The Hindu practice of Yoga has been around for thousands of years. But only in the last 50 years has it taken hold of the West and grown to become a spiritual, whole body exercise for all ages. The term “yoga” has been used to refer to a school of philosophy in Hinduism as well as various spiritual, physical and mental practices and disciplines, including Jain and Buddhist practices. Hatha yoga, a method of yoga, is the specific practice that the western world is more familiar with as the physical and mental strength building exercises and postures.
This common misinterpretation of yoga displays the extent to which yoga as been assimilated into American pop culture. A whitewash of the religious and cultural heritage it was founded on, modern yoga has been ingrained in the western experience making it more pervasive than newer health fads like ghee.
Contradictory xenophobia and the infatuation of the Orient led to the continued whitewashed appropriation of modern yoga. It is hard to say when yoga was brought to the US. Formally, it may have been introduced by the revered Swami Vivekanand in speech to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago of 1893. However, the 1924 quota on Asian American Immigrants limited to exchange of ideas by South Asian gurus. Thus, the Western world took an interest in learning directly from the most knowledgeable yogis and bringing their ideas to the West. Indra Devi (born Eugenie Peterson) and Richard Hittleson were influential in writing books and spreading the yoga practice in the 1950s. (Yoga journal) Finally, the 1965 immigration act overturned the previous quota bringing a host of Eastern gurus to the US (Lecture, 2017). Following the introduction of new yoga teachers to the US, the incorporation of Yoga quickly grew attracting housewives, hippies and even young adults today. However, the demographic that quickly took hold of this new practice were the white female middle class and this has contributed to prevalence of white female teachers, despite the influx of South Asian Immigrants following 1965.
The whitewashing of yoga has reduced the practice down to its physical and mental exercises and changed the demographics from the male-dominated and spiritual yogi to the middle-age white female population who seek exotic and healthy alternatives.
In most recent years, yoga has been adapted to better conform to western ideals in the neoliberal attempt to broader audiences. Yoga is taught in classes, studios, in large events at parks and public spaces. There are 30 day challenges, and even attempts at teaching Tantric yoga, amore spiritual approach to meditation and strengthening postures. (White women) The most striking examples include doing yoga to heavy metal music (seen below).
The Yoga Alliance, a nonprofit association that registered yoga teachers, schools and studios, found that percent of americans who knew what yoga is grow from 75% to 90% in three years. (Yoga Alliance) Few sites mention the race and religion of the “yoga practitioners.” A google search of “yoga” found hundreds of pictures of white women in studios and very few pictures suggesting the religious and spiritual disciplines. As such there is growing evidence of the incorporation of yoga into the mainstream, but very little indication of the understanding or even acknowledgement of more the spiritually based methods of yoga.
The increased normalization of yoga as a practice of the rich, educated, white body raises questions to the authenticity. The large majority of yoga instructors and practitioners are white women. According to Lopez the authenticity of food is determined by the “simplicity,personal connection, geographic, history, ethnic connection” of the cook and the dish. In much the same way, I believe yoga practice and instruction can be judged on the “personal connection, simplicity, history, religious connection and spiritual connection.” (Lopez, Food Blogging) As such westernized yoga dominated white female instructors with little spiritual and religious connection to the practice make it hard to accept the practice as authentic especially when a majority of the practitioners are beginners (Yoga Journal). Furthermore, the term yogi has a very distinct connotation to the set of values a practitioner should adhere to. The callous use of the term yogi for all those who take or even teach the classes undermines the spiritual connection required to uphold the honored title. Authenticity is further questioned by the realization that the modern form of yoga bears little resemblance to the original Hindu scriptures. Pioneer by the famous Swami Vivekanand, the reformed yoga was thought to have been inspired by the desire for Indian independence of Britain and return to traditional Indian asceticism in the mid-1800s (History of Yoga). Thus some may argue that is it unfair to criticize current yoga practice as appropriation as it has evolved prior to its introduction in the West.
Still, Neoliberalism has commodified yoga as a healthy, all inclusive alternative exercise with an oriental flair. Maira suggest the growth in interest towards henna and other Indo-chic goods arose through Late-stage capitalism of the 1990s (Maria, Indo-chic). This is ever true in the role of South Asian Americans in actively shaping the discourse on yoga. I, myself, have attended yoga classes and enjoy doing so. However, this confusion by the second-generation Asian Americans on the determinants of cultural appropriation has only persisted the appropriation. While the advent of the internet and video sharing sites like YouTube have increased access to more groups, the commercialization of mats, clothing, and other yoga associated products have created a class divide. Hence what was once a transnational exchange of meditative, physical and spiritual practice has been supplanted by the capitalist health trend in the US and commercialization of the exotic.
What does it take for a person to incorporate and adapt yoga into mainstream practice yet still pay homage to the religions and cultural roots? The history of yoga in the US as well as its growing number of practitioners reveals the extent to which yoga has been adopted in US mainstream. Even more than the use of henna and other South Asian originating products like ghee, yoga has become a popular and established phenomenon in the West with little appreciation towards the cultural heritage. However, the larger question lies in whether an active stance to reclaim the cultural heritage of yoga traditions. At the very least, I do not want yoga to become as ingrained in american culture as yogi bear, devoid of its cultural and historical roots.
This blog has me seriously considering my previous stance on the benefits of doing yoga.