Is There A Respectful Way To Practice Yoga?

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Is There A Respectful Way To Practice Yoga?

White People Asking Questions is a series where White people submit questions and they are posed anonymously to the public for a 24-hour period and are answered anonymously.

Oftentimes White people have questions about themselves, People Of Color (POCs), or awkward situations, but are afraid to ask them due to public backlash. On the other hand, POCs get asked these questions every day and are burdened with the emotional labor of constantly explaining the same concept to people that will never relate because it is not their experience.

But just because you can’t relate doesn’t mean you don’t want to learn and do something about it. Amirite? As Angela Davis said, “You have to be intentionally and actively anti-racist.” 

Therefore, this series is having the conversation on how White People can be ACTIVE in dismantling racist systems and not passively watching. What is unique, though, is this series is set up to be answered primarily BY White People FOR White People teach each other about their privileges. 

POCs are always welcome to participate in dialogue, but this also creates a space for POCs to watch White People do the work in educating each other. Many times our communities are so disconnected that we don’t know the conversations happening amongst other communities. This is also meant as a resource for POCs to direct White People to for difficult concepts.

How Not To Travel Like A Basic Bitch wants to acknowledge and thank everyone who took on the emotional labor of sending in these responses. We include all responses that are directly relevant to answering the question. We don’t filter or edit, but we do correct spelling and grammatical errors. Highlighted in red at the bottom is the takeaway of the discussion.

Question:

As a White Person, should I not do yoga? I’ve heard a lot recently about how problematic it is because of its religious origins and current political implications, etc., and at the same time almost everyone I know does yoga and does not think about how the practice relates to the real world (as opposed to their own spiritual exploration). How Whitewashed yoga is in the U.S., and how are we affecting real people by participating in this stolen piece of someone else’s culture?

Indian Responses:

I’m not a yoga practitioner, but I know a few + I’m Indian so I’m surrounded by the effects of it. It’s an entire lifestyle, approach to life, way of thinking and existing. It’s used to heal and keep the body strong. It’s used to cure afflictions. I’m a strong proponent of the fact that anyone can practice yoga if they approach it as the culture and spiritually that it is, and not just “stretching”. And only if they learn from Desi practitioners/yogis. I want my people to benefit from the spread even if a White person went to India and learned there, I wouldn’t give them my dollars. Same way I won’t go to a White person for traditional Chinese medicine. It’s a way of life. Support the origins. They know more intuitively than anyone from a different culture could learn. I know even yogis are like yes!! Spread the word, etc. But I see it dumbed down by non-Desis to stretching/exercise a lot and that’s just not it. Just say you’re stretching/doing some “yoga INSPIRED” shit and go.

Yoga teacher of Indian descent here. I grew up in Canada but did my teacher training in India at a place run by Indian yogis because I didn’t want to pay or learn from White appropriators of this sacred practice. Nowadays I love teaching because I get to share a piece of my culture and its healing, but find it very hard to “compete” with the typical White yoga teachers in terms of actually teaching yoga–not just asana or exercise. I would ask White folks to seek out teachers of Indian descent whenever possible, POC owned studios, or at the very least, White teachers or studios owning and speaking about their privilege and supporting POC. Take the time to read about and understand the history and origin of yoga if you are going to practice and don’t support commercialized White washed studios that do not support or act as allies to POC!

White Responses:

I think so, but pay for it from a yoga teacher that understands the origin, and not from some fake ass “spiritual White woman. And, if you have to post about it, center your teacher. Center the origin of yoga, and help others understand that it is not some bullshit self-care fad.

I searched Google on this to understand. Found an article written by a professor (Shreena Gandhi) and activist (Lillie Wolff) which outlines five ways yoga can be done in an appropriate way: be aware of yoga’s history, be grateful for the opportunity to be able to practice, make it accessible to all, remember it isn’t a competition, and be mindful of decorations (so don’t use Hindu symbols and gods out of context). They also noted the popularity is because of a deep desire to feel a connection to culture deeper than the emptiness of consumerism and capitalism. So this at the core of appropriation and can also be applicable to POC as well in certain circumstances. And my general rule with this: if you are White, this was never yours first so listen and learn. Support those who had it first,

I would encourage folks to listen to #18 of the podcast “Surprisingly Awesome”. The episode focuses on yoga’s origins in India and how yoga came to the Western world. Also Google Indra Devi. It is a lot ot summarize and I’m hesitant to try because I haven’t listened in so long. What I took from it is that White folks have been assigning spirituality to yoga that wasn’t always there in India.

I practice yoga and have studied the history in uni. I would love it if someone could point us to some Indian/POC yoga teachers online here. I currently practice using YouTube videos from a White person, but I’d love to switch. I looked up yoga accounts on YouTube on Google and Huff Post had an article of 9 accounts – all of White and White passing people.

Something I feel VERY uncomfortable/confused about is variations “alternative” yoga (like goat yoga, trap yoga, I’ve even heard of one called “floyance”…). I find these to be the most inappropriate, but so far from the original practice I wonder why even call it yoga besides branding/name recognition? However, the textbook definition of appropriation is to utilize a part of another culture for personal profit, be that status or financial in a way that disrespects or disregards the original purpose… definitely fits that bill. I agree with other responses here that seeking education, remaining respectful and thoughtful of intention, and avoiding uneducated White studios/teachers are some solid ways to appreciation and practice.

Omg this is all reminding me of a meditation class I took once that was stupid expensive and taught by this 22 year old White Insta model or something. She started the class by talking about her life revelation she had earlier that day while doing her morning yoga practice that “I am literally capable of doing anything I put my mind to. The only thing stopping me is ME.” It’s a good thing our eyelids were closed cause my eyes were rolling all the way into the back of my head and I spent the rest of the class thinking, “Why did I pay money for this White nonsense?” And never went back. So these are all good reminders for me to not fall into that LA trap of listening to the “wisdom” of young White trust fund babies and go directly to real sources of POC who actually come from the cultures White people are busy appropriating.

I don’t practice yoga, but I do stretch regularly for health benefits and often do “yoga inspired” poses. I don’t call it yoga because I don’t engage in the spiritual or cultural practices surrounding it. Therefore, it’s not yoga. I’ve also never taken classes to avoid giving my money to someone benefiting from appropriation. **and I’ve only ever seen White women and men running yoga studios and classes when I have had the opportunity to take a class. I’m interested in the responses and articles you posted, however and this this is a great question!

I am a White person from the Czech Republic (country that is 99% White). Our yoga practice was led by an older doctor who kept on going to India and most of the people there were folks interested in a deeper meaning and health– no one in “yoga pants.” Mostly long light linen pants and most were people of age 35-60. (I feel like in a country like Czech there is almost no option to learn from POC as there aren’t any and most come for a specific work assignment and don’t stay long term.) Coming to the U.S. I was so surprised to come to these studios where a girl younger than 25 is teaching a group of very similar looking White long blonde hair girls with messy buns and Lululemon pants. I stopped coming, but recently moved to Hawai’i and hoping to find a studio here.

Really funny thought with regards to the cost of yoga training: for the cost of a round trip flight to India, lost work time, and a yoga certification, one could probably pay for personal coaching from April Hart, LCSW to unlearn one’s racist behavior.

I stay away from big chain yoga studios. Those make me cringe. I tried them and they are the worst offenders of lacking diversity among teachers, have the least focus on spirituality, are so super expensive provide almost no donation base classes, and lastly they fuel this mentality that yoga–similar to fast fashion–in which people are dressed in $100+ yoga pants and that makes you more yogi than the others and that yoga is fashion, which it’s not! Which is a straight up falsehood and really pushes this thought that POC can’t/shouldn’t do yoga, which is a damn shame because yoga has so many legit mind, spiritual, and physical benefits!

As a White woman who has left behind her family’s long and toxic relationship with Catholicism, I think it’s hard to find a practice that is a healthier fit for my body and mind (and spirit) in White “culture.” Treadmills and weight equipment, the therapy couch, diet/fat-shaming culture–it’s all unhealthy for me. Not that it’s a good excuse to steal from other cultures. Far from it. I’d be curious to hear from any of your followers regarding another practice/mindset that wouldn’t appropriate.

In my experience, avoiding something altogether prevents one from disrupting the status quo, i.e. the White Supremacist patriarchal capitalist default of our society. If you stop doing yoga altogether and stop showing up in those spaces, firstly it isn’t going to disappear as a whole, and secondly the people in your community are cut off from a possibility of haring your knowledge of the parts of it that are problematic. I would highly recommend listening to an interview by @sonalifiske about cultural appropriation, yoga, and it’s history, as well as possible solutions to its current state.

I am from what is currently known as Canada. I agree with the responders suggesting we do our utmost to support Desi practitioners/instructors. We should be supporting the folks who come from the culture and history of the practice, rather than White people who are appropriating yoga for the sake of money. And if we don’t live near studios with Desi instructors, I think it’s a matter of searching online and turning to a home practice. (Yoga doesn’t need aesthetically pleasing space. It’s a mindset not an image.)

I think yes, many Indian teachers have actively sought to spread yoga to the west (Yogananda Paramahansa, Ammachi for example) or Pattabi Jois in India certifying Western/White teachers. The problem as I see it is how fixated we are on the physical. What we call yoga is actually asana, the physical postures. They are designed to prepare your body for meditation. A more traditional class would have asana, followed by pranayama (breathing practices) and then meditation. If you want to be authentic go for hatha yoga, and find a teacher who is grounded and experienced. You can get some incredibly knowledgeable and authentic White teachers who have a deep love + appreciation for yoga as a spiritual practice. If your class is just handstands and arm balances, it’s missing the point. It is just focused on the physical. But maybe that’s what you need right now. To get to know your body and later meditation. Just try to avoid wearing the identity of a yogi.

White person living in yoga mecca Ubud, Bali. I don’t have the answer to the question. But I don want to say that if you come to a place like Ubud, Bali to do yoga, don’t spend tons of money on classes and retreats given by White (non-local) people. It is very questionable they have the right papers (working visa) for that and are effectively and illegally stealing jobs from local teachers.

POC Responses:

White-passing Mexicana here, I just recently went through yoga teacher training and had doubts and Imposter Syndrome feelings the whole time. Still do. Every day. It’s wayyyyy more than “just exercise” is what people need to understand. APPRECIATE Sanskrit, appreciate the teachings and understand that it’s a mindset. Also, “200 hour teacher training” and all these certifications in diff types of “yoga” are totally Westernized concepts of churning out “yoga teachers” and often times don’t delve into the history and are purely so that studios can make money. Also, people need to understand that many yoga studios have target demographic– White, middle/upper class, skinny, etc. It is completely inaccessible for POC, which is hella problematic. As an equally conflicted yoga practitioner, I feel that if I understand and appreciate the yoga teachings (yoga Sutras by Patanjali –can buy book on Amazon) I understand the deeper meanings and can apply that to the physical practice. OMG last one – and if you really gonna follow yoga on Instagram: stop giving all the attention to White ladies yoga Instagrams who are sponsored by Alo yoga. Do the work and support the platforms of POC teachers, body positive yoga grams, etc.

Here’s the truth. Beyond education, acknowledgement, history whatever – if you are consuming yoga and not giving COINS MONEY $UPPORT to the culture you’re taking it from then you aren’t coming full circle. Whatever you’re doing, pay reparations to the community you took it from. If you’re benefitting from POC, they need to benefit from your involvement. Obviously everyone won’t have access to a legit from the source instructor, but don’t settle for woke White bae instructor without running coins to the source.

There is a trend among White People to see out deeper senses of self through the appropriations of other races and cultures…I see this specifically with the desire to “appreciate” indigenous cultures worldwide. This isn’t necessarily an answer to this question, but more pointing out that I feel the root situation in all these empty ass White people is that they have ZERO ties to their own cultures anymore. Colonialism fucks with White People, too. Maybe if they knew their own cultural stories and ways beyond say WWII, they wouldn’t have to try and steal from ours, or find deeper meaning in yoga, or pay for a vision quest, or sleep in someone’s Airbnb tipi in the middle of Joshua Tree, or wear over prices shirts that say Namaste.

Is/was yoga traditionally ever supposed to be paid for to receive its healing, spirituality, or qualities? If so, then you should never pay to use yoga. I view it the same as wasicu people abusing and defiling Native American healing practices and charging money because traditionally we never charge money to provide healing and the same with selling White sage kits, etc. This could also help you to inform finding POC yoga teachers because they do not charge for the practice and knowledge of it so they might not be using the same social media tools as White people.

Yup, not gonna be able to find POC yoga teachers because even going through teacher training is a financial privilege. My ex (POC) had to raise money to pay for his yoga certification. Two of my White friends didn’t have to raise money. They just took off work, went to sabbatical and paid for the certification, which depending on studio could go from $500-$1000. And those yoga retreats that go for $5,000 to get a certification are ridiculous and not accessible at all for POC. So POC, who already deal with financial insecurity, cannot just become yoga teachers, hence the lack of POC yoga teachers or influencers.

In my tribe, reciprocity is expected for certain ways. If I give my shima (my mother) a sweetgrass braid, I may receive the reciprocity of a hug and that’s great. But if an uncle comes and conducts a multi-day song, significant reciprocity will be expected and it would be a massive faux pas to give him only a smile and a pat on the back. I imagine it would be an appallingly Anglo thing to say “Aw thanks,” and give your yogi a chuck on the chin. So probably someone needs to figure out from a traditionalist what appropriate reciprocity is in this particular practice?

I am Latina and practice yoga, plus I live in the L.A. area. Yoga is super therapeutic for me as I am a natural over thinker. Also L.A. can, at times, feel toxic. Yoga for sure keeps my anxiety down and more mindful of others. I would one day like to be a teacher and teach to underserved populations for free of course. But omg I was shook when I saw what they charge for yoga certiciation. I am a single mom and can’t justify spending $2,400 to $6,000 plus I don’t want to be a yoga teacher as my primary occupation. It’s something I want to do on the side and don’t expect a huge financial reward from it. The studio I go to is nice, but yet it’s true there is a major lack of diversity among the teachers. As for students, we actually have a wide range as race/ethnicity.

Just wanted to add this episode (Why Many Muslims In India Feel Yoga Has Been Weaponized) from NPR’s Rough Translation podcast that can help bring some perspective on how it’s being currently perceived in India, the politics involved, and how the use of yoga outside of India ties it all back.

I am Blackfeet, so POC. I just want to chime in on a yoga class I once took. The White teacher told us all to stand in a circle and she was going to teach us a Native American dance that she was taught from her White friend, who was taught from a medicine woman, from a tribe she couldn’t recall. Yes, this was in the middle of a “yoga” class. Then she had everyone flailing their arms and jumping around to music by Enigma. Yep, you read that right. The amount of disrespect on so many levels was astounding. I think we can all agree, that’s not yoga! So please, if you’re a teacher and you’re not doing something similar, DON’T!

Takeaway

Anyone can PRACTICE yoga. Including White People. Yoga is medicine, physically, mentally and spiritually. Anyone can receive that. However, be sure you’re practicing yoga. You may be practicing a colonized bastardized version of yoga. This is not yoga. This is capitalism: spirituality and exercise for profit that appropriates the practice of yoga.

Not everyone can TEACH yoga. White People or POC not associated with Hinduism, Buddhism, or Jainism do not need to teach this practice and thereby make any money off of this practice. This has less to do with skin color and more to do with religious practice. This is similar to non-Christians, regardless of color, selling baptisms as a form of healing and purification. By partaking in yoga not in its original form and allowing people to profit off of religion and culture, you’re directly participating in oppression.

On a separate note, practicing yoga is not the same as a lot of appropriation examples. Yoga was brought to the “West” by a Hindu monk named Swami Vivekanada who conducted lectures and classes on exposing the practice to the other side of the world. The practice is meant to be shared. There are no outlines on practice for profit, so that could imply this isn’t part of traditional exchange. This doesn’t mean don’t pay your teachers. This means that the industry surrounding yoga is fabricated and made to bring profits to people that are not the original practitioners.

The mass capitalization on yoga is Supremacy and Colonization working in action. Combat that by choosing with your dollars and views on WHO you choose to learn from. 

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