I am a bad yogi. Though I’ve been attending classes for three years, I’ve only recently committed to mastering crow pose. I loathe inversions. I don’t breathe like Darth Vader. And my cynical side often asserts itself quite loudly during class. Once, when an instructor contemplated, “Why is it that we breathe?,” I decided not to answer, “Well, Becky, it’s a reflex.”
Yet, practicing yoga in college was hugely beneficial for my mental health. When I started classes in my sophomore year of college, I took great joy in coming to to the mat. I liked the reciprocal nature of the student-run class: our instructors needed teaching experience, and we needed instructors. I lived for the adjustments my teachers would gracefully bestow. I allowed myself to realize how much I desired human touch.
Two years later, in a semester of great anxiety, I was encouraged by one teacher to thank all of the parts of my body for their hard work. Thank you legs for getting me everywhere I need to go. Thank you hands for writing and annotating. Thank you shoulders for holding me upright. My time on the mat helped me strengthen my practice of self-love. Yoga class was a place to challenge myself, heal myself, and take a couple of deep breaths. Sometimes, I equated yoga with sex – a person you’ve seen around campus is going to ask you to do weird things with your body, and most of time, if you’re brave enough to trust them, you find you actually like it.
And yet. In the present, sometimes my ears cringe when I hear a teacher instruct us into savasana (corpse pose), vrksasana (if they’re brave), or bless us with a namaste. I listen to their flat ahs and drawn-out rs and think, Okay, I’m not even Indian and I know that’s not how you say it. Also, it just feels wrong to reduce a beautiful Sanskrit name like balasana to the cutesy “child’s pose.” Even more egregious is gomukhasana — “cow face pose.”
Three years into my yoga practice, I cannot ignore the many arguments that have been made here, here, and here: Western yoga is a form of cultural appropriation. As Susanna Barkataki points out on Everyday Feminism:
Yoga is not now, nor has it ever been, a practice aimed at physical mastery for its own sake. Nor is it a practice aimed at “stress-reduction” so we can function as better producers and consumers in a capitalist society.
In fact, yoga as we practice it (the asana poses) is just one Hindu practice with the aim of spiritual unity with God. As the Hindu-American Foundation’s Take Yoga Back campaign points out, “As the multi-billion dollar yoga industry continues to grow with studios becoming as prevalent as Starbucks and $120 yoga pants, the mass commercialization of this ancient practice, rooted in Hindu thought, has become concerning. With proliferation of new forms of ‘yoga,’ the underlying meaning, philosophy, and purpose of yoga are being lost.” Doing yoga poses without considering yoga’s original philosophical and religious purposes is at best culturally insensitive and at worst, appropriative.
Is it incoherent to return from yoga class and don my t-shirt that says “audre, gloria, angela, and bell?” How can I call myself an intersectional feminist if I participate in cultural appropriation once a week at 5:30? As a Latina who rolls her eyes when drunk idiots celebrate Cinco de Mayo (“sinko day my-oh”) with ponchos and margaritas, do I want to take part in erasing the Hindu roots of yoga?
If I wanted to, I could take Roxane Gay’s advice and consider my yoga practice as part of my “bad feminism.” In her eponymous collection of essays, Gay defines her philosophy as follows:
“I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain . . . interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.”
In her book, Gay moves away from one-size fits-all-feminism, which attributes certain tastes, practices, and attitudes to feminism with no wiggle room. As people are complicated, people are better served if they can embrace a more forgiving feminist philosophy. You don’t have to be perfect all of the time, says Gay, and it’s ok if you love Lil Wayne and still want to embrace the label of feminism. This is a gross oversimplification of her argument, so please do me a favor and read her book for yourself.
But I don’t feel good about brushing off my yoga practice as part of my “bad feminism.” I feel like the things Gay describes as part of her bad feminism are fleeting: listening to rap every so often, playing dumb with a repairman when they come, donning pink. I think it’s time for me to take a good hard look at my yoga practice, and if I can reconcile it with my feminist beliefs. I don’t want to give it up entirely because it has been very beneficial.
The yoga issue is too complex to be explained away as a weak spot in my feminism, like my penchant for wedding dresses and my complete inability to change a tire. I’ve got to do the harder work of decolonization. Here are some ways in which I can make my yoga practice less appropriative:
Insist that yoga is for every body.
Instead of thinking that only people who look like Hilaria Baldwin can practice yoga (ok seriously though her instagram makes me shudder) check out the amazing efforts of people like Jessamyn Stanley, who calls herself a “yoga teacher, enthusiast, and fat femme.” Yoga is for people of color. Yoga is for fat people. Yoga is for people with different abilities and disabilities. Yoga is for queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming people. Say it until you believe it.
Fight back against the consumerist aspects of Western yoga practice.
That is, recognize that wearing Lululemon will not make you feel more relaxed, nor make you any better at touching your toes. I can reach my toes just fine in cheap leggings and my “Wesleyan class of 2015” shirt that I got for free.
Choose not to participate in traditional 200 hour yoga teacher-trainings.
This is NOT to pass judgement on friends and acquaintances who have undergone these trainings – as I’ve pointed out above, I am indebted to the services of my yoga teachers. And, you may learn more about the Hindu roots of asana and yoga’s larger Hindu inheritance in trainings. I don’t know. I’ve never done it. If you’d like to let me know how teacher-training has helped you to decolonize your yoga practice, please reach out!
Yet, I wonder if traditional teacher trainings are ever taught by people of color, particularly Indian people. The reason I make this point is to illuminate how teacher training sessions continue to insist that knowledge of yoga lies with white people, who may or may not be educated on yoga’s cultural roots. Also, if you have to pay for teacher trainings, and for equipment, mats, clothing, etc, then you are continuing to buy into the consumerist aspects of white Western yoga.
Continue your practice and stop calling it “yoga.”
My friend Janika suggested this solution when I showed her the draft of this article. She told me that she grew up learning yoga in her household, as her family is Indian. Attending yoga in traditionally white spaces was jarring for her because it was divorced from her cultural heritage. She writes, “I’ve been in yoga classes where a teacher butchers a mantra, prayer, folktale, [or] traditional story … or, just literally makes up noises and calls it a ‘Hindi prayer.'” Janika suggests that if people enjoy yoga for its physical benefits, or want to work towards physical mastery of poses and/or stress reduction, then you can continue your practice as long as you do not call it by its Hindi name. In doing so, you recognize that your series of movements is divorced from the Hindu tradition of yoga.
I also want to highlight Janika’s experience to point out the damaging effects of culturally appropriative yoga. Do we want to make those who have learned yoga in their homes, and who actually understand yoga’s history, deeply uncomfortable due to our ignorance? Do we want to further alienate people of color from public spaces? If we are not Indian, do we want to continue our practice for our own pleasure at the expense of our Indian friends’ security?
Since drafting this article in February, I have stopped going to yoga and I feel fine. I’ve taken up running. While I still do some stretches that I learned in yoga class after a jog, I think of it as just a movement and not as part of a larger spiritual practice. At the end of the day, although I may have done other culturally appropriative things (as I am imperfect), at least I know that Western yoga is not one of them.
I may not have suggested or embraced a perfect solution. But, as Gay writes, we will never be people who flawlessly execute our beliefs. We just have to try the best we can and apologize when we fuck up. Hopefully, this exploration has helped me go from “culturally appropriating feminist” to a plain old “bad feminist.” If Gay can live with that, so can I.
For further reading: