Yoga through a western lens
Are we honouring the culture behind the practice? By Ali Barnard
Cultural appropriation is not something that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of yoga. The fact that it doesn’t is indicative of how culturally insensitive the western world has become to the derivation of yoga and its traditional values. The yoga we have appropriated in the west is a diluted version of itself, one with increasing emphasis on fitness and health and diminished attention to spiritual etiquette. While this is not testament to all practitioners in the west, there is little doubt that our casual indifference to the commercialisation of yoga has had a cultural impact on the Indian community. Simply put, they have noticed our insensitivity, and they care.
I am a white woman who likes to think of herself as knowledgeable when it comes to yoga beyond the asana. I have studied Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and explored Ayurvedic practices. I make time for meditation. I have delved into the strength of asana and the mindfulness of pranayama. I love that yoga philosophy is steeped in ancient wisdom, firmly rooted in a period before capitalism and commerce became the mainstream dogma. Yet, despite my affection for yoga and its philosophy, I have thought very little about how it has been westernised. I have, shamefully, thought even less about the impact this adaptation has had on people of Indian descent. With this in perspective, I realise that I am not as intellectually superior as I would like to believe.
A New Perspective
Recently I arrived at my weekly Ashtanga class to see five Indian ladies standing awkwardly around the reception desk, signing in for what they nervously claimed was their first-ever yoga class. I felt a surge of compassion for my instructor. Teaching Ashtanga to beginners is a difficult undertaking, one that requires guiding students through the intricacies of each posture, while encouraging the synchronisation of breath with movement. It is a fast practice; dedicated to the breath and drishti, to forward folds and inversions. The first five rounds of Surya Namaskar A and B are enough to send even practiced students running for the hills.
During that Ashtanga class, it wasn’t the ladies’ physical struggle that caught my attention. Rather, it was their reaction to the Ashtanga rituals that I noticed. From the opening chant, I felt a new kind of energy emanating from the other side of the room. I noticed the Indian ladies were looking reproachful, wary, and slightly exasperated. Suddenly I saw the room from a new perspective. I was struck by how strange the dynamics of that space must feel to them. There was a white woman at the front of the room, chanting in Sanskrit, mimicked by a handful of other white women who considered themselves knowledgeable about the practice they were about to begin. Many of the people in that class were hyper-focused on the physical nature of the practice, poised to move their bodies without properly acknowledging how sacred and necessary this opening chant really was. How strange it must have felt for those ladies to witness their culture represented in such a casual way. How loud that silent ignorance must have sounded to them at that moment.
Observations from an Indian Woman Practicing Yoga in the West
In her encounters with western yoga, Arnica Miakista has endured a varied experience of fulfilment and enjoyment alongside frustration and disappointment. She feels modern yoga spaces are increasingly failing to honour their eastern origins, and the yoga she sees projected to the world through the western lens does not reflect the yoga of her culture. Commercial assimilation has transformed the practice, she claims, stripping it of its spiritual power and confining it to movement and postures.
According to Arnica, the issue is not the West’s affection for yoga, but rather its failure to properly acknowledge its origins as a sacred Indian custom. “People are practicing and teaching yoga without leaning into the curiosity of its cultural heritage,” she says.
She believes that yoga’s prolific rise in the western world of health and wellness has seen the spiritual nature of the practice fall away. A more discerning approach to the nuances of this practice is needed, she says, where yoga students and practitioners alike take the time to differentiate between what has been corrupted in popular culture and what is a cultural custom.
“It’s frustrating to be in a yoga class where mantras are being used without the correct pronunciation or knowledge about what that mantra stands for,” she reveals. “Mantra actually means prayer. Understanding that the Gayatri Mantra is actually a Hindu prayer should prompt people to do it properly, to learn its origins and respect its spiritual significance.”
Those who recite these mantras without any regard for their meaning come across as disrespectful says Arnica. “Sanskrit is such an ancient language. The words of these mantras are beautiful and powerful, but they also have energetic meaning. All of those words are pronounced in a certain way that aligns with you spiritually; aligns for your soul, for your chakras. To do something for the sake of doing it or learning it without rooting yourself in what it truly means and stands for is a disservice to the western world and anyone who practices or teaches it.”
Sacred deities and mantras are often misused in western culture and the consequence of this is the commodification of these sacred symbols, Arnica claims. “It’s been really sad to see sacred deities misused and the om sign misused,” she admits. “It can be quite insulting to walk into these spaces where we see our goddess and statues used aesthetically.”
In Hindu culture, Arnica explains, deities are placed in a dedicated place in the home where prayer and rituals are conducted in a spiritually sacred manner. This space is devoted to these deities and actions such as meditation and prayer are considered homage to these spiritual identities. For this reason, Arnica says, the use of these spiritual symbols in western yoga studios can be culturally insensitive to people of Indian descent.
“People use it to decorate the spaces, but it’s not decoration. It’s insulting to have an Om sign on your wall or a deity statue of Lakshmi or Kali or Lord Shiva in your yoga studio when you don’t really understand what Hindu people use it for. There is a spiritual meeting behind each of those deities, what they symbolise what they stand for. In the Hindu practice it is really taken seriously,” she says.
The Way Forward
Arnica believes the West’s apathy towards yoga’s cultural significance can still be corrected. By changing this approach to one of respectful curiosity, she says, the Indian community would feel more appreciated for the way in which their traditional customs are shared globally. She claims a shift to acknowledgement and inquiry will correct the misinformation circulating within western yoga circles, creating a space where yoga practices are shared authentically and respectfully.
“Both communities, the East and the West, will benefit from that kind of exchange,” she says. “Right now, because there isn’t deep acknowledgement, yoga isn’t meaningful. The whole point of Hinduism is to share and connect as a community. So, there is a disservice in making members of that community feel disrespected. These negative feelings need to be eliminated and the way we move forward is for all participants to embody yoga meaningfully and respectfully.”