Stop Culturally Appropriating Yoga!

by SAHF Team

Yoga. Easily one of the most treasured gifts that Hinduism and South Asians have given to people all across the world. In the United States, for example, 36.7 million people currently practice yoga! That’s more than 1 in 10 Americans! Yoga is treasured and popularized not only for the health and mental benefits that it provides to yogis, but also because of the rich philosophical traditions that it encompasses within Hinduism. However, there have been clear attempts to ‘de-Hinduize’ or appropriate yoga in the West despite yoga being the ‘invention’ of Hindu South Asians thousands of years ago. And this must stop.

History Of Yoga

To understand why this appropriation of yoga, that is to ‘de-Hinduize’ it, is outrageous, it’s vital to understand a bit of history. Yoga, which has been practiced free of cost in South Asia for thousands of years, is mentioned in sacred Hindu texts like the Rigveda and the Upanishads. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written by a Hindu sage, elaborated on the theory and practice of yoga. Yoga is so vital in Hinduism that it is considered its own astika darshana, which means that the theory and practice of yoga is considered its own school of Hindu philosophy!

Did you ever realize this history and context while you were doing the ‘tree pose’ (the actual name being Vrksasana) while shelling out thousands of dollars on classes and equipment? Many will answer no. It is precisely this lack of awareness about yoga’s history and vital connections with Hinduism that facilitate appropriation of yoga. 

What Does Appropriation Of Yoga Look Like?

What do we mean by appropriation? When we discuss the appropriation of yoga, we principally refer to the efforts to ‘de-Hinduize’ yoga by removing the Sanskritic terminology, eliminating the chanting and mantra aspects, renaming mudra poses and positions, etc. There have been many attempts in the United States and in the West to facilitate this appropriation, including from governments!

Take for instance what happened in Alabama in March of this year! There was a bill in Alabama that was introduced relating to yoga in schools. In addition to banning the usage of Sanskrit terminology, under the new proposed yoga rules, schools would also ban, ‘chanting, mantras, mudras, use of mandalas, and 11 namaste greetings’. This Alabama law would further mandate that only English terminology be used and that none of the Hindu or Sanskritic aspects or aesthetics of yoga be maintained. This is blatant appropriation of yoga. And it’s wrong and disrespectful!

What Can You Do To Not Appropriate Yoga?

People of non-Hindu backgrounds have a responsibility to not ‘de-Hinduize’ yoga. In an era where cultural appropriation of all kinds is being rightfully called out, it is vital that every yogi in the United States and around the world understand and respect the intrinsic connection between yoga and Hinduism. Because they are bonded at their very foundations.

This does not mean that you have to be a Hindu to do yoga! It simply means that one should be respecting of the Hindu connections and origins of yoga, acknowledging of yoga’s Dharmic history, and practicing yoga as it was meant to be practiced, including through the usage of Sanskritic terminology. It is essential to stop culturally appropriating this sacred practice simply to extract the exercise, health, and mental benefits that yoga provides. And by following these three principles, you can avoid culturally appropriating yoga too!

With advocating for those three simple principles (respect, acknowledge, and practice), we at the South Asian Heritage Forum wish all yogis all over the world a wonderful International Day of Yoga! May you attain the benefits of this sacred practice as exemplified by the Adiyogi (First-Yogi/Lord Shiva) himself!

Photo Credit: Original Creator

1 Comment

  1. Dhaval Nayi

    Wonderful piece on the de-appropriation of Yoga! It is time that Westerners should be aware of the Dharmic origins of Yoga, and to not create strange forms of it such as ‘beer yoga’. Yoga is also to ‘join’ with one’s inner self. The mental aspects of Yoga have not been given prominence to in the West, and it has remained as solely postures and stretching exercises like ‘the downward dog’. Let’s hope we can educate westerners correctly about its origins!


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