October 6, 2021
Who Owns Yoga?
After nursing a stress fracture recently, I thought perhaps the time had come to retire my running shoes and find a new fitness routine. I thought about yoga and considered Shimis, a yoga studio I had passed by many times in my visits to Alserkal Avenue’s galleries, and which advertises a class held in the dark. I had struggled to follow along in my first and only yoga sessions years ago at a Chicago YMCA, and the idea of not being completely visible as a beginner to the practise was appealing. “It’s not completely dark,” Shimis founder Simona Stanton told me when I called to book a session. “We actually have coloured lights that correspond to the body’s energy centres.”
A yoga studio room at Shimi's in Dubai. Courtesy Shimis
But I stopped short of making an appointment, remembering something a flatmate back in Chicago, whose father was from Bombay, had said when I returned from the YMCA. “White people doing yoga …”. Her frustration was telling of a larger discomfort amongst Americans of South Asian heritage. In 2014, Indian-American graphic designer Chiraag Bhakta explored the cultural appropriation and commercialisation of yoga at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum in “#WhitePeopleDoingYoga.” Before taking up yoga this time, I needed to know how I, a white guy doing a sun salutation under a rainbow of chakra lights, might be playing a role in appropriating the culture of a colonially oppressed people.
“Gandhi, adjust toward the ceiling on that updog, mmkay?” says a Lulu Lemon-clad instructor in “If Gandhi Took a Yoga Class,” a video by internet comedy company College Humor. Oh, do you mean my Urdhva Mukha Shvanasana?” Gandhi replies. “No … updog. Don’t worry, you’ll learn the terminology.” Terminology, it turns out, is just one way in which the yoga I’m used to seeing practised resembles earlier forms in name alone. To be more palatable to Western audiences, yoga has undergone a process of being discursively secularised, removed from its complicated religious and political history and made benign and easy to appropriate.
A 16th century carving on a pillar in the historic Hindu Meenakshi Temple in Tamil Nadu, India. Photo by Richard Mortel.
Originating in India, yoga has seen many innovations and evolutions, as happens in religions over the course of millennia. British colonisation brought the practice into contact with Western audiences, and in 1893, an Indian monk called Swami Vivekananda travelled to Chicago to introduce Hinduism – and yoga – at the World’s Columbian Exposition. The massive gathering saw the unveiling of the Ferris wheel, the automatic dishwasher, and the zipper, but it was also a place where other cultures were on display. In “ethnic villages,” Samoans, Egyptians, Inuits and others were presented to visitors as living examples of “foreign” cultures.
Yoga guru Swami Vivikananda. Taken by Patrick Harrison in Chicago, 1893.
As Eastern religious traditions began to reach North America and Europe, practitioners such as Vivekananda preached a yoga of diet, mental concentration, and breathing, rather than posture-based hatha, or physical yoga. But as yoga teachings bounced back and forth between the US and India in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it became the mash-up of ideas we know as yoga today. An emerging Indian nationalism positioned hatha yoga as a superior version of “physical culture,” a worldwide phenomenon of what we call exercise today. The moves of Indian wrestlers were combined with medieval yogic traditions and the gymnastics popular with the British soldiers occupying India. And when the Russian-born Madam Blavatsky, who founded the Theosophical Society in the 1870s, moved to India in 1880, the Society became allied with the Hindu reform movement. Theosophy drew on European philosophies and Asian religions, and the connection between Hinduism and a religious practice developed in the West allowed Theosophy “to become a bridge for secularised Indians back to their own traditions and spirituality,” according to journalist Michelle Goldberg. Indian yoga teachers then exported their Theosophy-tinged practice back to the West.
Cover of Yoga for Americans, by Indra Devi, 1959.
Perhaps most responsible for popularising what we think of as yoga was Indra Devi, born Eugenia Peterson, in Russia. A book about yoga, written by a Chicago lawyer who called himself Yogi Ramacharaka, led her to become interested in a variety of esoteric spiritual practises, which were flourishing in Russia in the early 1900s. When she met Indian yoga master Jiddu Krishnamurti at a Theosophical Society congress in Holland in 1927, she followed him back to the Indian state of Karnataka. There she convinced Krishnamacharya, who was then the resident yoga guru at Mysore Palace, to teach her.
After WWII, Peterson sailed for Hollywood, rebranded as Indra Devi and began teaching celebrities including Greta Garbo in her yoga studio. Long before the counterculture began popularising yoga in the West, Republican housewives were learning yoga from Devi at Elizabeth Arden spas in the 50s and 60s. Later, mass media took yoga completely out of a religious or mystical context by focusing on its health benefits and synonymising hatha yoga with yoga
Cover of Yoga Journal, 1979.
Understanding yoga as a modern adaptation that began with colonialism, it’s possible to make peace with the fact that the historical export of the practice is problematic (and maybe to book that session at Shimis) – and to help educate others, a burden often falling on the shoulders of formerly colonised people. As Gandhi leaves the yoga studio in College Humor’s video, students tell him “Namaste.” Exasperated, he screams “You don’t know what that means!”