Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Culture, Power, and Modern Yoga: Insights from the East and West (Part 1)

Photo by Jay Castor (lotus flower floating in pond)

by Anjali Rao and Lorien Neargarder


Yoga is a practice that liberates, transforms, is a path toward unity, and is inclusive of all humanity. As practitioners of yoga, we have all heard variations of this statement, but this is not accurate for many Americans, a reality we need to change. We are two yoga teachers from different backgrounds––Anjali Rao, an Indian American immigrant, and Lorien Neargarder, a natural-born American citizen––and we are united in our passion for sharing the practice that moves us and has transformed our own lives so deeply. 

This article is the result of us asking, "Can we talk honestly, without fear, shame, or guilt, about the challenging problems with American yoga? And what if we tell the culture and community that we love that it can do better... and then it rejects us?" We trust that our yoga community’s acceptance is unconditional and hope this article will inspire you to speak up and help us shape a better, more inclusive yoga culture.

American yoga has two major problems: it has become transactional and it is available only to those who qualify. This is at odds with yogic teachings, which describe the complex and rich practice of yoga as one that is rooted in deep spiritual meaning, the ultimate union of the human with the Divine. Interpreted without bias, this means that the ticket you need to practice yoga is to be human. But here in America you need more than your humanity to practice yoga; when you enter the yoga space with a class pass and a contractual mindset, you have already accepted a harmful concept of who should have access to yoga, set not by the yogic teaching but by the dominant culture (White, middle-class, Protestant people of northern European descent, heterosexual, and cisgender). 

The dominant culture imposes its value system and is the gatekeeper of what gets accepted as “normal” or “valuable” or “successful” and therefore is the power wielder. The term counterculture refers to a group of society who oppose the values and lifestyles of the dominant culture and can provide positive growth for a stagnant or concretized culture.

Power Culture

If you are unclear what the dominant American culture is, try the following exercise. Imagine you are in a yoga class, the one that you go to every time you practice or teach. (Well, now it's online because of the pandemic; nevertheless, it's your go-to class.) Take a look around at those rectangular mats. Who is showing up in your class? What is the age group? What is the gender and sexual orientation? What is the race that shows up? What is the range of physical and cognitive ability? Most likely it is someone who looks like you, if you are a teacher. If you are White, most likely the people who show up in your class are White. If you are White, chances are you are a teacher, or a faculty member, or a writer, or an “expert” in your chosen niche in yoga studies.

Yoga originated in India, a country colonized by many European empires and where British colonists actually banned the practice during their rule in order to prevent the many anti-oppression movements of radical Yogis. And yet we don’t see many yoga teachers from India/Pakistan/Sri Lanka/Bangladesh in mainstream classes and teacher trainings. There has been a modern neo-colonization of this practice and re-erasure of practitioners/teachers by the West. For someone whose ancestors were dehumanized for centuries, murdered, and impoverished by colonizers, to witness this ancient spiritual practice appropriated, commodified, and reduced to a solely physical practice for economic gain is re-traumatizing on many levels: psychological, physical, social, and financial.

Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation happens when a dominant group in a position of privilege and power (political, economic, or social) adopts, benefits from, shares, and even exploits the customs, practices, ideas, or social and spiritual knowledge of another, usually target or subordinate, society of people (Barkataki, 2019). Think about all the ways that strands of the yoga teachings have been pulled out of their context and culture in order to elevate someone in the American dominant culture, disregarding the roots of the practice.

The Bhagavad Gita (composed around 400 BCE–200 CE) is one of the most sacred Indian texts; it uses the word "Yoga" 78 times in 15 of its 18 chapters, and is revered in India as the Yoga Shastra (Shastra means book/treatise). In the Gita, yoga is referred to in many different contexts, from the way we move and act in the world to our relationship with the Divine. In the West, yoga is White-washed and made “secular” by reducing the breadth and the depth of the practice to suit the commercial Western palate. 

When we taught yoga in corporate settings, we were told to refrain from using Sanskrit, the language of yoga, lest it scare away the student, or “consumer.” The feelings of the White student/consumer are valued more than the Brown culture that it came from. Thus, the racial dynamic of White social-economic-cultural power that is outside of a yoga class translates completely into the yoga class at all levels: from expert to teacher to student.

Yoga has a power culture problem. We need more diversity.

We disrupt the power culture when we de-colonize yoga and understand cultural appropriation by learning more about all cultures (including “White"), the context and the history of the yoga teachings, and diversify who we view as experts. We also disrupt the power culture by collaborating with diverse people, listening and trusting each other. Building trust takes time and consistent effort; it takes open and active listening and asking challenging questions of the other, especially when we come from diverse backgrounds. What has worked for us is an honest acknowledgement of our differences; we understand that our positions in this American culture, defined by the power and privilege accorded to us as White-bodied and BIPOC, are different, and hence our responsibilities and roles are different. Once these differences were named, we were able to find commonality in the way we view the world, through either Anjali's lens of subculture or Lorien's lens of counterculture.

Reflection Point.

Look around your yoga class, and make a note of the group that shows up:
  • How diverse is the make-up of your class? 
  • If the group is rather homogenous, how can you change this to build connections across different groups to invite more inclusion? 
  • White folks, what do you need to be able to really hear the voice of someone who is BIPOC, or is different from you in other ways, without the hum of guilt? 
  • BIPOC folks, what do you need to be able to share how you feel without fear of backlash?

Anjali Rao
came to the Yoga mat at nearly 40 recovering from surgery from Breast Cancer. She studies, teaches, and writes about Yoga philosophy/ history from a socio-political perspective and is deeply interested in the intersectionality of race, culture, gender and accessibility of Yoga practices. She aims to make the practice Yoga on and off the mat accessible, helpful and joyful to people across ages, genders and abilities. She is a part of the teacher training faculty in 200 and 300 hour programs in the Bay Area and teaches Yoga for Cancer Survivorship for the Stanford Cancer Program. She serves on the Board for HERS Breast Cancer Foundation, a non-profit that helps survivors and those going through treatment regardless of financial status. She is a lifelong student of Indian Classical Dance, a sucker for puppies, loves dark chocolate, the ocean and old trees. https://www.yoganjali.me/


Lorien Neargarder
(E-RYT500, C-IAYT) has been offering yoga practices in a variety of spaces since 2004 and has learned from the diverse spectrum of students who show up to these spaces: adult education program, elementary / middle / high school, businesses, family psychology center, psychiatric ward, pain rehabilitation clinic, oncology ward, library and yoga studios. She specializes in working with people diagnosed with cancer and started her own nonprofit in 2018 in order to offer yoga (and other support care) to them free of charge.



This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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