Question: Yoga has been growing rapidly in popularity in America. Now it is even being introduced in public schools because it is a good form of exercise and it calms the mind. Yet this has not been without controversy. There was a law suit filed by parents in Encinita, California to exempt their children from yoga because of its basis in Eastern religion. The schools in New York City permit yoga but do not allow the chanting of Om…shanti. Now the practice of yoga has been suspended by the student board of the student center at the University of Ottawa over concerns that yoga is a “cultural appropriation”. How do you assess these concerns that Yoga is based in a particular religion, that its religion-based practices should not be done in public schools, and that its roots in Indian culture should be respected? Will there be a cultural backlash against the practice of yoga?
Frank answers: With regard to the case in Encinita, a California Appeals Court judge has ruled that the yoga offered in the school system doesn’t violate religious freedom because it has been so diluted of religious content that it is not an affront to anyone’s faith. I believe the Jois Institute was providing teachers and they don’t communicate any explicit religious teaching.
Yoga is not a religion in itself. It is a practice that unites body and mind and its techniques have been used by several religions…and by practitioners who espouse no religion.
I am a Christian pastor and theologian who practices yoga. In my view the breathing techniques (pranas), poses (asanas), and meditation practices are religiously neutral, but one can bring religious or spiritual beliefs to them. One can even practice yoga as a devotion (bhakti) offered to Christ instead of Krishna. (See “Frank Answers About Christian Yoga”.)
Is this cultural or religious appropriation? Yoga classes may be suspended in one or another university over issues of “cultural appropriation”, but yoga has become a global phenomenon practiced by millions of people around the world and a billion dollar industry. It is not going to be rolled back.
Cultural appropriation occurs when a culture that’s seen as an oppressor borrows or steals elements of a culture they’re oppressing. A classic case would be American athletic teams appropriating Native American names, practices, and symbols (like the University of Illinois’ Chief Illini doing a war dance in buckskins and headdress at U of I sports events). But it’s hard to see how the charge of colonizing applies to Yoga in North America and the West because yoga was not borrowed, stolen, or even imported from India; it was exported by Indians to the West.
Toward the end of the 19th century Indian nationalists thought they could gain sympathy from people in the West if they popularized their religious tradition. So they sent the Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda as a sort of missionary to America, where he introduced yoga philosophy in the 1890s and published his book Raja Yoga in 1896. It became a best seller, although it was more yoga as meditation than as the postural practice we have become used to. In the photo below Vivekananda participates in the 1893 World Parliament of Religions.
Kriya Yoga (Yoga of Action) was promoted by Paramahansa Yogananda as a spiritual discipline in his Self-Realization Center, established in Encinitas, California in 1920. Ironically Encinitas is where the recent school yoga controversy has taken place. Yogananda sought to open religious dialogue with the West by extolling Christ as a yoga guru and Mahavatar Babaji as the Yogi-Christ of modern India. His Autobiography of a Yogi (1946) presents a picture of yoga in India not represented by the promoters of modern postural yoga. And for good reason. It presents some pretty hair-raising accounts of yogis who can bi-locate and take possession of other people’s bodies.
Modern postural yoga was developed in the 1930s by the yoga guru of the Mysore Palace, T. Krishnamacharya, who combined facets of medieval Hatha practices with elements from Indian wrestling exercises, British army calisthenics, and Scandinavian gymnastics. The British occupiers of India looked down on yogis as disreputable and on the Indians in general as weak and unhealthy. Krishnamacharya’s aim was to rehabilitate and use Hatha Yoga to build up physical and mental strength in his students in the cause of Indian nationalism, and he saw what kind of exercises the British Army was using in its camp down the road.
Krishnamacharya was invited but declined to go to the West. But he persuaded his students to take this revitalized Hatha Yoga to the West, including his younger brother-in-law, B. K. S. Iyengar, who developed a way to make postural yoga more accessible to ordinary people by use of blocks and straps. Iyengar was promoted in the West by the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who had become an avid yoga practitioner.
Krishnamacharya’s female Russian student, Indra Devi, set up a yoga studio in Hollywood, California that included Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson among her celebrity students and published several best sellers, including Forever Young, Forever Healthy : Simplified Yoga for Modern Living (1953) and Yoga for Americans (1959).
Another Krishnamacharyi student, J. Pattabhi Jois, developed the Ashtanga Yoga brand as a vinyasa which emphasized a flow from one pose to another. He established his Jois Institute both in Mysore and Encinitas in the 1970s. Krishnamacharyi’s son T. K. V. Desikachar also became a teacher in the West, promoting home practice with his book The Heart of Yoga (1995).
The younger Bikram Choudhury developed his hot yoga practice in the 1970s, brought it to California, and developed a worldwide network of yoga studios. Yogi Amrit Desai was the guru behind Kripalu Yoga (named after his guru, Swami Kripalu) as taught at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, MA. Swami Rama established the Himalayan Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy in Pennsylvania.
I could go on and on; these are only the major figures in the exportation of yoga. But in terms of mass marketing, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi beat them all by getting the United Nations to recognize International Yoga Day on June 21 (the summer solstice), which was celebrated with mass yoga demonstrations worldwide.
Prime Minister Modi leads 35,000 participants in a yoga class on June 21 in Rajpath.
Prime Minister Modi is clearly a yogi. The yoga asanas performed during the International Yoga Day at Rajpath were according to the Common Yoga Protocol, which has been put together by the AYUSH ministry (Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy), which organized the celebration along with the External Affairs ministry. Around thirty-five asanas and pranayamas were performed. Modi clearly intends for yoga to be promoted internationally. “Yoga has the power to bring the entire humankind together!” he tweeted after pitching the idea of an International Yoga Day in his speech at the U.N. General Assembly in 2014.
The charge that yoga has been “cultural appropriated” or “colonized” by the West is complicated because (1) the British occupiers despised the yogis and (2) the yoga that the Indian gurus exported to the West had already been westernized. Just so, Indian gurus strove to make yoga appealing to the West. Vivekananda’s religious views had been influenced by the European theosophical movement, as David Gordon White has shown in Sinister Yogis (University of Chicago Press, 2009); and Krishnamacharya’s Hatha Yoga included elements of northern European gymnastics, as Mark Singleton has shown in Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Postural Practice (Oxford University Press, 2010). These academic studies—by Westerners—question the historical authenticity (the lineages) of the yoga traditions that were exported to the West. In other words, we didn’t receive the real thing. Yoga was already westernized when it was brought to the West. Yet now millions of people worldwide have come to see the benefits of the yoga they are practicing.
The yoga we are practicing has not only been adapted to the West, but also to modern life in India with its health and wellness concerns, as Joseph S. Alter has documented in Yoga in Modern India: The Body Between Science and Philosophy (Princeton University Press, 2003). The Canadian yoga teacher Matthew Remski has argued in Threads of Yoga (2012) that the yoga of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which was designed for ascetics (renunciates), is not really being practiced in North American yoga studios as Patanjali intended, even though yoga teachers continue to try to make Patanjalian yoga relevant to modern householders. But Indian teachers have been doing the same. We are all learning from historical studies that modern postural yoga is not the kind of yoga codified in Patanjali’s Yoga sutras. But I think very few of us are likely to join the ranks of India’s naga sadhus (naked holy men) and live in a cave in the Himalayas.
In the light of these complexities, learning about and discussing the yoga traditions is a valuable exercise but there is no basis for Western students and university administrators to suspend yoga classes because of perceived “cultural appropriation”. The Indians themselves taught us what we know about yoga, taught the teachers who are now teaching us students, and encouraged the entrepreneurial approach toward yoga by their own examples. Furthermore, the yoga that the gurus exported already had been influenced by Western spiritual ideas and physical practices. Maybe this assessment will be modified by further investigation into India’s historically authentic yoga traditions. But this is the situation as we currently know it.
There’s no question that yoga is rooted in Indian culture. As Mircea Eliade wrote in Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, it meets “all the deepest needs of the Indian soul.” That should definitely be recognized and respected. And yoga teachers who make use of symbols rooted in Indian culture have an obligation to get them right. It is also possible to teach yoga in studios that do not display Indian symbols, which is often the case when yoga is taught in fitness and health clubs, YMCAs, and other facilities not devoted exclusively to yoga. This avoids some of the worst transgressions of “cultural appropriation.” But it is also possible to use yoga symbols rooted in Indian culture with integrity.
Yoga has been exported for millennia. Tibetan Buddhists have practiced yoga for millennia—which indicates that yoga can also be practiced outside of India and apart from Hinduism. Some Hindus think it can’t be or should not be. Dr. Aseem Shukla, co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, lamented that “yoga has thrived, but Hinduism has lost control of the brand.” The Hindu American Foundation, whose mission is to shed light on any form of prejudice against Hindus or Hinduism, has initiated a Take Back Yoga movement in an effort to assert yoga as a Hindu religious contribution to civilization. But if yoga has been practiced for 5,000 years, it was practiced before it became systematized in Hinduism. Perhaps a case can be made that Hindus were the first “colonizers” of yoga.
I would also note that in the melting pot of India between 200 BC and 1200 AD, yoga was a shared discourse between proto-Hindus (Brahmanists, really), Buddhists, Jains, and Sufis. One wonders whether Christians, who were in India perhaps as early as the end of the first century (the so-called Mar Thoma Christians in Kerala), also took a dip in the yoga traditions. Certainly the 19th century physical culture movement that Krishnamacharya appropriated for the revitalization of Hatha Yoga came out of the Christian culture of northern Europe and was an expression of the “muscular Christianity” promoted by the YMCA in its program of building strong bodies, minds, and spirits, also in India, where YMCA leaders trained India’s gymnastic team for the 1924 Olympics.
Niels Buhk’s Danish gymnastics system, more vigorous than Ling’s Swedish gymnastics, was adopted by the British Army in 1906 and promoted by the YMCA in the 1920s and 1930s. Note all the yoga-like poses in this photo.
Religious groups in ancient India swapped yoga techniques and innovated as needed. Thus it is impossible to assign ownership to any practice. In the end, yoga is a time-tested set of methods for relating to the Divine in whatever form is most suitable for each practitioner — or just relating more holistically to the world and to oneself. No particular creed is required, except a basic faith in the possibility of enlightenment, which may be broadly defined as discovering things about reality or at least about oneself.
There’s no question that in America yoga has exploded into dozens of styles (and still counting), each with a brand, just as religions in America have exploded into hundreds of denominations. I practice a basic Hatha Yoga that, on the basis of my historical studies in yoga, I can’t say with certainty antedates the early 20th century in its current asana dominated form. So it’s unfair to be judgmental about those who practice a style different from mine that may be more recent. There’s no question that yoga has become a big business. But if I find that offensive I can decide not to participate in the yoga consumer culture. Stripped to basics, what more do I need to practice yoga than my body, a pair of flexible pants for modesty, and maybe a carpet to sit on.
As for yoga in the public schools, school children could be subjected to a lot worse things than learning how to breathe, calm their minds and bodies, and chant together in unison. (We’re dealing here with craziness in church-state relationships in our public, i.e. government, schools, which has run the gamut from virtually promoting the Judaeo-Christian cultural hegemony to suppressing all religious expressions.) Our public schools should be promoting cultural diversity in all its particulars rather than striving for an insipid sameness that offends no one. Yoga can be taught in the schools just for its value in health and fitness and calming and focusing the mind. But there is surely no harm in also teaching students its background — even its religious background — in Indian culture.
Yogi Pastor Frank Senn
Indian boys in a yoga competition