Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

VIEWPOINT: Recognize Appropriation of Yoga


I have long struggled with sharing certain elements of my culture. Whether it is a bindi at Coachella or the art of mehendi turned into summer “henna tattoos,” forms of appropriation, defined as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture,” seem to have taken the place of voluntary cultural exchange. Having grown up in South Asia and lived in various regions of India, I have seen how enthusiastically my culture welcomes foreigners into our celebrations and practices. However, something about watching my white peers get trained as yoga instructors and claim to “channel their inner patangali” — all while misspelling Patanjali — has never sat right with me. 

It is much easier to recognize the appropriation of objects like a colored dot on the forehead or a religious tapestry, as the reduction of meaningful cultural symbols into mere aesthetic is visible. But the appropriation of centuries-old spiritual practices is more convoluted. South Asian spirituality has been grossly misrepresented in the Western world, stripped of its foundations and placed into a cultish, polytheistic category. Through centuries of colonialism, Europeans ascribed titles such as “Hinduism” and “caste” to a culture that initially knew no such words, and consequently outsiders could pick and choose elements of South Asian practices to appropriate. 

In truth, the Dharmic traditions are neither cultish nor polytheistic. The colonialist misrepresentation of Dharmic traditions has made it easy to ridicule and thus ignore the spiritual importance of practices like yoga.

To understand the practice of yoga, it is important to understand what the term truly means. The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word for “union,” but there are many different schools of yoga and therefore many different meanings for the term. According to tradition, each yogic school is a pathway toward liberation or escape from suffering, namely the paths of knowledge, devotion, selflessness and meditation. What we know as yoga in the West is a diluted form of raja yoga, the path of meditation. In Dharmic traditions, liberation is rooted in equanimity. The irony is that yoga in the West has been commodified into a consumable subscription, exploited as and when desired. 

The Westernization of yoga is clearly a matter of appropriation, not appreciation. Culture appreciation typically occurs when members of a culture invite an outsider to celebrate an aspect of their culture alongside them, but how many times have you seen a South Asian person on the cover of a yoga magazine? The colonized tradition of yoga in the West is, in fact, not yoga at all. Local yoga studios like Corepower Yoga do not have authority on or knowledge of the roots of yogic philosophy, nor do most white instructors in these spaces. These studios promote workout classes, not schools of yoga. The mindfulness and tranquility that is central to yoga dissipates when the practice is set to workout music and disconnected instructors who speak through the entire session. 

Our neighborhood yoga studios have chosen to practice a single aspect of a complex culture while misunderstanding and misrepresenting the culture itself. Our Desi yogis have been rebranded and replaced to fit a shiny and washed standard. Our original yoga, a spiritual discipline intended to lead practitioners toward detachment from the material world, has turned into another facet of consumerism. 

Whitewashing takes place when Western ideals are infused into cultural practices as a means to “improve” them. But the assumption here is that white is better. 

The white man’s burden has always been seen as the responsibility to guide inferior people in how to live the right way — the better way. Our local yoga classes, in their erasure of supposedly inferior cultural roots, embody this colonial mindset. 

The real white man’s burden is the inconvenience that arises when other cultures do not cater to him. To solve this problem and maintain his superiority, he must change and erase parts of that culture. The problem is that this whitewashing occurs in self-interest. 

I understand there are good intentions behind the adoption of yoga. Over time, the Western world has realized the transformative effects of meditation, even if colonialism initially debunked raja yoga as a meaningless ritual. There is no easy way to tell my peers that their occasional partaking in an activity with mental and physical benefits is rooted in ignorance. But although it is not the intention, the whitewashed practice of yoga continues to embody colonialism, as it unrelentingly centers whiteness and Western self-interest. By co-opting and simplifying an elaborate tradition into an hour-long Sunday class, we have lost yoga’s meaning and purpose. 

Suhani Garg is a freshman in the College. 

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  • Y

    YanvaYogaNov 11, 2021 at 5:10 am

    Im learning to appreciate and learn about yoga/meditation through the history and education of its roots. I wanted to ensure that I gave thanks to those who originally practiced it. I thank them during the end of my meditation or yoga practice. I try to ensure that those I follow and watch for new information have the cultural background as opposed to someone who has whitewashed it. If anyone, or yourself, has any more tips on how I can appreciate the practices more, I would highly appreciate it. I am very grateful for all yoga and meditation has done for me and I want to do as much as I can to appreciate all that it is. Thank you for this video!

  • S

    skeptíqueDec 10, 2019 at 8:44 pm

    While I agree that cultural and religious practices should not be reduced I think you miss the entire point of the issue of cultural appropriation.

    Firstly, the line in which you ascribe wearing of mehndi to an “aesthetic fad” is a little bit far fetched. This may come as a shock to you but mehndi is neither exclusively South Asian or Hindu. It is an art spread from North Africa, to the Middle East, to Southeast Asia that has existed for thousands of years. In many cultures, henna (which is the Arabic word for the art so don’t scoff at it for not being desi enough) or mehndi is purely aesthetic. There is no problem with wearing it for its purpose in the other cultures that use it— to adorn and decorate.

    It is also offensive that you try to claim that South Asians knew no words for “caste” before Europeans ascribed that term. What are varna and jatti then? Caste is very real and purity laws related to them has had deleterious effects on the lives of dalits in South Asia. Go ask them if they think “caste” is simply a European invention. Even in places that are not majority Hindu in the Subcontinent, caste is still a de facto reality that governs the abilities and opportunities of so many people. It is an ideology and an institution. Just because it is a problem that you don’t like, you cannot simply cast it as a European typology and solve the issue. You should really consider reading “The Annihilation of Caste” by Dr. Ambedkar to understand why that line of your piece was so inaccurate (

    Secondly, yoga and mehndi are celebrated and uplifted in the West and does not suffer form a power dynamic. The celebration of yoga in America neither detracts nor changes your spiritual relationship to the art. There is no imbalanced power dynamics at play here: Hindus are not ridiculed nor attacked for practicing spiritual yoga; moreover, India’s own Prime Minister lobbied the UN to recognize International Yoga Day as a way to share Indian culture (

    If you want to have a discussion about how wearing non-Western dress in public is victim to an imbalanced power dynamic, which you allude to in your piece, that would have been a much stronger article. It’s troubling to see white Americans celebrated for wearing paisley print, salwars, saris and other South Asian dress as costumes or bold fashion pieces while our mothers and fathers face social stigma for doing so. Yoga and mehendi are not examples of this dynamic. The “white man” is not erasing yoga but accepting it. Western Yoga is not an accurate description of the spiritual practice, but it certainly doesn’t detract from it either.

    Such discussions of cultural appropriation without any of the needed nuance are boring and tired. Framing every action that white Americans do as an allusion to the vile rhetoric of Kipling is not only inaccurate but delegitimizes actual struggles that people of color fact.

    Disappointed in The Hoya for not steering this narrative to a productive point of conversation.

    • A

      ArudraJul 20, 2020 at 9:13 am

      Varna and Jaati rhyme more with Community. Not with caste. Some words are never an exact literal translations into English. Heal thyself.
      And, Mehndi travelled from where? Forget it. Applying Vermillion or a paste on the forehead was not invented in Africa or exported from Middle East…at least not from Middle East. LOL.

    • R

      RubyJul 27, 2020 at 12:58 pm

      Bravo!! Well said. When I read ‘college freshman’ I knew instantly where these misguided views came from. Its not about blaming other cultures. This was bound to happen when air travel and then the internet brought the world closer. The only way to avoid it is segregation and isolation which aren’t good policies.

  • Y

    YodaDec 9, 2019 at 2:34 am

    Twice you relate Western yoga classes to “the white man’s burden.” But, having attended several such classes, it seems to me that “the white woman’s burden” would be a much more appropriate target here. What gives?

  • A

    AlumnusDec 8, 2019 at 10:46 am

    Haha ! “Appropriation” is such a nonsensical comment. Goodness, I hope there aren’t cultures “appropriating” things such as neckties, suits, or forks and knives ! Oh, the horrors ! I am so offended !

  • Z

    ZegaDec 5, 2019 at 2:45 pm

    Go off, Suhani!! “ Our original yoga, a spiritual discipline intended to lead practitioners toward detachment from the material world, has turned into another facet of consumerism.” That’s a bar! This was a powerful article