8 Signs Your Yoga Practice Is Culturally Appropriated – And Why It Matters
Originally published on Everyday Feminism
Author’s Note: While this article emphasizes the South Asian roots of yoga, nisha celebrates and acknowledges the deep roots in Kemetic yoga from East Africa.
What draws you to yoga?
If you’re reading this article, I’m guessing there’s something about it that appeals to you. Is it how it makes your body feel? The chance to do something good for yourself? The way it helps you get centered?
Every year, more and more people are learning about the benefits of a yoga practice, and that can be wonderful.
And, as yoga gets more popular in mainstream culture, more and more people who aren’t connected to the practice’s roots are picking it up.
In the US, for example, the image of yoga is often associated with white, thin, able-bodied, middle class women. If you’re one of these women, yoga is being marketed to you all over the place, and might not have noticed anything wrong with the way it’s being advertised.
There’s not necessarily anything wrong with you doing yoga as a white person. You’re probably just doing it for your own wellness, so it might be strange to think you could be hurting anyone else.
The problem lies not with you doing the practice, but with how yoga is commonly practiced and commercialized in Western contexts like the US.
Cultural appropriation is a process that takes a traditional practice from a marginalized group and turns it into something that benefits the dominant group – ultimately erasing its origins and meaning.
And that’s exactly what’s happening with yoga in Western spaces. Though the practices are based primarily on traditions that go back thousands of years in South Asia and other places around the world, including East Africa’s Kemetic Yoga. But this context and much of the essence of yoga’s meaning has been stripped away.
This has a damaging impact – though I know you don’t mean to cause any harm. So let’s unpack the impact of culturally appropriative yoga, so that you can figure out how to make sure you’re not contributing to harm.
I’ve spoken with nisha ahuja, an accomplished justice educator and facilitator who is known for her work addressing cultural appropriation of traditional healing practices.
This information offers nisha’s wisdom and the knowledge of those who have informed her work, and it’s an invitation for you to deepen your understanding of yoga practices and how they relate to building a more equitable world.
nisha speaks from a South Asian context, with yoga practiced as medicine and a spiritual path in places like India for thousands of years. All over the world, similar healing practices have existed in places that were colonized.
You can find more acknowledgments at the end of the piece, but nisha would particularly like to give thanks to collaborator and contributor Melissa Moore, a Black and Cherokee justice, healing, and Dharma practitioner; friends, community, and colleagues who are Black, Indigenous, Non-Caste Privileged South Asians, cash-poor, disabled, and abundant bodied; and members of Bending Towards Justice and Brown Girls Yoga.
nisha wants to be clear that this isn’t about reclaiming yoga for Hindus as some right wing extremism calls for – that’s counteractive to the work. It’s about understanding the complexities of oppression within the Western context of your yoga practice.
Even within a South Asian context, yoga was used in harmful acts of exclusion through the caste system – so yoga that’s exclusionary has always had a negative impact on the oppressed.
And this is only the beginning of how cultural appropriation can cause harm. If you’re able to notice when this is happening, then you can continue to build your yoga practice in a way that benefits you and helps you avoiding harming other people.
Here are some signs of cultural appropriation to watch out for – and some ideas for how to build a more healing practice.
1. You’re Treating Yoga Like a Solely Physical Activity
Many people think of yoga as a type of exercise, and nothing more.
If physical health is all you get out of your yoga practice, that’s perfectly fine – you deserve to be able to take care of your body. But it is important to know that the physical aspect of yoga isn’t all there is to it.
Yoga is also a spiritual path – and the story of how it got turned into the form of exercise you know today isn’t a pretty one.
With some schools of yoga, the deeper aspects of yoga were removed to be sold to white Westerners as an athletic activity. Throughout the history of colonization, demonizing the spiritual practices of indigenous people and people of color is part of how colonizers justified violence against them.
Those practices have played an essential role in many people’s healing, health, and survival. So it’s important that we don’t redefine yoga as a solely physical practice.
Doing so relies on racist thinking – legitimatizing what white and Western people like about yoga, and invalidating its original meaning.
So if you want to do physical exercises based on yoga practices, it’s possible to do that without contributing to oppressive ideas. Just acknowledge that you’re only doing the physical practices.
By specifying that this is an exercise derived from yoga practices – not the entire practice of yoga itself – you can avoid mischaracterizing what yoga is all about.
2. The Practice Includes Shame and Ridicule
Going hard and pushing yourself in order to get a good workout works for some people, but it’s not for everyone.
And when “pushing yourself” means being shamed for your body or abilities, it can take a toll on your sense of self-worth.
Shame is not part of the practice of yoga. But some studios operate as if getting “hot,” straining to the brink of exhaustion, and feeling humiliated is what yoga is all about.
Unsurprisingly, this misinterpretation of yoga practices also comes from the influence of colonization. Competitive gymnastics, body-building, and showmanship were all part of how some schools of yoga were originally presented to Westerners.
So what does this mean for your practice? Well, if it’s stressing you out, then it’s not what yoga is meant to be.
There should be compassion, not ridicule, and a sense of internal ease, instead of poses that cause your body stress. You can honor the pace that’s best for your body, instead of overexerting yourself.
3. You’re Not Acknowledging Where the Practices Come From
Neglecting to recognize the origins of what you’re using is a classic sign of cultural appropriation.
You may not mean to participate in the system of white supremacy by doing this, but it’s part of how the system operates – by removing any trace of people of color from the positive things we create.
So if you get on board with “yoga” that’s marketed as a hot, New Age trend, you’re supporting a business model based on theft and disrespect for a thousands-year-old history.
Maybe you’re wondering: What does this long history have to do with you practicing yoga today?
Well, humbleness and humility are foundations of a yoga practice. Through interconnectedness, you recognize that you didn’t come up with these practices all on your own. You show respect to the teachers who have come before you, and the people they learned from.
You can approach your own practice with humility, and look out for it in your yoga teachers, too.
If the person leading your session is put up on a pedestal without any acknowledgment of the people or regions that yoga practices come from, they’re contributing to destroying the lineages that many folks are fighting to protect.
You can try talking to them about acknowledging the origins of yoga in the practice – or consider supporting another space that’s more grounded in yoga’s roots.
4. You’re Misusing Sacred Objects
Hopefully, if you and your yoga teachers knew the significance of sacred objects, you wouldn’t intentionally use them in disrespectful ways.
But lots of people include sacred objects in their yoga practice without realizing the significance of what they’re using.
Sometimes, it’s an attempt to give an “authentic” flare to a yoga studio – but misusing a sacred object as nothing more than a piece of décor is a dead giveaway that you don’t have a real grasp of authenticity.
Anyone who uses a cultural item they’re not familiar with should do their research to understand where it comes from, what it means, and how it should be cared for.
For instance, anything used in healing or spiritual practices – like scriptures, crystals, and statues of Buddha – is meant to be treated with respect.
If you use these objects for your own purposes, you’re not respecting them or the cultures they come from. You’re just exotifying and fetishizing other cultures without really understanding them.
For comparison, you probably wouldn’t use pages of a Bible as decoration without understanding anything about Christianity.
So if you spot a sacred item on the ground or being used for toilet decoration in a yoga studio, you might want to have a word with the staff.
They don’t have to know everything about the items they’re using – but they should make an effort to have someone around who has that knowledge or is learning.
5. You’re Not Being Accountable When Speaking Sacred Languages
Many Western yoga spaces treat sacred languages the same way they treat sacred items – without knowledge or respect for what they’re using.
For instance, you might use Sanskrit, or chant without knowing what you’re saying or why.
Sound can be healing, and you don’t necessarily need to learn a whole new language to get something out of chanting. But, just like with the sacred objects, you could have a harmful impact if you use language without understanding its significance.
It can be hurtful for South Asian people to hear their traditional languages being misused, butchered, and even laughed at.
In a South Asian context, Sanskrit is caste exclusionary. There may be people in the room who have been affected by that system of inequality, and your use of the language could be the opposite of healing for them.
When nisha is leading a yoga session and she uses Sanskrit, she lets people know that they’re going to use it and what they’re going to be saying.
Pay attention to how your yoga practice treats sacred texts, languages, and chants.
6. A White Person Who Ignores Oppression Is Leading the Practice
Avoiding cultural appropriation isn’t about getting white people to stop participating in yoga or leading yoga sessions. But when the only option for studying yoga is to learn from a white person who ignores the complexities of oppression, that’s a problem.
And that’s happening in yoga spaces where white teachers don’t acknowledge or address how white supremacy can show up and marginalize people of color.
For instance, there are lots of opportunities for people who fit the mainstream image of the industry – thin, white, middle class women – to get funding, space, and respect as leaders deemed experts.
As a result, it takes a lot of work for a South Asian person trying to access yoga teachings to find an authentic connection with a teacher who’s carrying on the traditions – not just leading a diluted form of them. Black folks who want to learn about the African roots of yoga have a hard time as well.
That doesn’t mean it’s wrong for you to support a white yoga facilitator. But you can recognize how the industry marginalizes those who don’t fit the mainstream image of “modern” Western yoga.
To be more inclusive of people who don’t fit the dominant norm, white leaders need to recognize why marginalized people don’t feel welcome and commit to do something about it.
If your teacher is a white person who fetishizes the practices without acknowledging where they’re from, there’s a good chance that they’re not committed to recognizing their privilege and minimizing their harm in the world.
Some teachers present themselves as experts on South Asianness or yoga – and it’s a problematic trend of white supremacy to center them as the experts, rather than trusting the knowledge of people who are actually part of the culture.
As a consumer of this industry, you can show your support for respectful engagement with yoga practices by seeking out facilitators who are respectful in their practice.
7. You’re Treating Yoga Like a Commodity
A compassionate healing practice like yoga has to go through a lot of changes to fit a system of capitalism and white supremacy.
So you know you’re getting a culturally appropriated version of yoga when it’s all about the money.
Think of yoga accessories and fashion lines that big corporations profit from, or studios aiming to make as much money as possible.
Yoga practices are about sustaining ourselves in ways that have nothing to do with money or material possessions. When it turns into something that’s sellable, it loses its sacred value.