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 stu