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Ghosts of Yogas Past and Present

[Adivasi Ekta Parishad (Conference of Adivasi Unity) gathering in Rajasthan, India. Photo by Satish Londhe.] [Adivasi Ekta Parishad (Conference of Adivasi Unity) gathering in Rajasthan, India. Photo by Satish Londhe.]

My Facebook feed has recently been saturated with posts and articles regarding yoga in the United States. It has been very frustrating to read about how white people teaching and doing yoga is apparently “traumatic” for South Asian Americans. I grew up in a village eight hours away from Mumbai. As someone from a Bahujan (lower-caste) farmer family in rural India, “yoga” was something very distant to me. It lived in the culture of the brahmanic upper middle class of urban India. Only recently, I have seen formal yoga being introduced into the vocabulary of the people I grew up with, and see “yoga mats” for sale in stores in some of the bigger towns near my village.

This article is not at all a denunciation of yoga. Like many people back home (and elsewhere too), I value some practices, which have been consolidated into what is now known as yoga. Some sectors of South Asian and non-South Asian people take formal yoga classes. Perhaps many more South Asians practice varied combinations of exercise, postures, breathing, and meditation, which they may not have learned through anything considered as an India-wide shared yogic culture. I myself learned and still practice sun salutations and other asanas that help keep me flexible. I admire and respect those who are committed to practicing or teaching yoga to others. However, I am distressed by the increasingly popular rhetoric among some South Asians in the US diaspora, who simplistically fault the “Western” embrace and “white” appropriation of the yoga that belongs to “our culture.” Some of this rhetoric dangerously echoes existing claims in the diaspora that have already gotten play in US media. Rooted in the chauvinistic Hinduism among some sectors of the upper-caste minority, these voices claim yoga as their homogenous culture—in ways that obscure the caste, class, and religious diversity and injustices among South Asians.

Many caste-privileged Hindus use such claims to cultural capital to dominate cultural norms in ways that oppress and even perpetuate violence against Muslims, Christians, Dalits, Bahujans, and Adivasis, altogether the vast majority of India’s people. They have used this power to erase or appropriate from the richly-diverse indigenous and local spiritual practices of people into their brahmanical form of Hinduism. From the standpoint of the vast majority of South Asians, the cultural threat they face is not at all from “white people” practicing or “appropriating” yoga. What they are looking for is conscious solidarity and support for their struggles against communalism and caste oppression, bellicosity towards Pakistan, land-grabs and dispossession, and threats to their livelihoods and to their resilient cultures too.

On a recent visit home, everyone was talking about the upcoming national elections. Twelve years after helping coordinate genocidal pogroms against Muslims in the western state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi is the Bharatiya Janata Party's anointed candidate for Prime Minister. This “charming” Hindu-right leader is praised for what supporters say is his great contribution to promoting the development of Gujarat. It is painful to see Modi's face plastered on billboards all over India, as he travels around the country holding his “vow to victory” rallies. It is painful to hear his voice in the media and be reminded of his vitriolic Hindu-supremacist commentary of the not-too-distant past, which is sure to return. A man behind mass murder is being championed to be the next prime minister of India.

These are scary times. Just this week, the publishing house Penguin caved to an out-of-court settlement with a right-wing group that claimed a book by renowned University of Chicago scholar Wendy Doniger is “defamatory” to Hinduism: Penguin has agreed to destroy all copies of the book. And closer to my community, the tireless anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar was recently assassinated in broad daylight near his home.

What does any of this have to do with yoga? Quite a bit, actually. No one has done more to popularize yoga in India in recent years than the yoga televangelist Baba Ramdev, who in turn has helped make yoga a key tool in the Hindu right’s cultural arsenal. Ramdev is now holding mass “yoga fests” across India in support of Modi’s campaign. Modi himself recently spoke at the so-called “first ever” yoga university in India: “even after independence, we didn't come out of the slave mentality and continue to ignore the importance of yoga. And sometimes by equating yoga with communalism, we inflicted a great damage on us.” These are not events to be taken lightly. Those of us who claim any roots to India and South Asia, to its cultures and its peoples—whether through yourself or your parents—should feel the moral urgency of how “our culture” is being manipulated.

How does this relate to yoga in the United States? A number of recent articles address the issue of who can make authoritative claims to yoga; they proclaim righteous anger at “white people” for their role in yoga’s commodification and cultural appropriation, the mispronunciation of Sanskrit words, and not adequately following the leadership of the South Asians in practicing yoga. This discussion has been echoed among some of my South Asian American friends.

Central to this discussion is “Take Back Yoga,” led by the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), a campaign that claims yoga must be credited to Hinduism. HAF has cleverly used this deceptive appeal to white-liberal guilt, in order to get major play in the mainstream US media. The influence and “multiculturalist” legitimacy they acquire through their yoga campaign is useful for their real agenda—supporting the Islamophobic Hindu-right. According to a recent report by the Coalition Against Genocide, HAF is “positioning itself as an organization that represents the worldview of most Hindus in the United States. Although HAF projects itself as a lobby group working within a human rights framework, it has existential links to extremist and violent Hindutva supremacist organizations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).” 

The cultural authenticity argument posed by HAF with regards to yoga is a dangerous one. Claiming that yoga belongs to Hinduism—or even to India or South Asia, for that matter—assumes the origins and evolution of yoga as monolithic. Neither contemporary “yoga” nor “Hinduism” is age-old or homogenous. Actually, both were assembled in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in interaction with British colonial realities. Pankaj Mishra points out that many upper-caste Hindus were happy to collaborate with the British in shaping a Sanskritized “unified Hinduism” under brahmin hegemony:

This British-brahmin version of Hinduism—one of the many invented traditions born around the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—has continued to find many takers among semi-Westernized Hindus suffering from an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the apparently more successful and organized religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The Hindu nationalists of today, who long for India to become a muscular international power, stand in a direct line of nineteenth-century Indian reform movements devoted to purifying and reviving a Hinduism perceived as having grown too fragmented and weak. These mostly upper-caste and middle-class nationalists have accelerated the modernization and homogenization of “Hinduism.”

Caste-privileged Hindu leaders, through violent domination, have culturally appropriated a variety of diverse sects, practices, beliefs and rituals that have existed for centuries. This history, of both European influence and brahmanic appropriation, holds true for yoga as well. It should not be assumed that all the Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or Sikh communities embrace brahmanical forms of yoga as part of their culture. Representing South Asia as the birthplace of a mythical homogeneous culture is a crusade of the chauvinistic upper-caste Hindus. We need to consciously learn about and highlight the rich, diverse cultures, histories, customs, and spiritual practices of the vast majority of people in South Asia, especially the Dalit and Adivasi communities who are continuing to struggle to keep their cultures alive. What we need is a constant challenge to the caste-privileged attempt to define Hindu, Indian, or South Asian culture as monolithic and theirs.

Meera Nanda points out that the physical aspects of modern yoga as it is practiced today actually

were hybridized with drills, gymnastics and body-building techniques borrowed from Sweden, Denmark, England, the United States, and other Western countries. These innovations were creatively grafted on the Yoga Sutras—which has been correctly described…as "the yoga canon for people who have accepted brahmin theology"—to create an impression of five thousand years worth of continuity where none really exists. The HAF’s current insistence is thus part of a false advertising campaign about yoga’s ancient Brahmanical lineage.

How can something that is itself a product of appropriation and hybridization of a variety of cultures be accused of being culturally appropriated only now by “the West”?

New initiatives like South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America (SAAPYA) have a mission to bring South Asian American leadership to yoga in the US and to create awareness about yoga’s South Asian roots. Many have pointed out the commonalities between HAF’s yoga campaign and SAAPYA, in seemingly asserting a monolithic religious origin for yoga. They say that “SAAPYA recognizes the lineage of yoga, both cultural and theological, to be grounded in South Asia and to be nurtured within an open and expansive reading of Hinduism.” Much of SAAPYA’s discourse uses the language of social justice and decolonization, though there seems to be a reluctance to distinguish themselves from HAF and its broader ideology. As progressive South Asians in the United States, should it not give us pause when we find ourselves making similar arguments as Hindu right-wing groups? When effort has been made to call out ordinary white people for “appropriating” yoga, where is our responsibility to expose Hindu right organizations and their broader ideology?

I have heard many South Asian Americans express their frustration and offense at the mispronunciation of Sanskrit verses. But do all South Asians or South Asian Americans pronounce these words correctly and know their meanings? Of course, there is then anger about that too!—about “white people” assuming that a South Asian-looking person knows how to pronounce these Sanskrit words. But aren’t many privileged South Asian Americans culturally appropriating and “colonizing” the culture of peoples who actually live in South Asia? Coming from a lower-caste background, I personally have no attachment to Sanskrit. In fact, I reject it as a language of “divine knowledge” that was only available to brahmins. It was used as a means to keep spiritual knowledge away from the majority of the people so they would have no choice but to follow the brahmins’ edicts on ritual and spiritual practice. A founder of the bhakti movement in Maharashtra, Dnyaneshwar, was shunned by the brahmin community for trying to bring Sanskrit to the “common people.” Why should we worry about how Sanskrit is being pronounced, when our people were ourselves denied it? Why shouldn't the utterance of Sanskrit in yoga classes, whether by a South Asian teacher or a white yoga teacher, itself be a triggering and traumatic experience for many of us Bahujans and Dalits who continue to be victims of brahmin supremacy? What should Dalit-Bahujans say to those who cite mispronunciation of a caste-supremacist language by white yoga teachers and practitioners as the most common concern for their criticism?

Of course, the grievance is not just about pronunciation of Sanskrit. Many claim that “white people” have commodified yoga. There is truth to the fact that yoga has been commercialized and commodified. Classes at yoga studios and gyms in the United States are often expensive. Many yoga teachers are white, and so are most of the practitioners. There is no denying that given the saturation of yoga, the majority of those practicing and writing about yoga are non-South Asian. The representation of people doing yoga in online and print images are mostly of skinny white people. This is a legitimate problem that SAAPYA and others have called out. These images should indeed represent more racial diversity and body types. But let us not forget that among those who commercialized yoga and marketed it to wealthier and whiter people were many Indian gurus as well. One of them is Bikram Choudury of Bikram Yoga fame, who, according to a recent article in Vanity Fairis facing lawsuits for sexually harassing and assaulting female students. I am curious why South Asian Americans concerned about yoga’s cultural appropriation don’t call out our very own South Asian yogis. Is it because we don’t want to air our dirty laundry when it is more convenient to call out white people? The reality is that the injustices of chauvinistic and wealthy Hindus is not our dirty laundry. And as was true in the colonial era, these caste-privileged Hindus are still working hand in hand with the capitalist and imperialist west.

The recent article “It Happened To Me: There Are No Black People In My Yoga Classes And I'm Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable With It” has rightfully angered many for its racism against Black people. The author didn’t mention any discomfort with fellow Asian students. She even acknowledges what many want white people to be aware of, that “yoga comes from thousands of years of south Asian tradition,” and that “it’s been shamelessly co-opted by Western culture as a sport for skinny, rich white women.” Her article is an indication of anti-Black racism in this country and all over the world. Yet most South Asian responses to this article, while claiming to speak for all South Asians, are still about how we as South Asians are being oppressed because of the constant appropriation of “our” culture. Why are we making anti-Black racism about us?

There are several initiatives that are attempting to promote yoga for specific populations for healing, and to make yoga accessible at lower cost for communities that don’t have adequate access to health care. This includes groups like the Third Root Education Exchange (TREE), which is facilitating yoga for veterans and formerly-incarcerated people. SAAPYA also aims to make yoga more accessible to low-income youth of color. These are important and necessary efforts that are attempting to address economic and racial inequality within the United States.

For South Asian Americans, instead of talking about how white people should be educated about the origins of yoga, we might also do some educating of ourselves about the histories and ongoing struggles of millions of peoples across South Asia. Let’s find ways to raise awareness, and lift up voices for truth and justice through our work and conversations here. Current efforts led by All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch calling for Dalit Mahila Swabhiman Yatra (Dalit Women’s Self-Determination Tour) from 11 February to 14 March is one dynamic movement. Dalit women are traveling across India, holding a series of actions and caravans to demand justice and accountability for violence and oppression. Let’s be intentional about speaking truth against diasporic Hindu-supremacist support for hateful politics within India, and dangerously aggressive policies towards South Asian neighbors. Let’s denounce how they are using deceptive ideology about yoga to promote their causes. Let’s be responsible to the peoples of India and South Asia by doing all we can now to make sure that these worldviews and the murderer Modi don’t end up leading the country toward fascism.

If you are in New York on 28 February, you can also attend a candlelight vigil at 6:30pm in Jackson Heights, to honor and remember the victims of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, and to take a stand against the alarming rise of Narendra Modi’s power.

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