In 2010, the Hindu American Foundation launched their “Take Yoga Back” campaign, which is designed to make people more aware of yoga’s Hindu roots. Although the organization said they just want people to become more aware—not stop practicing—the idea of “taking back” doesn’t seem to be too distant from the idea of ownership.
On June 21, India held the first International Yoga Day—spearheaded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who also participated in the event—which cost the country approximately $4.67M, and has already appointed a Minister of Yoga for the country. In his speech to the U.N, Modi mentioned world peace, global development and International Yoga Day—and many would ask: Is yoga really that important?
Well, for many in both the United States and India, the debate about yoga is important. In a study done by the Yoga Journal in 2012, approximately 8.7 percent, or 20.4 million, of U.S. adults, practice yoga—with 44.4 percent calling themselves “aspirational yogis,” or people who are interested in trying yoga. Additionally, the industry itself is around $10.3 billion—so it comes as no surprise that many people, including Indians and Indian-Americans, feel yoga has become a victim of cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation is defined as, the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, especially if the adoption is of an oppressed people’s cultural elements by members of the dominant culture. This can involve exploiting the culture of the oppressed members—with little understanding of the culture’s history and traditions—and reinforcing stereotypes.
When we look at yoga from an industry standpoint, we can say cultural appropriation has definitely occurred. There is a steep price for wearing Lululemon yoga pants, the Hot Yoga War, the “yoga is not really Hindu” ruling or the idea that Christ loves yoga too. Many Indians have raised eyebrows as to why some fit women are breaking into downward dog and headstands wherever they like.
There’s also the expensive price of yoga classes—each class can often be upwards of $20, making them only accessible to those with sufficient incomes. It is safe to say that yoga has been warped into almost anything and everything in the U.S, and when you look at it from that lens, we can see why the Hindu Foundation and Modi have concerns.
The yogis who chant
However, looking at it from one perspective is disrespectful to the practice of yoga itself. In the midst of Instagram-famous yogis, there some who have journeyed to India to study, visit regularly, and immerse themselves in the Sanskrit and the sacred texts of yoga.
Some, so enlightened, change their given name to something more Sanskrit-y, and return to spread the message of yoga that can often be missed. This message, often intimidating to those who are not trying to get too religious, is one yoga philosophy that promotes the stillness of the mind—which is achieved through meditation, pranayama (breath work), sutras and mantras.
Amy Klein, owner of Santosha Yoga of Texas, is one of those yoga teachers who has spread the message of true yoga, but has received backlash from students for playing mantras in class. Now, she owns her own studio and is upfront with students that they will hear mantras and discuss sutras.
“I let them know I am not trying to change their religion, but I would like them to consider the benefits of learning more about yogic teachings,” she said.
There are clear differences between the yoga practiced in India and the yoga practiced in the U.S.—which is penned in great detail by Seattle yoga teacher Arundhati Baitmangalkar, but it is not just because yoga here is watered down. Yoga, even to Indians living in India, is a complex practice, requiring strong mental and physical strength. In India, there aren’t yoga studios on every corner in popular cities and many natives are not yogis who participate in a practice that they believe is religious. For Americans, however, the health benefits of yoga are too great to ignore—so while the religious and spiritual aspects are often pushed aside, its positive side effects are absorbed.
Dr. Jamie Marich, a registered Yoga of 12-Step Recovery teacher in Ohio, tailors her classes to the American audience.
“Although I blatantly steer away from over-commercialized yoga, I don’t apologize for tailoring my classes to meet people where they are, and the reality is that most of my students are Americans who respond to what some may call watered down yoga or mindfulness,” Marich said. “If they are reached at that level, I find that many deepen their study and expand their practice.”
Puneet Nanda, who goes by the name Guru Nanda, is a successful entrepreneur-turned-yogi and author of “GuruNanda’s Happy Breath Yoga: Wall Street Yoga,” and he likens the spread of yoga in the U.S. to McDonald’s opening in India. The McDonald’s menu in India d0es not include beef burgers, but rather aloo tikki burgers—vegetarian burgers made of potatoes.
“Yoga has been adapted specifically amongst American women in an amazing way,” Nanda said. “They’ve combined the more spiritual in nature aspect from India with more physical aspects that they’ve used as a mode of daily exercise, which gives them strength, flexibility, and balance.”
Where Are All the Indian-American Yogis?
According to a 2013 census, there are about two million Indian immigrants in the U.S., which begs the question, do Indian-Americans actually go to yoga class?
Depends on who you ask. In my personal experience, I’ve seen around a total of 20 Indian-Americans attend a yoga class in the past four years that I have been practicing at different studios and cities throughout the New York/New Jersey Metro area. However, the number of Indian-Americans in any particular yoga class depends heavily on the area’s demographic.
For example, Nayomi Deen, who completed her 200-hour teacher training during the summer of 2013, said her classes consisted mostly of white middle to upper-class women—probably because she attended studios in New Jersey towns like Cedar Knoll, Montclair and Whippany.
“I sometimes see people of other races coming in to try it out, but I rarely ever see them come back,” Deena said. “However, the few times that I did a take a non-hot yoga class at a gym, the class was predominately Indian.”
For many, the Indian-Americans who come to class are no different from everyone else. Most of them don’t know much about yoga—except from a cultural understanding and some pronunciation—but they are just as ready to learn as non-Indians.
Dr. Lynn Anderson, a yoga teacher based in L.A., said her Indian students are amazed in her classes: “Every time I have taught an Indian student they have told me that yoga was something that their grandmother or mother did back in India, but not something they had followed. They thanked me for exposing them to something from their own culture that they had rejected.”
And while there are many Indian-Americans whose parents or grandparents did absolutely no yoga—like myself—some truly discovered their cultural ties with yoga in the U.S, perfected it in India, and have returned to spread what they have learned.
Aditi Shah, a yoga teacher based in New York City, was raised by Indian parents in the U.S. and had a yoga teacher come to her house to teach her asanas, breath work, stillness and meditation.
“I was made to understand as a child that yoga could be used as a method to help cure dysfunctions of body and mind,” Shah said.
She now teaches classes in New York City, with students from all races—Indian, Hispanic, Middle-Eastern, African-American, and more.
The positive effects of cultural appropriation
There is good that has come from yoga’s appropriation. When there is a culture cross, there is bound to be some change.
For Traci Mingay, a 25-year-old New Jersey native, who is in training to become a yoga teacher now, said the beauty of the poses attracted her to the exercise.
“I started so I can be flexible and look pretty in poses—but after educating myself on the history and beginning a meditation practice, I found just how life changing it is” she said.
Now, Traci’s practice is spiritual but she is open and ready for something more.
“It’s the most beautiful thing that has ever happened to me,” Mingay said. “I am thankful every day that yoga is becoming more popular because everyone will open their minds and hearts to the love and happiness that can be theirs through it.”
For many Indian-Americans, including myself, yoga in the U.S. is exposing us to the heritage and culture that we often leave behind, intentionally and unintentionally. By taking a step beyond our own culture, we’re discovering the value and beauty of what is culturally ours—yoga and its philosophy—and thus, cultural appropriation is reversed and what is taken is actually given back, with more clarity and appreciation.