I teach yoga – its appropriation by the white wellness industry is a form of colonialism, but we can move on | Nadia Gilani

Yoga has become the latest wellness practice to fall victim to cultural appropriation – but that will come as no surprise to the many industry insiders who have been speaking out on this issue for years, with growing urgency. What is abundantly clear to me as a yoga teacher is the practice has been led astray by western economic forces. Cultural appropriation remains a contentious and triggering topic for some. “What’s the difference between appropriation and appreciation?” I’m often asked. People argue that it’s a fine line, but I fail to see it. It’s just one of the problems plaguing the industry.

Working as a yoga teacher in London has shown me just how far the practice has been pulled from its roots. Yoga was simply not designed as a quick workout or to be reduced to #LiveYourBestLife Instagrammable content. It was never meant to fit into a power hour on your lunch break, or as something to be combined with beer or puppies – as some classes do, charging an eye-watering £35 for the privilege. Yoga in the west has been so heavily commodified that “Namastay in bed” T-shirts and tattoos of decontextualised Sanskrit and Hindu gods have become commonplace. Bindis – an auspicious religious symbol with Hindu origins – are worn as fashion accessories, alongside bum-sculpting activewear.

Classical yoga is grounded in the sage Patanjali’s eight limbs philosophy, which offers a suggested code of conduct to live in a moral way. The origins of historical Indian traditions are notoriously difficult to date, but it is thought the ancient practice of yoga may have emerged between 2,500 and 10,000 years ago, as a way for early populations to make sense of the natural world order and find connections between the physical body and the habited world. Today’s practice undoubtedly looks different, but the intention was always clear: when we strengthen our relationship with ourselves and understand ourselves more deeply, we are in a better position to make sense of the world and live in harmony with the universe.

Modern yoga offers many of the same promises. As a physical practice, it can be a powerful antidote to our frenetic lives. But its incarnation as a quick fix to a clearer mind and buff body is coming at a cost. While the deeply disturbing trend of cultural appropriation often dominates the headlines, commercial interests have the industry in a chokehold. It may look like yoga is everywhere and that everyone is doing it, but accessibility remains a stubborn issue – on the whole, classes are expensive and many people aren’t getting through the studio door because they simply can’t afford it.

Others tell me they feel unwelcome or excluded. There is a serious lack of diversity among yoga teachers and students, something I notice every time I walk into a studio in the UK, and often further afield. In 2020, a large survey published in the British Medical Journal found 70% of respondents had experienced positive lifestyle changes as a result of their yoga practice, including improved physical and mental health, reduced stress levels and better sleep. But, the authors noted, “the majority of respondents were women, white, well educated … Participants rated themselves as above average in terms of subjective social status … 40% of the sample were yoga teachers.”

Crash-course training programmes in teaching are also a problem, churning out trainees who, in some cases, have not practised for very long or with much depth. Teaching yoga isn’t just about the ability to get someone into weird and wonderful shapes – it’s about conveying the spirit of the philosophy, and offering students solid tools they can use in their own journey of self-discovery. Teacher training that fails to impart this crucial understanding further distances yoga from its roots.

Some of the westernised brand of yoga has even found its way back to India. During my regular trips, I have rarely seen Indians attending drop-in classes, and on one training I did in 2013 in Kerala, I was the only person of colour in the room apart from the teacher – and as a British Pakistani, I’m not even Indian. Sitting in a cafe during a 2019 trip to Agonda, Goa, I overheard a nearby table of (entirely white) trainee yoga teachers, who were attending a hugely popular school, planning their classes; they discussed what “beat-sy” playlists they might use, and one was wearing a “Namaste As Fuck” T-shirt.

Yoga’s mainstream adoption by the masses is undoubtedly positive – it’s what its Indian forefathers would have wanted. Many themselves travelled the world to spread its message and I’m sure they would have encouraged foreigners visiting India to go back to their communities and share what they’d learned. But the true essence of yoga as a spiritual practice of self-inquiry has been distorted and repackaged in the west in platitudinal “love and light” slogans to the detriment of the many it now excludes, from the people of colour who created it, to low-income households, older people, children, those who don’t have slim, bendy bodies, disabled people, ill and injured people: the list is endless.

Yoga’s appropriation by the white wellness industry is a 21st century form of colonialism. Its whitewashing is why I felt so lonely and out of place when I first started teaching. But having taught yoga to refugees and vulnerable teenagers, those in addiction recovery and people with mental health and mobility issues, I’m less interested in yoga being “decolonised” or reclaimed. To move the conversation forward, it’s imperative we understand why yoga has become out of reach for some of those who need it most – and find ways to make it available to more people.

That can only happen through yoga teachers, wellness influencers, businesses, brands and corporates making community outreach a priority, by taking yoga into schools, and making classes accessible to key workers on low wages and community groups who may not have the funds to go to studios. That may mean studios offering subsidised class rates at peak times (lower-cost community classes are often scheduled during the day when working-class people are, well, at work). Urban Yogis are doing brilliant work in this arena, but are constantly having to hustle for funding to keep going.

The solution to bringing about real change must include everyone. If we’re in the business of yoga and get paid for selling it in some form, it’s our duty to ensure we’re doing it with respect and integrity. Those changes alone could revolutionise the way yoga exists in the western world. Above all, we all have a responsibility to make sure that yoga is available to anyone who wants to practise it.

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