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The Appropriation of Yoga

Arts & Culture | April 28, 2014

He wears only a loincloth, as his beard drops to his chest, and his thick hair swirls into a knot. He sits with his shoulders pulled back, legs crisscrossed, and arms stretched forward. The tip of his forefinger meets his thumb, forming a circle. The Hindu yogi gazes straight ahead with a firm squint.

Neha Madhusoodanan glances at the sculpture to note the yogi’s hand gesture, or mudra. As a classical Indian dancer, she has graced the stage at Tufts University for four years, moving in rhythmic patterns that animate ankle bells and make gold accents shimmer. Her dance couples precise postures with emphasized hand gestures, and the yogi demonstrates just one. Different mudras tell different stories; some serve to cultivate inner strength. In yoga, they serve to clear thoughts and channel energy, in order to experience one’s true self and, ultimately, achieve liberation from the cycle of birth and death. The stone sculpture embodies the serenity and strength that yoga demands. Neha looks back at the yogi and says, “Can you imagine explaining to this dude what yoga pants are?”

The appropriation is not limited to just yoga pants. From sacred texts to inspirational tweets, from the banks of the Ganges to pristine health clubs, yoga has turned on its head. In the last three decades, a 5,000-year-old practice has transformed into a $27 billion industry, coming second only to Microsoft, as Yoga Journal reports. Students, professionals, retirees, and celebrities have turned to cushioned mats to shape up and to relieve stress, fatigue, and pain. In crowded, mirrored rooms across the country, yogis stretch in colorful spandex. Groupon offers discounts on yogalates, Amazon.com lists DVDs for any yogi interest, and Lululemon sells skintight yoga pants. Tufts offers yoga classes every semester and even had a “Yoga in the Gallery” event in the art gallery on April 10. Explaining Nintendo Wii Yoga to the ancient yogi would pose even greater difficulties.

In fact, yoga is so prevalent that we can take its presence for granted in American culture. Equally prevalent are misconceptions about yoga, according to Neha. Raised in Long Island by a mother from New Delhi, who is “convinced that yoga can cure anything,” she muses about how modernity defies antiquity. The original yogis were Hindu scholars who established a sacred healing practice, from scientific knowledge that was incredibly advanced for the time. “Still, all of these accomplishments are minimized,” she explains, “because of the deliberate need to make it ‘non-religious,’ and ‘safe’ for Western audiences.”

The Hindu practice began to westernize in the mid-19th century, according to Mark Singleton, author of Yoga Body. At a time when India was a British colony, the postural contortions of yogis, or asana, were associated with backwardness and superstition. Vivekananda, the monk credited with exporting Hinduism, worked to eliminate “unsuitable” aspects of yoga for outside appeal. The turn of the century introduced a global physical culture, manifesting in India as the revival of postural yoga, and allowed it to flourish abroad in the mid-20th century. Photography aided in communicating the physical postures of asana yoga, propelling it into the Western mainstream. Modern yoga is the product of this dialogue, which explains why Neha finds it “appropriated” and impossible to explain to a 4,000 year-old yogi.

Yoga might be the one spiritual discipline that bends people backwards, but it’s not the only one that bends. “The porosity of any religion depends on what function it is serving, and what it can get away with,” says Joseph Walser, Professor of Eastern Religions at Tufts University, “and yoga is no different.” Walser explains how malleable culture can be, noting that such exchanges can occur mutually, since “you’ll find just as much spandex in yoga studios across India.” Behind the witty professor, floor-to-ceiling shelves carry books that all narrate these very trends. Tucked in between are statues of the Buddha and Hindu deities.

Neha’s mom explains that Hindu deities have multiple avatars “because people need different types of teachers, to help them through different times.” Yoga shifts too, depending on function and context.

Dan Steel sits with his back erect, bearing the Hindu om symbol on his beaded necklace, surrounded by the white walls of the sunny studio. He draws long breaths and exhales slowly. Two years ago, he walked into a free yoga class on a whim. With a background in martial arts and gymnastics, he embraced the physical contortions of yoga and soon, its potential for healing and self-discovery. He has since completed not just the 200 hours required for instructor certification, but 500 hours, permitting him to incorporate Sanskrit names into his classes. “Some yoga instructors will say ‘standing split,’ instead of a whole Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana,” he comments without a pause.

But just as the commercialization of yoga both provides a gain for American society and affects the nature of yoga practices in India, the appropriation of yoga as a practice complicates both American yoga practices and narratives of yoga in India. In considering the ways in which yoga plays out in our society, we must recognize that the appropriation of yoga affects both here and its roots.