An Argument for “Spiritually Engaged Activism”

“Over time, it became clear to me that there’s a problem with the question ‘What can I do.’ The problem is the word ‘I.’ By ourselves, there’s not much we can do… The right question is ‘What can we do to make a difference?’ Because if individual action can’t alter the momentum of global warming, movements may still do the trick. Movements are how people organize themselves to gain power—enough power, in this case, to perhaps overcome the financial might of the fossil fuel industry… Movements are what take 5 or 10 percent of people and make them decisive—because in a world where apathy rules, five or ten percent is an enormous number.” ~Bill McKibben (“The Question I Get Asked the Most“)

I recently saw a new post by Carol Horton, the second in a series on Yoga International called “Re-imagining Yoga: Holistic Wellness, Social Connection, and Spiritual Revitalization.” In the most recent post on Spirituality & Social Justice, she describes what she called the experience and rise of what she terms “socially engaged spirituality.” I’ve been sitting with her words for several days now thinking about this “re-imagining” of the practice, and for a number of reasons it just hasn’t been sitting well with me. I want to talk about why.

Horton introduces the experience of “socially engaged spirituality” by sharing a story of her youth when, in the first grade, her class was brought into a gymnasium to hold hands and sing together a freedom anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.” It’s a lovely tale, and one she argues embodies the hopeful, spiritual possibility she feels may be developing in some yoga circles, particularly in the yoga service field, described as “people who have launched successful organizations dedicated to teaching yoga in prisons, supporting recovery from addiction, and so on.”

I agree that the growing awareness in yoga circles of social justice concerns is promising. It is wonderful to see so many people “seeking to deepen their practice by engaging more deliberately with the world—rather than escaping, renouncing, or transcending it.” As she mentions, “to see this happening on the scale that it is today… is unprecedented.” This is something to be hopeful about, and I am happy this conversation and service work is growing. As McKibben notes, “It’s the right question or almost: It implies an eagerness to act and action is what we need.”

But while I applaud those engaging in yoga service I also feel that service work in yoga is  something we need to be critical of, for a number of reasons. As I have written about before, there are often problematic elements to the organizational structures of groups involved in the yoga service field (often through no fault of their own). The nature of the industry is often not set up to support more radical approaches than what Horton I think appropriately calls a “socially engaged spirituality,” as the model of the industry is often based on a form of charity work driven by white middle-class communities, in ways that are rooted in the colonialist history of philanthropy within the construction of the United States, rather than more radical, overtly political models.

I do want to acknowledge there are groups of socially engaged spiritual yogis out there doing political, activist work and engaging in social justice beyond the mat. You do exist, and I commend you. Just to clarify, this post isn’t about these people, who I think are creative and bold individuals (those of you doing this type of work know that you can often be treated with disdain or virulent sanctioning by those in the yoga world who find this work “unyogic” and “judgemental” because of the political bent). More importantly, I think it’s important to recognize that while many yogis want to believe they are socially engaged in radical ways, these people are rare in the yoga world, even in the yoga service world, in part because mainstream yoga often promotes a more individualized, complacent positivity that is constructed as at odds with political engagement.

This post addresses the majority of service work in yoga that is not overtly political, that is not seeking to engage in collaborative movement building and organizing both within but also outside yoga circles, and which often uses a “socially engaged spirituality” to justify their own personal commitment to social justice without engaging in actions that are radical enough to promote more effective and widespread change beyond the individual level. To those folks, please listen, and I hope you take this post as a plea to think deeper about what social justice means and why spiritually informed social engagement demands an active, political, and collaborative approach.

The Dangers of a “Socially Engaged Spirituality”

What exactly does it mean to have a “socially engaged spirituality”? Who does it serve? What type of social engagement does it enable? Why is yoga service becoming more popular, and can we problematize this sociohistorical context?

Horton’s construction of a “socially engaged spirituality” is one that is deeply personal, and as such is very focused on the “I” question: “what can I do?” rather than the question “what can we do?” And this is particularly interesting given that the civil rights movement she cites in her original story of her six year old self holding hands and singing “We Shall Overcome” was driven by a powerful religious tradition and social network; in other words, it was a movement based on the question of what we could do, not what I could do. Churches and church networks were central in the success and spread of the civil rights movement. The movement Horton so romantically recalls in her post ultimately was one that (while diverse and sometimes conflicted) was able to come together in unity and purpose to accomplish great change, and it did so through loosely coordinated efforts on the part of movement organizers/organizations, which included on the ground activism, not just unifying sing-a-longs–though these are of course nice too. When we focus on a personal form of “socially engaged spirituality,” we can miss the potential for unified resistance, for unified transformation that the civil rights movement embodied.

My worry in the type of approach Horton uses in the re-imagining of yoga is that even while expanding a personal spirituality to include social engagement, because the nature of this engagement is not clear it’s incredibly easy to fall into the trap of ego, self-service, and privilege in application. Meaning: when our spirituality is socially engaged only on our own terms, and in ways that are geared toward meeting the needs of the one doing the service rather than the populations that service addresses, and without broader political understandings and engagement in unified social movements or activism, ultimately the transformative potential of service work is significantly lessened and, potentially, even utterly destroyed. Sometimes, service work (if done in ways that aren’t rooted in deep understanding) can actually lead to the supporting of systems of the very oppression such service advertises to fight or solve. As Uma Dinsmore Tuli has said, “Yoga is a toolkit for liberation often used in the service of oppression.”

The danger of reproducing inequality in service work isn’t necessarily a surprise when we consider who is often involved in these types of service organizations. As most people know, yoga practitioners in the USA and Western countries are often a narrow demographic group: predominantly middle- to upper-class, highly educated, and majority white. In other words, many people getting involved in these projects are privileged, and may not have first hand experience or even adequate educational knowledge to understand the types of work they are engaging in. In my own research I have heard of numerous cases where the people running these organizations know very little about the populations they are serving, and don’t have adequate training to safely and effectively serve those most at-risk (here’s one example for you). Yogis are not required to receive even basic diversity training in their certification programs. This can often lead to forms of service that are not coming from a place of knowledge, that are not actually beneficial to the communities served in the long-run, but often just bolsters the legitimacy of those engaging in the service work and teaching the classes, and props up an unsustainable and harmful system in need of drastic reform.


The tendency in the West is to individualize service work. It becomes something an individual does, or an individual organization, perhaps (as I have said before), an excuse to mitigate personal feelings of guilt for those with privilege, as a way of easing our own self-doubt and insecurities, and as a way of healing ourselves rather than a means of truly serving other people. This is largely because yoga, and yoga philosophy, is interpreted by Westerners through our capitalist, individualist, and neoliberal ideologies in ways that appropriate the ethically guided spiritual practice of yoga out of context of the profound understanding that comes through absorption with the object of our focus and meditation. It becomes a project one either succeeds or fails at independently, in relative isolation. But in isolation, we have significantly less power.

The growing trend of yoga service also often only involves the teaching of asana/postural yoga classes to at risk-populations. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely value gained by these populations through these types of class offerings! But the idea that a postural yoga class or two can somehow solve larger systemic problems is flawed logic. It is essentially a stop-gap measure; it does not cure the underlying illness, despite lessening the impact of the symptoms of disease (somewhat). Instead of listening to what the populations we serve actually need, we listen to ourselves and serve them in ways we believe (or want to believe) are beneficial. We volunteer in prisons, rather than fighting and advocating for a better system that won’t imprison so many people in the first place. We provide asana classes to poor youth (often of color), rather than addressing the underlying issues of poverty, segregation, crime, unequal education, and limited job opportunities they often deal with. Instead of engaging in advocacy, activism, and movement organizing, we engage in attempting to promote personal self-care within a system that is slowly killing us. We become complacent, and complicit, rather than resistant.

In this way yoga service can often take the form of a white savior complex, a trend where whites increasingly use service work (and charitable giving) as a means to justify and validate their own unwarranted privilege, thereby reinforcing it, rather than actually performing service in the interests and according to the needs of the ones they serve to disrupt unequal and intersectional systems of oppression/privilege. Thus, the white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening. As Cole says, “there is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of first do no harm [ahimsa!]. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.”

All agree that in the last five years, there has been an exponential expansion of this sort of work, particularly in the U.S. Interest in integrating yoga practices into major public institutions, as well as in fields such as education, criminal justice, public health, social work, and psychotherapy is vastly higher than it’s ever been before. All evidence suggests that the growth of socially engaged yoga will continue to snowball in coming years. (Carol Horton, “Re-imagining Yoga, Part 2: Spirituality and Social Justice”)

One of the reasons there has been such an exponential expansion of this sort of service work is that the yoga industry has been pumping out new teachers in recent years, and one of the ways these teachers are often encouraged to gain experience is by engaging in “service work,” aka, teaching free classes so they can further their career goals. It seems radical, and progressive, and yogic (seva!), but often in reality free classes are just as much about serving the needs of the teacher as they are about serving the needs of their students, and in many ways are more focused on the needs of the teacher as they don’t always even engage in dialogue with the populations they serve. I have heard countless teachers encourage new students to teach for free, to do charity work and classes as a means of gaining experience (with the implication that the end goal is primarily to, upon gaining more experience, teach to a wealthier clientele who can afford to pay).

The growth in yoga service work has also been enabled by the continuing defunding and gutting of social welfare systems in the USA, combined with a stagnating middle class, unlivable minimum wage, and growing job insecurity that means this type of charity work in some ways becomes a means of supplementing the growing scarcity of government funded programs and support networks that leave so many populations at risk. The problem with this is that charity work is often unable to adequately fill these gaps, and as we know historically and even today of charity work, there are often disparities within aide or required stipulations on who is able to gain access to such aide that can be problematic. (For an excellent exploration of why doing “good work” doesn’t always mean we are “good people”, see this post from Michael Lee via the Huff Post.)

And finally, this is exacerbated by the fact that many teachers are limited by the expectations of their professions to present an overly positive (cult of positivity, anyone?) outlook, which typically means that political discussions are considered “unyogic.” People who engage in critical discussions and political activism in the yoga world are often seen as “focusing too much on the negative.” This limits the type of engagement yoga service workers can sometimes practice, provided they want to be seen as “authentically” yogic and to retain or grow a following within the yoga world more broadly. This is something more yoga teachers need to be willing, and able, to push back against, because ultimately a deep understanding of the world and our locations in it per a yogic practice intent on uncovering bias and living ethically requires a recognition that the personal is inherently political, and that there is no yogically sound way to engage in a “socially engaged spirituality” without also being political.

Re-Imagining Yoga: “Spiritually Engaged Activism”

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

If we truly want to engage in re-imaging the intersections of spirituality and social justice we have to take our spiritual understanding of the practice beyond a potentially self-focused “socially engaged spirituality” and instead begin to form a collective movement for “spiritually engaged activism,” where spirituality guides, informs, and even necessitates the development of a unified, intersectional movement predicated on a spiritual understanding of ethics and morality.

We need to begin thinking about how we can unify spiritually in ways that create social engagement that is inherently radical, political, and intersectional. We need to think about how we can strategize beyond just the individual level, beyond individualism, to develop a sense of collectivity and unity even as we acknowledge difference. We need to stop modeling ourselves on the current models of white charity predicated in histories of the “white man’s burden” and colonial missionizing narratives. Instead I think we should consider how we can decolonize service work, gaining inspiration from the radical potential of groups like, for example, the black panther movement, which fed millions of children through their free breakfast program while raising awareness on the racial inequalities of food scarcity in the USA.

We need to think about how we can model ourselves on movements like the ongoing indigenous resistance to climate change,  environmental racism, and corporate power that seeks to ground their resistance in spiritual traditions and experiences shared by hundreds of indigenous tribal peoples across the Americas.

These types of movements are rooted in a deep spirituality and social engagement with the world as it is (not as we would like or romanticize it to be). These movements don’t just close us off from connection, or prescribe an individual level of healing that never quite heals us completely; they open us up to building communities of activists, allies, and protectors that can provide mutual support and connection. They allow us to heal at the communal level, to heal in ways that get to the root of our insecurities and trauma both as oppressors and as oppressed peoples, because ultimately in systems of oppression, everyone suffers. The spiritually engaged activism these groups engage in is just that: action, organizing, and resistance that goes beyond treating symptoms of a larger disease and instead seek to overcome and cure the actual illness.

Perhaps, rather than solely focusing on the individual healing we can gain from a “socially engaged spirituality,” we can ask: How do we use a yogically informed spirituality to engage in intersectional movement building and support systems? How can we cultivate an intersectional, “spiritually engaged activism” rooted in yogic philosophy and practice? And how can we achieve this together? Is the model for yoga service currently gaining popularity simply not enough, and how can we radicalize it and decolonize it to be more effective in promoting industry and government changes that ensure greater equity and social justice for everyone?

Some Additional Resources:

[i] “The Black Panthers: Revolutionaries, Free Breakfast Pioneers” by the National Geographic

[ii] “End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock” via Ic Magazine

[iii] “Just Because You Do ‘Good’ Work Doesn’t Mean You’re a Good Person” by Michael Lee


Yoga Justice/Yoga Violence: Another Race & Yoga Conference to Remember

This post is a (late) review of the last Race and Yoga Conference held in Oakland, CA this past April 2016. While it is late, I hope it is appreciated! Thanks again to those who put on the conference, especially Sabrina Springs, Tria Blu Wakpa, and Jennifer Musial.

“What is yoga justice? How is “justice” defined and by whom? How do we rethink narratives that promote justice through yoga? What kinds of violence occur in yoga spaces? How are people responding and/or resisting forms of yoga violence?”[i]

On Friday, April 22nd I found myself at the third annual Race & Yoga Conference in Oakland, California. This year’s theme, Yoga Justice/Yoga Violence, explored the ways yoga can be used as a tool to promote social justice, yet may perpetuate oppression.

After attending the prior two years, I knew this conference would provide a unique space to critically examine yoga culture today. Drawing a diverse crowd of yoga teachers, practitioners, and academics, let me tell you, the event did not disappoint!


The conference opening.

The event began with a morning keynote address by Kimber Simpkins on “Queering Yoga.” Simpkins asked us to think critically about what queer yoga is, and how we can queer yoga as students, teachers, and scholars. Yoga is not always welcoming for queer practitioners. This can be a result of studios without gender neutral bathrooms or clothing, a lack of diversity in their teaching and staff, heteronormative assumptions being taught in the content or through the language used in teacher trainings or classes, and by discouraging conversations challenging yoga cultural practices that may be inherently unequal. She argued queering yoga entails promoting classes for marginalized groups, utilizing and strengthening existing communities through yoga, and teaching informed by trauma sensitivity and awareness of power dynamics. Ultimately, to queer yoga is to make the practice political, breaking down and examining the consequences of Western commercialized yoga-for-profit so yoga can become inclusive for all bodies, including those who are queer.


Keynote “Queering Yoga” by Kimber Simpkins.

The first panel, Yoga for Profit and Sport, featured Darshini Shah, speaking on “The Yoga Alliance (YA): The Impact of a Western Non-Profit from Global Perspectives” and Ryan Laws, “Yoga, Sports, and Embodied Discourse.” Shah discussed how YA standards have “gone global,” increasingly adopted in areas outside the United States. While the YA represents teachers from over 160 countries, the main board of the YA has no one from the global south represented. Since 2013, no scholarships have been given to anyone from the global south and only to one domestic teacher of color, reflecting broader inequalities that often go unquestioned and unnoticed. Shah challenged us to question our own privilege and power (as members of the global north) and recognize that our actions in this part of the globe impact the practice beyond our borders, often in ways we don’t even realize.

Laws explored the idea of “yoga as sport,” particularly within the competitive yoga community and the organization USA Yoga Federation. While this was an interesting presentation, I would have liked to see a deeper analysis of the connection to Bikram yoga (all competitive poses come from the sequence) and recent rape cases, especially given the conference theme of justice/violence. USA Yoga is seeking to distance themselves from Bikram Choudhury in light of the six lawsuits against him for rape and sexual harassment. This is difficult, however, as the first case brought against him focuses on the victim’s loss of income as a result of Bikram’s involvement in the USA yoga competition.

As one victim put it, “He told me that if I did not have sex with him, I would not have a chance of winning that competition.” The case charges Bikram rigged the 2008 asana competition where she was expected to take first place, instead placing second to another student who was sharing Bikram’s hotel room. The complaint describes how “she has been prevented from teaching seminars or advanced classes because of her… continuing refusal to have sex with her guru.”[ii]

Two workshops were before and after lunch, one by Misia Denea on “Yogic, Body Positive Practices to Overcome Body Fascism” and another led by Susanna Barkataki on “New Faces in Yoga Leadership: A Call to Action for People of Color.” These workshops challenged the audience to engage in body positive practices. Denea provided a list of local and online resources as part of a project she is working on, and Barkataki challenged us to envision what the yoga world would look like if it reflected who we are and who we care about. Asking us to discuss how we might get to this diverse vision, many themes arose including the need to build community with like-minded people who share the same concerns, taking this practice outside studio systems, and teaching yoga as more than just asana.

A second panel, The “Authentic” Body Politic, was a powerful exploration of the day’s theme, featuring three talks: Anusha Kedhar on “International Yoga Day: Modi, Hindu Nationalism, and the Choreography of Unity,” Lakshmi Nair on “The Application of Yoga Towards Healing the Trauma of Racism and Oppression,” and Shaira Vadasarai on “Bodies Under Arrest: The Politics of ‘Decolonizing Yoga in Palestinian Community Life.’” Looking at religious politics in India,

Kedhar asked what types of violence yoga utilizes when coopted as a political tool. While the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, utilizes International Yoga Day to reclaim the Indian roots of the practice, in reality his government is very aligned with neoliberal capitalism. This means that this holiday may be about further aligning with capitalism and neoliberal policies. According to Kedhar, we have to consider how the Indian right wing utilizes a “tyranny of tolerance” through the discourse of yoga to mark Muslims as simultaneously different and intolerant.

Nair discussed how violence and trauma are stored in the body, and the ways the body can a site of radical healing. Discussing a teacher training she runs for people of color, her talk revealed how yoga offers these populations a means of reconnecting to themselves and healing from the experience of racism and oppression. One of my highlights of the conference was a video she compiled of her inspiring students on their path of radical healing and transformation, available here and included immediately below for easy access. It’s a powerful video, and I have such huge respect for her students.

Vadasarai’s presentation on her doctoral research was one of the highlights of the day. She asked: How does one practice yoga amidst regular, daily, military occupation, assault, and surveillance in Palestine? What does it mean to decolonize yoga when the materialization of colonization for Palestinians is real? Her research and work suggested that while yoga has the potential to promote a radical healing politic and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis, these romantic visions often couldn’t be fully realized on the ground as yoga couldn’t eclipse the deeper materiality of suffering and the power dynamics at play in this region. Yoga enabled a process of decolonizing the mind and self, a potential solution for the resentment, anger, and frustration that comes with occupation, and an empowering practice of self-determination in a world where one is rarely allowed the freedom to be oneself fully. But these changes could only take root on the individual level. It is all too easy for yoga to be adopted as a rescue narrative, where Westerners teach Palestinians to “find tadasana at a military checkpoint” without acknowledging that yoga may never be a complete solution to political violence.

The final presentation of the day was by Sri Louise on the “Globalization of the Gayatri Mantra.” Her talk focused on an email exchange with Deva Premal, a well-known new age musician, exploring the idea of cultural appropriation in yoga. This was an interesting discussion of the way the Gayatri mantra has been often misunderstood and misused by practitioners in the West in ways that simplify the practice, rather than preserving its roots. (See a video of her presentation here.)


Closing Keynote “Where are you from?” from Roopa Kaushik-Brown.

The day drew to a close with a final keynote address from Roopa Kaushik-Brown, founder of South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America (SAAPYA), who utilized her own personal family history to explore the meaning and impact of yoga on her own life. She discussed the “propertization” of yoga in America. According to her research, there was a 436% rise in legalized propertization of yoga through patents, trademarks, and copyrights over the last ten years!

Underlying all of today’s eye-opening and insightful discussions was the question: How do we transform our practice to be more equitable and just, without causing unintended violence and harm to practitioners or the rich history and tradition of yoga? How do we evolve the practice to be more equitable in a respectful way? How do we use yoga for justice without doing violence? I don’t think there are easy or even right answers to these questions, but I am grateful to this conference for providing a safe space to explore these issues. Until next year!

To catch up on the live tweets from the conference:


[i] “Call for Papers: Yoga Justice/Yoga Violence Conference.”

[ii] “Bikram Choudhury Sued for Sexual Harassment, Sex-Based Discrimination” Yoga Dork


Cultural Appropriation, Yoga, and You

(Because all great titles are a list of three things. #ThingsILearnedInAcademia)

This is not a post about what cultural appropriation is (to learn about what cultural appropriation is, see my past post here or my recent academic article, “Eating the Other Yogi,” here). This is not a post about whether or not cultural appropriation happens in modern postural yoga. Hint: it happens all the time. This post is an exploration of why and how cultural appropriation happens in yoga, and what this means for those of us who are yoga practitioners or teachers. Where do we go from here? How do we deal when we are trying to be good people (aka, not appropriative) while continuing on a yogic path?

Across my dissertation research, I’ve grown to realize that most of the yoga practiced in the Western world is culturally appropriative. That statement will likely piss off a lot of people who are very attached to their practice and don’t want to believe this. In fact, it took me a long time to come to grips with this fact too, and to really understand what that meant. But you know what? Too bad. To say that most yoga in the West is appropriative is to speak the truth (satya, anyone?), and while truth is sometimes hard and uncomfortable to face (especially for those with privilege in the yoga world, including myself) I believe wholeheartedly that people always deserve the truth, and that the truth will ultimately set us free. Also, side note, a deep practice of yoga is a practice of truth (not the truth as you want it to be, but the Truth as it is, which is a moving target most of the time). The practice of yoga is also a profound practice of non-attachment even to yoga itself, so if you are still up in arms about the claim cultural appropriation happens all the time in yoga, I suggest taking some time to reflect on why that bothers you so much.

Consuming Yoga

The fact is that cultural appropriation is often done with the best of intentions by the appropriator. If it wasn’t enjoyable, pleasurable, and desirable, it wouldn’t happen. Period. So please don’t give me the “I don’t appropriate yoga because I love it” speech. I’ve heard it before in my line of work, more times than I can count. You can be a “good” person, have the best of intentions, and still do bad things, like engaging in cultural appropriation. People culturally appropriate because they are drawn to something. They consume other cultures often with the best of intentions, out of genuine interest in the cultures they appropriate. But they also often seek out these cultures from a place of power and privilege, and without a proper understanding of the cultures they are engaging with, and this is a dangerous line to walk, often resulting in appropriating the cultures they revere. According to work by bell hooks (1992:24,26), the appropriator often sees “their willingness to openly name their desire for the Other as affirmation of cultural plurality… they believe their desire for contact represents a progressive change… [they believe] the Other can provide life-sustaining alternatives.”

In the Western yoga world today, most people desire such life-sustaining alternatives to the often demoralizing, alienating, isolating, and damaging capitalist societies we live in (especially the USA). People are drawn to yoga because they think it offers a solution, a way to mitigate the pain and suffering they are experiencing in their day to day lives. They desire it. And they are actively encouraged to desire it by an industry that sells yoga to the masses as a quick fix to underlying, systemic conditions.

Stuck in a job that requires more than 40 hours of work a week, doesn’t provide paid holiday/sick leave, and doesn’t give you any maternity/paternity leave? Do yoga! Experiencing secondary trauma from the seemingly never-ending video evidence of murders of black/brown people by police? Do yoga! Stuck in the prison system that dehumanizes non-violent offenders locked up for life because of crap mandatory minimum sentencing and three-strike laws? Do yoga! Can modern postural yoga actually solve these issues? No. Not all all. It will take systemic changes to actually solve these problems. But we are encouraged to use yoga as a stop-gap measure, as a way of treating the symptoms of a much larger and more complex disease. Because when you can treat the symptoms (for a cost) but never cure the disease, it’s possible to make a shit-ton of money. Cue: yoga is a booming $16 billion dollar industry.

This is no coincidence. As yoga became more popular in the West with the countercultural movements of the 1960s, yoga became appropriated and reinterpreted through a Western lens that imposed ideas of individualism, capitalism, and consumerism on the practice. It was turned into a “profession,” as something to be bought and sold–it was turned into a commodity. We are taught to consume yoga, to find pleasure in it despite the fact that yoga is not about finding pleasure. We are sold yoga as a “30 day transformation” and as a way to “find your bliss” and “manifest joy.” We are never actually sold yoga. We are sold an appropriative misrepresentation of the practice designed to get us in the door and spending money.

This is exacerbated by the professionalization of yoga as a career. The “job” became predicated on a prescribed set of skills that we can look up via a quick google search for “yoga teacher job description.” Take a look at some of these gems garnered from just such a search:

Yoga aims to create balance in the mind and body through exercise, breathing and meditation. As a yoga teacher, you will teach yoga as a form of exercise that increases fitness and wellbeing. (National Careers Service UK)

As a LifePower Yoga Instructor, you will provide various Yoga training services that offer members programs to maximize workout efficiency, improve fitness, increase stamina, enjoy their fitness experience and improve overall sense of well-being. (A job listing from

Yoga instructors help to guide students in yoga through a variety of postures, or asanas, and breathing exercises referred to as pranayama. Instructors provide hands-on direction to make sure students are performing movements properly and applying the breathing techniques. Yoga instructors may work in a class or in a one-on-one setting. (LiveStrong)

Are we teaching yoga, or are we just physical fitness trainers? At least the first description mentions meditation and “breathing” (did they mean pranayama here? Because I hate to break it to them, but that’s not exactly what the sanskrit term means). Although of course the description of what a teacher actually does has nothing to do with either of those, and only discusses yoga as “exercise” and “fitness.” And LiveStrong at least mentions pranayama, although again defines it incorrectly as just breathing. This next one from Best Sample Resume is probably the most ridiculous (cue laugh-cry):

Yoga is an ancient form of exercise originating from the country of India. Yoga has been known to help people exercise without straining themselves. It is quite fast and effective and this is the reason why it has become so popular in the west. Many gymnasiums now offer yoga as a form of exercise with other unconventional exercises like aerobics, pilates, etc…

Duties and Responsibilities of a Yoga Instructor

  • Yoga instructors have to teach their students about the various yogic positions…
  • They have to take into account the health problems of the students and teach them accordingly
  • They also have to take the age of each student into account as their students can be anyone
  • They have to monitor each of them carefully to ensure that they are doing the position properly
  • They have to be experts themselves and have to be in great shape
  • They can even offer dietary advice to their students but they can do it only after consultation with a dietician
  • They mostly teach their students proper breathing techniques as they are most important aspect of yoga [yet of course this “most important aspect of yoga” is mentioned as a site note in the last bullet of the job description”, talk about hypocritical!]

Because clearly yoga was just ancient exercise. That was sarcasm, in case it didn’t come across right. And don’t even get me started on the statement that yoga instructors “have to be in great shape” comment.

What is so troubling about these descriptions of the job description for a yoga instructor is that we have defined the skills and activities of such teaching primarily on asana alone, or postures, and more specifically on the teaching of those postures in a group class setting (or less common, but more lucrative, private classes). Breathing is sometimes mentioned, but often misrepresented in these descriptions. The profession of yoga is predicated on a job that isn’t actually teaching yoga, but is just teaching a fitness class in the vein of Jane Fonda’s workout videos of the 80s.

The industry supports this, with most “yoga studios” only offering group fitness classes and rarely incorporating other aspects of the practice in their classes, workshops, or retreats. Add in yoga products that present the practice as something that you “do” at a set time, in a set place, through consumption (buy the mat, buy the props, buy the clothes, buy the class). Oh, sure, in these settings you may have a mention here or there of some philosophical aspects of the practice, and a breathing technique or two. But these are out of context, usually incredibly brief, and may not even be completely understood by the people teaching it.

Ex: alternative nostril breathing is a practice often taught completely devoid of the philosophical roots, meaning a yoga instructor will walk you through how to do it but won’t explain why. In fact, the teacher might not even know the philosophical, energetic and tantric reasons behind what they are trying to teach as most TT programs only offer 20 total hours of philosophy, pranayama, and history of yoga combined. And it’s optional how TT programs divvy that time up (usually pranayama is the first to be cut, as it is the most complex and requires the most background to understand). In short, the vast majority of what we are taught to teach, and subsequently get to teach via the yoga industry is group fitness classes that without more context and background are, at their heart, at their essence, culturally appropriative. And if someone wants to go into teaching yoga as a career they will likely be locked into this system where if they want to earn a living in said industry, that is what they have to teach. It’s risky for one’s career to actually teach yoga. But it’s big business to teach yoga fitness classes that are appropriative and that commodify the practice.

So we are stuck, consuming yoga even as we appropriate it horribly.

But isn’t yoga just a moving target, anyway?

A recent facebook post by Matthew Remski drew attention to this paradox many yoga teachers face today, but it also proposed a disturbing solution.

“Honestly, I don’t know whether what I’m teaching is yoga anymore.”

If I had a dollar for every time I heard this sentence from the fantastically skilled yoga teachers I talk to, I’d be able to afford the rent on a yoga studio in a gentrified neighbourhood. Just joking.

Seriously: they pause after they say it. Something between fear and equanimity is hanging in that pause.

Here’s a composite of the speaker: a highly sensitive and generous teacher who after ten to fifteen years of study, training, and teaching feels an oncoming crisis in self and cultural identity, presenting ambivalence along a number of yoga vectors. They love the sensations, aesthetics, and meanings of vinyasa, but they’re increasingly aware of repetitive stress [injuries]. They love postures, but they’re also learning about functional movement. They’re inspired by the ancient wisdom literature but they also know they’re living in a world that scripture cannot have imagined. They cherish the feeling of practice transmitting an essential wisdom through timeless techniques, but they’ve also read Singleton. (Shakes fist.)

They know they’ve benefited deeply from the solitude of self-work but they’re bothered that yoga is mostly the refuge of a privileged class that often wants consolation more than justice. They know self-regulation is essential but that it won’t address climate change or help BLM directly.

They teach in neighbourhoods that used to feel locally vibrant. As their skills increased with age, they were able to offer richer programming. But they also had to charge more for it, because gentrification. Sometimes they feel themselves locked into a consumerist feedback loop that is growing further and further away from the community they originally intended to serve, but which is also disappearing.

They know that some devotees define moksha as the goal that makes yoga yoga. They’re inspired by this, but wonder how many ways there might be to feel freedom. They don’t associate their practice with religion, but the cultural appropriation discussion has made the religious roots of practice — and their love for or aversion to this — undeniable.

They know that therapeutic goals and transcendent aspirations can pull the limbs in opposite directions on the yoga mat.

Sometimes the person utters the sentence with an enigmatic smile, and seem okay with it. That’s cool. But there are those who seem distressed by the problem, and are wondering whether they have to quit to retain their integrity, I feel a prickle, and I just figured it out.

I’m thinking: “But isn’t that just it?”

Isn’t practicing with equal parts of hope and doubt — along with the creativity of their friction — a movement towards freedom? Isn’t the self-inquiry that cuts right down to the nub — about everything — exactly what you wanted? Didn’t you always want to improvise the most skillful response to any given stimulus, regardless of whether it’s been taught or written about?.. Maybe not being able to name what you’re doing is a sign you’re doing that rare thing to which the sages, whoever they were, gave a provisional name.

My issue with this approach is that it argues it doesn’t matter what we do with the practice so long as we, personally, feel that it is yoga. Remski argues that this doubt that people experience because they are finally coming to realize their practice is appropriative is just totally fine, don’t worry about it. Look, I get that learning is always an uncertain process where we are confronted by doubt. This is especially true when the things we learn are polluted by culturally appropriative histories, commodification, and consumerism, not to mention colonialism (both past and present, because colonialism isn’t ancient history, folks–just ask the Native Americans involved in protesting the DAPL). It’s harder to wade through the mess of appropriative, commodified yoga to a deep understanding of what the underlying practice is. But there is an underlying practice.

Yes, yoga has been part and parcel of many different traditions, across a variety of religious, spiritual, and atheist demographics throughout its very diverse history. But there is an underlying unity in the philosophical aims of yoga and in aspects of the practices used that it is possible to point to. Sure there is diversity in how we interpret this underlying unity, but that doesn’t negate the fact that there is something underneath it all. While Andrea R. Jain (in her book Selling Yoga) and many other researchers like Georg Feuerstein (in his book Yoga Traditions) do make it a point to talk about how yoga has taken many forms depending on the time and the social group in question, they admit it is still possible to point to an underlying shape of this thing “yoga”; in other words, it’s not just anything we want it to be (cue: white desires that spur and subsequently justify appropriation), there is something we can trace called “yoga,” otherwise these histories of the practice couldn’t exist.
For me, I like to think of yoga using the metaphor of a blob. And yes, I’m still working on a better comparison, but bear with me. We can think of yoga as a shape made up of a set of practices, beliefs, values, norms, etc. (a cultural object), that are bound together in a networked, fluid form. It is constantly shifting as the circumstances of where that shape is in space and time change, as it adapts to it’s environment, but at the same time as the outer edges shift and change shape, the center of the blob for the most part remains the same over time. So although yoga does shift a bit in different settings, as all cultural objects do (because we consume and produce cultural products differently across space/time to make them relevant to our needs in that moment, this is what makes cultural objects living history), in general the ways we consume and produce yoga do have similarities across space/time that allow us to point to this blob and call it “yoga” across space, across time. We are able to trace this thing called “yoga” because there is an underlying essence to trace.

So trying to argue that as many western yogis finally begin to realize that the thing they have practiced and taught for so long might just be a commodified, appropriative version of something much deeper and greater creates a doubt that isn’t justified somehow because yoga has evolved over time is an attempt to justify appropriation because we don’t want to believe we are appropriating yoga. It’s not truth. We can’t come away from discussions of cultural appropriation in yoga with the claim that appropriation doesn’t matter, that we should just not care, or that anything is yoga because yoga doesn’t exist at all, or that to doubt that what we are doing is yoga is actually what the underlying practice of yoga is at its essence. This doubt many yogis today feel reflects a deep disconnect between a commodified, appropriative version of yoga taught in the West, and a realization that this is not what yoga is at its heart, that the underlying essence of yoga is much, much more.

Sure, this doubt a symptom that they are finally breaking through the nonsensical constructions of the practice that have arisen in recent decades. They’ve entered a deep stage of the learning process where we learn to doubt what we once believed, where we come to deconstruct false conceptions. This is a necessary and difficult part of learning–it is the uncovering of samskara and falsehoods that become embedded in our selves and lives. But that doesn’t mean the doubt and confusion of that stage in the learning process is what the practice is, or what the practice is about, or that we should just ignore it because it doesn’t really matter.

Remski’s post captures some very profound and important developing debates about the westernized yoga most people practice and teach today. But just giving up and saying “who cares, it’s all yoga” and that “if your confused, that’s what yoga is, so just stop worrying and keep doing what you are doing anyway” is not the solution, and not even a yogic solution to those questions. Instead of turning away from the confusion and doubt because it’s uncomfortable, or just living there in that doubt because we are afraid of what may come, we instead need to plot a course that takes us straight into that feeling so that we come out the other side with deeper faith, a better understanding and sense of the practice, and a better sense of how to engage in the practice in a way that is socially just and doesn’t damage this thing we love and live.

In other words, we need to work through the discomfort to actually learn how to practice and teach in ways that aren’t appropriative and aren’t continuing the commodification and watering down of yoga. Because let’s face it, in the West today we have watered down the practice so much it’s possible for students with over a decade of practice to enroll in a TT and not even understanding that meditation and yoga aren’t separate (no joke, that’s straight from my field notes, y’all). Imagine, studying for over ten years but never even realizing that yoga is a practice of meditation. That’s the yoga world we live in, because that ten plus years of study took place in an industry that doesn’t actually teach yoga, but instead teaches group fitness classes and calls it “yoga” to make it more desirable. To make it easier to sell.

Where do we go from here?

Obviously, the practice has changed dramatically over the last 100 years. That blob has transformed so much I think we do need to ask the question, “Is this still yoga?” Because most of these recent changes have been driven by commodification and appropriation of the practice in ways that water the practice down monumentally and turn it into a fitness craze, and this is intimately tied to practices of colonialism and white privilege (hence, appropriative).

The scary thing is that this endangers the survival of the practice as something more than just an exercise regimen. I often compare this process of slow death by appropriation to the appropriation of Native American traditions. Entire tribal cultures have died out through various forms of oppression, both physical but also cultural (appropriation). It’s a shame, it’s unfair, and honestly we are starting to see this happen in yoga, where the appropriative and commodified versions of the practice are being sold back to places like India and are replacing the more traditional understanding of what yoga is, even for native populations. Obviously the case of appropriation of yoga is not as extreme as the case of Native American traditions/cultures which has been going on for far longer, but I truly believe it could become as extreme unless we start to make efforts to retain the heart of the practice in ways that allow it to be protected, even as we also allow it to shift over time to serve the needs of the modern world (because all cultural objects need to evolve, it’s what allows culture to retain its relevancy). But we do need to engage in a mindful evolution of yoga in a way that consciously works toward doing no harm not just to ourselves, or to others, but also to yoga itself.

I get that it’s easy to misinterpret all of this as an argument for Hindu nationalism (which many yogis, especially white, non-Hindu yogis, think claims of cultural appropriation are arguing). But that’s not the case either. Because we can acknowledge the religious (multiple) roots of yoga traditions and practice in ways that are not appropriative without having to ascribe to a specific religion. Saying that cultural appropriation is widespread in yoga doesn’t mean we can’t practice it as white people, or that we have to suddenly support Hindu nationalism. What all this means is that we need to respect the roots of yoga, and begin to teach in ways that honor those traditions, history, and philosophy even as we do make it relevant for us today.

I honestly don’t think this is too much to ask of people who really love the practice and want to share it, and who want to live it (ahimsa, y’all, it’s a thing, look it up, and it also applies to doing the practice no harm too). It’s just that the way the industry is set up right now, if people want to make money teaching yoga it’s incredibly difficult to actually represent yoga accurately in a way that is not appropriative. Especially when most students of yoga think of it as “just exercise” (especially for women, white people, and affluent people, let’s get real). That’s essentially how most people think of yoga today. As a workout. Because: appropriation of the practice. These things are not separate.

If individual yogis and teachers want to resist engaging in appropriation within yoga, I hate to break it to you but they do need to change some of the ways they teach. We can’t just keep doing what we have been doing because we like it, find pleasure in it, or just don’t want to face the discomfort of change. We need to represent yoga more holistically, incorporating actual teachings on the history and philosophy of the practice(s). Does this mean students need to convert? No. But I think it’s a valid expectation that students should learn about where yoga comes from, and about the philosophy that is ultimately the practice (it’s not just asana, y’all). Teachers need to start offering more than just group fitness classes, and when they do offer asana classes they need to begin speaking about why not just how in a way that gets beyond, “because it makes you feel good” or “because it will help you lose weight” (barf), and instead talk about the energetic and philosophical reasons behind the physical practices.

Let’s be frank here. For most teachers out there in the commodified, appropriative yoga world today who have only experienced brief stints of Westernized TT certification programs, this might mean maybe you just don’t know enough to teach yoga yet without appropriating the practice, and if being a yoga teacher is the path you really want to walk maybe you need to go back and study more. Perhaps you need to rethink whether or not you are really, truly qualified to teach. Are you? Really? Truly? Why do you want to be a yoga teacher, really, truly? If, in asking yourself these questions, you realize all you wanted to be is a positive life coach or physical fitness trainer, maybe you need to switch fields and go into those professions. Again, I don’t intend to be cruel here, but if you really want to teach yoga, and really want to be truthful, and really want to engage in non-harm, and really want to live your yoga practice, these are the types of deep reflection that the practice requires of us. These are the types of difficult, uncomfortable questions we need to ask ourselves. Believe me, I know, because I’ve been grappling with them for years.

And heck, if you think that’s asking a lot, get this: the more difficult thing is that most teachers, if they want to earn a living at this and avoid appropriation, also need to push back against the system and industry that makes it difficult to teach yoga for realsies, not just yoga fitness classes in the vein of Jane Fonda. In other words, asking those questions at the individual level isn’t enough, because even if someone comes away from those questions with a resounding “YES I AM QUALIFIED AND I’M GOING TO TEACH YOGA DAMMIT” they are still going to have to do so in an industry that will fight them every step of the way. If someone really wants to teach yoga, and be truthful about that teaching, and engage in non-harm, and live the essence of yoga, they are also going to have to start pushing back against the industry that has commodified and appropriated it.

And that’s where we get to this crisis and doubt that Remski spoke about in his post (despite the really weird, white privileged denial of the problem at the end). The paradox arises, the crisis arises, the doubt arises because it’s hard to make money at yoga and also present it deeply, holistically, and accurately. How do you sell a practice that is difficult, that asks us to face the darkest most disturbing parts of ourselves? That asks us to do so over and over, constantly, until the day we pass on from this life? That Patanjali himself argued is painful? Because 2.15 says: “To one of discrimination, everything is painful indeed, due to its consequences: the anxiety and fear over losing what is gained; the resulting impressions left in the mind to create renewed cravings; and the constant conflict among the three gunas, which control the mind.” How do you market that? How do you sell that? It’s hard to teach yet not appropriate in an industry based on appropriation/commodification of the practice, based on a lie of what yoga is at its essence. It’s so much easier just to say, who cares, to use our privilege and succumb to our attachment and desire for this thing we have created that is not yoga, but is called yoga anyway.

But hey, no one said yoga was easy, right?

Oh wait, I guess the yoga industry did that when they appropriated and sold “yoga” to us as a quick fix to all life’s ills (for a cost).

Love, light, and… yoga❤


White Fragility in Yoga: Privilege, Power, and Posts

Today I’m breaking off from my usual blog, and sharing a post I wrote for a social media group. I’ve only recently (within the last year or so) discovered the use of facebook groups in the yoga world. I think on a whole they can serve as excellent resources for yogis and as a way to build community. There is power in groups! But, this is also the point of this post, which is about how these groups (as things that are both made up of individuals but also bigger than individual members) can be a site of power and privilege, and how the nature of posting itself can be a learning opportunity as well as a means of oppression.

For those who aren’t on the Yoga and Movement Research group, it’s a new facebook group with the intention to share and integrate movement research into yoga practice (particularly asana practice). Over the weekend, there was apparently some serious drama as someone brought up the fact that some of this practice of integrating functional movement systems and biomechanical research into the practice was appropriating the practice and perhaps not adequately representing the roots of yoga as spiritual. The topic of privilege and cultural appropriation were brought up, names were called, all hell broke loose, and as anyone who has been on the internet long enough to imagine, it got ugly.

After this drama happened, the entire thread was deleted by the administrators and the “bully” who had originally broached these topics blocked from the group. Then there was a post from the admins that was even more epic drama, as many people hailed the “victory” over the “bully,” who had been added back into the group by a friend, ensuing discussion of how the person should be banned and any of her friends “closely watched” and potentially blocked too (for the sin of adding her back in and apparently being friendly). To see this post (which gives a good sense of what went down in the group earlier), go here. However, it turned out that not everyone was okay with the post being deleted and the few people who spoke up with concerns were pretty much either ignored, told to “go away” or “get a life.” In other words, further silenced and marginalized. Drama!

I wrote a post in response to this explaining why I was concerned about this reaction from administrators. What follows is my discussion of white fragility in the yoga world, how white fragility applies here, and why discussions of power, privilege, and cultural appropriation are important for all of us yogis, especially those interested in movement research, to have.

Even if you aren’t interested in the specifics, I think this post grapples with a dilemma every yoga should have in their practice. How do we make the practice relevant and meaningful to us, in other words, make it uniquely “ours”, authentically “ours,” while still remaining true to the heart of the practice? How can we modify the practice to be more just, equitable, and modern even as we acknowledge and honor the roots of the tradition of yoga? Read on, if you dare to. I hope you gain something from what was for me a therapeutic way to deal with the emotional disturbance and frustration I felt upon learning about what occurred.

A Plea for Dialogue

Hi y’all. So I missed the drama on this group, but feel like I should express some concerns I have about what went down, and try to explain why I have these concerns. I wish I could find the original thread to get a better understanding of what happened. I was out of town this weekend and unfortunately missed the drama, but I have read what’s around since then and have got the gist from various comments and posts since. So I want to clarify that I know I am coming to writing and responding to this experience that happened in ways that emotionally affected all involved without a perfect understanding of everything that was said. I know this. But I still think we need to reflect more deeply on what happened as a group and why it is important for all of us to reflect on and educate ourselves about these topics.

Because here’s the thing: I can no longer go back and see what happened as the post was deleted. So there is no record. Although, I understand there are screenshots (garnered from reading other posts since then). As someone who cares very much about the issues that were addressed and would have liked to learn more through the thread (if only in a “what not to do on social media to avoid drama” way), I think this it is a shame it was deleted, and am actually quite grateful there is a record somewhere. I would love to see those screenshots, because this record is important and is a testimony to us as individual people who we may be experiencing moments of challenge and difficulty and growth (one hopes, for everyone involved); these threads and moments like the one that happened are a testimony of our community, to this group, and ultimately to the yoga world as a whole, because we are a microcosm of this world even as we are unique within it. The issues that were discussed were powerful, emotional, and important. How else could they spark such reactions? Such passion? So I am saddened by the fact that the post is no longer available given that these are topics worth discussing and that this group is for and made by all of us, even though it was started by Diane (thank you!), and as such the thread was a valuable record for all of us to learn from. I’m especially concerned that it was deleted so quickly, before many people in this group even had an opportunity to view it at all, myself included.

I have some thoughts I would like to share about why I am disturbed about this situation. Please realize that this post is coming from my heart and that I have contemplated and grappled very deeply with the topics I am about to write about here for many years as an educator and researcher on these issues. I think that this group, and all of us (myself included) need to be able to think critically and deeply, and dare I say meditate in a truly yogic way (aka, deep absorption per yogic philosophy) about what we are doing in our attempt to integrate more biomechanical and movement research into our practice. And I think that part of this meditation must include critically thinking about what it is we are doing, how we are doing it, and the way in which our actions may be appropriative.

This group, Yoga and Movement Research is about integrating movement research into our yoga practice. It’s about increasing safety, and about yoga as more than asana in that integrating current movement research can help us better align with yogic philosophy, including the practices of ahimsa, non-harm, and so on. In application to the body, this means utilizing functional movement and biomechanical research to insure that we practice safely in ways that do not harm us across a lifetime. These are valuable and noble goals. But we have to recognize that what we are doing isn’t just “fun,” or “safer,” it is also political.

What we are doing is political because it ties into the yoga industry and the ways asana has become commodified, tied to a type of practice that can be potentially injurious across a lifetime for many people. Clearly many people have experienced this in this group, including Diane, whose story is a powerful reminder of why what we are doing here is important and potentially life changing for many. Ultimately what we do in many ways aligns us against an industry that is set up to sell a style of practice to people who may actually be injured by that same practice. It aligns us against the tradition, against the commodification, and against the mindless perpetuation of practices that may not be serving us. Many members in this group have talked about the push-back you have gotten from mainstream yoga. This push-back is because what we do is political. There is no denying it. It is revolutionary.

More importantly for this discussion, what we do is also rooted in and tied to issues of cultural appropriation, because in many ways the integration of functional movement research and systems into our practice is changing the practice, and is changing what we think of as yoga. So to say, “I am not particularity interested in politics as it pertains to yoga, the decolonization and appropriation of yoga,” (this is a direct quote from an admin in this group) just cannot and doesn’t make sense to me, because that’s a complete denial, purposeful ignoring, and misunderstanding of the fact that what we are potentially doing in this very group and our interest in yoga and movement research IS political and is also potentially culturally appropriative (#noshadejusttruth). We are trying to change the practice, and anytime we do this, especially when we are coming from places of privilege (which most of us in this group are, #noshadejusttruth) we are in danger of engaging in cultural appropriation. As such we have to be EXTRA careful to ensure we don’t unintentionally cause harm and engage in appropriative practices without intending to.

We have to make the extra effort to learn about these issues, especially if we want to take our practice off the mat and use it to transform our lives and our selves, which is what yoga asks of all of us. It means we must be open to difficult, challenging, and disconcerting learning opportunities. It means we must seek truth, not just in terms of research on the body, but in research on how privilege and power ARE embodied. How we enact power and privilege through our bodies, and our voices, through our language and the way our fingers type words into the keyboard. It means we have to be aware of how what we do can affect bodies in deep and emotional ways, that will then show up in the way we move, which ties back directly in a crazy and complex and profound cycle to the purpose and intention of this group, rethinking movement. The body, trauma and history are intertwined. We cannot separate these things. Separation is an illusion. Cultural appropriation is a topic we should be open to addressing in this group, and I hope that we continue to discuss. Issues of cultural appropriation are important to what this group does, because we have to be very careful as people of privilege about the ways we take this practice, reinterpret it, and change it can actually reproduce and perpetuate appropriative practices that have been very prevalent in yoga during the last 100 years as the practice began to enter the West under colonialism.

All this means we need to educate ourselves on these topics, to avoid doing harm and damage (because, hey, ahimsa). And this is where I am disturbed by this conversation thread being deleted. Because deleting this thread is, at its heart, an act of privilege, an act of power. I understand we need to regulate spam and actual, justified and legitimate threats (like real, legal harassment). But I would probably, by utilizing a more removed perspective (pratipaksha bhavanam, anyone?), call the thread that occurred a pretty typical lively social media debate from what I have garnered about what happened, although I can’t be sure, because again the thread has since been deleted, which is part of the problem. Let’s face it, it’s social media, and it’s just impossible to get our points across clearly so there is usually a heightened tension and ease of misunderstanding on the internet. This is not new, it is not surprising, and ultimately if you think someone’s comment is rude the best course of action is simply to ignore it, not try and delete every rude thing that is ever said. I think it’s illuminating that across the history of this group, and the many heated debates that have been had, it is a conversation about appropriation and privilege that is the one that is deleted. It says a lot about the underlying, likely unconscious reasons why this post in particular made people uncomfortable to the point where erasing the record seemed to be the appropriate response.

The point is that the ability and decision to remove a post is an act of power and an act of silencing, which is by definition an act of privilege. In fact, research shows that in discussions of race and/or privilege, those who are privileged often react in one of three ways. This is discussed in a piece by DiAngelo that the person who has been called a “bully,” “troll,” and so on in various comments has since then shared in another thread (you can access DiAngelo’s work here, with a more succinct summary here). I get that a lot of name-calling was from both sides, and I think that’s on both parties (in all fairness, #noshadejusttruth). But the reactions where people with privilege often feel bullied and attacked when these topics come up is one of the most common reactions DiAngelo found as part of what she termed “white fragility.” And the act of deleting the post afterwards is similarly another common reaction DiAngelo discusses (and ironically enough, a klesha, or obstacle identified by Patanjali, avoidance).

DiAngelo defines “white fragility” as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.” And this is exactly what happened in this group. People with privilege are almost always in a position of comfort, and when they are challenged, whites “typically respond as if something is ‘wrong,’ and blame the person or event that triggered their discomfort… [resulting] in a socially-sanctioned array of counter-moved against the perceived source of the discomfort, including: penalization, retaliation, isolation, ostracization, and refusal to continue engagement” (DiAngelo 61).

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because this is exactly the response that occurred in this group, where those who were challenged to think critically and reflect on their privilege instead penalized the supposed “offender” (blocking them from the group), retaliated (by name calling, etc., by openly requesting that the person be “nicer,” and also threatening to block the friend who did nothing but add the “offender” to the group and then readd them, which honestly I think is fair considering conversations were still going on about that same person that if it were me, I would have wanted to at least be able to see). Members of this group also isolated others who brought up concerns about what happened (such as the numerous examples on the threads since where people have spoken up with concerns only to be isolated and told this isn’t the purpose of the group and that they just need to “live with it” or “get over it” or “move on”), and most obviously a complete refusal to continue engagement (by deleting the post and blocking the “offender”).

I want to make a couple more points. First, I want to make it clear that cultural appropriation is not a simple thing, and is a term that is often misunderstood and misused in our society. Please, y’all, just because you have heard this term does not mean you understand what cultural appropriation is, how it works, and how to avoid it. Just because you know the definition of the term, doesn’t mean you understand the concept.

Let me explain. I teach sociology at the university level, and cultural sociology is my particular expertise and area of study. So I teach about cultural appropriation in my college courses. It takes me a whole week of lecture to adequately introduce this topic. Which means it takes me a good three hour lecture just to barely scratch the surface of this concept. My students often still struggle to understand this topic even with the lecture and additional reading assigned. And note that this is three hours of a lecture that I have carefully compiled and concisely organized to allow my students a general overview of this concept, and that pulls from material based on untold hours I have spent studying, reading, and researching these topics (e.g., I have a peer-review paper coming out on cultural appropriation of body positivity in yoga within the next month that has literally been in the works for almost two years). I am not saying this to brag, or to try and make you all feel like this topic is unapproachable. With a good teacher and when you take some time to do that reading and studying it is completely possible to understand, apply, and begin to overcome cultural appropriation in our lives and practice. It is my sincere hope that you all will seek out this knowledge, as again, it is very relevant for this group and all concerned with integrating movement research into yoga, even if you aren’t actively dealing with issues of racial diversity, etc. in yoga. But know that this topic is complex, and takes time to learn about, and we have to be willing to be students and to say “I don’t know” and to listen to those who are trying to educate us on these things. If you all are interested I’d be willing to put together an online course on cultural appropriation in yoga, PM me if you are interested. I have had a few requests in the past to do so, but never enough people to justify the time/energy/work on my end, but if there are enough people who may be interested I’m open to doing so despite how busy I am because I do care deeply on these issues and feel they are important.

Also, I think it is ironic that the person who was blocked is an expert on the very issues discussed, but can no longer serve as a resource if she is blocked. So not only is deleting the thread problematic, but so is blocking the person as there aren’t as many people out there who study and teach on these topics. I get that the debate got heated to the point of being irrelevant. That doesn’t mean the entire thread was. It doesn’t mean other conversations with that person can’t be educational. We all need to be able to see things from multiple perspectives, and please realize that anti-oppression work can be exhausting, frustrating, depressing, angering, and overwhelming because we see this type of thing everywhere, all the time. It drains our energy. It leaves us depleted. And many of us engaged in this work are coming to the practice to heal, and we come to it only to find that we see the same things and end up engaging in the same work in spaces where we hope to feel supported and listened to. This can be double hurtful, as we are often made to feel unwelcome in the yoga world as well, called “unyogic” for being critical, and that this is a constant, constant battle we face in a practice where all we want is to find peace.

Sometimes when we say things nicely, no one listens. Sometimes the only way to be heard is to be loud, is to be rude. Niceness is not a requirement of yoga, although many people misinterpret ahimsa as being “nice.” Ahimsa is “do no harm,” not “be nice”. Sure we should strive to be respectful and kind in all our interactions to avoid doing harm, but we are human, and sometimes we mess up. In fact, the requirement of being “nice” that many people of privilege try to require when talking about these topics often serves to reinforce the status quo and silence marginalized voices. The requirement to “be nice” puts your own comfort before the lived experiences of others. It is denying the upsetting reality of oppression. And if you want to learn more, please see this article on “White Niceness as the Enemy of Black Liberation”. The claim to “be nice” is good, and we should all strive toward that, and I’m sorry that thread became a crap shoot (hello social media! No surprise there, in all honesty), but now we have potentially lost a critical voice who has a great deal of expertise in these areas and who could have served as an educational resource for many in the future (after tempers died down on both sides, cause we are human).

Finally, one of the things that disturbs me the most is the way in which these acts of power (deleting threads, blocking people, etc.) are likely to make others feel silenced and less likely to speak up on these topics. I know personally that I’m less inclined to talk about these things on this group now because I’m not sure what will happen if I do. I’m honestly a little leery of sharing resources now, because god knows what responses I’ll get when I bring these topics up. If I call someone out on privilege, even with the best of intentions and even making an effort to be “nice” (though as I mentioned that whole idea of niceness can also be deconstructed), what will happen to me? Will I be blocked too? Will I be called names? Will my threads and resources be deleted? Why should I bother spending time and energy to try and educate when I’m not sure anyone is even open to listening? And this is the real root of the issue I have with what happened, because it speaks to a larger issue of privilege and power going on in this group that frankly makes me think of just giving up and leaving the group entirely, because at a certain point it’s just angering, frustrating, and depressing for me to see these topics being met with defensiveness and white fragility (per DiAngelo’s work). Who knows! Maybe this post will be deleted later this day, and if you don’t hear from me again, maybe it’s because I was blocked from the group. (Joke, I think?)

I am curious why the thread was deleted so quickly (including comments that were not rude) and why the person was blocked. Did admins make an effort to reach out privately to discuss their concerns with that person? Did they let emotions cool down before trying to do so? Because from what I gather of the situation, that decision was done in the heat of the emotional reaction without trying to dialogue with anyone privately, and without a thought for how that decision itself is representative of privilege and power dynamics ongoing in the group, or how that decision might be seen by other members of the group who may already be marginalized in the yoga world at large. And that’s problematic. Because ultimately, who is deciding to do this? And based on what? It’s one thing to be rude and a completely other thing to threaten to kill someone, folks, and we shouldn’t be silencing people just for rudeness.

I’m not sure where to go from here. All I know is that voices are people, not just words on a screen, and our habits and defenses are deeply ingrained; from the time we are born we are taught to lean into privilege, and to ignore oppression. These habits become rooted in our bodies, our brains; literally our physiology contains our cultural bias and predispositions. As DiAngelo notes, “fragility and privilege result in responses that function to restore equilibrium and return the resources ‘lost’ via the challenge–resistance towards the trigger, shutting down and/or tuning out, indulgence in emotional incapacitation such as guilt or ‘hurt feelings,’ exiting, or a combination of these responses.” And I’m sad to say that this is what I saw in what happened, and rather than learn from the experience, there has been a continuation of the very privilege and practices that the “offender” was likely trying to draw attention to (even if it did devolve into a crap shoot).

Ultimately the art and act of yoga is to uproot these samskara, to see beyond bias, to uncover how this bias influences our actions, reactions, and defenses in ways we may not even be aware. Yoga challenges us to find truth, to use our pain to learn and grow and fuel our selfless devotion and service, to eliminate suffering. And we can’t do this if we avoid what makes us uncomfortable. I’m not saying don’t monitor. But please, please, please consider how the way in which this group is monitored reflects larger issues of privilege and power. Please don’t delete things that can be education and meaningful and learning opportunities unless they are actually dangerous and harassment. And please let’s continue talking about these things, because they are important and relevant to the mission of this group.

Love, light, and… yoga❤

And to end on some humor, here’s a Letter to My Yoga Teacher.


Healthism, Yoga and the Body as Machine

As some of you may know if you follow me on social media, I’ve been dealing with a minor shoulder injury. When I was around ten, I fell through a metal jungle gym, fractured my left wrist during the ten foot drop, and landed on my left side while at school. After going to the nurse and then having my parents take me to the ER, my wrist was treated and healed. But I didn’t realize until much later after I had became a more dedicated yoga practitioner that my shoulder had also experienced impact trauma and hadn’t healed properly, leading to over a decade of compensatory movement patterns. This is actually very common with impact trauma, as the instinctual reaction is to protect the area of the injury, often leading to postural habits that imbalance the body; for me, my instinct was to protect my left side even if I didn’t realize I was doing so.

Part of the lingering problem included an ability to slightly dislocate my shoulder, allowing my clasped arms to wrap around, up, and over my shoulders all the way to the back (yes, crazy I know). Yet for years, not understanding why I could do this and its connection to my lingering shoulder injury, I would dislocate my shoulders. It often felt like a great stretch through my upper back (even while I wasn’t learning to utilize my muscles to stretch the back). Admittedly, there was also some part of me that enjoyed the novel identity it brought, being able to do something so many people couldn’t do, especially considering I was never very athletic (book worm much?). Obviously, I have since stopped doing this.

As I have been going through my teacher training, I found that my practice was beginning to aggravate my shoulder. I’ve been practicing asana more than I ever have, and between the activity, weight bearing, long holds, and adjustments I’ve had to back off my asana practice for a bit and seek some medical and therapeutic help to let it heal properly, finally, after nearly twenty years. I am getting a variety of bodywork done to realign my left shoulder to proper placement, and am now trying to relearn proper postural habits to overcome over a decade of compensatory movement patterns. For me, this minor injury has actually been a profound learning experience in my own personal practice and has helped me think more deeply about my research, about what we are doing in asana, and about how we learn and think about yoga and the body in the Western yoga world.

Why do we think of yoga as only asana? In what ways have Western modalities of thinking influenced our understanding of the body as machine, and prevented us from a holistic connection and proprioceptive understanding of the body? What does it mean to have a deep yoga practice? How do certification programs reproduce and perpetuate limited views of yoga and the yoga body? And ultimately, how can we teach yoga as more than asana?

In sociology, we talk about how our ideas of health are socially constructed. What a healthy body looks like and the practices it engages in are socially determined through culture, socialization experiences, and medical practices. In the last century, western medicine has become a primary driver in our determination of “health,” often in ways that moralize the division between healthy/unhealthy, normal/pathological, pure/impure, such that marginalized populations are typically ascribed the status of “unhealthy.” In sociology, we call this approach healthism, and it is equally common in the yoga world where ideas of health, asana, and the body as machine mix in often dangerous and unanticipated ways.

Let’s look at an example of healthism in action. Women’s natural health systems, including pregnancy, menstruation, and menopause have been medicalized and pathologized for centuries. This is what I like to call (pseudo-)scientific sexism, and in the past included ideas that a woman’s uterus could travel through the body disrupting normal functioning (a “pathology” called female hysteria among Western psychology that wasn’t removed from their list of diseases until 1959), that a women who was menstruating was impure and dangerous, and (during the height of eugenics) that mental or physical exertion could actually damage future unborn children, an idea that was used to restrict access to higher education for women as it might “tax the brain” and damage our capacity for reproduction. And it’s important to note that these type of myths are not dead and gone! They survive in popular culture ideas that women are more emotional, that we experience PMS that interferes with our judgement (for which there is NO sound medical evidence), and misnomers like the popular “women shouldn’t lift weights” adage. In yoga, we often hear outdated ideas about not practicing certain poses while during our periods, despite the complete lack of scientific evidence as to why this might be necessary.

We could take this further to discuss (pseudo-)scientific racism, as well as popular ideas of size as a determinant of health that are similarly problematic and rooted in cultural and social myth rather than fact, but I think you get the idea. The point I’m trying to make here is that, especially in the Western world, we often like to think we understand what “health” means and how to practice it. But sociology teaches us that these ideas, like all knowledge, are socially constructed, historically situated, constantly changing, and can often lead to flawed understandings about the body, especially bodies of marginalized groups like women, people of color, larger bodies, queer bodies, and so on.

And if you are feeling reactive in light of this information, and want to proclaim, “Amara, how can you say that health is constructed? That PMS is a myth? WHAT?! *mind blown*,” know you are not alone. When I teach medicalization in my classes, my students often have similar reactions. This is because we are taught from infanthood to accept these ideas as absolute, indisputable “natural,” “truth.” It’s very uncomfortable to challenge something we have internalized and believed in for most of our lives. In fact, a great deal of social psychological research shows that people who are confronted with their own biases become defensive and reactive. But ultimately, confronting deeply ingrained misperceptions is the art and practice of yoga: to acknowledge the biases that we have internalized that drive our actions, and to overcome these illusions to get at a more accurate and pure understanding of our Selves and the world around us so that we can act from a place of knowledge and intention, with mindful awareness (which we can think of as a practice of vinyasa krama).

In yoga philosophy, we refer to the biases of the mind as maya, illusion, or avidya, incorrect comprehension or ignorance that clouds our perception, that is the “accumulated result of our many unconscious actions, the actions and ways of perceiving that we have been mechanically carrying out for years” (Desikachar’s Heart of Yoga). Such habitual bias colors the mind, obscuring our clarity of perception and preventing us from achieving true understanding of our Selves and world. The art of yoga is about overcoming this ignorance and illusion to foster a deeper understanding, so that we can avoid and alleviate suffering in our lives and others.

Healthism, Yoga, and the Body as Machine

During the past century our understandings and ideas about the body within yoga have been heavily influenced by Western medical practices and healthism. Historically, the incorporation of anatomy into yoga was driven by an interest in eugenics in the early 1900s (a topic thoroughly researched by Joseph Alter) and by the cross-cultural transmission by yoga gurus like B.K.S. Iyengar, who often utilized medical science to appeal to a Western audience and to legitimize yoga in the modern world. In this process of transformation yoga increasingly became defined as asana, which was more accessible and easier for Westerners to understand as it corresponded to already existing ideas of fitness practices and provided a tangible path of progress to follow. It was also easier to teach in group class settings than the more classical understanding of yoga as a philosophical practice.

What this meant is that yoga became synonymous with asana, disconnected from philosophical practices, and tied to medical science, particularly the use of anatomy, predicated on dividing the body into separate parts and systems rather than viewing the body as a holistic physical, emotive, and mental being. So we now take classes, solely teaching yoga as asana, that “focus” on specific parts of the body: a class to work your hamstrings, a class to open the hips, a class to work the core abdominal muscles, a class to work the butt muscles, and so on. We learn that this pose is good for this ailment, this muscle, this system. And in teacher training systems we teach the body as consisting of seemingly separate parts: poses that work the legs, poses that twist the spine, the separation of the muscular, skeletal, and nervous systems, a division between structural and functional movement patterns. We divide the body up into parts of a machine, that work together but are presented as separable. And “health” becomes constructed as purely physical and as something that we achieve by isolating and maximizing the utility of seemingly disparate parts of the physical body without a clear end point (something illustrated clearly by the creation of numerous sequences in the Ashtanga method beyond the primary series; there used to be just one until the practice was Westernized and the later series were added on to meet the demand and expectations of students).

This view of the body and of health in yoga is flawed; the body is not divisible, and all the parts of our body are interconnected. The organs are not separate from the muscular and skeletal systems, but are intimately tied together into a functioning whole. The muscular and skeletal systems are interconnected, and alive; habitual functional movement patterns can actually change our skeletal structures over time. We cannot isolate the core muscles from other parts of the body, or target particular body areas to work on in isolation and when we try to do so we disconnect from the sense of the body as whole, the body as holistic, the body as flesh and blood rather than the body as machine. We also potentially increase the risk of injury. Not to mention that the body is not simply physical but also a mental and emotive being. Emotional and mental states can change the physical body, which, for example, is at the heart of current research on the psychology of eating. In asana, ideally, every pose is a entire body practice, not just of the entire physical body, but also of the mental and emotive body.

And these aspects of the body are not separate from the world around us, either. We are not contained in an isolated bag of flesh; as Stacy Alaimo argues in Bodily Natures, the body is transcorporeal and interconnected to the world around us. What we put on the body, like body products, enters into us through the pores of our skin. The toxins we are exposed to become a part of us as we breathe, and the social, cultural, and institutional influences on our lives have a profound effect on the physical, emotive, and mental practices of the flesh. For example, research has shown that poverty affects our mental behaviors and attitudes, as well as the physical being as those who are poor are more likely to suffer from a variety of health concerns like obesity, mental illness, or toxic exposure. Gendered socialization can actually change the way the brain works. The body is ultimately permeable and porous, and as yoga philosophy teaches us all of these things are constantly in change, constantly in flux (even our bones).

This holistic, transcorporeal approach to health is gaining ground in Western science, and is being corroborated with recent biomechanical research on movement and stretching, on the new science of pain, on the psychology of eating and weight loss, on the existence of the microbiome, and in bodywork circles on the way emotional and physical trauma is held in the body across time. But most of the Western yoga world is woefully behind the times, as the regulations for teacher training systems have not been updated in decades and most certification programs primarily teach yoga as asana according to the body as machine approach to “health.”

In this “yoga as asana” approach, yoga becomes constructed as the achievement of various positions of the body, rather than a way or method of moving the body to prepare for the deeper, more meditative practice. Rather than think about how we practice asana, as a methodology of moving meditation and philosophical application practiced through the physical body, where the physical is joined with the emotive and mental and whose movement takes place in the world, we focus on disjointed poses or positions of the body and rarely pay attention to the transitions between postures. We focus on staying bounded on a mat, restricted in space, stuck in a box, rather than recognizing the movement in every moment, in every transition and position, as an extension and engagement with the world around us, wherever we are.

I like the term “chasing asana” to describe how we have become focused on chasing the sensation or achievement of individual postures, without a clear reflection or understanding (self-study, anyone?) of why and how we seek to attain these positions. What is the purpose of posture? In the Western yoga world, we teach students, and train teachers to teach, that the focus is on achieving the 2-d pose we see rather than feel, typically on social media and through popular culture (produced by the yoga industrial complex that profits often of this consumption-focus). And don’t be fooled! We are taught yoga is something to consume. To buy. To sell. To practice in small quantities in ritualistic and disparate spaces (studios), to keep on the mat, or to take asana off the mat, rather than as a way of living life throughout every moment, for a lifetime. And as a form of consumption, we can also think of this interpretation of yoga practice as a type of indulgence, because chasing asana is ultimately a practice of stroking the ego rather than non-attachment. Frustration that may come through injury demonstrates this, as we are attached to chasing asana, to yoga as asana, so that when we are unable to practice this interpretation of yoga we lose sight of the path, we lose sight of the practice entirely (although personally I haven’t been frustrated with my injury, I know many many yogis who have been with their own, and I have experienced this myself in the past when I was younger and did not understand yoga as deeply.)

We chase a construction of asana as individual positions, regardless of whether we have to force the body beyond its ability to get there, regardless of whether we are capable of muscular stability to prevent injury and ensure proper alignment. We don’t develop proprioception through deep self-reflection, mindfulness, and meditation on what we are doing, in every second, in every transition, as well as in every “end-point.” We are told to “listen to the body,” but never how to do so, or why. We are encouraged to “feel” but never taught how to interpret what we sense within the context of the lifetime, in the context of sustainability in our practice across time. We are encouraged to chase poses that biomechanically speaking often require us to go beyond a safe range of movement in the joints. We are encouraged to seek ego and pleasure through asana instead of practicing vairagya, non-attachment, in order to understand what is best for us and avoid being clouded by bias, illusion, avidya. We are encouraged to want to practice, rather than utilize practice to achieve what we need and encourage functionality.

We don’t teach asana within the context of yama and niyama, within the context of yoga philosophy. We don’t learn the classical purpose of asana as a means of learning to sense, understand, and master the body in conjunction with pranayama for the purpose of self-realization and elimination of suffering. Traditionally speaking, asana was one part of a larger practice of yama, niyama, pranayama and meditation, all of which allowed the yogi to, in a simplified sense, control the instinctual flight or fight response that leads to reactivity, instead developing a constant practice of acting with intentionality, knowledge, and purpose. The path of yoga is the path of learning how to act with intention through the development of self-realization, so that we may be a stable balance point in the sea of constant change, enabling us act from this anchor.

The construction of yoga as asana is exacerbated by the Westernized, militarized format of classes, which have changed from the individualized, one-on-one instruction between a student and teacher to drill-style group classes geared towards the average individual. This is based on the factory-style educational program that began after industrialization in the West which was also incorporated into the military, and subsequently spread to the rest of the world, including India.

In one-on-one instruction the teacher would create and gear lessons to the students’ individual needs and level of understanding. Lecture and discussion of philosophy and readings were common, and asana was taught according the individual student’s ability in conjunction with other yogic practices. But in the drill-style, group class setting there are time restrictions, we can’t assign homework or reading, there isn’t the degree of student-teacher contact, discussion of philosophy is limited to the brief moments of stillness in the midst of chasing asana. And even if teachers want to break free from this mold it can be extremely difficult, as many make a living teaching and in order to earn their income must meet the expectations of paying, student consumers who learn about yoga through popular culture and come to class with prior expectations of what they are paying for that put pressure on teachers to present yoga as only asana. While there are some ways around this, such as offering teacher trainings where trainers can teach yoga as more than asana (to a very limited degree), private classes, reading groups, and the like, these are more difficult to achieve and to find strong student support for.

So I’d like to leave this post with a few questions for myself and everyone out there to think deeply on. What is the purpose of asana, and why do we chase it? What are we really gaining by achieving more complex postures, or practicing 108 sun salutations (which, really, no one should do if they want to avoid repetitive stress injuries)? At what point do these practices become a practice of ego, and devoid of the deeper aspects of yoga? To what extent do we consume yoga, rather than practice or study it, because of industry expectations and encouragement? If the body is transcorporeal and holistic, rather than a machine, then how can we transform our asana practices to reflect this? How can we utilize asana as a tool to gain self-knowledge and self-realization, a tool to practice the deeper philosophy of yoga? (Because a tool is only as useful as how it is wielded; a hammer can just as easily injury you as build a roof to sleep under.) What are we teaching about the body and self if we are not reflecting on the bodily habits (physical, emotional, and mental) in our everyday lives, both on and off the mat? In what ways do we compensate physically, emotionally, and mentally in our practice, why do we do so, and how is this written in flesh?

Love, light, and… yoga❤

Ottawa, Yoga, and Cultural Appropriation

Response to: No, Westerners Practicing Yoga Are Not Guilty of “Cultural Appropriation”

Today I want to write about the recent viral news story regarding the cancellation of a free yoga classes offered in Ottawa. The story has been met by a great deal of debate and discussion on the nature of cultural appropriation, how cultural appropriation relates to yoga, and concerns of “reverse racism” and “over-sensitivity” by marginalized populations. I feel many responses I’ve seen on the story have ignored some very important points about cultural appropriation and yoga that are relevant to the conversation.

The Ottawa Incident: What Happened?

The incident involved a free yoga class offered at the University of Ottawa through the Centre for Students with Disabilities that was cancelled because of administrative concerns regarding inclusivity and cultural sensitivity, namely that the class was culturally appropriating yoga from a historically oppressed population (India under colonialism and imperialism). Center staff originally explained the decision to cancel the class was a response to complaints from several students and volunteers about issues of cultural sensitivity and appropriation, as well as the fact that the center were short on staff and didn’t have the capacity to continue the programming.

The yoga teacher attempted to bargain with the university to continue the classes, including discussing the removal of references to yoga philosophy (which were already sparse to begin with),  focusing on “stretching” and “fitness”, and refraining from using Sanskrit (which she hadn’t really been using much anyway), all strategies that have been used successfully to integrate yoga into schools in California, for example. However, the center ultimately admitted there were no direct complaints about the class, and that they decided to drop the courses because the university was concerned about issues of cultural sensitivity and because “they couldn’t get a French name and nobody wants to do it.” The student federation president also added that “they suspended the class as part of a review of all their programs to make them more interesting, accessible, inclusive and responsive to the needs of students.”

A recent post by the disabilities center clarifying the situation is worth sharing, as I think draws attention to some of the miscommunication that has developed around the details of the events:

Never did the Student Federation at the University of Ottawa, or the Centre for Students with Disabilities, release the statements around cultural appropriation to the Ottawa Sun in the interview that we had with them on November 19th. The Ottawa Sun received emails exchanged between the Centre for Students with Disabilities and yoga Instructor. These emails, we would like to highlight, are outdated and have led to a lot of miscommunication about our program. [In other words, the quotes regarding concerns about cultural appropriation are from email exchanges between the center and teacher that were given to the news agencies, and were from several months ago during the review process.]…

The consultation process has been going on since the beginning of summer 2015 and because of that, the CSD has had a lot a feedback on how to improve the program to better accommodate their members. The statements quoted by the Ottawa Sun were a small-misrepresented message out of a larger conversation around the program. For example, the following concerns needed to be addressed.

First, the attendance of the Yoga classes was declining, this program has been running for the past 8 years without any re-evaluation and we wanted to ensure that students’ money and resources was being used in a responsible and efficient way to better promote the centre. There were some real concerns about how yoga was not meeting the mandate of the centre, and serving the needs of students with disabilities namely, students with physical disabilities and mobility issues. As the primary goal in the mandate of the CSD is to ensure that activities put on for the service users are accessible, it is our responsibility to address the issues and act upon them.

It is important to stress that the Student Federation at the University of Ottawa is very disheartened by the rhetoric being used around our due process to evaluate our service centres as we all take our jobs very seriously and work tirelessly to represent and support our students.

We do not condone and are very disappointed by the harassment and violence some of our staff experienced, due to the misrepresentation of our process. Acknowledging that many students are not given access to safe spaces in and around their campuses, the CSD in no way thought that suspending this program for the semester with the intention of improving it for a January return would cause this much uproar. Let us please revaluate this conversation and have a more conducive dialogue around how to make our campuses more accessible to those who do not feel safe.

So clearly there is a lot going on here in this case. Before I talk about whether or not this was actually cultural appropriation, I want to clarify some problematic arguments that have arisen regarding what cultural appropriation is, whether or not it’s possible to culturally appropriate yoga, and ultimately come back to this particular Ottawa case to demonstrate why it is not a case of cultural appropriation (but why we should still care about the possibility of appropriation in yoga).

Defining Cultural Appropriation

Appropriation is defined as a process where one group takes intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from another group’s culture without permission or understanding of the original history, meaning, or use of the appropriated good (adapted from Ziff and Rao 1997). The process is characterized by a power difference, where members of a dominant group have more power, taking from a culture that has often been systematically oppressed. Cultural appropriation is always a transaction that goes on between two groups, and as such is a process that always should acknowledge the agency of both groups, including that of the group being appropriated.

For example, Buyukokutan (2011) notes that particular outcomes, such as exploitation or equitable exchange, are more likely depending on the “whether the would-be appropriators and legitimate owners of the appropriated resource can strike a mutually beneficial bargain” (620). In this way, he draws attention to the way appropriation is not simply a one-way process, but often serves to benefit both groups (if unequally). As such, appropriation is best understood as reciprocal “exchange,” if an unequal one. Appropriation is a transaction where the dominant group has substantially more power to control that process and ultimately benefits much more as a result. As a consequence of the power differential involved in appropriation, the process can be harmful, whether that damage is cultural, emotional, economic, or intellectual, and is a cause for concern for this reason, since (regardless of the intentions of the taker) it may negatively impact the culture, identity, or life course of those experiencing appropriation.

Typically only members of the dominant group profit from appropriation, often through commodification of the appropriated cultural good that simplifies the meaning or history, utilizes stereotypical representations, or results in the symbolic annihilation of the original culture—when the original culture is marginalized, misrepresented, or ignored entirely, including when the origins of the appropriated cultural object are erased or when historical oppression experienced by the non-dominant group is trivialized (see Gerbner 1972; Gerbner and Gross 1976; Coleman and Yochim 2008). It is thus by culturally appropriating “that one asserts power and privilege” because the act of appropriation is largely driven and controlled by the more powerful, dominant group (Hooks 1992: 36). Thus, the terms of “exchange” take place according to the needs and desires of the taker in ways that benefit the dominant group. Often, the taker is also able to engage in the politics of self-serving distinction, utilizing the appropriated culture to garner higher prestige or status unavailable to members of the nondominant group.

Can Westerners Culturally Appropriate Yoga? (Hint: Yes, and so can Indians)

Michelle Goldberg has responded to this event with an article that claims Westerners practicing yoga are not guilty of cultural appropriation. She argues the Ottawa case is part of a larger trend where certain groups who she claims “know very little of the cultures they purport to protect” are overly-sensitive about appropriation, and fail to understand the historical case of cultural diffusion of yoga to the West. (She cites the website Decolonizing Yoga as a example of such groups, which is incredibly problematic considering she claims such people know “little” about yoga or cultural appropriation, and this is definitely not the case for those involved with this site.) In general, her article argues westerners practicing yoga are somehow incapable of engaging in cultural appropriation because claims of appropriation “completely ignore the agency of Indians themselves who have been making a concerted effort to export yoga to the West since the late 19th century.” Thus, it’s somehow impossible for westerners to culturally appropriate yoga because Indian gurus have been engaged in exporting yoga for centuries, with the implication being that the Ottawa case is an overreaction and misapplication of the term cultural appropriation and is, in fact, people just being “overly sensitive.”

First, there are some serious problems with her brief vignette of the history of diffusion of yoga to the West by Indian gurus, and her argument that Indians have been exporting yoga to the West willingly over the last century and as a unified group. Goldberg rightly identifies that “Indians saw getting Westerners interested in yoga as a way of undermining British colonialism.” But what is left out of this discussion is how practices of hatha yoga, in particular, were actually reconceptualized (cough, appropriated) by educated, middle-class Indian intellectuals like Vivekananda in order to create a new formulation of “yoga” that was more acceptable to Westerns, Indian elites, and Indian nationalists. This newly formulated “modern” yoga was aligned with nationalistic projects to distance the developing independent Indian state from Orientalist stereotypes that portrayed India as “superstitious” and “traditional,” and instead sought to portray India, through a reconceptualization of yoga, as “modern” in order to gain support for India’s independence. Sri Yogendra and Swami Kuvalayananda, for example, started the Kaivalyadhama Health and Yoga Research Center in 1928 to study yoga as a modern science (based in Western practices of medicine).

So we have to understand that yoga, even in India, was a fractured, multiple, and diverse practice historically, and did not reflect a unified group of individuals or a unified ideology (which Goldberg implies). We also have to acknowledge that certain styles of yoga (such as hatha yoga) were themselves appropriated by wealthier Indian intellectuals from subordinated, oppressed, and poor Indian populations. In this appropriation process, practices and conceptualizations of yoga changed. For example, Singleton notes yoga became more focused on physical postures as gurus like Krishnamacharya incorporated Western practices like bodybuilding (physical culture), gymnastics, and military-style drill systems into their teachings as part of nationalistic projects that promoted yoga as a “traditional” way to build stronger Indian men (to counteract Orientalist portrayals of Indian men as effeminate) and to build a stronger nation state (ideas based in eugenics, which was popular at the time but lost credibility after the horrors of WWII and the Nazi regime).

Goldberg also argues that “nationalists sent the Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda as a sort of missionary to America, where he introduced yoga philosophy in the 1890s.” But we have to problematize this, too, because at the time Vivekananda’s travels to the West were seen by many Indians as blasphemous, attention-seeking, and potentially damaging. That’s not to say all Indians felt this way and in general Vivekananda did have a great deal of support from those back in India, but again, this points out how we cannot assume any one Indian guru (like Vivekananda) spoke for all yogis or Indians.

Academic research shows that one of the main motivations for Vivekananda’s trip to the West was actually to raise money. He was broke, unable to find stable employment, and it was his financial struggles and difficulty dealing with the new responsibilities he faced upon the death of his father that initially drove him to connect with his guru, Ramakrishna (who Vivekananda had actually disliked when he initially met him prior to his father’s passing). In fact, the entire “official” narrative of how Vivekananda was petitioned by Ramakrishna to continue his spiritual transmission after his death by starting the Ramakrishna order is likely over-exaggerated, as evidence actually shows Ramakrishna did not wish Vivekananda to become a sannyasi, a form of religious ascetic, while his mother lived (most likely because, with the death of his father, Ramakrishna felt Vivekananda was needed to help support his family, meaning he could not renounce material desires and completely detach himself from material life; he did so regardless of Ramakrishna’s concerns, a decision that ended up changing India, Hinduism, and yoga forever). Similarly, evidence indicates that “Ramakrishna never formally initiated the future Vivekananda and the other young devotees,” as the renunciation undergone by Vivekananda took place several months after Ramakrishna died in a very unorthodox initiation that featured strong Christian content and was likely self-administered by Vivekananda and his followers (De Michelis: 105-107).

It was only after traveling for several years in India spreading his teachings and struggling with poverty that Vivekananda “hit upon a plan” to “raise the masses,” but recognized that he needed two things to do so, men and money. Because he had a difficult time raising funds in India (in part because there were so many sanyassins, or religious aesthetics, “wandering about teaching the people metaphysics”), he went to America to “earn money myself, and then return to my country and devote the rest of my days to the realization of this one aim in my life… I give them [Americans] spirituality and they give me money” (Vivekananda, quoted in De Michelis: 109). So Vivekananda traveled to America of his own accord, primarily as a means of earning funds for his religious projects, and contrary to Goldberg’s claims he was not sent as a spiritual emissary representing all Indians or all yogis.

In fact, Vivekananda ran out of money soon after arriving in New York but was “adopted” by prominent members of the occult religious organizations in the USA, including the recently formed Theosophical Society in New York and other new age religious groups such as metaphysics, harmonial religions, and mesmerism, whose members were “impressed by the handsome monk in the orange robe” and his “perfect English.” It’s worth noting that Vivekananda only started wearing orange robes during his time with Ramakrishna, who actually found the attire worrisome. Regardless, this apparel lent Vivekananda credibility in his new role as spiritual guru both back in India and especially in the West; he was able to start earning money almost immediately by giving talks and classes to wealthy white American occultists and by receiving donations.

De Michelis notes that “he acted as a wise counselor and teacher, as a friend and as a ‘soiree ornament… entertaining the wealthy and curious'” and that his popularity was partly due to “the fascination exercised in cultic milieus by Oriental teachers” who were romanticized by Westerners as “providers of genuine teachings, whatever their credentials” (111). Vivekananda applied to present at the Chicago Parliament of Religions as a “representative of the Hindu monastic order,” but this was a self-ascribed title and didn’t reflect any actual diplomatic representative status he possessed. So we have to understand that Vivekananda’s trips to the USA were self-motivated, even if it was for a good cause that he believed in, and that the formulations of yoga he disseminated to the West did not represent all Indians or all yogis (in fact, De Michelis recounts how his formulations of yoga were modified as a result of his interactions with new age spirituality in the West, which he adopted into his own understandings of the practice and then brought back to India). So Goldberg’s claim that it’s impossible to appropriate yoga is based on a misunderstanding of Vivekananda’s “mission” that ignores the ways his travels to the West were self-induced as a means of raising money for his spiritual projects, and not a reflection of some common approval of Western transmission by all Indians or all yogis.

Goldberg also claims that appropriation by Westerners is impossible because another prominent Indian guru, Krishnamacharya, gave teachers like Indra Devi “permission” to share yogic teachings with the West as some sort of “go forth and teach” missionary venture. But again, this is problematic as it ignores concerns Krishnamacharya actually had regarding Western appropriation of yoga, and is based on claims by Devi that such an interaction and conversation occurred. In fact, evidence actually indicates Krishnamacharya didn’t want to teach Westerners originally, especially women. Devi was a Russian noblewoman who adopted the stage name of Indra Devi to sound more Hindi during her involvement in several Indian films, and it was only after the Maharaja of Mysore, who funded Krishnamacharya’s yoga school, spoke on her behalf in 1938 that he even accepted her as a student of yoga. In fact, this revealing and prophetic quote from Krishnamacharya indicates that he was concerned about Western appropriation of yoga, contrary to Goldberg’s claims (thanks, Sri, for drawing my attention to this in your latest blog post):

The foreigners have stolen all the skills and knowledge and treasure of mother India, either right in front of us of in a hidden way. They pretend that they have discovered all this by themselves, bundle it together, and then bring it back here as though doing us a favor and in exchange take all the money and things we have saved up for our family’s welfare. After some time passes, they will try and do the same thing with Yogavidya. We can clearly state that the blame for this is that while we have read books required for the knowledge of yoga to shine, we have not understood or studied the concepts or brought them into our experience. If we still sleep and keep our eyes close, then the foreigners will become our gurus in Yogavidya.

In fact, while Krishnamacharya did teach Westerners this mostly occurred later in his life, and was related to changes in funding as his school stopped being funded by wealthy donors like the Maharaja in the decades following Devi’s study with him and instead became funded privately through fees charged to students. This meant that Westerners, who often were more able/willing to pay to learn yoga from such a renowned teacher, became a prime target market for Krishnamacharya even in India. It’s also worth noting that many Westerners actually trained with Krishnamacharya’s Indian students who then went on to teach, such as Pattabhi Jois, not with Krishnamacharya himself, and it’s likely he had little control of who his students taught even if he was concerned about Western appropriation of yoga.

I realize all of this history can be a bit overwhelming, but what I’m trying to point out is that cultural appropriation by Westerners was in fact a concern of many Indian gurus, even those who did end up teaching non-Indian students. Ultimately, we can’t argue (as Goldberg does) that cultural appropriation is impossible because “confident, outward-looking men who established modern yoga were eager to bring their system to the wider world” and as such charges of cultural appropriation are “invalid” because they “completely ignore the agency of Indians themselves, who have been making a concerted effort to export yoga to the West since the late 19th century.” Goldberg’s argument is flawed because she doesn’t understand that cultural appropriation is always a process characterized by an unequal power relationship between two parties, and as such always takes into account (or should) the agency of the party being appropriated from. Also, her argument lumps all Indians into one group, although it is clear that no Indian yoga guru spoke for all Indians, or all yogis, and as such no guru could “give permission” for yoga to be disseminated to the West, since there is no group that has this authority. Just because a few Indian gurus actively worked to export yoga does not mean they wanted that export to be appropriated by the Westerners they taught. It also does not mean that Westerners can do whatever they want with the practice because cultural appropriation is somehow “impossible” or “doesn’t exist.”

Ultimately, anyone can appropriate a cultural object like yoga, including Westerners but also Indians. The idea that because a handful of Indian yoga gurus actively worked to export yoga to the West somehow it is impossible for any Westerner (or anyone) to appropriate yoga is incredibly problematic and potentially damaging, and ignores research on what cultural appropriation is and how it works. While I would argue on the whole most applications, adoptions, and variations of yoga in the West are not culturally appropriative, just because most of the time it’s not appropriation doesn’t rule out the possibility that it could be cultural appropriation. We should still discuss the possibility of appropriation on a case by case basis to ensure our actions do not inadvertently, adversely harm others. We need to better understand what cultural appropriation entails, something Goldberg does not adequately address in her article.

Bringing it Back to Yoga: Was the Ottawa Case Culturally Appropriative?

Now, in applying this definition of cultural appropriation to yoga, I think it’s clear that some extremely commodified versions of Western yoga that ignore yoga’s roots, do not acknowledge the practice’s rich history, use stereotypical and simplified versions of the practice, profit off a romanticized and orientalist image of yoga, and transform yoga into a power fitness activity reminiscent of Jane Fonda aerobics set to the soundtracks of pop music and featuring scantily clad thin white women can be culturally appropriative. Such formulations profit only wealthy Westerners who own such corporations, and do marginalize, misrepresent, or ignore entirely the origins of the practice. With that said, these culturally appropriative representations of yoga are actually few and far between if we look at the everyday practices of yogis in the West and the great diversity of yoga classes and studio systems. They are more common in the media, sure, but that’s often because the media gives a skewed representation of yoga in the West.

Most of the time, the variation we see in yoga in the West is a natural product of cultural diffusion as cultural objects, like yoga, change and evolve slightly with each iteration of diffusion as each teacher or student puts their own interpretation of meaning and use on the cultural good in order to make the cultural object more relevant for their lives and needs. For example, even power yoga classes can and do train teachers on yoga philosophy and history and acknowledge the practice is more than just physical fitness, implying that it is not cultural appropriation that is happening. Many studios, even those that seem the most “Westernized,” can and do provide workshops for students that go deeper than more surface-level (but still yogic) asana classes.

Sure, yoga has changed in ways that are sometimes hard to reconcile. And yes, there are obviously some aspects of yoga culture (like industries producing fashion “yoga” clothes) that are highly problematic, as such industries can often support unsustainable, exploitative systems of inequality. The fact that yoga is often used as a form of self-distinction to signal high-class status is similarly troublesome. But what I’m trying to get at is that most yogis do not use yoga in this way, or passively absorb and reproduced this culture. These problems (when they do exist in yoga) are often part of larger problems of corporate power, consumerism, and capitalist global exploitation that are not just present in yoga in the West today but in the Western world more generally. We should continue to talk about them, but it doesn’t mean we need to stop practicing yoga. For example, this interesting article from Vice on the Ottawa case discusses some of the ways we can still practice without culturally appropriating yoga.

While it can be hard to disseminate the more philosophical or meditative aspects of the practice in group classes, this doesn’t mean teachers aren’t aware of the deeper aspects of yoga. In fact, the lack of these type of yoga teachings in Western yoga has more to do with the corporate nature of mainstream yoga publications (which, again, present a skewed picture of yoga in the West removed from the everyday practices of yogis) as well as limitations in the standardized format for teaching group asana classes (which have become the staple cash flow for studios) than because teachers are culturally appropriating yoga. In fact, I would argue that most yoga as it is practiced in the West is not culturally appropriative in the sociological sense of the word. In general the evolution of yoga in the West is a complex phenomenon that has many factors, and reflects a more general cultural diffusion as yoga was adapted to meet the needs of a different audience (both geographically, but also temporally as modern society evolved and changed over time).

As for the Ottawa case, I think it’s clear that this, similarly, was not a case of cultural appropriation. First, there were many other reasons the classes were cancelled, such as low enrollment and concerns about accessibility for differently abled students. The teacher obviously did have a deeper understanding of yoga practice and the history and origins of the practice, but was seeking to create an entry level class for students of all levels that focused on overall health and well-being, a goal that is not contradictory to a broader understanding of the practice of yoga but rather reflects a particular type and level of class given the interests of students and constraints of the university system.

With all this said, I want to reiterate that just because not all Western adaptations of yoga are culturally appropriative does not rule out the possibility that it could be cultural appropriation. We should still discuss the possibility of appropriation on a case by case basis to ensure our actions do not inadvertently, adversely harm others. To do so, we have to understand what cultural appropriation entails, have a dialogue with all members involved, look closely at issues of power, and remain mindful about the nature and consequences of the process.

I also think it’s worth seriously considering whether or not, in attempting to make yoga more available within school or university systems, the practice has been so de-contextualized as to make it unrecognizable. I understand the benefits of integrating yoga into schools, but institutional constraints in these sites often mean that the spiritual nature of the practice becomes impossible to even acknowledge. At this point, I think we have to ask whether or not it is even yoga anymore, or if it has been so appropriated to fit within school systems that we have symbolically annihilated the roots of the practice in this process in ways that are in fact culturally appropriative.

The Ottawa case is, I think, an example of this process, as yoga is changed dramatically to try and fit into institutions that demand a lack of spirituality. Can we still retain the essence of the practice, and can the practice still benefit students if the spiritual roots are removed to fit into school systems? Are there alternative ways to incorporate yoga into schools (say, after school programs) or make it more accessible to populations that might benefit (like children) that would still allow the roots and history of the practice to be acknowledged and taught? This is a complex topic. There is no easy answer for those interested in increasing the reach of yoga and spreading the benefits of the practice. However, in sacrificing the complexity of the practice in attempts to gain a wider audience we risk falling into McYoga and McMindfulness traps, where yoga and mindfulness practices are yoked to unsustainable systems of productivity, individualism, and consumerism in ways that ultimately culturally appropriate the practice.

Love, light, and… yoga❤

Oneness, Seva, and the White Savior Complex

“The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” – Teju Cole

I recently saw two articles posted on Yoganonymous, and immediately something felt off. What I read was so troublesome that I want to clarify some things about the Western perspective of “oneness” in yoga that not only romanticizes the idea based on orientalism, but also appropriates it to adhere to ideas of individualism popular in the West (neoliberalism, anyone?). Often, these ideas of “oneness” are tied to the idea of seva, or selfless service, a practice that has become increasingly popular in the yoga world during the last decade but that is often inadequately understood, becoming a form of white savior complex for many privileged yogis. Frankly, this is also regularly tied up in some essentializing and problematic gendered expectations of what “service” means; in other words, in the West we often have very gendered ideas of service practices that equate service to caring for others, when these two things are not always the same.

The two articles I saw were “Why Oneness is the Key to Happiness and Ethics in Yoga” and part III of a series titled “Seva: Healing through Giving.” The first article was about the idea of oneness, what the author claimed was an idea of common origin, nature, or being that unites everything (not just people, but all the universe). She claims, “oneness can improve our social, political, and professional environments, helping create a more enlightened society. A society where we recognize that, as human beings, we are all cells of a larger organism.” In a similar vein, the article on seva is about how seva can lead us to love, and therefore connection with those around us: “the more you connect with your sense of love and devotion the more you will see those around you as part of your very Self.” What bothered me most about both these articles is that other than some of these fancy feel-good let’s-connect love-everyone sentiments expressed at the beginning of each article, these were largely written in ways that were, frankly, egoistic, and ultimately about feeling better about your self rather than about connecting with others or with something larger than “you.”

This can be seen by a simple discourse analysis of these articles. Both are meant to be about oneness, connecting with those around us, about becoming part of the “we”, so how many times to they actually use the words “we,” “us,” or refer to something other than “you,” the individual? Turns out, not that much. For the oneness article, “we” appears 10 times, “us” twice, and “you” or “your” a whopping 34 times. For the seva article it’s even more obvious: “we” appears 4 times, “us” never, and “you” or “your” 33 times. And these aren’t long articles, people. Seriously! What the heck is going on here? And it gets even more ridiculous when we look at some of the things these authors are actually saying with all those “you”‘s and “your”‘s. Take this quote from the oneness article: “When you live and act with the awareness of being part of a larger role, of being bigger than your small body-mind-life, than you are really contributing to this whole, and your actions matter tenfold more.” They are talking about connecting with something larger, yet ultimately what they are talking about is the individual, about “you,” the whole time. It’s about you connecting with the bigger force, about your actions, not about others or about what is happening in our world, or what our world needs to survive and improve. The entire matter of “oneness” has become, literally, isolated in one person and their individual quest for feeling something more universal, largely driven by their own individual desires and needs to feel fulfilled rather than developing a deeper connection through empathy that allows us to genuinely care about others, and to desire to build a better world for all of us because we all need it.

Let’s take some points from the seva article to demonstrate this same trend. One quote from the author explains: “When you engage seva it quiets the egoistic part of you. You shift away from the “me focus” to the “we focus.” This “we focus” is the place where you experience, through your thoughts and actions, that we are all interconnected. It is the space where you decide consciously to live in and through this interconnectedness… When you choose to engage it, you choose to stay connected with your heart, the most sacred part of you.  Seva means, you choose to live from the place of awareness of what is real, that we are all interconnected. When you work with seva you get to feel the depth of your own love and compassion by finding a way to serve another. Through seva, you experience the great value of sacrifice and the reality that one can make an enormous difference.” Holy crap! Talk about connectedness–connected to what? A whole bunch of you, apparently. I mean, this author starts out by saying seva should quiet the egoistic part of you, but then what do they do? They go off on an egoistic rant about how seva is good for, well, you. Talk about ego and being disconnected. Sure, seva is driven by our ability to love, or more accurately feel empathy, but it shouldn’t be defined as getting in touch with yourself. Seva is selfless service–key word being selfless. Yet these authors turn oneness and seva into something that is ultimately all about your self, and about feeling good about your self, which is ultimately a practice of ego.

Look, I get that what these authors are writing about is lovely and romantic and sounds great on the surface. It sounds nice to “connect to love,” have “your actions matter tenfold more,” and “find a way to serve another;” but you know what the best way to serve others is? By asking them what they need, and listening to them rather than yourself. Sure, for many people who are privileged I guess this a nice way to ease them into thinking about something other than themselves, since drawing on egoistic, individualistic, and self-centered ideas of seva and oneness (with oneself, apparently) come easier for people who are constantly encouraged to think this way. But seriously, there has to be a better way to discuss oneness and seva rather than directing these ideas back onto the benefit and experience of these practices for, well, you. Connectedness, oneness, whatever you want to call it, is about us. It’s about what we can do, and how we can mobilize to make a difference, together, not as isolated individuals trying to make our own selves feel better or as part of a personal quest to achieve what you think is the best solution. Seva should be about serving others, instead of yourself, and ultimately that requires asking others what they need from us, rather than assuming that we already know what they need. You want to make a difference? Try getting yourself out of the way.

Too often in dominant yoga culture seva is taken as an excuse to mitigate personal feelings of guilt for those with privilege, as a way of easing our own self-doubt and insecurities, and as a way of healing ourselves rather than a means of truly serving other people. This is largely because yoga, and yoga philosophy, is interpreted by Westerners through our capitalist, individualist, and neoliberal ideologies in ways that appropriate the original meanings out of context of an ethically guided spiritual practice. Since popular culture yoga has become largely devoid of spiritual traditions and disconnected from a deeper understanding of the ethical guidelines of yoga, instead taught in commodified ways that don’t provide a sound historical or, frankly, spiritual background for the practice, Westerners rarely get enough time to study these ideas in depth or to even deeply think about them (especially if they have other jobs outside of yoga). Cover them for a few hours in a teacher training, and hey, you are suddenly qualified to teach these ideas to others as a certified “expert”! (That was sarcasm, by the way.) But what often happens is that, because of the surface level study most people receive on these matters, many yogis, especially those who come from privileged locations (meaning white, middle class individuals, who are over-represented in yoga as a whole) end up using romanticized, orientalist ideas of these concepts as a means to justify their disconnection. This is exacerbated by the fact that teacher trainings often don’t provide any training on diversity awareness.

The adoption of seva and this idea of oneness by Western yogis often takes the form of a white savior complex, part of what’s been called the white savior industrial complex. The white savior complex is a trend where whites increasingly use service work (and charitable giving) as a means to justify and validate their own unwarranted privilege, thereby reinforcing it, rather than actually performing service in the interests and according to the needs of the ones they serve. Thus, the white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening. As Cole says, “there is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of first do no harm [ahimsa!]. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.” The white savior complex is all too common in yoga, where privileged yogis often utilize these practices as a means of self-service, rather than selfless service.

In popular culture yoga, oneness and seva become signals for status, a sign of an “authentic” yogi, even if they are practiced in a way that reflects more about Western ideas of individualism and capitalism than a deeper connection to others. Seva becomes commodified, interpreted as “gifting” free yoga classes to at risk populations, often on a limited one-time basis in ways that don’t actually help the community served and ultimately are done as a marketing ploy for new teachers to gain a student “following” and thereby increase their own incomes. Which means most seva in the yoga world isn’t actually selfless, but is often all about the self, about you and not about others. It’s used as a means of personal gain, or personal appeasement (making you feel better), or personal healing, or really anything except a way to remove the egoistic self. Instead of taking our yoga off the mat, we use a few hours of self-motivated volunteering on our mats to justify our status as “authentic” yogis and as “good” people, all while consistently ignoring larger systemic inequalities relating to class, race, gender, sexuality, and so on and our own roles in sustaining these systems. Instead of listening to what the populations we serve actually need, we listen to and serve ourselves. We volunteer in prisons, rather than fighting and advocating for a better system that won’t imprison so many people in the first place. We provide asana classes to poor urban youth (often of color), rather than addressing the issues of poverty, segregation, and crime they have to deal with. We help our own sense of self-worth by alleviating our personal guilt in the short term, rather than using our yogic practice to listen to others, understand their struggles, and fight against, larger inequities, which would ultimately be a better, more selfless, and more yogic service.

A great deal of our ideas on how to serve stem from gendered notions of “service” in the West, where service work has historically been tied to the work of women, especially care work (meaning, caring for others). Sure, this type of service is lovely, but it’s flawed, because the myth of the selfless mother is a social construction and frankly an unhealthy and unequal one. All genders are equally capable of love and empathy. And love and empathy, while these are the root of what allows us to serve, are not always the best way to serve. Can we frame service in a different way? Can we flip this gender script and instead think of service in the sense of serving in, say, the military? While obviously there are some serious problems with this analogy as the military is not an institution reflecting the paragon of virtue, I think it’s important we recognize that service isn’t just about love and caring and holding hands and all these other essentialized and outdated gendered notions. These are great, but they aren’t enough, and they aren’t the whole story. Selfless service is about digging into some uncomfortable truths about our selves so that we can abandon our self-bias and self-orientation and truly listen to others’ needs. Selfless service is about fighting for justice and equity for others in ways driven by empathy and love, but that won’t always take the form of hand holding and care work; sometimes it will be oppositional.

Love, light, and… yoga❤