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Is yoga a victim of large-scale cultural appropriation?


It will not have escaped you, yoga is everywhere, it landed on the Californian coast several decades ago. Today, it is the whole of the Western world which devotes itself to it under more or less authentic forms.

What is called in the West “yoga”, which means “union”, is essentially the asanas from the Hindu tradition. The asanas is not a “yoga” in the strict sense of the word (Bhakti yoga: yoga of devotion, Jnana yoga: yoga of knowledge, Karma yoga: yoga of selfless action, etc.). It is a component of Raja yoga which is established around cardinal principles (yama, niyama, samādhi, etc.). It is just one ingredient, yet it alone seems to have conquered the world. This alternative method to reduce stress and have for some a solitary spiritual practice that breaks with the more restrictive and communal tradition of Western countries. Yoga has known different phases of expansion. Simple curiosity at the beginning for travelers in search of exoticism, it became a phenomenon whose borders are constantly pushed back. Its success is surprising, but today I would like to dwell on the possible cultural appropriation of which it could be the object.

What is cultural appropriation?

It is a cultural borrowing from one society (most often the dominant one) on another with a deviation that shows either a lack of respect (racism, etc.) or a use diverted from the initial use (most often for commercial purposes).

The second part of this definition appeals to me in the sense that the primary purpose of yogas (and asanas by extension) is not the enrichment of an individual who designs an online program. Rather, it is to enable people to attain liberation (i.e. union with the divine) and to end the cycle of rebirths.

Unlike other religions, Hinduism is not centralized: there is no clergy from a higher authority as is the case in Catholicism for example. Rather, it is originally an initiatory teaching where a small number of followers follow an enlightened master. There is of course a social structure in India organized in a pyramidal manner (which has officially disappeared even if marriages within the same caste are still widespread) at the top of which dominate people with religious functions. Nevertheless, the subordination of earthly power to spiritual power is what is most widespread on the planet until the advent of “modernity”.

The Hindu initiation is there to allow the followers to assimilate the teachings of the master and to follow his steps in the way of the awakening. This relative freedom and the complexity of Hinduism has generated a kind of loss of control that allows anyone to teach without having found enlightenment or at least understood or assimilated the underlying principles in depth.

The term cultural appropriation is used to describe the desecration of what was originally sacred. The industrialization of yoga as it is practiced today in the West is part of a phenomenon of desecration since what motivates the opening of yoga clubs in many cases is the lure of profit.

There are other examples, more emblematic, of cultural appropriation. One can think of the use of Amerindian ceremonial dress for the purpose of disguise to celebrate.

Appropriation occurs when it is the work of a dominant culture according to the dedicated definition. I like to think that Indian culture will become influential, which would allow these borrowings not to be the work of a misappropriation but rather the mark of a nation’s soft power.

There are many levels of appropriation. Some are superficial, but they can lead to a better understanding of the culture in question. In my opinion, commercial yoga clubs are not a bad thing in themselves because they are a small doorway into Indian culture. Insatiable practitioners will go beyond the superficial teachings to the essence of yoga which is sacred. An appropriation is no longer sacred when one is able to reconnect with the original and sacred meaning of a culture. The irony is that this is a higher level of appropriation: cultural appropriation ceases to be appropriation when it is complete.

There may also be those who come to criticize yoga for its commodification, thinking that it is just a business. This is quite possible. However, in my personal experience, I have seen many people take the path to spirituality through yoga. Through what they initially considered a physical practice, they began to read and learn the basics of Indian philosophy and even went on to travel to the subcontinent to perfect their understanding.

Is India condemned to plunder? The one of the colonizations where the rapacious capitalism had generated the worst, succeeded by the one of its millenary tradition? In reality, it is today undergoing another form of theft which could constitute in the future the bases of an influence or a better understanding with the other countries of the globe.

Yoga is a great opportunity for India to become a major focus in the hearts of millions of people. There is a diplomacy that is based on religion (Vatican, Saudi Arabia etc.), with the spread of yoga in the world, it could also benefit from these new links.

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