Cowgirl Commentary on the Colonization of Yoga

It was only a matter of time before things got ugly again. Now, India wants yoga back, people are getting worried that we are “colonizing” yoga, and for the icing on the cake – a Missoula, Montana lawmaker who wants to strengthen the state indecent exposure law went on record saying that yoga pants should be illegal in public (it made national news). It’s all falling apart! 

India wants yoga to be recognized as its “cultural property”, much like champagne is for France. The Week’s article Does Yoga Belong to India? states that there are far fewer yoga teachers per capita in India than the US, and that the “over 100 styles of yoga now practiced in the US” came about by “blending tradition and modern concepts”. Meanwhile, Decolonizing your Yoga Practice makes the same old complaints we’ve been hearing for years about the commercialization and pop culturization of yoga. Both articles point out that yoga was viewed as backward during India’s British colonial period. So, I don’t agree that the West is the root of all yoga evil; had we not culturally appropriated yoga (and, ahem, made it profitable), India probably wouldn’t give a fig about its post-British colonization status.

I guess what bothers me is the word “colonization”. It evokes violence, oppression. Are we really causing India harm with what we’ve done to yoga? Haven’t many Indians benefitted immensely from the Western obsession with yoga? I will agree with the idea that:

…when so much of what the Western world sees as true yoga is beautifully achieved physical postures, (accomplished, photographed and displayed by popular yoga magazines, journals and sites) executed by mostly young, white, stylish-yoga-apparel clad women and men, yoga is going through a second colonization. This colonization is the misrepresentation of yoga’s intention, its many limbs, and its aims.

But I think that the main problem is really this: 

If someone from the dominant culture completes a yoga teacher training that is primarily asana based, and remains blissfully unaware of the complexity of yoga’s true aim or the roots of the practices, they are culturally appropriating yoga. By remaining unaware of the history, roots, complexity and challenges of the heritage from which yoga springs and the challenges it has faced under Western culture, they perpetuate a re-colonization of it by stripping its essence away.

However, we can’t force feed American yogis the history and philosophy behind the practice. I’ve always said that people who practice yoga because it’s hip will soon move on to the next big fitness trend (pure barre, anyone?) But in all my years as a yoga teacher…I honestly haven’t met many people like that. Most have a genuine interest in what’s behind this practice that makes them feel awake and alive in ways nothing else ever has. As a teacher, I may need to coax that a bit – but isn’t that my job? Can we judge American yogis who don’t know anything about yogic philosophy? But let’s ask ourselves this: do you know anyone that has actually read great Western philosophers, like Plato and Socrates? Descartes? Do you know people that can actually name great Western philosophers? 

My Indian mom came to the US in the 60s, and despite what the Beatles did for India/yoga…she worked hard to assimilate and suppress her heritage, for better or for worse. It was a sign of the times. She’s Hindu; “weird” might have been one of the nicer things that was said about that. Despite a slight accent, I’ve always remembered her to be pretty Americanized. Only recently did she tell me how my grandfather used to stand on his head for 10 minutes at a time. Had she arrived in the US now, things would be very different. She might still wear a bindi and sari.

Yoga has given India a renaissance in the West. All things India are cool. Granted, American pop culture messes things up, to some degree. It’s our own cultural heritage, we’ve created this beast. But how about looking at the glass half full vs. half empty? I don’t believe we are “colonizing” yoga, we are giving it another incarnation. One that is truly ours. We need to remember that were it not for the commercialization of yoga, many people would not be experiencing its benefits. The American brand of yoga might disgust many purist (elitist) yogis – but do they not live here too?

Interestingly enough, this all came to my attention at the same time my new Fiterazzi column, Ask the Yogini, debuted. I had thought it was fitting to start with these two questions: What is Yoga Anyway? and I love the physical yoga (asana). What about yoga philosophy — is it really applicable to a modern yogi? which I will borrow from now to conclude:

Asana is only one part of the eight-limbed path to yoga. After teaching yoga for many years as my full-time job, I’ve developed my own theory why asana is the emphasis of yoga today, as I’ve seen it in my own experience and that of my students. Our modern lifestyle has come so far away from the quieter, more contemplative eras before technology. There is virtually no attention span for philosophical and ‘lofty’ concepts if they don’t produce quick results. I’m convinced that today’s yoga is essentially a process for learning to slow down; we have to re-learn how to do this in the fast pace of the world we inhabit.

Even after recognizing this through my own yoga practice, it remains an ongoing challenge to incorporate. There are very few people who begin their yoga practice with another of the eight limbs; asana is the most appealing and relevant to modern lives. Asana is the gateway to the philosophy behind yoga. Through asana we’re able to be present in our bodies and minds in new (old? ancient but forgotten?) ways, and this invites us to explore the other limbs when we’re more ready. These explorations may very well occur during our asana practice. Of course, the potential drawback to beginning a yoga practice with asana is that one might never move beyond it — perhaps the people who are only doing yoga as a workout or because it’s trendy — but I believe there is something much more compelling to asana that will bring people along a path to the other limbs if they are open and allow the experience. Asana practice won’t change everyone, but I also believe the immense popularity of yoga cannot be attributed to asana alone. It’s the holistic experience of the eight limbs, whether recognized by the practitioner or not, that have contributed to yoga’s appeal.

A few years ago, I wrote a post entitled Uh, Namaste, on respect for yoga’s Hindu roots. I think the recent controversy boils down to the same idea: having respect for yoga and where it came from. Why is that so hard?