1. You Treat Yoga Like a Solely Physical Activity
In the west many people think of yoga as a type of exercise. For others it’s the latest trend.
If physical health is what you want out of your yoga practice, that’s perfectly fine. You deserve to be able to take care of your body. But it is important to know that the physical aspect of yoga is only a small part of yoga practice. Yoga is a complete mind body program grounded in Indian culture.
For many Indian people, Yoga is a physical-psycho-spiritual practice deeply linked to thier heritage and identity. The story of how it got turned into the form of exercise you know today isn’t a pretty one. It is one tinged with colonization, oppression and theft.
Throughout the history of colonization, demonizing the spiritual practices of indigenous people was part of how colonizers justified the violence against them.
These yogic practices had played an essential role in many people’s healing and survival. So it’s important that we don’t ignore the history of yoga in favour of western gimmick driven marketable practices.
Doing so suggests racist thinking for it legitimatizes what Western people like about yoga while invalidating its original meaning.
So, if you want to do physical exercises based on yoga practices, it’s possible to do that. Just don’t market it or yourself as a new type of yoga. Acknowledge that you’re only doing the physical practices.
By specifying that this is an exercise derived from yoga practices – not the entire practice of yoga itself – you will avoid mischaracterising what yoga is all about.
2. The Practice is Competitive
Yoga is a practice based on creating deeper mind and body awareness. Pushing yourself in order to get a good workout may be important to you, but it’s not Yoga.
When any practice is driven by physical appearance or abilities, it can take a toll on your sense of self-worth.This is not part of the practice of yoga. Teachers that focus on “power”, “hot”, “strong” yoga may be propagating the influence of colonisation in yoga.
After colonisation when Westerners began to explore “indigenous or exotic practices”– they connected yoga with competitive gymnastics, body-building and showmanship. They then created Western style yoga practices based on this competitive mindset. This is not Yoga and needs to be changed.
What does this mean for your practice? Go back to the roots of yoga, try to understand its philosophy. In doing so you will deepen your practice and lose the false ideas that were added on in the West.
3. You’re Not Acknowledging Where Yoga Comes From
Neglecting to recognize the origins of what you’re using is a classic sign of cultural appropriation.
You may not mean to participate in the system of white supremacy but you are doing this, by removing the trace of the people from where the practice came.
So if you are a fan of “yoga” that’s marketed as “Hot”, “New Age”, “Trendy” then you are supporting a business model based on theft and disrespect for a thousand-year-old history.
You may be wondering – But what does this long history have to do with me practicing yoga today?
Well, respect and humility are foundations of a yoga practice. Through interconnectedness, you recognise that you didn’t come up with these practices all on your own. You show respect to the teachers who have come before you, and the people they learned from. This is the Yoga tradition – parampara.
Approach your own practice with humility, and look out for it in your yoga teachers too.
If the person leading does not acknowledge the people or regions that yoga practices come from, they’re contributing to destroying the lineages that that gave rise to the tradition. They are practicing cultural appropriation. In fact many yoga teachers in the West, trained by a lineage of Western teachers may unknowingly be practicing cultural appropriation – for the original teachers may have played a role in colonisation, oppression and theft in their aim of westernising yoga decades ago.
Please do ask your teachers about their lineage of teachers – do they understand where their practice comes from and do they acknowledging the origins of yoga. If unsatisfied by responses, consider supporting another space that’s more grounded in yoga’s roots.
4. You’re Misusing Sacred Objects
Hopefully, if you and your yoga teachers knew the significance of sacred objects, you wouldn’t intentionally use them in disrespectful ways.
But lots of people include sacred objects in their yoga practice without realizing the significance of what they’re using.
Sometimes, it’s an attempt to give an “authentic” flare to a yoga studio but misusing sacred objects and symbols as décor is a dead giveaway that you don’t have a real grasp of authenticity.
Anyone who uses a cultural item they’re not familiar with should do their research to understand where it comes from, what it means, and how it should be cared for.
If you don’t understand why you are using a sacred object, then you’re just exotifying and fetishizing other cultures without really understanding them.
For comparison, you would not use pages of a Bible as decoration without understanding anything about Christianity.
So, if you see a sacred item on the ground or being used for toilet decoration in a yoga studio, you might want to have a word with the staff.
5. You’re Not Being Accountable When Speaking Sacred Languages
Many Western yoga spaces treat sacred languages the same way they treat sacred items – without knowledge or respect for what they’re using.
For instance, you might use Sanskrit, or chant without knowing what you’re saying or why. Apart from being disrespectful, you could be doing harm.
Sound can be healing, and you don’t necessarily need to learn a whole new language to get something out of chanting. But, just like with the sacred objects, you could have a harmful impact if you use language without understanding its significance.
It can be hurtful for South Asian people to hear their traditional languages being misused, butchered, and even laughed at.
Pay attention to how your yoga practice treats sacred texts, languages, and chants.
6. A Person Who Ignores Oppression Is Leading the Practice
Avoiding cultural appropriation is not about getting westerners to stop practicing or leading yoga sessions. But when yoga is taught by a person who ignores the complexities of oppression, that’s a problem.
And that’s happening in yoga spaces where white teachers don’t acknowledge or address how white supremacy can show up and marginalize people of colour.
For instance, the mainstream image of the yoga industry is– thin, white, middle class women – many of whom are acknowledged as leaders, guru’s or experts in Yoga. Yet too often these Western teachers promote a diluted form of Yoga.
This does not mean that it’s wrong for you to support a European yoga facilitator. But please recognise how the western yoga industry marginalises those who don’t fit the mainstream image of “modern” Western yoga.
Some western teachers present themselves as experts on South Asianness or yoga. This is a trend of white supremacy to centre Westerners as experts of Asian culture & Yoga, rather than trusting the knowledge of people who are actually part of the culture.
As a consumer of this industry, you can show your support for respectful engagement with yoga practices by seeking out facilitators who are respectful in their practice.
7. You’re Treating Yoga Like a Commodity
A compassionate healing practice like yoga had to go through a lot of changes to fit a system of capitalism. Hence you know you’re getting a culturally appropriated version of yoga when it’s all about the money. Historically Yoga was taught in Gurukula’s or traditional schools that were free. An accomplished teacher was one – who used his ability to earn an income (artha) and yoga was his dharma – he taught it freely. The career yoga industry is a western development. I understand that times have changed and some charges may be required in the modern world – but anybody who sees teaching yoga as a job – is not a Yogi and should not be teaching.
Unfortunately, even in India there are yoga schools and training centres that are completely commercial as well. This is a huge problem, and one that will be addressed in another article.
Then think of yoga accessories and fashion lines that is big corporate business, or the studios aiming to make as much money as possible. They work to make yoga a commodity.
Yoga practices are about sustaining ourselves in ways that have nothing to do with money or material possessions. When it turns into something that’s sellable, it loses its sacred value.
Yoga practices can help us reconnect with the parts of ourselves that free us from capitalist and oppressive regimes. Be wary of spaces that commoditise yoga – for they need a consumer more than a yogi.
8. You Only Think About Your Own Personal Gain
How do you benefit from yoga?
It may have a positive influence on your mental health, your body, or your personal life. Taking care of yourself is such an important act of self love. So when people ask you to avoid appropriation, you might think they’re saying you have to give up thinking about your own self-care altogether.
That’s not what we’re saying. It’s awesome that you can show yourself love through yoga.
All we are saying is that you have the opportunity to change the oppressive pattern that so many are taught to follow. This oppressive pattern encourages you to take what benefits you on the surface without considering the impact on other people.
But an authentic yoga practice can help you grow holistically – mind, body, and spirit. Embracing your wholeness includes recognizing that you are part of a big, beautiful collective of other beings.
Thinking of others gives you a chance to think twice before feeling entitled to take from them for your own personal gain. Try opening up to the compassionate side of a yoga practice. Include your love for yourself and consideration for others by avoiding appropriation, learning about the roots of yoga, and supporting inclusive spaces.
Why the Appropriation of Yoga Matters
If you are a committed practitioner or teacher – then you need to ensure that you are not practicing cultural appropriation. When yoga is appropriated you are continuing a tradition of oppression. You need to understand the historical context.
The British used fraud, murder, violence and theft to take control of the South Asian sub-continent. They approached yoga with violence too. People were forced to convert to Christianity, healing and spiritual practices seen as “primitive” traditions, like yoga were outlawed.
So how did South Asian people preserve yoga through all of that?
With incredible resilience – and also by taking huge risks, with many of them losing their land and their lives.
With yoga being so popular these days, it’s hard to imagine having to face persecution just to practice it.
Unfortunately, this history has left a legacy that continues in Western approaches to yoga today. Erasing and exotifying the South Asian roots is part of the story of how yoga was originally brought to West.
After being demonized as a “savage” practice of the natives, yoga was then repackaged as something Europeans could enjoy for entertainment and competition.
These racist double standards still persist today when Western practitioners gain profits, attention, and credit for using diluted versions of those same practices.
This is why it’s dangerous to accept yoga as it’s presented in mainstream images and marketing. There’s so much more to it than the diluted version that’s being sold to us.
By buying into the mainstream version of yoga – you are missing out on vital and powerful parts of the practice while only viewing yoga through a Western lens. This lens distorts what yoga is supposed to be, and adds racism, exotification and exclusivity.
If someone points out that you could make changes to your yoga practice to ensure cultural appropriation, consider it a gift. For this may be the catalyst to make your yoga practice more authentic.
With an authentic yoga practice, you can love bigger, grow your compassion for yourself and others, and have a positive impact that radiates brilliantly throughout the world. You too can be a Yogi….
Dr Nitasha Buldeo is an Integrated Medical Practitioner, Entrepreneur, Scientist and Yogi. She created I-Yoga & Organic Apoteke and is Director of the Centre for Exceptional Human Performance. She researches human potential and delivers programs that encourage you to live exceptionally. Nitasha believes that every one of us is striving to be the best we can. Her passion is bringing you programs that enable you to unlock your personal genius.
Nitasha’s yoga training began in childhood and she has been trekking into the Himalayan peaks to meet her teachers and to teach for over 25 years. Her wisdom on traditional yoga and meditation practices is immense. Her personal practice is one of dedication, perseverance and humility.
She is a Senior Yoga Teacher with Yoga Alliance Professionals and leads Yoga training and retreats globally.