on fitness and health as key motivators. Second, the modern-day approach to yoga appears to use scientific explanations as to how yoga practices work and how they contribute to a healthy well-being and lifestyle. It is important to remember, however, that yoga was neither created nor intended as a rigid scientific approach but rather as a philosophical stance that allowed practitioners to focus not only on physical aspects of the practice, but also engage in psychological and mental training.
According to Jain, a transformation in the meaning and philosophy can be observed in relation to yoga practices (Jain, 2014). As yoga is still evolving and changing, not only in the West but also in India, it is becoming increasingly influenced by Western paradigms such as body image, physical performance, and science. In this case, the phenomenon of cultural appropriation not only leads to yoga practices being adopted and used in new settings, but also the transformation of the very essence of its teaching and its reintroduction to native consumers. Consequently, the debate regarding yoga's cultural appropriation is made increasingly complex, and it appears that many native adopters of yoga have appeared to accept and embrace changes to yoga practice that originated and occurred in the West.
A further important dimension concerning the transformation of the practice of yoga and its cultural appropriation must also be considered. Over the past few decades, yoga has been a declining practice in India, with many Indians considering it old fashioned or archaic. Young Indians, in particular, started rejecting the practice after it became increasingly difficult for them to reconnect with its philosophical and spiritual aspects. Described as “grandmother's teaching, ”yoga was, until the end of the 20th century, rapidly losing popularity in India. Toward the end of the 20th century, however, an opposite trend emerged whereby India's urban middle class, and young- and middle-aged people especially, suddenly started to embrace the teaching and practice of yoga. This re-invention of yoga is attributed to the practice's growing popularity in the West and the associated focus on health- and performance-related aspects of its teaching, as opposed to its purely spiritual or philosophical aspects. Young Indians adapting to the Western worldview believe the practice of yoga is not cultural appropriation and therefore, have given it a “stamp of approval ”and thereby allowed it to “become a trendy activity for the nouveau riche in Asia to take part in. ”Such cultural appropriation has increased yoga's appeal in India and has also transformed the practice so that it is more modern and suitable for urban contexts.
The next question that must be considered is how to approach the issue of yoga's cultural appropriation within the context of Western countries (York, 2001). One possible approach to combating the charge of cultural appropriation would be for practitioners to spend more time acknowledging the origin of yoga and emphasizing its important spiritual components. In addition, the introduction or integration of other yoga practices outside of those of asana yoga, such as pranayama and viniyoga, would help realize the original diversity of yoga as a practice within a Western context. However, the question remains as to whether modern consumers will be willing to change their perception of yoga and become interested in the unique historical meaning and deep philosophical and spiritual essence of yoga (Askegaard & Eckhardt, 2012).
According to a number of researchers, the practice of yoga, as it exists today, has become detached from both its philosophical and religious origins. Most individuals who practice yoga focus on or attach themselves to some form of abstract spiritualism. More specifically, physical practice is expected to help initiate spiritual engagement among yoga students.
According to the arguments and perspectives considered in this report, it can be concluded that, in the case of modern-day non-Indian practice of yoga, this can indeed be viewed as an example of cultural appropriation. Moreover, such contemporary yoga practices have a number of hybrid elements that either originated with traditional yoga teachings or else were derived from modern evolution of the practice. Yoga, as a case of cultural appropriation by Western culture, has nevertheless created a paradoxical situation whereby the approval and adoption of yoga in the West has resulted in the practice becoming trendier and more popular among middle-class urban Indian consumers. This process has helped to rebrand the practice of yoga in India. Such remarketing has made yoga more appealing to the modern consumer while also increasing concern among them regarding those aspects related to physical performance, health, and scientific explanation. Although the notion of cultural appropriation can be discussed in a negative light, it can also be considered as per the case discussed herein, as the adoption of a cultural element by global consumers that has subsequently allowed the appropriated element (yoga) to become more popular and successful, both domestically and globally.
Financial support and sponsorship
Conflicts of interest
There are no conflicts of interest.
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