The westernization of Yoga: between misconceptions, cultural appropriation, and no inclusivity

Health

What are the first things that come to your mind when you hear of Yoga? Physical postures, flexibility, strength? Maybe. There are still a lot of misconceptions about what Yoga is. 

There are different types of Yoga, as listed by the Yoga Journal: to list but a few of them, there are Vigorous Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Power Yoga, Jivamukti…

The concept of Yoga is also simplified and misunderstood. Yoga is not limited to stress release and much less to physical postures to achieve a certain type of body shape. The westernization of Yoga dilutes its meaning into fitness-inspired Yoga courses. In fact, in its original meaning, Yoga aims to find a balance between your body, your mind, and your spirit, to develop oneself from the inside to the outside. As proposed by a Yogi named, Patañjali in his 196 Yoga Sutras, sacred aphorisms believed to have been written over 2,200 years ago, Yoga encompasses a group of practices known as the eight limbs of Yoga:

  • Ethical standards and sense of integrity (Yamas)
  • Self-discipline and spiritual observances (Niyama)
  • The physical practice (Asana)
  • The breathing exercises (Pranayama) Pramamaya means “Control of Prana. ”Prana is the Sanskrit word for breath, energy, and life force.
  • Sensory withdrawal/control/ transcendance (Pratyahara). “The practice of pratyahara provides us with an opportunity to step back and take a look at ourselves.”
  • Concentration (Dharana). “We learn how to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on a single mental object.”
  • Meditation (Dhyana). “At this stage, the mind has been quieted, and in the stillness, it produces few or no thoughts at all.”
  • Enlightenment (Samadhi). “The meditator comes to realize a profound connection to the Divine, an interconnectedness with all living things.”

Yoga means a lifelong process (or, as some sages would say, a process of many lives) in which these eight limbs should be practiced. Considering the notion that the practice of these limbs is a journey, one may become a Yoga teacher after a 200-hour teacher training, but that does not mean it is appropriate (even for those with extensive experience) to call oneself a “Yogi,” or that a teacher has mastered all limbs. 

So why are misconceptions still entrenched within Yoga?

The roots of the westernization and misconceptions regarding Yoga

The first records of Yoga date back thousands of years, coming from the Indus Valley Civilization. The meaning and the shape of Yoga changed at the time of Indian colonization. These main factors took part in the westernization of Yoga: 

  • Gurus and teachers 
  • Physical culture of Swedish Gymnastics and Bodybuilding. 

From sharing the Yoga culture to Western cultural appropriation

introduction-yoga-to-west-swami-vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda sitting at the the Parliament of World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893 – Source : India Today

Guru culture has a lot to do with the westernization of Yoga, as many Westerners started traveling to train the rigorous Ashtanga Yoga with “gurus.” Yoga was first introduced by Swami Vivekananda, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893, in Chicago. He “was the first Indian Hindu monk ever to visit the Western World. He sparked the nation’s interest by demonstrating Yoga poses.”  A few decades later, Indian monk and guru Paramahansa Yogananda also brought attention to Yoga in the West. He ”addressed a conference of religious liberals in Boston. He was sent by his guru, the ageless Babaji, to spread the message of kriya yoga to the West.”

As the Immigration Act of 1924 limited immigration quotas, Westerners had to go to India for yogic teachings. They took those teachings to the United States and popularised particularly Asana.

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Eugenie Peterson who became Indra Devi – Source : AWH

We have, for example, Indra Devi, (originally called Eugenie Peterson/Eiženija Pētersone) who was a well-known Yoga teacher in the United States. After the yogic teachings she received, she created her own Yoga style, which she taught to many celebrities. Another US-American Yoga teacher popularised Hatha Yoga, Richard Hittleman. “Richard Hittleman specialized in introducing Yoga in an easy-to-follow fashion to those who were new to the subject. Through his books, lectures, recordings and TV programs, he brought Yoga to more people than any other person alive at the time.”

Two other Indian gurus were the most influential regarding the growth of Yoga in the Western society: B.K.S Iyengar and T.K.V Desichakar. B.K.S Iyengar became famous after he taught in India to Yehudi Mehudin. Then, B.K.S had many opportunities to teach abroad. The son of yogi Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, T.K.V Desichakar “is considered to be the father of modern yoga.. “Desikachar first lectured in the United States in 1976 and later visited regularly, teaching and lecturing on his approach to yoga and yogic healing.” “B.K.S. Iyengar and  T.K.V. Desikachar, both popular yoga teachers with transnational followings, have emphasised the potential health benefits of yoga, benefits seen as compatible with biomedical science, in their influential presentations of yoga to students in Europe and the Anglophone world.” 

How does physical culture shape Yoga in Western countries?

Physical culture started to become rooted in Western culture at the beginning of the 19th century. For what reasons? Physical culture connects “a cluster of ideological items including manliness, morality, patriotism, fair play faith, and it was a means for molding the perfect English man.” There was this obsession with what a modern man should like mentally and physically in Western countries. Physical activities were a way to build this new modern man, particularly through Swedish gymnastics. Consequently, Swedish gymnastics were introduced in Great Britain in schools and the military.

As India was a colony of Great Britain, Swedish gymnastics was also introduced in India. It has much influence on how Yoga is shaped right now. The 3rd limb of Yoga, Asana, became far more important than the others. Similarities were found between Asana and Swedish Gymnastics and influenced on the westernization of Yoga. Regarding bodybuilding, the fusion with Yoga was mainly contributed mainly by K.V.Iyer, the first Indian bodybuilder. Those factors associated Yoga with the physical movement cure, labeled Yoga as a physical activity that improves the body muscles, strength, and flexibility.

Sun salutation – Credit : noobyoga.com

Many of the postures are just about 100 years old or less and were created as an attempt to modernize and erase many parts of Indian culture. For instance, Sri Krishnamacharya created sun salutations sequences, who are a combination between British Army calisthenics, Indian wrestling and Hatha Yoga. “The reappropriation of Yoga valued Asana more and more, leaving the other limbs of the practice aside.”

Mass-marketed Yoga and cultural appropriation

The post-colonial period impacts the westernization of Yoga at many levels: on its representation, exploitation, and reappropriation. The interest towards Yoga kept growing from the 1970s, due to the expansion of body culture and consumerism. Consumerism and body culture go hand in hand. “Consumer culture and body culture glorify slender body ideal, associated with health and happiness, as a cultural icon and standard.” Furthermore, “more and more American research demonstrated their measurable physical and mental health benefits, legitimizing Yoga in the eye of the public.” As a result, Yoga became a way to fit the body ideal, and started to be mass-commercialized.

“Yoga became very popular in the United States and Europe in the early 2000s. Health clubs and corporate retreats began offering it. Trendy television characters such as those in Sex and the City did it. Vacations centered around it were offered in Turkey, Spain, Hawaii, and Peru. Companies marketed sexy “chakra” tank tops, disco yoga and yoga gold classes.” In many Yoga classes and studios, there is nothing left from the original culture.

With this mass commercialization, one has two distinct phenomena on the cultural appropriation: “The first is the sterilization of yoga by removing evidence of its Eastern roots so that it doesn’t ‘offend’ Westerner practitioners. The opposite extreme is the glamorization of Yoga and India through commercialism, such as Om tattoos, T-shirts sporting Hindu deities or Sanskrit scriptures that are often conflated with yoga, or the choosing of Indian names.”

Yoga is for white, healthy, and affluent people

This mass commercialization Yoga leads to its dilution, misconception, and whitewashing. In a globalized Western world with a sedentary lifestyle, stress and depression embody the scourges of our time. The mass commercialization of Yoga presents it as a magical and natural cure. Most of the Yoga courses focus only on the physical postures and call it Yoga. Yoga is misconceptualized and also bastardized. Many new styles of Yoga have appeared: slackline yoga, kickboxing yoga, acqua yoga, nude yoga. Yoga becomes a catch-all and a very profitable activity.

Yoga turned into a non-inclusive activity. It is mostly marked by white, slim, healthy, and affluent people. This image is very entrenched, mainly by media and brands – we can cite, for example, the Lululemon brand, due to its contribution to this imagery of slim, white, and affluent persons. Through this whitewashing of Yoga, many people do not feel comfortable to practice it, as they believe they have to fit the Western beauty standards to practice it, which is very concerning. What do beauty standards have to do with an activity that helps us feel better about ourselves and our environment? Currently,the majority of Yoga spaces in the Western countries are not inclusive not only for students of color, but also for teachers of color.

Yoga teachers of color

Rarely you will see Yoga classes taught by a teacher originally from India or a teacher of color. Yoga is a white-dominant field where people of color are, most of the time, invisible. I met one in Berlin, called Isabela.

Isabela Alzuguir is a Berlin-based Yoga teacher who started practicing Yoga back in her Brazilian hometown.  Years ago, Isabela moved to Berlin to start a new and more authentic life. She graduated from Humboldt-Universität with a Master of Arts degree in US-American Studies, with a focus on intersectionality and literature. She suffered from depression and anxiety and needed the help of physical and spiritual practice. As she could not afford to attend Yoga classes she started to follow online Yoga courses. She began to notice some improvement physically and mentally. “Yoga helps me with the impermanence of things, to cope with difficult times, at an emotional and physical level. When it’s tough, you remind yourself that it’s not permanent, you’re going to move to another posture,” she says.

The few times went to yoga classes she did not feel comfortable. This is the feeling of many people who do not feel legitimate to take part in Yoga classes due to their physical appearance, as they do not match the beauty Eurocentric ideals exposed in Yoga: a slim, toned, affluent and white tanned person. In her classes, she wants her students to feel welcome, safe, and to find joy in the practice while expanding physical and symbolic spaces. She went to Dharamshala, in the Indian Himalayas, for her teacher training , as she found it important to learn more about this holistic system where it originated. If you’d like to visit her page, click here.

Acknowledge colonial history to decolonize Yoga

The meaning of Yoga is more and diluted due its westernization, cultural appropriation and mass-commercialization. “The problem is that Yoga is used as a coping mechanism in our fast-paced, stressful, capitalist Western societies. These societies exploited the colonial subjects who originated this practice. Western social requirements reshaped Yoga, turning it into an activity in which performance and perfection deconstruct the Yoga culture. Yoga is exoticized and romanticized by the same cultures that once tried to eradicate it, and now re-appropriate and mass-commercialize it. Until we acknowledge colonial history, there will be no truly unproblematic way to practice Yoga in the mainstream Western tradition.”

This video explains in a great way about the real meaning of Yoga and its cultural appropriation.

Bibliography

Women and body culture – Life stories, advertising experiences and cultural context in women’s identity construction processes – Petra Kujala -2012

Cultural Appropriation and Westernized Yoga: Why I Thought Twice About Becoming a Yoga Instructor – Julia Reiger – Last update on 24 May 2017

Domes of the Body: Yoga, Alignment, and Social Justice – Becky Thompson -April 2017

Is There A Respectful Way To Practice Yoga?

From Ancestral Yoga to the Modern Discipline – Jon – Published on 5 March 2018