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Western yoga as a 21st century colonization

In a writing class at Mount Hood Community College in the summer 2020 semester, our final paper was to research the media's influence on something of interest. The wellness industry and its profitability off of Black and Brown bodies has been something I've been grappling with since 2019 and my career in the field. I thought I would share thoughts and research on the affects of Instagram on the Yoga industry and Indian-American bodies.

Instagram Perpetuates Yoga’s Colonialism of Indian-American Bodies

*The work surrounding this topic has already been done by South Asian and Southeast Asians who have been traumatized by the appropriation of their cultural heritage. It is their research and grief that supports this paper.

On Instagram, #yoga brings you a narrow and exhaustive list of images of slim, white, and attractive bikini clad women frollicking on a beach doing impressive acrobatics. Those women tout the benefits of turmeric, don a Hindu God or Goddess tattoo and caption their picture with an “Aum” or “Namaste” pun. While there is nothing wrong with promoting a healthy lifestyle or meditation, the modern, one-dimensional bodies that enforce what a yogi is, are not telling the whole story. The yoga industry has strayed far from its roots, and has done so at the expense of those whose culture it is originally from. This 21st century colonization of yoga and Indian culture is further perpetuated and exacerbated by social media, which is used as a major marketing tool for modern day yogis and western gurus. Just as Instagram can take a complex, multifaceted concept and boil it down to a four word phrase that sums up the sometimes irrelevant facts about a greater theme, these images of White, able bodied women stretching on the beach have become the posterchildren for an ancient spiritual practice. Instagram has perpetuated ever more widespread cultural appropriation of yoga, and this trend has potentially negative effects on Indian-American bodies.

The depth and complexities of yoga’s ancient teachings are impossible to capture with just one picture or video clip, and are frequently distilled as a side effect to the physical practice, or asana. Yoga wasn’t always a hashtag. Yoga is traditionally an ancient Hindu and Buddist spiritual practice from India. The word yoga itself translates from the Sanskrit language to yoke, to bind or to attach and can also mean “union” or “community.” The classic yogic guidelines include: “non-violence, truthfulness, self-discipline, spiritual discipline, contentment, study of ancient scriptures and one’s Self, surrendering to God, sensory withdrawal and concentration” (Kawari 35). Yoga is deeply personal and aims to join the body with spirit, or to bring its practitioners into a union with “God” or the “higher self.” These concepts are not exemplarized with simple words or athleticism.

Social media, however, has made yoga very profitable for yoga teachers and studios and easily digestible to consumers. Yoga is readily available to anyone with a smartphone and a relatively short search criteria. Instagram specifically creates lucrative self-employment opportunities to thousands of teachers who otherwise wouldn’t have access to such a broad audience and now, users can make a living wage by promoting themselves virtually. Wellness and a healthy lifestyle are positive messages and often seen as a dignified human service, and their high ticket price has highlighted Instagram as an essential lifeline for teachers to market themselves and make a living wage. Simplified yoga is also easily marketed. Beautiful pictures, a twisting posture and a spiritual quote are all it takes to grab a “like” from a potential audience, get a few more followers, and help someone find a routine self-care practice. Instagram has given the yoga entrepreneur a leg up in an otherwise competitive and flooded market.

And yet, critics of the yoga industry state that the Westernized physical practice of yoga for self-improvement is entirely not the point. When trends are dominated by wealthy elites who can afford $200 spandex, it begs the question of how that same practice is spiritual. Westernized yoga is packaged and branded to promote high standards of health, beauty and stress relief and while these are lovely concepts, they are not “yoga.” Yoga is about dissolving the ego, while industrialization and capitalism is about inflating it. As a result, today the “yoga industry” is an $84 billion dollar and growing business complete with yoga clothing brands, pricey teacher training, and lavish retreats (Park). Yoga in its original form is healthy, is spiritual and is available to everyone, but the Yoga Industry is not. As McCartney states in his article, “Stretching into the Shadows,” the promotion of western yoga is “clearly an invention that obfuscates how its underlying values used to increase consumption are strategic transplants from Western individualism” (381). When the emphasis is on a physical practice, the history of yoga and Indian culture is lost to the American public. And the nature of westernized yoga is about individual health benefits, which is further individualized by the Instagram users posts aim for self-perfection.

The flippant disregard for yoga’s history and its descendants is exacerbated by social media. While the yoga industry profits off of the “union of body, mind and spirit”, it simultaneously excludes bodies that can’t afford it or don’t fit the “yoga” archetype. This exclusion gets distilled and perpetuated on social media platforms such as Instagram because simplification and shareability are social media’s cornerstones. White yogis have deemed many things about the culture of yoga picture-worthy like their tattoos of Hindu Gods or an “OM” pun. When these “memes,” or short funny phrases of sanskrit words, trend on Instagram, it both dishonors and then completely erases the culture behind them by becoming “cute”. For instance the word “Namaste”, is a standard sanskrit greeting that roughly means “I bow to you.” Somehow this got picked up by Westerners who traveled to India and misinterpreted it. Namaste now concludes every yoga class (which, to native speakers, doesn’t make any sense to say essentially “hello” as a conclusion) and gives the illusion that the teacher has studied the ancient language without any understanding of that language or its dynamics. Popular memes include: “Namastay in Bed, “Namastay 6 feet away, Na”mask”e “Namaste Bitches” et c.” (Barataki). Which are funny to consumers, but deeply disrespectful to 1.4 billion people worldwide.

The yoga industry has a tremendous impact on Indian-American bodies specifically. These people have inherited the spiritual teachings from their ancestors, but have not been represented as experts in the “industry” like White women have. When an Indian-American repeatedly sees mostly White rich women promoting yoga as a fitness exercise and using Sanskrit inappropriately, it devalues their cultural heritage. These trends in American culture also exclude anyone else that doesn’t look like them from feeling welcome to their White spaces. Nadia Gilani, a Southeast Asian yoga teacher from London, notes the exclusivity of yoga in her article, “Why I’m no longer talking to White people about yoga, “There appear to be invisible barriers stopping certain people accessing yoga - specifically people of colour, people with disabilities, LGBT+ and those with bodies that don’t reflect the hetero-looking bendy limbed, white, models generally presented on yoga marketing” (Gilani) Exclusion and its accompanying microaggresions are a challenge to document and prove because of their very nature. Racism in yoga is so implicit that most don’t even notice that it’s a white woman on the cover of Yoga Journal every month. The stories of brave Indian-Americans or any marginalized person pushing back against systems of oppression are the documentation that Americans need to see. When they are heard and believed, then what’s “normal” has a chance to finally shift toward inclusivity and equity.

Southeast Asian and Asian yoga teachers (mostly women), are devalued and treated like a commodity in the yoga industry, and they are now speaking up on Instagram about it. Instead of being able to honor their traditions in public yoga spaces, they attest to being forced to see their culture and language butchered and simplified. They report having to distort their cultural heritage to fit the Western mold, and some even recall being publicly chastised by White teachers when trying to correct their cultural faux-pas that ignorant white people are making. Indian-American hosts, Jesal Parikhi and Tejal Patel recall how insidious White microaggressions are on Indian-American women in the yoga industry on their podcast, “Yoga is Dead.” The first episode, “White Women Killed Yoga,” highlights many instances of exclusion and gaslighting including, mispronouncing their names continuously after being corrected, or even using a different Indian girl’s name to refer to the speaker! The offending white studio owner, instead of apologizing and correcting their behavior, repeatedly deflected and avoided confrontation while not taking any responsibility for their transgressions.

When this happens over and over again, it degrades these women’s self-esteem, their culture and can cause irreparable harm. Stories of shame and exclusion come from white teachers and studios alike and Indian-Americans have shared that they have been rejected from staff hiring processes as well. While studio rejection letters don’t explicitly say, We don’t want to hire you because you are brown, the implicit racism is cloaked and deflected to “love and light.” In context, it is obvious that that studios exclude qualified teachers because of their cultural biases as evidenced by the overwhelming majority of White female cisgendered yoga teachers in studios and on Instagram. Nadia Gilani posted a few of her rejection letters on her Instagram page, @theyogadissident. She stated in her resume that she teaches Ashtanga (the original all encompassing physical yoga practice now called “vinyasa”), but many of the responding studios’ gave mysterious reasons for rejecting her. One response was that “[they] are currently looking for teachers with a strong dynamic approach to vinyasa flow.” Some would only hire teachers who completed training at their studio but did not offer financial aid to Indian-American or minority students. Another studio said she needed more experience teaching in a studio like theirs, but they were “happy to have [her] buy an annual membership so they could get to know her better”. Best yet, there are studios in London, today, that hire teachers based on their Instagram followers. These practices are ingrained in western yoga studios to uphold supremacy in White spaces by devaluing Indian yogis because they don’t fit in with the Western yoga mold.

Yoga White-washing, doesn’t just simply discriminate socially, it has health effects on the teachers and students who are pushed outside their spaces. Studios and modernized yoga disguise themselves as “loving and inclusive” but the incidents of gaslighting that has occured to anyone who isn’t White, rich or fit takes a serious toll on the health of the marginalized. Gilani reflects on her career as a yoga teacher, and her relationship with yoga as her culture. “Teaching yoga has made me question whether I’m wrong to feel conflicted about what’s happened to it. I can’t help feeling that what’s going on is in fact a perverse form of 21st century colonialism. Here I am, a South Asian yoga teacher feeling forced to distort a tradition that is part of my own ancestral heritage. This paradox is exhausting to exist with.” She shared earlier in her feed that studios repeatedly ask for images of her doing asana or a photogenic pose (essentially tokenizing her for their diversity quota), and shy away from or discourage her from posting yoga teachings linked to activism that she prefers to share on her platform.The exhaustion she feels from this interaction has a deep impact and goes largely ignored or discounted by western yoga. When exhaustion and stress goes ignored by predominant society it leaves those marginalized, by their own discounting, to feel like it was them that did something wrong, not the framework that oppresses them.

SouthAsian people who have felt marginalized by the yoga industry suggest the industry needs a cultural shift from appropriation to appreciation as a form of reparations. Jesal Parikh, a South Asian yoga educator and activist highlights these concepts in her training, “Am I Appropriating Yoga?” The insights she shares are that “Appropriation is when people from a dominant group take from those in a less dominant group. In sharp contrast, appreciation is about GIVING. When you appreciate someone or something, typically you GIVE. You give thanks, you give your time, you give your energy, you give love and you may even give gifts.”

Appropriation can simply be receiving a personal health benefit from yoga without ensuring any equity for South Asians. Someone is “appropriating” if they feel included as part of South Asian culture without having to deal with any of the difficult parts of the culture (ex. Wearing saris, bindis, or henna without having to engage with South Asian norms and expectations around gender) (Parikh). Appreciation, she shares, can happen in numerous ways and there are plenty of resources for those who go looking for it, ironically, those resources are often posted on Instagram. Some of these include honoring South Asian ancestors, spending time learning about their culture, context and history, uplifting Indian voices as experts, and approaching yoga as a spiritual practice, not as a workout. Most importantly, by building financial equity into all offerings, modern day yogis can have tangible impacts in a positive way on the yoga community from which they have benefitted.

Luckily, the necessary conversations to expose the truth about the yoga industry are happening on the Instagram platform. More Indian-American yoga educators are gaining popularity and white-owned studios are being asked to take responsibility for their past misbehavior. When @yoga_girl account holder Rachel Brathen was asked to stop wearing a bindi because it was disrespectful to her followers’ heritage, she acquiesced publicly and said, “It’s not a big deal to not do one thing that causes harm to a whole group of people” (Malik). Social media has great power to organize, educate and uplift marginalized voices. It is our responsibility as users of the platform to see through the white noise and follow accounts that support and spread the message of appreciation over appropriation. We need to bring these spiritual teachings back into the hands of the people that truly own its content: South Asian, Southeast Asian and all other Indians who practice actual yoga..

Annotated Bibliography

Barataki, Susannah., @susannahbarataki August 2nd, 2020 “Just a cute joke? Namaste in Bed”

This is the personal account of Indian-American yoga teacher and educator, Susannah Barataki who trains yoga teachers on how to repair colonized harm to Indian-Americans.

Gilani, Nadia “Why I’m no Longer Talking To White People About Yoga” Huffington Post January 26, 2020

This article talks about the cultural appropriation of yoga and how one woman’s personal account shines a light on a greater issue.

Gilani, Nadia., @theyogadissident August 3, 2020 “I thought it’d be funny to share some of the rejection letters I’ve had from yoga studios.”

This is the personal instagram account of Southeast Asian yoga instructor in London who educates about activism and the cultural appropriation of yoga.

Kawari, Neha. "A Study of Customer Loyalty towards Yoga Marketing Relationship in the Indian Urban Market." Ushus Journal of Business Management 17.1 (2018): 33-42.

An Instagram #yoga search includes millions of mostly white, lean female bodies doing contortions to promote their own yoga business. Body image and “fitspiration” or fitness inspiration sets a “goal” for wellness is documented as leading to a lower self image for all bodies, even the thin and white. The study highlights “selective self-presentation” which perpetuates body image competition and comparison for users and their audience. It also talks about the origins of yoga as a spiritual practice, and only one small part emphasizes “asana” or a physical practice. Instagram has become a modern tool for “packaging” yoga and the yoga business to sell to consumers.

Malik, Sarah “White yoga instructors are waking up to cultural appropriation” Special Broadcasting Service 08/28/2018

This article interviews a white yoga teacher who inappropriately used to wear a bindi without it being culturally significant to her. She then publicly apologizes and opens the global conversation about cultural appropriation of yoga.

McCartney, P. (2019). Stretching into the shadows. Asian Ethnology, 78(2), 373-401. Retrieved from

The article dives into the history of yoga, and how it has been simplified to a commodity in the western world. The author speaks first hand of his experience with yoga’s white washing, and highlights well-known gurus commodification of it. He sees the intertwining of hindu languaging and banal western yoga rhetoric to see that both perpetuate each other for their own personal gains: Western business and Hindus becoming a global “guru”.

Park, C.L., Braun, T. & Siegel, T. Who practices yoga? A systematic review of demographic, health-related, and psychosocial factors associated with yoga practice. J Behav Med 38, 460–471 (2015).

This article talks about who practices yoga. It highlights the predominant yoga practitioner as a white able bodied female and juxtaposes that against the history of yoga.

Patel, Tejal., Parikhi, Jesal., ‘Yoga is Dead”

This is a podcast where two Indian-American women break down the ways in which yoga has been used as a tool to further White supremacy and is no longer really “yoga” when it’s taught by a white person.

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