“An individual has not started living until they can rise above the narrow confines of individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.
Friends, I have a confession to make.
It took me years to understand the dilemma with white people practicing and teaching yoga.
As a white person, I have grown up with a sense of entitlement to have access to whatever I want from other cultures. For years, I was oblivious to the fact that I was able to enjoy certain aspects of other cultures without repercussions, even while people from those cultures were oppressed for it. The inconvenient truth is that white yoga culture is a key culprit in appropriating South Asian culture.
I don’t put myself down for the things I didn’t understand before. We are all products of our upbringing and society and to see outside of our own bubbles is challenging and often uncomfortable. Plus, despite our most concerted efforts, we can never truly free ourselves from our own biases. And yet, there came a point in which I realized that continuing to practice in the same way would be an act of willful ignorance (which is the opposite of what we’re going for in yoga).
To be clear: I have no intention of giving up on teaching or practicing yoga. This article is NOT intended to shame or tell anyone to quit yoga. In my opinion, an approach to yoga that seeks the liberation of all is far more powerful for creating good in the world than if all socially conscious people stopped altogether.
As a white yogi and yoga teacher, I now realize that I have a lifelong duty to honor where yoga came from and use my practice to uplift those that have been oppressed by the appropriation of yoga. Friends and yogis, I invite you to join me on a journey of reimagining yoga in the West.
Disclaimer: I am no expert on race or yoga. I am simply a person that cares about leaving the world a better place than I found it. I believe yoga is a key tool that can help create a better world for all, and that some approaches help this mission and some harm it. I am doing my best to help rather than hurt, but I recognize that I won’t always get it right and may be wrong or misguided. It is my hope that as I learn and grow I can take more effective action. I am open to receiving your comments about how I can do better. Also, I would like to acknowledge Susanna Barkataki for her great work in this area. Her book Embrace Yoga’s Roots has been heavily influential for me.
Yoga as Union
Yoga is a philosophy and spiritual practice from India that has been around for thousands of years.
From the Sanskrit word “yuj,” yoga means “to yoke,” or “to join.” It means harmonizing the mind and body to achieve a state of oneness with the universe, merging the individual self with pure consciousness. Yoga unites us with ourselves, with each other, and with the world. Its ideas can be incorporated into any belief system and does not need to adhere to a particular religion.
By definition, yoga is for everybody. It doesn’t divide or discriminate. According to yogic philosophy, the division we experience is an illusion created by humans. We create power imbalances between groups, promote class structures, and colonize places and people for our own gains. We even divide our yoga practice when we only practice asana (yoga poses) and ignore the other 7 limbs of raja yoga.
Western yoga in particular divides us by perpetuating a whitewashed image that makes it appear inaccessible to many. When we look at yoga magazines or Instagram accounts, 90% of what comes up is skinny, fit white women contorting their bodies into impressive shapes. Western yoga studios reinforce that image by teaching yoga more like a workout than a spiritual practice.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say they can’t practice yoga because they aren’t flexible enough. The image of yoga as athleticism is so pervasive that it drives people away because they think that a certain body type is required to practice. When people are excluded because of their body type or race, that creates separation. When we water down yoga by only teaching asana and removing philosophy, this also creates separation, and is by definition NOT yoga.
How Western Yoga Oppresses
In my (maybe controversial) opinion, it’s OK to be a white yogi, and it’s OK to enjoy the physical aspects of yoga. It is NOT okay to ignore how colonialism has oppressed others and how our practice reinforces this oppression. I believe that those of us in non-marginalized groups have a duty to think critically about the cultural context behind our practices and take action to mitigate the harms that colonialism has created.
What white people need to understand is that we have never had to experience our culture being infantilized or stripped of its richness by a more dominant group.
This is not the case for non-white folks. In recent history, South Asians have been ridiculed and oppressed for their culture, and the perception of South Asian culture as exotic and backwards persists today. Yet, when white people water down South Asian culture and then show it off to the world, it is seen as cool, trendy, and even profitable. A friend of mine once remarked in dismay that she was teased growing up because her parents were Hindu, but when her white peers would wear images of Hindu deities or bindis it was considered hip. Her story is not uncommon.
This is called cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation in yoga happens when Westerners get tattoos of the Om symbol or Hindu gods without understanding what they mean. It’s when well-meaning yoga teachers incorporate chanting, Sanskrit and Hindu deities into their classes without knowing why. It’s when teachers remove all spirituality and philosophy from their classes, changing the practice so fundamentally that it can hardly be called yoga.
An interesting and concrete example of the colonization of yoga is the Yoga Alliance Registry. Yoga Alliance is a U.S.-based organization that sets international standards for yoga. Around the world, people recognize Yoga Alliance as being reputable — studios often seek teachers that have completed training with companies that follow Yoga Alliance’s curriculum.
The teacher training I attended in India was registered with Yoga Alliance. My Indian teachers, who have been practicing their entire lives, had to use a curriculum created by Yoga Alliance in order to keep their business alive. How ironic is it that, in the birthplace of yoga, yoga shalas are dependent on a Western organization to be successful and reputable?
Cultural appropriation strips people of their culture, waters it down, and then feeds it back to them. I would argue that this causes separation, not unity. And if our goal is to truly practice yoga, then we must think critically about how we can move from practices that create division to practices that encourage union.
An Empowered Approach to Yoga
Yoga in the West is here to stay. If every socially conscious white person stopped practicing and teaching, we would miss out on valuable opportunities to disrupt the status quo and use our privilege to empower.
Instead of quitting yoga, I believe a more courageous and powerful action is to sit with the discomfort of our privilege and ask: How can I use my practice to liberate, not appropriate?
The following are a few ideas for cultivating a more empowering and authentic practice:
1. Listen to others and practice humility
In her excellent book Embrace Yoga’s Roots, Susanna Barkataki emphasizes that “unity doesn’t mean erasing or ignoring someone’s reality or lived experience simply for the sake of ‘being one’ or staying ‘positive.’” Indeed, invalidating others’ experiences in the name of “good vibes” or “love and light” is the opposite of unity because unity involves recognizing our shared humanity while acknowledging that others have had different life experiences. If someone shares that the appropriation of yoga has hurt them in some way, listen and believe that that is their truth. Our individual knowledge will always be limited and clouded by our own biases. The more we think that we are “right,” the less receptive we are to continuing to learn.
2. Understand the role of colonialism and power dynamics in shaping modern yoga
When the British colonized India, one of the strategies Indians used to reclaim power over their country and bodies was to change the British perception that Indian culture was backwards. Indians added elements of athleticism to yoga partly to show that they were “civilized,” as well as increase their physical strength to stand up to their oppressors. In his book Yoga Body, Mark Singleton explains that, to some, yoga even became synonymous with insurrection as yogi freedom fighters traveled around teaching exercise and combat techniques under the guise of yoga, using the practice as “an alibi for training in violent, militant resistance.” This interesting piece of yoga’s history contributed to the evolving perspective of yoga as a physical practice and is a key example of colonialism shaping modern yoga.
Eventually, yoga was freely brought to the West by Indian teachers. Yoga was meant to be shared, and yet we must also acknowledge the global context of colonialism and oppression. It is important to understand this history and cultural context so that we can become better change agents.
3. Take initiative to learn about yoga philosophy and cultural references
Since many Western studios do not teach yoga history or philosophy, white yogis need to take the initiative to read texts, take philosophy classes, and study with South Asian teachers. Seek out studios that teach more than asana. Understand the meaning behind the chants, mudras, or deities we use or reference. Pay to learn from teachers of color. These actions can help us create a more integrated and holistic practice true to yoga’s values.
4. Integrate all 8 limbs of yoga into your practice and teaching
It is impossible to practice the first 2 limbs of yoga, the yamas and niyamas, while ignoring oppression and appropriation. We practice satya, or truthfulness, when we look at the global challenges people of color face, as well as when we critically discern whether the yoga spaces we inhabit are accessible to all. When we honestly examine our biases (we ALL have them) and notice where we are complicit in oppression, we practice svadhyaya (self-study). When we challenge appropriation by uplifting and honoring South Asian voices and culture, we practice both ahimsa (non-violence) and asteya (non-stealing). When our practice truly incorporates all of yoga’s limbs, we realize that taking action for social equity and justice are inextricable to living a yogic life.
The possibilities for taking an empowered approach to the white yogi’s dilemma don’t end here. We can cultivate a community in yoga spaces that is inclusive of all races, genders, body sizes, and abilities. Ask for an equity training at the yoga studios we practice or work at. Focus on our internal experience of yoga rather than on perfecting postures, and teach with props to give accessible options for all. Bring yoga to under-resourced groups like incarcerated people or low income communities. And, importantly, donate money or time to organizations that uplift South Asian culture. Our empowered yoga practice seeks to address injustices and liberate both the practitioner AND the world.
Barkataki emphasizes that “Yoga is unity. But it is not simply unity in a pat or simplistic way. It is not a unity that denies difference. It is a unity that embraces and celebrates it, one that addresses separation and discrimination. To practice and live in this world of unity, we must center ourselves in truth. This includes looking at the hard, challenging and unfair things about our world.”
May we all be honest and courageous enough to ask ourselves these vulnerable questions: Does my yoga practice unite or divide? Do I represent yoga in a way that makes it seem inaccessible to some? Do I compartmentalize yoga by only practicing “on the mat,” or is it a philosophy I integrate into everyday life?
May we be willing to embrace the discomfort of the white yogi’s dilemma in service to an empowered yoga practice that leaves the world a little better than we found it.
- Embrace Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Practice by Susanna Barkataki- Deeply influential book that guides the reader in how to honor, not appropriate, yoga.
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin Di Angelo- Book that offers advice and inspiration for taking responsibility for the ways we might unknowingly perpetuate harm despite our best intentions.
- Me And White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla Saad- Book and 30-day challenge with journal prompts. Great resource for uncovering where we might be complicit in white supremacy.
- Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice by Mark Singleton- Recommended book in my upcoming yoga teacher training. I have recently started reading it and look forward to deepening my understanding of the history and evolution of modern yoga.
- Reflections on Nonviolence and Truthfulness: In Service of Collective Liberation– Beautiful article + resource list by yoga teacher Blair Borax on yoga and BIPOC liberation. (Big thanks Blair for your insightful feedback on my article, too!)
- Resource list from Susanna Barkataki– list of articles, books, podcasts, organizations, and other resources for embracing yoga’s roots.
Cover photo by: Zoë Shipley Photography