Yoga and the Maintenance of White Womanhood

 

Photo source: Bravo.com

A year ago, well before he had all of us Googling “immigration asylum,” President Trump signed into effect Executive Order 13769, titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” This controversial order, which is still being challenged in the court system, went on to be known more colloquially as the “Muslim travel ban,” focusing as it did on restricting travel from majority-Muslim countries. In the weeks that followed the initial announcement of this travel ban, I watched with horror as family and friends, many of whom were South Asian-American U.S. passport holders, like myself, counseled each other on social media and on email list-serves on how to avoid being profiled as they (re)entered the U.S.

Fellow Brown travelers offered each other tips like these:

“Make sure to only wear Western clothes.”

“For women, be careful about getting henna on your hands if you’re flying back to the States after a wedding. It might draw extra scrutiny to you and more questions about where you’re traveling from.”

These well-meaning pieces of advice instilled in me a quiet, but gnawing fear of going anywhere where I might be posed that dreaded question, “but where are you FROM?” In the weeks that followed the announcement of the ban, I became hyper-aware of how I looked and sounded when I passed through customs and immigration, making sure not to speak to my family or friends in any language besides English while I was within earshot, especially when I was in an airport.

In light of this new heightened awareness, I, perhaps naively, opened up to a fellow member at my yoga studio, a White woman and a self-described “liberal,” after she had made a pun, “Namastay Together,” out of the word “Namaste.” In our conversation, I confided in her how unsettled it left me feeling to constantly see and hear namaste reduced to a clever way to signal so-called inclusive politics, especially at a time when people who looked like me felt less and less comfortable speaking in our mother tongues in public.

Image result for leg day to namaste

Photo Source: 24 Hour Fitness

As I described in my previous post, this interaction culminated in my expulsion from a commercial and corporate studio I had belonged to for three years. 

In the time since that egregious episode, I’ve tried to take mental stock of my experiences with self-described liberal White women more generally. I recalled a yoga studio I belonged to in the Midwest, owned and operated by a liberal White woman, which was decorated with pictures of malnourished Indian women begging in Mumbai. I can remember, with disgust, another, a fitness instructor in Texas who bragged to me, that though she had never been to India she often fantasized that she was “communing with Indian street children” while she practised yoga and meditation. I still wince at the memory of a former college roommate, who in a jilted drunken rage, screamed at our Pakistani cab driver when he refused her advances, “my husband could buy you and your whole country!” And most recently, I overheard a Canadian liberal, a supposed ally and fellow academic, mocking the idea racists exist or are even a problem in a conversation she never intended for me to hear. When she realized I had caught her voicing these disturbing sentiments, she rationalized her transgression; defending her betrayal as a “private conversation.”

And I have scrolled through millions upon millions of posts on Instagram with the tag #namaste, which overwhelmingly feature solitary, thin, able-bodied White women, demonstrating physical feats in otherwise empty, private spaces. More often than not, these posts are accompanied by self-aggrandizing, humble-bragging, spiritual-bypassing, “life advice.”

 

Photo source: Instagram.com

Taken as a whole, I’ve begun to wonder if this is why White women, especially those who consider themselves liberals, love yoga and the word “namaste” so much—it performs a sense of virtue-signaling which recenters Whiteness, all while providing a deflecting shield against scrutiny under the logic of “private spirituality.” It’s all the bragging rights of social justice without any of the humility or self-awareness.

These various experiences, particularly the encounters with my colleague and my former roommate, point to what Greg Howard has diagnosed as the redefining of racism, a mechanism by which White people can claim they are free of prejudice by performing progressive, multicultural politics in public, while continuing to harbor and even voice deeply disturbing prejudices and resentments in private. I would argue that this is the current state of affairs in most institutional settings in the United States. Whites, even and especially liberal White allies, who feel they need to present as anti-racist in public, even as they continue to condescend to Brown and Black folks (this is also known as dysfunctional rescuing), thus reaffirming their internalized belief of their own White superiority. In my experience, these individuals will do and say paternalistic, and yes, deeply racist things, all while insisting they are not racist. The social and psychological mechanism by which people deny reality and responsibility is known as gas-lighting—a form of manipulation and abuse. Based on Howard’s analysis, I would argue that gaslighting is now a crucial component of maintaining White supremacy, particularly for White liberals, because today, “racism [has] became a referendum on the rot of the individual soul. Calling people racist [is] no longer a matter of evaluating their opinions; it [is] an accusation of being irrevocably warped at the very core.”  

As I began to understand how yoga spirituality was reproducing forms of racism and breeding newer, more virulent strains of White supremacy, not to mention fragility, I reached out to the corporate office of the studio from which I had been dismissed. While the corporate representative, a kind young woman named Christine, apologized profusely to me for what had happened at my local studio and acknowledged that she was personally uncomfortable with the way the company was “selling India,” she admitted that White women (like her) were ideal consumers of yoga because such women desperately needed to believe that they are the “good kind” of White people; the colorblind, well-travelled kind.

To this point—in 2016, the Indian government, under the leadership of Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party, introduced a new “yoga visa” category specifically for sixty-day yoga teacher training programs that cater to Western (White) women. These are the White liberals (captured so brilliantly in Get Out) who proudly inform you that they voted for Obama (twice!) and exclaim without even a hint of self-awareness: “There’s no way I can be racist. I have visited the Taj Mahal and I do yoga.”  

Photo Source: This tourism website, which caters to “nomads”

A closer look at the numbers corroborates this point and reveals some startling statistics. According to recent industry data as well as research conducted by the National Institutes of Health, 36.7 million U.S. adults practice yoga. 73% are women and a whopping 90% identify as White. Mattel released a blonde “Yoga Teacher Barbie” in 2012a testament to the ways White women identify with and are identified by yoga in the United States. American Girl sells a yoga gear set, too. But, it’s not just that yoga is an incredibly homogenous and aspirational White female culture, it’s also an astoundingly upper-class culture. As of 2017, over 40% of yoga practitioners earned over $75,000 a year, and 25% over $100,000 annually. In other words, yoga studios are the new country clubs. Only, instead of “Whites only” signs at the door, you might see something like this:

Image result for yogaPhoto Source: Upaya Yoga Teacher Training

What “Cultural Appropriation” Misses
Too often the conversation about cultural flows across color lines devolves into a useless debate about appropriation versus appreciation, a reductive rhetoric that misses the point when people of color are not only replaced, but also rendered invisible. There is no dearth of guides and how-tos in cyberspace that define cultural appropriation with a negative connotationas the “selecting of certain aspects of a culture, ignoring their original significance, for the purpose of belittling it as a trend.” Appreciation, on the other hand, is positioned as the superior choice, since it involves “honoring and respecting another culture and its practices, as a way to gain knowledge and understanding.”

What these definitions miss entirely is that “culture” is not something material that exists separate from actual human beings. Quite the opposite, the social mechanism by which a culture becomes appropriated relies on a simple truth—that Whiteness, and White womanhood in particular, need constant care and feeding to survive. 

The rabid commercialization of words like “namaste” provides a perfect case-in-point for how this system operates. A quick Google search of “namaste,” for example, pulls up a host of bizarre, but rampant mistranslations as well as a range of gendered lifestyle products, from jewelry and t-shirts that read “Namastay in Bed” to a Canadian television show called “Namaste Yoga,” featuring mostly White and light-skinned women doing yoga in beautiful locations in the woods or on a beach at sunset. 

Image result for namaste yoga fit tv

Photo Source: Namaste Yoga

In other words, the current (mis)use of namaste is not only a shining example of how White women (and those who seek to be identified with this group) tend to adopt a racialized otherness to perform a hip, cosmopolitan identity, especially through fashion that is sold as informal or lounge-wear (i.e., clothes you wear in private), but is also a uniquely North American brand of consumer-driven racism, something Ta-Nehisi Coates has diagnosed as a symptom of White hegemony and homogeniety:

“When you’re white in this country, you’re taught that everything belongs to you. You think you have a right to everything. … You’re conditioned this way. It’s not because your hair is a texture or your skin is light. It’s the fact that the laws and the culture tell you this. You have a right to go where you want to go, do what you want to do, be however—and people just got to accommodate themselves to you.”

Ultimately, the colonization of yoga by White women is a shining example of what Coates identifies as an abiding principle of U.S. forms of White supremacy. To a large extent, this dynamic remains shielded from otherwise obvious critiques by the specious logic that yoga is spiritual, private, and therefore, beyond reproach. To this defense, I would argue that privacy and the right to privacy are also racialized and White supremacist concepts in the United States. But more importantly, what emerges from this analysis is that White women often need yoga to cultivate what Womanists like Hazel Carby identified long ago as the racialized “cult of true womanhood”a sense of self that is built in contrast to non-White women through the qualities of piety, purity, and spirituality. Carby describes a relationship between White women and non-White women that endures through and by yoga, observing that, “ideologies of White womanhood [were] are the sites of racial and class struggle which enable[d] white women to negotiate their subordinate role in relation to patriarchy.”

In other words, the propensity of White women (and not just Iggy Azalea or Khloe Kardashian) to flock to a consumer behavior to perform their social and cultural capital is hardly a new phenomenon. Many Whites and/or liberals are only now, in 2018, starting to talk about either Whiteness or White womanhood in productive ways. Some White male yoga practitioners, like this one, or this one, who refuse to use “namaste,” seem to understand why the behavior I am identifying here is a problem, without the need to abandon yoga all together—an outlook I wholeheartedly support. The problem with Whiteness and/or White womanhood doesn’t need to be a problem with yoga. Put another way: Dear White women (and the White men who “defend” them), your womanhood needs to find and express itself in a less destructive way. Your sense of self has come at the cost of non-White women for far, far too long.

Resources:

https://confrontwhitewomanhood.com

 

 

 

65 thoughts on “Yoga and the Maintenance of White Womanhood

  1. Thanks for writing this. I have been deeply disturbed and alienated in western yoga studios and the virtuosity politics around Yoga practice. Interestingly enough none of the yoga classes that I have been to in India chants namaste in class. Multiculturalism as a framework enables and provides the template to cut up and remould every single practice without further enquiry.

  2. In India on the other hand it is increasingly part of a nationalist discourse that strives to bring together somatic tropes, hindutva discourse and citizenship.

  3. This perspective is enlightening and helpful. As an older white woman in the midwest in U.S. I’m sorry to hear that yoga classes are doing cultural appropriation. Yoga has helped me tremendously at various times in my life. I took it at a Jewish Community Center in Florida many years ago during a turbulent time in my life, and it help a lot. Now I take chair yoga at my local YMCA. We do say “namaste” at the end, but without fanfare–it feels more like a word of respect and camaraderie. We have no pictures of people in India. I have one main teacher, but there have been several substitutes, and they all seem to have the same perspective: respect without fanfare. BTW, Louise Erdrich, the wonderful writer from Minnesota, has an excellent story titled: “Namaste.” It’s in her collection of stories The Red Convertible which is also the title of one of her most well-known stories.

  4. I was attracted to yoga for it’s spiritual aspects, the health it brings to the body, and it’s roots in Indian culture.
    It is odd and disturbing that yoga institutions and practitioners in the United States are majority white and female. I fit into this demographic. I would like to take classes from people who are Indian, who may be able to give classes that are authentic, but the opportunity doesn’t exist. I am also disturbed by the americanization of things like the word namaste. I think and hope that a good chunk of these yoga practitioners in the US have found positive change in their lives from yoga that makes their interactions with people and the world more positive, and that they live this truth behind closed doors as well. The other chunk of people that fit into much of what you describe, certainly is disturbing.

  5. Thank you. White women like me need to be having this conversation. This is a great piece for me to bring up with my white friends about ways that white liberals contribute to racism. Something that’s long overdue for most of us.

    1. If you want to dig even further, I highly recommend doing the #meandwhitesupremecy challenge hosted by @wildmysticwoman on Instagram.

  6. I cringe when in a yoga class that has focused only on the physical body (strengthening, stretching , breathing and relaxing) is directed to close with clasped palms, a bow and responding, “Namaste “. It feels starkly out of place. This article speaks to that…

    1. I totally get this. I love doing yoga for simply the physical benefits and breathing techniques. I’m not into the spirituality of it. I do yoga with preschoolers solely for the physical activity and we make a game out of it, like Cosmic Kids Yoga. At the end i have them say namaste because any time I’ve ever done yoga that’s what we say and i honestly thought it would be inappropriate to remove the farewell at the end. I don’t like saying it because i don’t fully understand the cultural significance of it and the children certainly don’t. I just felt it would be offensive not to say it. But now I’m thinking the opposite might be true. Any one have other thoughts on this subject?

      1. @Consuela, you’re on the right track in wanting to stop saying “namaste” at the end of your yoga class. Instead, to wrap up, you could say, “Great work, everyone. I’m proud of you,” or, “Thanks for coming. Remember to be kind to yourself and others,” etc. And instead of making prayer-hands and bowing, you could tell everyone to give themselves a hug or — since it’s a class of preschoolers — high-five or shake hands with their neighbor.

  7. I’ve been practicing yoga for most of my life, but I haven’t been to a studio in years, because I don’t recognize the emphasis on exercise and consumerism (and yes, extreme white middle class-ness) that I see in most studios as yoga. As a white woman, I am more and more uncomfortable with what I am seeing in the yoga community

  8. Dude-bro yoga is even worse. I had two white guys get into a fist fight because one guy got his sweat on the other!

  9. This was an illuminating read. As a black woman who has practiced yoga for 8 years now, I’ve taken all of 3 classes total. I could never put my finger on what it was that made me so uncomfortable, but I never stayed at it.

    My practice humbled me and opened the world up to me in ways most Americans don’t get, and taking in yoga-centered media that didn’t reflect the breadth (and plight) of the world around us made me uncomfortable. If you cannot acknowledge and appreciate the complexity and beauty of the community that gave you yoga, you damn sure can’t appreciate me and my people, and I don’t want to sit beside you.

    I guess I’m word-vomiting in your comments because I’ve long been conflicted about my practice and what it means to be a black yogi, and how to make sure that I’m doing more than being “part of the solution.” I think your post has helped me figure out how to also fight the problem, and I want to thank you for that.

    1. Hi, Honora. How were you able to teach yourself without classes? Just wondering if there are good books out there you can recommend. I really like yoga but can’t always afford it and I know there are stories associated with poses that I’d like to learn about.

  10. This was an excellent piece.

    I will add that I observe the same problems not just with White women but with non-Indian women of color as well. White women are the most obvious consumers –and products– of yoga, but I have seen and heard non-Indian WOC make the same kind of namaste puns and appropriate yoga in a way that is, well, inappropriate. Yet, it also seems impossible to confront non-Indian WOC about their behavior. For example, I linked to this article from a forum for people of color, in which non-Indian POC frequently criticize White women for appropriating yoga or in which they ask for recommendations for yoga taught by POC. Not by Indian people or at least POC who are deeply knowledgeable about *actual*, non-consumer yoga, just any brown or Black body who can teach poses. If appropriation involves power, then perhaps other POC aren’t “appropriating” yoga, but I certainly wouldn’t call what they’re doing appreciation. They don’t seem to know any more about Indian cultures (yes, plural) or Sanskrit pronunciation or the full breadth and depth of yoga any more than random White ladies do.

    1. Thanks for reading and for offering your thoughts. I nodded a lot reading your comment!

      One of the most heart-wrenching moments for me when I was kicked out of my studio last May was realizing that even my Black female friends can’t always see what is happening in yoga spaces. One Black woman, who was an instructor, actually said to me when I asked her to please cut it out with the namaste-light-in-me nonsense, “I will have to check with my other Indian friends and let you know. I’m not willing to change my practice for you. This is what I mean [intention] and I’m sorry if it affects you [impact].”

      That moment was eye-opening for me. It demonstrated a real lack of solidarity (among other things like basic respect) and I have my theories about why (I think it’s a class/entitlement thing). Thank you for bringing this up. I’ve observed something similar and I need to think through that. For all the talk about intersectionality, I’ve noticed it’s often painfully lacking when it comes to solidarity with South Asian/non-Black POC.

  11. Perfectly proving the author’s point, one of the ads on this article was from 24-Hr Fitness featuring side by side photos of a white woman doing squats and in the second photo sitting cross-legged. The ad says “From leg day to Namaste”

    1. O my gosh, that was an ad? I thought it was another editorial photo illustrating the problem.
      Thank you for two thought provoking essays.

      1. haha, no worries. yes, an ad! I’m hoping my upcoming work will address how this issue extends into commercial fitness spaces like 24 hour fitness!

        and thank you for reading!

    2. That image is an intentionally included screenshot of a real 24-Hour Fitness ad used elsewhere, not a breathtakingly tone-deaf, revenue-generating ad tragically appearing on the page by SEO happenstance. Rather, the author purposely included it as an editorial image to illustrate her point. 🙂

      Thank you for your excellent essays, Professor Putcha!

  12. How about all the white yogis and yoginis who appropriate Hindi names into their own? It always rubbed me the wrong way.

    1. Oh man, me too! I stopped going to the only studio in town because the owner asked me to call her by saraswati, I was nope, no can do!

    2. SHYEAH there was a lady like that at our preschool. She also wouldn’t vaccinate her kids, and was very judgmental and controlling about snacks. yayyyyyyyyy

  13. Do you have advice for a practicing yoga teacher who is a white woman? This a beautifully written article, but it has left me incredibly sensitive about my career path. I was just curious if you were insisting white women are not to be yoga teachers or omitting the use of namaste? It’s kind of drilled into your mind to include in your practice in most YTT so I can see why many teachers have left training not knowing it would be potentially offensive. I understand the butchering of namaste is offensive.. for sure!

    1. Uh, my advice is “don’t”. Stop profitting off a culture that isn’t yours. It’s pretty simple. There are plenty of other exercises to call your studio that, instead of calling it “yoga”. It is not at all yoga, and I advise just stopping in general. You can’t want to not perpetuate white supremacy and at the same time ask for tips on how to make the business that profits off another culture, not racist. Literally just call it pilates or anything else, stop using the term “yoga”, and stop using hindu words when white yoga ppl don’t even care to include nor respect that aspect of yoga. Yoga is not a career and it certainly isn’t something to profit from. Ironically something you learn from practicing yoga itself lol, which white women always overlook. Coveting other cultures as means to an end or disregarding the white supremacist aspects to profit are entitely contrary to what yoga is truly about. You would know this if you understood yoga truly, which white women never will if it is used for profit. Your career is in sports. Literally find anything else to profit from.

      1. Thank you for your essay. I want to echo that I wish the American yoga community was not largely exclusive and commodified. I feel conflicted about being part of a community where safe inclusive spaces should be the norm, but because aspects of the Indian cultures have been tokenized and used for profit instead of honored, in reality feels it hostile to many.

        I was especially illuminated by your discussion about white women enjoying yoga as a way of separating themselves from the reality of out privilege by performing “yoga” and all of its aesthetics, which are for sale by largely white people.

        I am a white woman who loves yoga. I recently experienced my yoga teacher training, which I now realize was unusual for its community and emphasis on social justice and in its study of the 8 limbs of yoga and not just asana and the variety of races and cultures represented in the trainees and trainers. Every YTT and studio can be this way.

        I think it was incredibly brave that you confronted fellow students and teachers that made you feel uncomfortable. It is a form of white fragility that they did not engage with you and commit themselves to being inclusive now that they had been shown their impact.

        If you feel comfortable, I’d like to learn more about why it is unacceptable to you that a white person should profit from providing guidance in yoga.

        I’m a high school teacher who does not make a comfortable salary, many of my coworkers work 2 jobs and make a little money from their passions on the side, be it photography, dance, etc…My principal pays me to hold a yoga session after school twice a week for students and staff, and I would like to teach at a studio over the summers and perhaps during the school year. It isn’t a large sum of money, but it is helpful to me, and feels commensurate with the time I spend sequencing and planning my classes (which emphasize pranayama, meditation, and vinyasa-style Asana) around themes I thoughtfully choose and think will benefit the people taking my class.

        I’m not demanding a return for my offering, but I do accept the modest payment I’m getting. In addition to the paid classes, I volunteer for an organization that provides underserved communities with opportunities to learn about and practice yoga. I’m very often tutoring at my school and not getting paid and planning and grading for the academic classes I teach and not getting paid….and yet yoga is a passion of mine that I enjoy sharing; and also feel grateful that people are willing to pay me for my effort.

        Is is always in your opinion unacceptable for a white person, or non-Indian person of color, to receive payment for providing the service of a yoga class? Is it nothing more than propagating a western consumerist ideal? I’m challenged…I believe my classes are inclusive, honor the tradition, and helpful to people and am not making a fortune…but I’m reading your thoughts above and anticipate that you would be abhorred (your comment to the white yoga teacher above was….”don’t”) and wonder why.

  14. I’ve attended one yoga studio regularly my whole life and I stopped going because they shut their doors due to rent increases they could not meet. The owner taught classes with a “yoga body, Buddha mind” philosophy, which as a Hindu (which is a religion) I appreciated. I loved it, it made me feel closer to myself, the universe and my maker. It provided spiritual clarity I was not getting anywhere else. I have tried to attend other studios (none of which are owned and operated by POC that are remotely Hindu or Indian) and it all falls so short. The pressed palms saying namaste at the end of class was so contrived and it hurt my heart on levels I could not understand. It wasn’t until recently I fully understood my discomfort with the world and it’s commercialization and Westernization of yoga. Yoga is how I pray; how I communicate with god. It’s personal. It’s not just about strengthening my body but it’s so much more about nourishing my soul. Growing up Hindu, we have our rituals. Lighting incense for example, isn’t something we did on a random Tuesday evening. It means something, something extremely deep. For most Hindus, rituals are the core of how we practice our religion, yoga being one of those ways. To see that bastardized breaks my heart. It’s been reduced to cardio and sweat and juice cleanses. Colonization didn’t ever really end.

  15. The women you describe in this piece are not liberal! They describe themselves this way because it makes them feel good about themselves, as you so well describe. I’m so sorry you continuously have these encounters. It makes me feel terrible. I know this is normal for many people of color, but it shouldn’t be.

  16. I practice yoga casually and purely for exercise. “Namaste” and the spiritual aspect of yoga makes me extremely uncomfortable. I have friends who are “real” Buddhists, and I am definitely not one! I personally prefer Pilates for strength and flexibility. I also recognize that My privledgr alows me to have a preference to begin with.

  17. Thank you thank you thank you.

    Racial equity training are apart of what I do for a living. A white colleague and I were approach recently with the opportunity to facilitate “a conversation” with a local yoga studio. I couldn’t put my finger on why was so disturbed, and distrusted their efforts— but this article helps me soooooo much.

    It is also a challenge for me to continue to listen, and sharpen my analysis around appropriation and what I call cultural cannalism.

    And also shot out to Yo Clark in Memphis— who not only teaches one how to pray, practice and explains every move, every word, reads and studies, but lives it deeply.

    Thank you so much for this!

  18. This is not new! It has been happening for decades upon decades. First they (White women) wanted nothing to do with any people of color. In the 60’s & 70’s during their “Flower Power” days they accommodated Black girls hair styles (braids), but if a Black woman wore those same braids to work, she was dismissed and told to go home. In the 70’s & 80″s they appropriated (or misappropriated) Indigenous American culture, dress, and ceremonies. As a Cherokee elder, I am still appalled at the misuse of Inipi ceremony, burning sage & sweetgrass, stealing pow wow regalia, etc. I see a hoard of white women becoming “shamans!” This is the new cultural misappropriation. Just goole shamanism and you’ll find all types of shamanism courses taught online by white women. WAIT! WHAT?

    Today, they are stealing Indian culture and spirituality, Indigenous American culture and Spirituality and Black culture and physicality…big butts, plump lips, dark tans. They want to image us, but they don’t want to live our lives.

    1. I recently started working with the idea of body snatching and minstrelsy to think through what you identify as the desire to look like POC while actively shunning/silencing actual POC. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!!!

      1. Great post and blog. Will share with my students.
        Dr. Range’s point about the long history of this type of appropriating was very helpful, and your concept of ‘body snatching’ is really intriguing. ‘Playing Indian’ (or any racialized ‘other’ and perhaps classed other) has gone on for a long time. But I’ve never thought about it in terms of body snatching, which evokes horror films (i.e. Get Out most recently).
        Would love to read more. Thank you!!

  19. I have always felt it to be cultural appropriation especially when India is not credited with being the root of yoga. It makes me very angry when I see the label ‘Mindfulness’ also being banded about when everyone knows it is related to Indian Philosphy or the original word Philsufi. I have no problem with white women or anyone else embracing our cultural heritage but for goodness sake acknowledge it instead of running the racist narrative of poverty and making it poster material. Look deeper into it where it all began and inform yourself and others and then I don’t have a problem.

  20. Eye-opening essay that put into words a feeling in the studios I have visited. Maybe the lack we white women have of our own cultures drives us to appropriate. I don’t know a thing about the exercise in eastern Europe but thank goodness my family has handed down some cultural and spiritual practices. Nonetheless we’ve lost our dance our movement our language. Assimilation prioritized conformance and now many of us are untethered.

  21. Great article. As a white woman who, at one time, did yoga on a regular basis, I saw this attitude all the time. The over- and misuse of the term “namaste” was grotesque and definitely made me uncomfortable, so I didn’t participate in some of these cult-like rituals. So many white, female teachers tried to preach about their knowledge of Hinduism and the Sanskrit names of the poses which to me just seemed insane–they were just showing off their ignorance in the guise of knowledge and “cultural sensitivity.” As someone who has studied South Asian culture and literature at the University level for much of my life, this behavior was absurd and farcical. There are ways to appreciate another culture without acting like a raving ignoramus.

  22. Thanks for this. I am a white woman who got certified two years ago by another elite woman who taught us about the cultural context and source, the eight limbs of yoga, the sacred texts, the fact that in India people do less asana than we do here, where we often focus on that to the exclusion of almost everything. I consider myself to have a daily practice of yoga, even though I know most people assume that means daily asana practice, whereas my daily practice of the yamas and the niyamas I consider to be just as important. A girlfriend of mine (also white) and I are planning to start a class in a multicultural neighborhood called “yoga for the people” that will be donation-based and allow parents to bring their kids, to make it more accessible (we will have a separate meditation class afterward). I also hope to identify someone from that community who may take an interest in taking over the classes themselves, so that it will one day be taught by someone from that neighborhood. When I talk to people about yoga I do try to educate people about the larger context. I work full-time, so my involvement in the yoga community is founded on a wish to serve others in an accessible way. I’ve avoided (to date) teaching at elitist studios, as that is not my calling. Are there other things I should look at in my life, beliefs, practices, etc? Thank you.

    Denise

  23. I still wish you’d name that yoga studio from last year. I’m always gonna be so pissed off about that. And if I had a dollar for every time some trifling California lefty hugged me while hating me…..

    1. Anyway, I have anger issues and I’m also studying for an exam right now, so of course I dug a bit and found the name of the studio: Yoga Pod in College Station, TX, owned by Cliff Latham. I don’t have any hope that the people at this studio will wake up, but I have to put it out there. Looking at it, it’s one of those places that sticks Yoga in with its “fitness” classes, turning it into some kind of extreme sport. Sick of this crap. Try stretching your mind instead of your hamstrings, whipepo.

  24. So glad to read this article. I’ve attended yoga classes and have noticed it’s become a “white space.” I’m always weirded out that classes end with “Namastay” pronounced that way. I have never understood that. Is it because that’s the one word people know and associate with India?

    It’s a greeting used by young people to elders. Something that our American culture should try to emulate- respect for elders. It’s increasingly not even used in India anymore sadly as they try to be more western.

    These liberals are closet racists for the most part. They do everything to make an appearance of not being racist in public but internally, they look down POC. They go overboard and then look foolish and ignorant.

  25. Thank you so much for your scholarship and for sharing this in such an accessible format.

    For yoga and/or meditation teachers and practitioners interested in supportive teachings on this topic, I highly recommend the work of Rev. angel Kyodo Williams. Her book, Radical Dharma, coauthored with Lama Rod Owens and Jasmine Syedullah, Ph.D., is excellent. And her podcast on Meditation in the City addresses whiteness in practice spaces and touches on the work that all white people need to do if we are to hold ourselves accountable to any path of liberation within a racist society.

    Please continue to post these thoughtful and compelling articles.

  26. I just left a comment and now decided it sounded weird. I appreciate your thoughtful insight and that you took the time to write about this. I can definitely see how this is a big problem, especially since it’s so hard to convince people who are in denial that anything is wrong.

  27. I’m a white woman in the American South (aka the Bible Belt) and the trend I’m hearing about from friends in the evangelical world is Holy Yoga. It is asana overlaid with a bunch of Bible verses. I kid you not. http://holyyoga.net It is populated by conservative white women, who are uncomfortable with the religious roots of yoga. For when you want both cultural and religious appropriation.

  28. Thank you for your wisdom. I am sure that you are busy, but if anyone reading has advise I’d love to hear it. I’m a therapist that specializes in treating women with trauma, substance use disorders, and other mental health disorders. I refer many of my clients that have physical symptoms of trauma to yoga, because it works. Some of these clients are white. Is there a way that I can frame this referral in a more culturally respectful way? I always talk about the origins of yoga and how long before Academics studied it, it was an accepted form of healing in India. Most of my clients that follow through on the referral feel like yoga has become an inate part of themselves and may be just the women that are presnting the way that you discuss. What can I do, to further inform them that though this practice has brought them back to themselves it is not theirs?

  29. work in the theater district of a Eastern US city. BKS Iyengar was giving a lecture and as an usher it was one of the nastiest shifts I’d ever worked. Manager could not believe how nasty and entitled the audience was. My quip back was that rich suburban women were all still on the journey.

  30. “all the bragging rights of social justice without any of the humility or self-awareness”
    and often, I’ve noticed, without any meaningful real-world action

  31. Thank you for your posts. I would love to see how you feel about the white fetishizing of Buddhism: does it function in the same way yoga does?

  32. I apologize in advance for the incredibly long freak out I’m about to have. I’ve literally never thought about this with yoga and am lying here totally gobsmacked. This is making me question everything about myself.

    I, of course, realize that cultural appropriation is a real thing and I also know that yoga originated in India and is, therefore, from another culture, but I never put them together (which obviously proves my privilege that I don’t HAVE to think of these things). I have also rolled my eyes at the Namastes I’ve received from people, both in and out of the studio, and the Instagram yogis. I’ve even questioned the fact that many instructors in other countries even are White AND American (I lived in multiple countries in Europe for 12 years), but never thought to look at myself. (Insert face smack)

    I never know how to go about these conversations and be both open and honest (which is the only way to really listen and learn, I believe) AND respectful. Is there an “okay” way to tell my story with yoga and not align myself with these White women, even though I very definitely am one? Or is that just like wanting to have my cake and eat it too (I have no idea which would be the metaphor for yoga/meditation and which for my white privilege.) Can I ask what is okay and what isn’t? Is there a space in between?

    So here’s why I’m freaking out about this in particular, when I usually have no issue seeing how, as a white person, my doing something (Native American Halloween costumes, belly dancing, corn rows, etc etc) would be cultural appropriation: I was raised in a predominantly Hindu religion and went to schools associated with that religion as a child. I’ve been meditating and doing yoga literally my whole life. I even have a spiritual name (yes, I read through ALL the comments to see if 1. anyone else was freaking out and 2. if this was previously addressed so I didn’t have to embarrass myself so I now know that’s even worse), given to me by a monk. It is my legal middle name. I have TWO tattoos that incorporate the Om/Aum sign. I pranam and bow in every church I enter, and as I leave, because it’s what I naturally do to show respect.

    I can’t change any of those things. I can’t separate yoga/meditation from who I am. I can’t stop my yoga practice and I love classes (NOT at the gym, those are awful), especially the really “spiritual” ones (because yoga is a very big part of my spirituality), which are all owned and operated by white people/women.

    What am I to do with this knowledge now? (Seriously asking)

    1. As someone who has been raised in a similar situation to yours (though I know next to nothing about you I’m going to make some assumptions here), I don’t know if I’m the best person to answer this, but I want to offer my two cents. Unfortunately, everyone who doesn’t know your backstory and sees only your whiteness will judge you. And they will generally be right to do so, because most stories are not like yours, and because generally white woman who subscribe to these practices have not grown up with them, and are simply trying to appear “spiritual” or “bohemian” or “exotic”, and are therefore, to be frank, horrible human beings. But at this point, it is a part of your identity. You cannot change this. And you should not want to change who you are. You were raised in a culturally mixed space, and there is no point denying it. In fact, I hope you celebrate it. It sounds like you do.

      Honor this identity humbly. Don’t profit off of it for the sake of being “cool” and “mainstream.”

      Remember who you are, a white privileged person, in the context of others who hold similar identifiers as you.

      Be prepared to do a lot of explaining in the future. But don’t be defensive, and always remember that you are not the natural inheritor of this culture.

      Please don’t freak out. Remember this essay, though wonderful, doesn’t speak to all the outliers. You are an outlier. Just use your best judgement, and always remember “your place,” for lack of a less sinister way of putting that. Go forth and be a good ally, and always make space for those whose culture you are now privy too. Use your identity to do good.

  33. I read a magazine in Boulder, CO. where white people described themselves as WoCo (Woke Colorado) for buying $300 fairtrade ‘woke’ yoga ‘gear.’

  34. The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has a branch of Buddhism called “engaged Buddhism.” He discusses interbeing and the idea that ” When Buddhism enters one country, that country acquires a new form of Buddhism. There are important values in Western society, such as the scientific way of looking at things, the spirit of free inquiry, and democracy. If there is an encounter between Buddhism and these values, humankind will have something very new, very exciting” (These quotes are from his book Being Peace, chapter 6). He has monks, nuns, and monasteries, but he also has an order of laypeople who are a part of the core community who practice and observe a number of rules. I wonder if there is some way of creating a yoga that is similar to this concept of being respectful and aware and without cultural appropriation while interbeing with the West. Thank you for this article, which clearly articulates the discomfort I feel in many yoga studios, where they use poses as exercise and you have to walk past the merch as you leave. Very thought-provoking and helpful in understanding feelings that I had and could not articulate!

  35. Thank you very much for your blog, your writing and sharing. I’ve been practicing postural Yoga for 15 years and it has saved me from really serious depression and helped me recover from childhood trauma. I’ve also been confused about how to hold the practice as a white woman from a relatively wealthy background. More and more, the way Yoga is marketed and treated has started to feel gross to me – glorifying appearances and celebrating not questioning some of the toxic aspects of Western culture. I’ve also been fascinated by work like Mark Singleton’s book ‘Yoga Body’ on the complex multicultural history of what we call ‘Yoga’ today, which draws from European gymnastics and Indian nation building efforts and is so different from the Raja Yoga of the 19th century that it’s essentially a different practice. It seems like modern postural Yoga has both profited from exoticism, wrapping gymnastics in a facade of tradition – but also has been a blank canvas to project racism and colonialism. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on the history of Yoga and the concept of ‘authenticity’. I’m looking forward to following your blog.

  36. Good article, I really liked it. I am a white woman but I’m not rich and young and I don’t do yoga. I do say namaste every day, as I live in a village in India, and that’s what everyone says. As I’ve been here for over a dozen years and am one of the few foreigners around with undyed hair (ie white) I’m well-known, by sight at least. So they greet and say namaste. Can I assume I’m not culturally appropriating the word?

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