The Hypocrisy of Om

Is yoga just another bout of cultural appropriation?

Patanjali, an Indian sage, first documented Yoga around 200 CE in his work Yoga Sutra, establishing the foundation for the nearly 2,000 years of yoga that has since followed. For Patanjali, the physical practice of “yoga” as we now know it was only a small part of his original spiritual doctrine. So how did a mere fraction of an ancient religion mutate into one of the biggest fashion and fitness trends in modern America?

In the past four years, there has been a steep increase in yoga participation within the United States—of almost 180%. A joint study published by the Yoga Alliance and the Yoga Journal predicts that by the end of 2016, yoga will be the second most popular fitness activity in the country, second only to walking. This newfound popularity may seem positive. According to studies and articles everywhere, yoga cultivates better, calmer, and healthier people, so more yoga must be good.

But with growing suspicion that the yoga craze is fueled by Lululemon leggings, glamorized models stretching and expensive studio memberships, the faintest aroma of hypocrisy starts to rise. No one can deny that these consumerist trends directly contradict the original foundations of yoga. In fact, some would say, the American’s yoga practice is nothing short of another grave bout of cultural appropriation.

Patanjali’s sacred Yoga Sutra outlines what he calls the “Eight Limbs of Yoga.” These eight limbs played a large part in Hindu and Indian culture of his time, and still continue to do so to some extent today. They serve as a manual-like guide to Patanjali’s “completeness,” or perfect unity and connection with the divine.

For Patanjali, all eight limbs were important and therefore balanced; no single branch was emphasized over others. Though each targets specific aspects of existence, all focus on the ways in which we interact with the world around us and how we interact with ourselves. The first two limbs, for example, outline moral behavior, suggesting things like “compassion for all living things” and “neutralizing the desire to acquire and hoard wealth.” Other limbs focus on different observation and concentration techniques in order to control and understand the senses and cultivate a deeper inner perceptual awareness. Only one of the branches actually refers to what we now commonly know as “yoga.”

This limb is referred to as Asana, a Sanskrit word that translates literally as “seat,” but which is more commonly thought of as a translation for “pose” or “posture” (hence the names of yoga poses ending in –asana, like savasana for corpse pose and bakasana for crow pose). Patanjali intended for the Asana limb to act as a preparation for the work to be done within the other seven limbs. For him, asanas were revered as an essential warm-up activity for demanding physical and mental activities like seated meditation, similar to the role that dynamic stretching now plays before professional basketball games.

The asana practice once only constituted a fragment of a much larger picture. The fact that it is now the main focus of a glamorized multi-billion dollar industry makes a strong case for the argument that the majority of the “west” is not honoring an ancient practice, but rather appropriating it. As S.E. Smith, a writer for xojane.com, argues, “Yoga furnishes a textbook example [of cultural appropriation]; westerners lift something from another tradition, brand it as ‘exotic,’ proceed to dilute and twist it to satisfy their own desires, and then call it their own.”

To some extent, this is inarguable. According the YJ and YA study, the top reasons Americans practice yoga is “flexibility, stress reduction and overall fitness.” This isn’t to say that no one practicing yoga cares about its original intentions, but simply that the overwhelming majority of practitioners have extracted the asana practice from its core and left the rest aside.

The western adaptation of yoga has been absorbed readily by mainstream culture. Somehow it became in vogue to plaster Ganesha, Namaste and Om symbols on water bottles, posters and t-shirts. An entire fashion category was created to accommodate the overwhelming, booming popularity. “Yoga leggings” commonly retail for over $100 (so much for neutralizing the desire to acquire and hoard wealth). Instead of encouraging people to seek purity and contentment or find compassion and practice discipline, the yoga industry encourages consumerism and fuels obsessions with outward beauty.

Summer Chastant, a retired yoga teacher based in Los Angeles, California, , created a comedic TV series in 2015 called “Namaste, Bitches” that exposes outrageous culture revolving around the high-end yoga scene. In a New York Times interview Chastant said, “Teachers in the Western world are increasingly hired by the number of Instagram followers they have… That is kind of the antithesis of yoga, which is all about being selfless and being of service.”

This kind of image-focused yoga can cause even those with a claim to the original culture to feel alienated. Susana Barkataki, author of the popular article “How to Decolonize Your Yoga,” wrote, “As an Indian woman living in the U.S. I’ve often felt uncomfortable in many yoga spaces… my culture is being stripped of its meaning and sold back to me in forms that feel humiliating at best and dehumanizing at worst.”

Yet even as awareness of yoga’s potential harm has grown, only a few institutions have taken actions to curtail the symptoms. In November of 2015, the University of Ottawa cancelled their yoga program. The Ottawa Sun reported that the administration was concerned that the cultures from which yoga has been taken  “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy.”

Michelle Goldberg, author of The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West, doesn’t fully agree with this argument. She makes the case that thinking about yoga in this context “completely ignores the agency of Indians themselves, who have been making a concerted effort to export yoga to the West since the late 19th century… Indians have played an active, enthusiastic role in globalizing their spiritual practices.”

For a time during British colonialism, practicing yoga was actually banned, so in 1893 Swami Vivekananda traveled to the United States as India’s first missionary of sorts to raise support against British rule. Indian leaders thought that by spreading knowledge about Hinduism, they could undermine the misconception of Indian culture as backwards and insufficient. Swami Vivekananda’s mission was an overwhelming success: Despite the fact that his original intention was never to spread asana practice, as Swami Vivekananda adapted his teachings to suit the western audience, “yoga” as we now know it quickly became one of his central tenets and the most lasting message. Swami Vivekananda found that westerners could relate to yoga the most because it was seen as a practical way to “realize the divine force within,” which was a large focus of the concurrent western Christian theology.

Even today, India plays an active role in spreading yoga, and the Government of India has made it one of its public relations focuses for several years. In 2014 the government created a new ministry of yoga and in early 2015 the country succeeded in lobbying the United Nations for an official International Yoga Day, which is now celebrated worldwide on June 21 with mass yoga demonstrations. Commenting on these changes, Anmol Saxena, the Delhi-based Al Jazeera correspondent observed “New Age Indian gurus… have created multimillion-dollar business empires through yoga centres, traditional treatments and TV shows. Clearly, there is a lot more economic potential in yoga than just yoga pants.”

This only goes to show that the case against yoga isn’t simple. Both sides certainly played a part in how the current manifestation evolved. But what does it mean to practice yoga while wearing luxurious clothing? Or, worse, to cut someone off in the parking lot in order to get a good seat in yoga class?