On Yoga, Diversity Lite, and the Empire of American Wellness

I started learning yoga at the age of 20 in Mumbai at The Yoga Institute, the oldest organized Yoga center in the world. I was in good health, had zero emotional crisis, and wanted to find a way to stay healthy. Growing up middleclass in former Bombay (read: poor for American standards), my family couldn’t afford access to sports clubs, public pools or gyms. Going for a run or a walk in my neighborhood’s potholed streets with perpetual traffic of vehicles, loud street vendors and eve-teasers wasn’t my idea of a relaxing workout either. The Yoga Institute was affordable–a couple of dollars for several hours of training in asanas and pranayamas and the evening lectures came free. As I continued to practice yoga at home, I found dedicated local teachers, often working women who would give me private lessons, also for free, simply because they felt responsible to share what they had with anyone who expressed a genuine interest.

After practicing yoga and meditation for about 15 years, and having lived in different parts of the world, I recently made Huntington Beach in Orange County my home. Like most Californian beach towns, including Santa Monica, Venice, Ojai, Ventura or Santa Barbara, my new home, Surf City, is big into the idea of fitness and wellness. You’re likely to find a yoga studio in every second block of OC beach cities with spiritual or fitness-oriented names–Shakti Yoga, Ra Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Hot Yoga, Flow Yoga, Barre Yoga, and that oxy-moronic Western concoction, Power Yoga. I haven’t yet seen in my beach city a Beer Yoga studio–another oxy-moronic Western concoction; any Yogi worth her salt knows that alcohol falls under tamasic foods and is unconducive to the practice of yoga. However, the way Beer Yoga is getting popular in Europe and spreading abroad, I see it coming soon to Surf City with a thriving clientele in our bars by the Pier.

And yet, with an abundance of yoga studios in California, I’ve been lonely for the right studio in Orange County where I can practice yoga with a likeminded community.

My problem? I avoid orientalist yoga like the plague.

So, what the heck is orientalist yoga? You’ll ask.

Let’s turn to Palestinian-American public intellectual, Edward Said, for a moment. In 1978, Said published “Orientalism” – a pioneering work of cultural criticism where he explores how the West selectively represents the East through a wide range of visual and verbal storytelling, exaggerates difference, promotes binary-thinking, and reduces the East’s cultural complexity in order to control and dominate her.

I’m unmotivated by coastal Californian yoga studios because they are a predominantly white “unwoke” community of instructors and clients. Meaning: This community of wellness seekers claims expertise on or practices a millennia old tradition of my culture in blithe amnesia toward its own racial history that has profited from Yoga, first by repressing it in the East, and now, by importing and spreading it in the West. As Susanna Barkataki reiterates in her piece “How to decolonize your Yoga practice,” both Yoga and Ayurveda, an alternative school of South Asian medicine, were banned in India under British colonial rule. “The practices millions of Westerners now turn to for alternative health and wellness therapies were intentionally eradicated from parts of India to the point that lineages were broken and thousand-year old traditions lost.”[1]

So, is this about that tired, angry claim of saving brown culture for browns and relegating each to their own ethno-cultural bubble? Is this about the fantasy of cultural authenticity?

No, Sir.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from spending a lifetime of navigating countries, continents, and languages, it’s that race, ethnicity, culture, East, West, first or third world are constructs whose meaning shifts from context to context. And yet, if we, especially in Trump’s America, are to live peacefully with one another, practicing cross-cultural curiosity and exchange may as well be the first step.

What frustrates me about an American yoga landscape – a “27 billion dollar industry” that’s reinventing “American spirituality” via 20 million practitioners of which 83% are women[2] – is its commercial and pedagogical storytelling. Executed via images, branding, marketing content and studio practice, this Wellness industry’s storytelling often claims authority on my culture by stripping it of its essence and makes serious profits in the process – a classic strategy of European colonialism too, thanks to Chris Columbus’s “discovery” of new worlds. Alternatively put, a self-serving, orientalist storytelling of non-Western cultures that had once enabled a white West to colonize about 90% of our planet continues today to characterize the empire of American Wellness too.

How so? You’ll ask.

To begin with, check out the websites of yoga studios in Californian beach towns and you’re likely to find profile after profile of white instructors with images of deftly executed acrobatic postures; one instructor in Huntington Beach studio even executes an asana precariously on her roller blade while another does so on her surfboard in the waters of Newport harbor. A white, fitness-oriented interpretation of yoga jars further when a photograph of that token South Asian yoga instructor, if present at all in a state with non-white majority, shows a simple headshot or a meditative pose with comfortable clothes uninterested in flaunting athletic limbs or a six-pack perfection. Moreover, in Trump’s America, a white fascination with brown ideals of “liberation” inevitably raises the question on how many white spirituals show up for the socio-political liberation of their compatriots of color – be it at Black Lives Matter or Immigrants Make America Great marches or for women’s rights that don’t involve white genitalia. Here’s only one example where the fruitful ideal of intercultural mixing and exchange morphs with zero subtlety into the practice of cultural appropriation and a cheap cosmopolitanism of the privileged, a.k.a. Diversity Lite.

On the other side of reducing yoga to physical fitness or high-intensity asanas, we have variations on the Eat-Pray-Love narrative, one that sells nirvana to an emotionally vexed clientele through yoga as a spiritual practice. The essence and etymological root of yoga implies “union” or a holistic practice of mental, emotional and physical health; yet this seems to register neither with the American wellness industry nor its stories on yoga, operating often within a Western philosophical tradition of binary-thinking. René Descartes, anyone?

Even among those teaching Yoga Studies–yet another Western innovation of institutionalizing and profiting from the Other–at universities, there is often a selective understanding of yoga, blind to the power, privilege, and decontextualization with which Western academics discourse on the East.

Consider, for instance, the recent essay “Yoga Teachers Need a Code of Ethics”[3] in New York Times by Sarah Herrington who teaches Yoga Studies at Mount Loyola University. Here, Herrington exposes the frequency of sexual assault in the American Wellness industry and reports the overdue arrest of Bikram Chaudhury and other yoga instructors. Chaudhury is known as the inventor of Hot Yoga that is hugely popular in the West; most South Asians already live in a climate of 100 degrees Fahrenheit and are unlikely to give a hoot about Hot Yoga. Over and again, Herrington calls out “Chaudhury and others,” implying but never naming a white yoga instructor involved in sex scandal, or for that matter, a history of sexual assault in white, western “spiritual communities” of the Church. Now I’m all for speaking up against crime perpetrated by browns or whites, but Herrington’s racial consciousness is obvious in whom she chooses to name or not, when discussing spirituality and sexual assault. Moreover, in teaching a code of ethics in one of her classes, Herrington wants yoga instructors to emulate her Manhattan students. However, while prescribing ethics via her first world crew, I’m pretty confident Herrington’s universalist tone doesn’t have “third world” brown instructors like mine in mind–women who offer lessons for free or for a minimal fee in homes of their clients, often after a twelve-hour work shift, simply because they don’t have enough space to teach in their own home. Furthermore, I rolled my eyes when I read Herrington’s conclusion on practicing yoga and ethics: “Even secular yoga studios should provide this service, alongside mats and towels.”

First, secular yoga studios imply there are religious yoga studios which is a novel idea to me, although moving to California is fast changing this. Most yoga classes I know in urban India, including my home city of Mumbai, aren’t an indoctrination into religious practices. Hinduism is first and foremost a cultural identity; even our sacred texts like Bhagawad Gita–key philosophical discourse on different kinds of yoga–make ample room for atheism within it. Second, a self-righteous prescription for mandatory mats and towels within assumed spaces like “studios” brim with blind first-world privilege and assumptions toward the teaching of yoga. Surely, I don’t expect a Western multibillion dollar industry to show contextual nuance in talking about cultural “commodities” imported from the non-West. However, as a teacher of transnational cultures, I do hold Western academics in Yoga Studies to higher standards.

The “third world” I grew up in and the spaces yoga continues to be taught in India are often very humble: meagerly equipped classrooms of government aided schools, terraces of buildings serving local residents, and the space of my own learning in Bombay–cubicle of a room that served simultaneously as a living room, bedroom, guest room and dining room. I’m sure yoga professionals à la Herrington don’t have instructional spaces in yoga’s homeland while preaching ethics in “studios,” prescribing mandatory mats and towels or reporting brown felony–admittedly appalling–to their audience, while maintaining silent first-world assumptions and privilege.

That said, the way American culture is spreading globally, I’m pretty sure we’ll have in South Asian cities, if we don’t already, “power yoga studios” catering to millennials who have no reason to leave their air-conditioned homes, offices, and cars. This generation of desi yuppies will find a studio with 100 degree Fahrenheit mirroring the temperature on the streets to be quite a novelty, particularly when they come with free towels and mats. In these studios with yoga stripped of its complexity, repackaged and freshly legitimized by a corporate West, desi yuppies will be more than happy to ignore the fact that one’s mat carries one’s energy according to a yogic philosophy, so it’s best not to use a studio mat. Most of all, they’ll proudly pay for an overpriced yoga session–sign of upward mobility­–as they already do for sugar saturated, over-caffeinated beverages at Indian outlets of Starbucks and Coffee Bean where “small” often translates as “extra-large” for most middle- and working-class locals.

Meanwhile, when preaching ethics, one place Western yoga industry professionals can start is at the essence of yogic thought – a certain humility, awareness, and an acknowledgement of the fact that living in a white Christian America, an increasingly imperial force since November 2016, they’re engaging with an Eastern tradition whose complexity they may never fully grasp.

The intention here isn’t to claim mastery of knowledge or to preserve cultural purity, as if either were possible, but mindfulness toward how an individual and communal context creates a subjective understanding of the Other. Here’s one way to better practice both: Yoga and Ethics.

Namrata Poddar writes fiction, cultural criticism, and teaches transnational American literature in the Honors Collegium at the University of California, Los Angeles. She can be reached at: www.namratapoddar.com.


[1] http://www.decolonizingyoga.com/decolonize-yoga-practice/

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/16/how-the-yoga-industry-los_n_4441767.html

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/07/opinion/yoga-code-of-ethics-bikram-choudhury.html