The continued rise of Instagram-influenced yoga has led to a new wave of criticism among East-Indians and academics alike. Accusations of cultural appropriation are being levied just as long-held myths are being debunked. Many earnest practitioners find themselves confused by the discord between what they see and read in the media and the experience they have of Yoga in their lives.
I traveled to India in 1998. I spent three months there. I did not go to study or stay in an ashram. I went with no plan. Just a backpack, a Let’s Go travel guide, and the hope that somewhere along the journey I might gain insight enough to decide whether or not to continue Yoga as a life path or seek another direction for my livelihood. I had only one condition: stay off of the tourist track. And I definitely learned something important about Yoga from my time in India. Things I could never have learned from my previous two years of practice and training in New York City.
Aspects of yoga seemed to pervade the culture of India, in stark contrast to Yoga’s obscure status back home in the US. I remember a conversation with a rare English-speaking local and the realization that many of my friends in NY who were attending Kirtan regularly and, on some level considered themselves devotees of Kali, would never be permitted in the Kali temple in India. No amount of chanting or sari and bindi-wearing can get around the fact of one’s birth or the view commonly held in India that one cannot convert to Hinduism. I also remember how many times I sought out the local teacher of a small village only to discover a string of frauds and touts, capitalizing on the naivete of tourists.
There is a renewed and legitimate debate happening over whether or not westerners have a right to take ownership of yoga in the ways that we have.
Even among westerners, there is a feeling that something is not right about a twenty-something blond girl with a large Instagram following saying “Namaste” to promote her lifestyle brand. Then, you have folks like David Gordon White and other scholars who, in response to all the hype and co-opting, are uncovering untold truths about the history of yoga that have previously been shrouded in lore and mystery. Throw in the rampant commercialization and use of yoga as a marketing demographic across the globe and we end up with a whole lot of questions and sour grapes.
I’m having conversations with talented yoga teachers who are questioning whether to abandon teaching altogether. They are feeling like they don’t fit into what “yoga” has become. They are even embarrassed to tell people that they are yoga teachers because they don’t want to be associated with what people think of yoga teachers outside inner yoga circles. I am also being confronted with a storm of comments on Facebook calling into question my associations and accusing me of being part of an imperialist takeover of Yoga’s indigenous roots.
Truth is, yoga was first marketed and sold to the west by the same venerated teachers that are now cited as the only vestiges of authentic tradition.
The use of yoga to promote or sell things is nothing new. Mr Iyengar had students perform on Martha Stewart to promote his book sales. Mr. Pattabhi Jois travelled around the world conducting large-scale yoga events, same as the yoga celebrities of today. These guys were selling yoga just as much as they were practicing and teaching it. Granted, they were of Indian descent. Maybe that gives them more of a right to monetize yoga. But is it really that different? Or are we merely experiencing the results of macro changes in technology and economics?
I was taught that in order for my yoga to be authentic it needs to adapt to my individual needs and be specific to my cultural background. But perhaps there is a point where the practice is taken so far away from its origins that it ceases to be true to what it is. When does something become true to you but not to where you got it from? Unless, of course, you are of the view that the intention is for it to be true to the individual and not to any particular teacher, tradition or ideal.
Krishnamacharya did what he had to do to make a way for himself and his family. This takes nothing away from the gifts he has given to countless human beings.
Regardless of where we might land on the cultural appropriation and commercialization of yoga, there are people across the world who, by themselves and gathering in small and big groups, are doing breathing and moving exercises. They are doing this not as merely a form of fitness, but as a vital part of their self-care. The experiences they are having are genuinely helpful. These practices are often pivotal in people making changes in themselves and their lives that are deeply meaningful and important.
Another remembrance from my time in India is that some things are universal and transcend cultures. The gesture of placing my hands together in prayer at my chest, sometimes referred to as “Namaste”, was like an express-pass to shared humanity. I’ve found this true in other parts of the world I have traveled to as well. Simple and undeniable is the thread of wonder that runs through all beings. No amount of capitalism or appropriation can touch the warmth and love we know in our hearts.