A brief glossary of cultural appropriation in yoga

Judging by my own inquiries, those of my students or colleagues, cultural appropriation is a thorny subject that stirs the yoga community and raises as many questions as it does discomfort or confusion. In order not to sweep the dust under the rug, and without pretending to be exhaustive or to possess any absolute truth (I'm not the etiquette police!), I thought it would be useful to provide some resources here so that everyone can delve into their own lines of thought. This is dedicated to the big family of White Fragility (in which I include myself).

I will use a brief definition of our subject proposed by Paulette magazine in 2016: " Cultural appropriation is the use of one or more elements of a culture other than one's own, outside of its original context, for personal pleasure. Or if you prefer, it's playing on stereotypes of a culture only for the aesthetics of its folklore".

Indeed, it won't have escaped anyone's notice that yoga practice, although it is now global and transnational, has its roots in India. And today in the West, it is primarily taught by white people (i.e., the dominant group). Meanwhile, history reminds us that India was colonized for nearly 90 years (from 1858 to 1947) by the British (i.e., the dominant group). The so-called British Raj government controlled the country, replacing the East India Company, which had dominated the country since 1757. This is to remind us that there are indeed issues of domination, submission, inequality, violence, and resource seizure inherent in the relations between Westerners and colonized peoples (in this case, the Indians).

So no, it was neither you nor I (and probably not our ancestors of the starving third estate in the depths of the French provinces) who were the architects of past colonial wars. Nevertheless, in the context that interests us of practicing yoga, the act of practicing and, a fortiori, teaching a practice, wisdom, discipline or spirituality that has its origins in another culture should give us pause.

So let me say right away that I don't want to fall into extremes. The first extreme is to affirm that yoga is just a sport and therefore there is no problem, end of debate. And on the other hand, that yoga is Hindu and thus should remain within the realm of Hindus (a rhetoric of some nationalists whose religious and political manipulation is perceptible). It's also not about pointing fingers at anyone, let alone holding myself up as a model of virtue (I would be poorly placed to do so), but about opening a space for reflection conducive to this famous union that we are constantly promoting. Questioning ourselves is as painful as it is necessary to move towards a fairer world, and doing so is already the beginning of a commitment.

Having said that, here is a small lexicon that can help us develop our questions about how to experience and transmit yoga with respect. The terms proposed are often Anglo-Saxon (the Americans are ahead of us on these topics) and are drawn from the book Embrace Yoga’s Roots by American author of Indian origin Susanna Barkataki (whose interview you can also find here).

"Glamorization": :

Glamorization involves taking certain symbols, signs, iconographies, artistic elements, clothing out of their context and using them to enhance oneself aesthetically or display one's spirituality or level of wisdom. Why? Often, the use of these symbols strays far from their original context, with the risk of, at best, using them poorly and appearing ridiculous, and at worst, disrespecting the culture from which they are borrowed. For instance, we often see that yoga is used to enhance oneself, creating a self-image that we wish to convey to others through a polished aesthetic. The culture is then erased in favor of the "look". Susanna Barkataki thus gives the well-known example of media like Instagram, magazines, and marketing where a profusion of complex postures performed by models in glossy photos confines yoga to a cool sphere aimed at privileged, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, young, and thin individuals. And, by extension, excludes an audience that does not see themselves represented (underprivileged, racialized, transgender, homosexual, older, overweight, or with disabilities).

This mechanism has its roots in the orientalist literary and artistic movement in 18th century Europe, which depicted (though with a certain admiration) "the Orient" as a vast hodgepodge, thus conflating styles, civilizations, and eras, and perpetuating stereotypes that we still inherit today. Cf. India as a land radiating spirituality, where no one mourns their dead because they believe in rebirth, and where a guru probably awaits you at every crossroad of Benares to deliver you from your materialistic excesses and help you reach Nirvana (hello Eat, Pray, Love …).

By extension, we understand that self-defining on your t-shirt as a "spiritual gangsta" (what's the connection between Gandhi and Pablo Escobar?), presenting yourself as a "guru" (really?), tagging yourself as "boho" (Bohemians don't wear flower crowns at We Love Green), or urging your students to "connect with their totem animal" (are you a Native American shaman?) becomes at best grotesque, at worst offensive.

I like to compare this to the American Instagrammers who pose in front of the Eiffel Tower with a beret in summer, a cheap wine in hand, a vacuum-packed croissant and disgusting pâté, captioning with the utmost seriousness: "So French". This would be level 1 of the benign/grotesque on a scale of 10 that goes up to disrespect. So what about the prayer mala when you don't practice japa meditation or the Sikh turban when you don't practice this religion? Tribute or appropriation? The answers depend once again on the context. Personally, I don't put the dreadlocked white boy from the pub street in Rennes in the same bag as some big brands that use sacred patterns or cool feminist slogans to create profit on the altar of wokeness.

In short. To get back to our subject, all this doesn't mean that we should obliterate Sanskrit, ignore the Aum symbol, erase Hindu deities, or cut ourselves off from the use of mantras. But simply to take the time to build a sincere relationship with these elements without objectifying them. Which brings us to the next term:

The "Signaling virtue ":

Philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch contrasted what he called "virtuous virtue" with "virtue signaling". In this framework, virtuous men were mostly unknown, and virtuoso men were known and recognized. The first, anonymous and invisible, " attaches itself to the secret of intentions", while the second is characterized by " a dazzling success offered as a spectacle for all eyes... noisy and prestigious". With equal labors, the asceticism of the former fades under the spotlight of the latter, elevated to stardom. And to note: " The simple idea that virtue can be triumphant and break all records in a competition has something a bit buffoonish and even inappropriate about it". So, what intermediary can we then draw between heroism and holiness? To bring virtue signaling back to our subject: at what point do we use yoga to publicly signal our virtue, on a spiritual, aesthetic, physical, or social level? Obviously, in light of social networks, we realize that we do it very often. And to what extent is this display of ourselves, at best, guilt-inducing and excluding for others and, at worst, a use of a foreign culture to reinvigorate our ego?

The "Sanitization":

This is the extreme opposite of glamourization. That is to say, instead of appropriating symbols from a culture to enhance oneself, it will be about completely sweeping them under the carpet in order to reformulate a new version of yoga that is detached from its origins and history. For example, thinking that yoga will be more transmissible once it is "cleaned" (whitewashed?) of its original culture. In other words, to make this practice sound less "foreign" so that its Western audience can better identify with it (deliberately banning all use of Sanskrit, for example). Susanna Barkataki gives the example of an American magazine that, without mentioning it, refers to the pranayama Anuloma Viloma (alternate nostril breathing), describing it as "a practice of heart coherence". This, in a normative and modernized perspective, thus made the practice more reassuring because it took references more assimilable for its (Western, white) readers.

This poses several problems. For example, the idea (even unintentionally) that intercultural dialogue is not possible or not desirable. The consideration that a reformulation sounds less "barbaric" (which brings us back to the cliché of the colonized man who is not very civilized). Or that whites know better or have invented everything, in short, that there was no History before them.

Once again, the boundaries are delicate and require contextualization. We will not teach Sanskrit terms or mantras by the shovel to young children or in a secular structure as we would to more familiarized practitioners. There is a difference between showing pedagogy and listening to the community with which one tries to connect and intentionally removing elements of the practice to make it socially more acceptable to a normative audience. Perfectionism, haste, defensive attitude, quantity rather than quality, the cult of writing, there is only one good way to do things, hoarding energy, fear of conflict, individualism, being the only one, progress above all, objectivity.

"We must keep in mind the idea of progress and not perfection, while avoiding causing harm".

Susanna Barkataki

White Supremacy Culture :

In their article titled " White Supremacy Culture, authors Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones group together fifteen characteristics frequently observed in the dominant white organizational culture :

Perfectionism, urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, worship of the written word, only one right way, hoarding of power, fear of open conflict, individualism, I'm the only one, progress is bigger/better, objectivity.

Rather than burying our heads in the sand behind off-topic phrases like "I'm not racist", "I'm a good person" (which is very likely the case), we can ask ourselves how these characteristics that have infused the world have not rubbed off on us. And to what extent have they not influenced our practice of yoga (and our teaching)? To what extent does our practice of yoga not boil down to that of the asanas and their "proper execution", and this to the detriment of the other members of yoga such as ethics, breathing or concentration? Do we tend to think that there is only one right way to do things (sing a mantra, execute a posture, sequence a class)? Is the value we give ourselves and other practitioners sometimes limited to the idea of constant progress (hello growth), doing more, thus turning us into productive and robotic machines? The question of cultural appropriation obviously joins those of patriarchal values, strength, power, and capitalism... Yet yoga is not a capitalist practice and performance of the individual but rather a liberation of it.

"We are all one": Yes! But...

We often refer to the Sanskrit root of yoga "yuj" which means "to join" or "to unite". To confine ourselves to this definition in the current world of discrimination and inequality, is similar to our previous "I'm not racist". It's true, but it's off-topic. And hiding behind universalism becomes a (voluntary or involuntary) technique of making the existing separations in yoga invisible. All you have to do is look at yoga studios in big cities in France (but this also applies to New York, London or Montreal for example): they are mainly frequented by white, wealthy women, often young, thin and flexible (and stylish). So there is a norm at work if we try to compile statistics (which are not systematic, thankfully!). There is indeed a whole fringe of practitioners that we see little, or less in the mundane world of yoga (the one that is highlighted).

Thus, relying on yoga philosophy with phrases like "we are all one", "I don't see colors", "I don't see any difference between us" (to a racialized person for example), "yoga means unity so let's live our divine nature together", "we are all equal" amounts to micro-aggressions for people who do not have the privilege of experiencing equal treatment in their everyday lives. The consequence is to transform real or facade tolerance into a silencing of real and well-lived suffering.

By comparison, I would liken this attitude to that of the hashtag #NotAllMen immediately brandished by many men (often white, straight, cis...) at the time of the #MeToo movement. A way to justify themselves (the famous defensive attitudes and conflict avoidance mentioned earlier) and to bring everything back to themselves instead of simply listening, questioning, taking note and thinking about how to act in order to be allies of women rather than potential aggressors.

"The philosophy of yoga considers us all connected, but not in a way that erases our different life experiences, our challenges and the institutionalized and systemic oppressions that prevent us from accessing the same levels of growth, actualization and unity. To achieve true unity, we must confront the ways in which we may have been complicit in separation."

Susanna Barkataki

"White Ethnocentrism":

This refers to the perception of whiteness as the standard norm, the right and expected norm. For instance, when yoga classes are almost exclusively taught by white teachers, highlighted as the knowledge experts in this field, and are prominently featured in related marketing efforts. Or when it's claimed that we owe yoga's revival to Westerners. White ethnocentrism appears when the most recognized individuals in the yoga field, those promoted as experts, the highest paid, and therefore who primarily benefit from this market are... white!

Furthermore, this attitude aligns with issues of white superiority and the savior myth, suggesting once again, whites are at the top of the pyramid dispensing Good and Truth to the rest of the world. That being said, we can therefore question how we might individually and collectively make the yoga world more representative of our society. Who are we giving our money to, for example? What yoga world are we financing?

This perspective particularly highlights the defensive attitude previously mentioned to protect oneself from questions of cultural appropriation. Examples: "I studied in India and my Indian teacher said that...", "I love India so I can't be appropriating", "I have more than 1000 hours of Yoga Teacher Training under my belt so...". Statements that sometimes serve as excuses to absolve oneself of all responsibility (cf. #NotAllMen).


This refers to treating a member of a group as if they were representative of the entire group. In the context of yoga, this usually overlaps with orientalist and colonial prejudices. Orientalism would regard people of Asian descent, and specifically of Indian ethnicity, as an exoticized "other". For example: "I asked my friend who lived in Rajasthan and he said my attitude was correct", "They are so spiritual", "They have an incredible sense of detachment", "My guru spent his entire youth in India and he doesn't do it like that". Stereotypes often considered as "positive" but nonetheless carrying... stereotypes. In this context, tokenization can appear as an excuse to showcase diversity. This is the case when a yoga studio run by white people hires an Indian teacher while expecting him to conform to the white culture previously established in the same place. Or that he serves as a banner to exempt us from having to deepen the debate (cf. we all remember Nadine Morano's best friend who was " blacker than an Arab . sic). Thus, the best way to guard against tokenization would be to focus on the group and the collective rather than putting everything on the shoulders of one particular individual, in order to multiply perspectives. Indeed, a survey conducted on a single person would not represent a collective reality. It's a bit like if you were to loudly boast about the culinary skills of your neighbor Ahmed "who makes the best couscous in Paris" when your only other reference on the matter would be Picard's (Iceland's french equivalent). It is understood that it's a compliment (and that you probably like Ahmed a lot) but at the end... well, I'll let you finish this sentence.

In conclusion (we could go on for hours on this vast subject), I hope these points will provide some food for thought on the many ways in which cultural appropriation manifests itself in yoga so as to take a step back and thwart them. No one is asked to be perfect (hello White Supremacy) but to think about how to become allies. This begins with active listening and empathy, having the courage to face oneself and analyze one's mistakes to draw constructive lessons from them rather than flagellating oneself with them. This, in order to reflect individually and collectively on creative solutions. I also think that passively waiting for solutions to come from oppressed people only increases their mental load. Imagine men bombarding you at parties with "How can we avoid being aggressors?", "When I do this, is it rape culture or not?"... It's burdensome! And to keep in mind that participating in this debate is not divisive but rather opens the way to a new and healthier union.

(Image © Maria Qamar)

One response to “A brief glossary of cultural appropriation in yoga”

  1. Pakiry avatar

    Merci pour ce magnifique exposer sur ‘appropriation du yoga je vous invite à lires peut être que m vous l’aviez déjà fait. Rodney Williams

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