Yoga’s Roots, Erased

A Hindu practice, appropriated into a white woman’s exercise

Article By: Austin Devaraj

Illustration By: Sage Christopher-Bankasingh

The Yogic Practice rooted in Hinduism is appropriated in the West through the erasure of its Indic roots. This piece draws reflection of the historical context of when colonial powers banned the practice during their rule and Hinduphobia today.

Luvena Rangel wakes up in her flat in Bangalore, India around seven in the morning before logging onto zoom to start her yoga classes. She is the State President for the WICCI Karnataka Yoga Council. Rangel starts the day off by performing chants and meditation followed by a quick breakfast. She gets her ‘on the mat’ practice going and performs the Asana, a yogic practice meaning ‘seat’ in Sanskrit, the ancient language of Hinduism and India. “Yoga has brought meaning to my life and given me an avenue to express my purpose,” Rangel says.

Image of Luvena Rangel, Courtesy Rangel

The Asana is the most popular position in yoga that has made it into the mainstream in the west. This narrative, along with appropriation of Hindu culture that followed as it became popular in the west, has caused controversy in the Indian community. Arundhati Baitmangalkar, an Indian immigrant yoga teacher in Seattle, Washington states: “Yoga is much more than poses and what mainstream media covers or sells as yoga.” Seeing a lack of Indian owned Yoga studios in the United States, she started her own. “Aham Yoga was driven by the community’s needs,” Baitmangalkar says.

When one does a search on Google for Yoga, they are confronted with images of white women sporting spandex. On YouTube, women can be seen doing the practice with pop music playing in the background. Baitmangalkar is critical of the way Westerners run yoga classes: “Adding music to classes, or playing sacred chants in class, adding idols as studio décor, using namaste as a way of sounding more yogic, doing things like wine yoga shows yoga has been appropriated over the years.” She encourages westerners to do yoga, however says: “The problem is that they do everything they please in the name of yoga.”

According to Rangel the cherry-picking of the elements of yoga that appeal to the Western practitioner is a sign of supremacy and oppression.

Image of Arundhati Baitmangalkar courtesy Baitmangalkar

Baitmangalkar identifies yoga as a spiritual practice, one rooted in Indian heritage and Hinduism. Over in Bangalore for Rangel, the fact resonates: “I believe it is everyone’s responsibility to understand and do their homework on their culture and relationship to their culture as honestly and authentical as possible and not use their privilege to bypass the work.” Seeing Namasté shirts sported by westerners offends Rangel.  “Deliberately maligning Hindu deities, sacred words and mantras to something lewd, sexually suggestive, defiling and laden with derision of Indic culture, is toxic, harmful and openly abusive,” says Rangel. Rangel notes those from the Indic culture are witnessing a tear down of their practices and their identity.

Historical Context

Yoga has hit the mainstream in the West. Historically, the colonial ancestors of those who appropriate the spiritual practice were the ones that formed against it. Dr. Ian Whicher, Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba who focuses on Hinduism and Yogic studies says:  “Cultural appropriation, in some ways, is the exotification of yoga cultural practices from historically oppressed populations.” He cites the problem occurs when individuals take away evidence of Yoga’s Hindu roots so it does not offend western practitioners. “Look at the commercialization such as t-shirts that sport Hindu deities, om tattoos and Sanskrit words,” Whicher notes.

Whicher says it comes down to European colonialism and racism. “We can’t forget the historical context when the British were in India, when a lot of these practices were brushed aside as being strange, weird and against the principles of the Christian doctrine,” says Whicher. He also highlights the grave consequences Hindus under colonial rule experienced when practicing yoga. “Those forms of practices were often ridiculed or prohibited by colonists in India,” Whicher says. The oppression of Hinduism and Hinduphobia isn’t a matter of the past. Recently in the State of Alabama in the U.S., fresh controversy sparked because the state refused to reject a ban on yoga in schools, because groups claimed it would see a rise in Hinduism.

To combat cultural appropriation, Rangel hopes people will approach authentic teachers.

Yoga Class featuring Luvena Rangel, Courtesy Rangel

“Supremacy and colonialism have long disenfranchised indigenous people from openly practicing their cultural birthright, so seeing western practitioners and teachers not just freely consume those practices but also capitalize on it is deeply traumatic,” says Rangel.