The Cultural Appropriation of Yoga: Are Academics who Study India Responsible?

“Cultural appropriation” is one of those modern-day bogeymen – like racism or sexism – that most progressive, educated folks know should be avoided. But unlike racism or sexism, we often don’t know why cultural appropriation is bad, or what even constitutes cultural appropriation for that matter.

From a social science perspective, cultural appropriation is actually pretty simple. We can define it as engaging in practices or espousing knowledge[1] without understanding the meaning, context, or history of that practice or piece of knowledge.

Cultural appropriation itself is a neutral act – it’s not inherently bad. Or at least that’s the case until power gets introduced into the equation… which it often inevitably does. That’s where colonialism comes in. A dominant group taking practices from a dominated group is the modern face of age-old, “conquer-the-savages”-style colonialism.

The scholar Virgilio Enriquez writes that cultural appropriation is actually one stage in the project of colonialism. And that’s because colonialism isn’t just about seizing resources, it’s about creating docile subjects who can be easily exploited and extorted. For that, you need more than a military force – you also need a cultural program of ideas that makes these people malleable and even complicit in their own oppression.

So the first stage in this cultural program is to deny that the indigenous people have any culture at all. Once the colonizers realize that they can’t completely deny this reality, they next attempt to destroy and eradicate any evidence of that culture. Then, what culture remains, colonizers will denigrate, belittle, and insult.

Here’s where the process gets interesting: in order to stay in power for the long haul, the colonizing force needs to appear legitimate. And so in order to do that, they give the appearance of accommodating the local people and culture, often through tokenism. The final stage is transformation (or what Rajiv Malhotra calls digestion) of the indigenous culture into the colonizing one. This is where the colonizing culture is said to be the source of the colonized one. Such a move has the effect of both monetizing the indigenous culture and selling it back to its original producers, and also further denying the indigenous people any sense of identity or history of their own before the colonizers came along and “civilized” them.

Indeed, this transformation or digestion stage is where cultural appropriation happens. Lots of great work has been done exposing moments when black culture and Native American culture were – and continue to be – culturally appropriated. Yet cultural appropriation of Indian culture – specifically Hindu beliefs and practices – hasn’t been discussed a whole lot. But that’s not because it isn’t happening – in fact, we would argue that the appropriation of yoga, meditation and mindfulness, ayurveda, and Holi (AKA ‘color runs’) is so pervasive in contemporary Western life that it doesn’t even occur to us that there’s a deeper history and context tied to each of these, nor does it occur to us how that history and context is steeped in colonialism.

The appropriation of yoga, meditation and mindfulness, ayurveda, and Holi (AKA ‘color runs’) is so pervasive in contemporary Western life that it doesn’t even occur to us that there’s a deeper history and context tied to each of these, nor does it occur to us how that history and context is steeped in colonialism.

We are going to focus here on yoga specifically, since it’s a pretty cut-and-dry case of cultural appropriation, as many others have demonstrated. We encourage you to read others’ work on the topic, but we’ll summarize it here by noting that yoga originated as a multifaceted technique for achieving self-transcendence at least 6,000 years ago, practiced by those whom colonizers would eventually come to label “Hindoos.” (These “Hindoos” actually thought of themselves as practitioners of a philosophy, not a religion – it was the Westerners who came along and labeled “Hinduism” as a religion. Some scholars think of this labeling as the first imposition of the kind of black-and-white thinking that was previously unknown among India’s multifaceted spiritual traditions). Yoga was banned by the British colonizers in India, but was introduced to the West in the 19th century by enterprising Indians such as Swami Vivekananda.[2]

Invariably, yoga has changed in form since it arrived in the West, but that doesn’t change the reality of the origins of the practice, nor does it change the role of yoga in contemporary Hindu philosophy. Troublingly, however, some modern scholars who study India argue that precisely because yoga as a practice has changed, and because it was not a perfectly homogenous practice to begin with, yoga cannot – by definition – be culturally appropriated.

Several prominent academic thinkers merely seem to misunderstand this process of Stage 5 Colonialism, AKA transformation or digestion. Scholar Mark Singleton, author of Yoga Body, claims that yoga isn’t originally from India, but in fact, came from Europe to India. Theologian Elizabeth de Michelis writes in her book on the history of yoga that yoga only actually began when the British colonizers appeared in India. To Singleton and de Michelis, it’s as if there could be no cultural practice of yoga until Westerners came along to witness it. To support their contention, these scholars conveniently ignore the long pre-colonial history of recontextualization and integration of yoga into other schools of Indian philosophy. This kind of work was undertaken by a long lineage of important Indian scholars such as Shankara, Madhava and Vigyanabhikshu, work which continued well into the nineteenth century culminating in Vivekananda’s contribution.

These scholars conveniently ignore the long pre-colonial history of recontextualization and integration of yoga into other schools of Indian philosophy.

But a more insidious apologist stance comes from the interpretations of those academics who profoundly misunderstand how culture works. South Asian scholar Andrea Jain claims in her book that because yoga is “perpetually context-sensitive,” “a complex, heterogeneous cultural practice,” and “idiosyncratic,” it has no true origin point. Religion professor David Gordon White writes that “every group in every age has created its own version and vision of yoga” and that the meanings associated with yoga are “so broad” and “so malleable” that that “it has been possible to morph it into nearly any practice or process one chooses.”

Simply because a cultural practice is complex or takes many forms does not mean it is therefore devoid of meaning, symbolism, or historicity. That’s like saying a knotted string has no end or beginning. This is a different critique than saying there are certain modern forms of yoga which are more ‘authentic’ than others. We leave that aside for others to debate. Our point here is that the brand of illogical claims being espoused by scholars like Jain and White provides neo-colonialist ammunition that prevents contemporary Westerners from even being aware of the history and context for the practice they are engaging in.

Simply because a cultural practice is complex or takes many forms does not mean it is therefore devoid of meaning, symbolism, or historicity.

It’s easy to dismiss these views as the zeitgeisty interpretations of lofty academics in their Ivory Towers. In fact, most of these scholars are embedded in a political debate about so-called neo-Hinduism, where one camp tries to defines Hinduism too narrowly, thereby projecting it as incoherent and discontinuous, and thus fragmented; while another camp assumes a broader definition – devoid of any origin, inadvertently opening Hindu ideas and practices to digestion and appropriation. Unfortunately, these misreadings and misunderstandings that are the product of this debate make their way into the mainstream, which in turn accelerates the process of cultural appropriation.

For example, author Brooke Boon has coined a highly popular version of Christian yoga that verily strips away all philosophical, historical, and religious context from yoga, and replaces it with a contemporary Christian one. In her book, Holy Yoga: Exercise for the Christian Body and Soul, she writes, “yoga predates Hinduism by at least one thousand years. Yoga was not created by Hindus but was indeed co-opted by Hindus as a major part of their religion.” Here we witness the logical fallacy coming full circle: because yoga has been practiced by many different peoples who attach different meanings to it (some of those involving blatant cases of cultural appropriation), there is no valid origin point or historical context for yoga. This problem is so widespread that even a progressive and critically-engaged yoga practitioner such as Jessamyn Stanley – who acknowledges the disturbing commoditization of yoga – relies on Singleton’s  writings in order to educate herself and others about the history and roots of yoga. These Western academic debates on yoga have deeply infiltrated the mainstream view of yoga practitioners of all stripes.

Here we witness the logical fallacy coming full circle: because yoga has been practiced by many different peoples who attach different meanings to it (some of those involving blatant cases of cultural appropriation), there is no valid origin point or historical context for yoga.

Perhaps then, we should add a sixth stage to Enriquez’s stages of colonialism: projection. In this stage, the colonizer accuses the colonized of culturally appropriating their own practices when the enlightened indigenous person points this out. Unfortunately, academics who study India have played a critical role in the transformation and projection phases of colonialism and cultural appropriation, particularly in the case of yoga. Perhaps they didn’t realize or intend for this to be the impact of their work. But we now know that these misunderstandings do facilitate the project of colonialism. We hope that these scholars will recognize this impact and provide a corrective to their work.

For those Westerners who – like Lauren – learned a decontextualized version of yoga that involved purely physical aerobics, what can you do to avoid being complicit in the cultural appropriation of yoga?

Firstly, we do not advocate that you stop doing yoga and criticize all those who continue to do so as appropriators.

Instead, we ask that you educate yourself on the history, meaning, symbols, and philosophy underlying yoga. Seek out yoga classes taught by teachers who locate themselves within the lineage of practitioners and teachers who originate in India. Understand that yoga is a technique for self-transcendence practiced by many who today identify as Hindu. Recognize that the yoga we often see here in the West – postural asana – is only one of the eight ‘limbs’ of yoga, limbs which are often practiced outside of the West. Most importantly, be vigilant of yoga teachers, studios, or systems who are selling a version of yoga in which the philosophical architecture of yoga has been replaced with that of another religion.

And once you’ve done all this, take this knowledge and share it with others so that they too can understand the historical meaning and context behind yoga. The only way to free ourselves from the bogeymen of cultural appropriation and colonialism is to shed some light on them.


[1] We leave out here the taking of actual stuff (e.g. artifacts) because that’s not cultural appropriation. That’s stealing.
[2] Some people often get hung up on the fact that indigenous people themselves can facilitate the appropriation of their own culture. You’ll often see this argument applied to yoga: people observe events like International Day of Yoga and remark something along the lines of “But Indians like Vivekananda obviously wanted to spread yoga around the world! They would just be happy to see so many people participating in it today!” Swami Vivekananda brought yoga to the West as part of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, not during an athletic convention. So it’s hard to envision Vivekananda being happy about people denuding yoga of all of its historical, religious, and philosophical context and giving it a new one (à la Christian yoga, or as a hybrid gymnastics/aerobics exercise). Vivekananda simply didn’t see the bigger picture of how his actions would feed into the larger process of colonialism. It would be a classic case of victim-blaming to conclude that he would have therefore wanted the cultural appropriation of yoga to occur.

Author: Amol and Lauren

Amol is a neuroscientist at Duke University with a penchant for Indian philosophy. Lauren is a PhD candidate in sociology and research fellow for Hindu life at Duke University, vegan, yogini, crazy cat lady, pursuer of wanderlust.

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  1. This was really eye-opening, particularly because I myself never realized just how deep and yet how subtle the appropriation of yoga has been. The footnote regarding Vivekananda’s spreading of yoga was particularly insightful. Going off of that, have you ever heard of the Self-Realization Fellowship founded by Swami Yogananda? They use kriya yoga to achieve religious transcendence, regardless of religious affiliation. If so, what do you think about how they have brought yoga to the western world? Was Yogananda’s spreading of kriya yoga appropriate for the historical, philosophical, and religious context in which it originated?

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