Here’s wikipedia on cultural appropriation:

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. It is distinguished from an equal cultural exchange due to an imbalance of power, often as a byproduct of colonialism and oppression.

Cultural appropriation is a hot button issue. Controversial or not there are real scenarios of cultural appropriation—like wearing a headdress to Burning Man—and they are very destructive and deserved to be criticized. But we should be very careful about automatically believing that every dynamic that gets labelled cultural appropriation is an actual case of cultural appropriation.

When it comes to the topic of Yoga in the West the growing chorus of cries about how it’s a cultural form of appropriation are questionable at best. The history of modern yoga’s emergence in the West (and interestingly in India) is a far more nuanced, interesting, co-creative, and complex phenomena.

Consider the example of pizza. There’s an actual sociological phenomena known as the pizza effect based on this very situation. Again to quote wikipedia:

The pizza effect is a term used especially in religious studies and sociology for the phenomenon of elements of a nation or people's culture being transformed or at least more fully embraced elsewhere, then re-imported back to their culture of origin, or the way in which a community's self-understanding is influenced by (or imposed by, or imported from) foreign sources. It is named after the idea that modern pizza toppings were developed among Italian immigrants in the United States (rather than in native Italy, where in its simpler form it was originally looked down upon), and was later exported back to Italy to be interpreted as a delicacy in Italian cuisine.

Really read and digest (no pun intended) what's in that quotation. Pizza, as we understand it, was originally the work of Italian immigrants in the US, while back home it was seen as lower class. Pizza then becomes a massive hit and gets imported back to Italy and then Italians claim it as always having been authentically Italian.

"Elements of a nation or people's culture being transformed or at least more fully embraced elsewhere, then re-imported back to their culture of origin..."

Keep that framework in mind as we proceed to the topic of Western yoga. I’m going to make two arguments:

  1. that modern Western yoga is actually much more the pizza effect than it is a case of genuine cultural appropriation.
  2. that the real problem with Western yoga is not supposedly it’s cultural appropriation or crass commercialization or even it’s excessive emphasis on health and bodybuilding lifestyle, but rather it’s de-politicization (a point rarely, if ever covered in cultural appropriation critiques.)

In order to make that claim we need to take a deep look into the development of modern yoga in India (and from there it’s migration to the West). That history is far more complex than typically depicted.

Mark Singleton, a yoga teacher himself, made a major study of the origins of asana (physical postural) practice in 20th century Indian yoga. What Singleton found deeply shocked him. (Seriously read the whole piece, it’s brilliant).

Here’s the opening:

The pale winter sunlight shone from the high windows of the Cambridge University library onto a dark leather book cover. In the hall full of silent scholars, I opened it and leafed through picture after picture of men and women in familiar postures. Here was Warrior Pose; there was Downward Dog. On this page the standing balance Utthita Padangusthasana; on the next pages Headstand, Handstand, Supta Virasana, and more—everything you might expect to find in a manual of yoga asana. But this was no yoga book. It was a text describing an early 20th-century Danish system of dynamic exercise called Primitive Gymnastics.

As Singleton admits, this discovery deeply disturbed him. It went against everything he had been told about how asana yoga was a centuries (maybe millennia) old pristine Indian tradition handed down generation by generation.

Singleton writes:

I learned that the Danish system [Primitive Gymnastics] was an offshoot of a 19th-century Scandinavian gymnastics tradition that had revolutionized the way Europeans exercised. Systems based on the Scandinavian model sprang up throughout Europe and became the basis for physical training in armies, navies, and many schools. These systems also found their way to India. In the 1920s, according to a survey taken by the Indian YMCA, Primitive Gymnastics was one of the most popular forms of exercise in the whole subcontinent, second only to the original Swedish gymnastics developed by P.H. Ling. That's when I became seriously confused.

Singleton’s later research confirmed what many others have pointed out—namely that hatha or asana-based yoga was never a primary emphasis in traditional yogic systems, which indeed do go back centuries. Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras (at least 1700 hundred years old), for example, put much more emphasis on breathing as well as meditation and concentration practices. Medieval bhakti (devotional) yoga places emphasis on love of God. The Vedanta Yoga of a Shankhara is about spiritual realization (not physical postures). Karma Yoga emphasizes acts of service and charity.

Hatha (postural asana-based) yoga was in many of those forms of yoga a subsidiary strain. It was seen as helpful. in fact, many would argue that asana yoga really was only developed in order to develop the flexibility to sit for long periods in meditation. Think sitting in lotus pose for example.

Singleton interestingly points out that when Yoga first came to the West it was not primarily asana-based yoga. Swami Vivekananda the first great yogi to travel and teach in the West was very critical of hatha style yoga. Paramansha Yogananda, the author of Autobiography of a Yogi, was the first major Indian yogic teacher to plant himself in the West and seek to develop a teaching. His teaching focused on the spine, on kundalini energy within his system of kriya yoga (again not postural yoga).

Simultaneous to certain forms of yoga beginning to travel to the West, Western practices of physical exercise and health education began traveling to India from the West. This dynamic is what Singleton found that surprised him so much. India was of course under brutal British Imperial rule. It's worth noting that these Scandinavian and Germanic gymnastic traditions received a warm reception in India partly because they were non-British in origin.

Out of this influx of European styled gymnastics culture, Indian teachers went back into the own traditions and begin to highlight asana and physical postural practice in a way that it had never before been done in Indian yoga.

Recall that cultural appropriation is when the dominant culture appropriates elements from minority cultures. But in this case the roles are reversed. The colonized Indians were adopting aspects of dominant Western traditions. Through that adoption they were also creatively retrieving and re-imagining their own native yogic traditions.

In order to promote a sense of cultural pride and solidarity this generation of Indian yogis began claiming that what they were doing was reviving the ancient, pristine Indian yogic tradition. The reality is far more complex and I would argue interesting and creative. There was a tradition of postural yoga (hatha) but as we just saw it was never front and center.

One of the generation of those great Indian teachers was Vishnu Charan Ghosh. Ghosh was the younger brother of the previously mentioned Paramansha Yogananda. He came from yogic royalty as it were. Ghosh founded a college of physical education based in part on the gymnastics/collegium model from Europe, as well as local Indian traditions. It was clearly a hybrid. Ghosh put a heavy emphasis on the development of public contests and acts of athletic yogic mastery. Ghosh’s innovation was again clearly heavily influenced by Western gymnastics traditions.

Recently ESPN’s 30for30 Podcast devoted an entire season to the rise and fall of Bikram Yoga, founded by the controversial Bikram Choudhry. For our purposes here the more relevant point is that Choudhury claimed lineage from the great yogi Vishnu Charan Ghosh (this is covered really well in episode 3). Bikram Yoga has held yearly competitions in yogic feats as a direct continuance of that innovation by Ghosh.

In other words, yoga in India radically transformed during the first half of the 20th century, particularly during the 1920 and 30s. It did so via significant influence from Western gymnastic culture. In so doing postural yoga became deeply intertwined with regimes of physical health. It incorporated and drew heavily from traditions like wrestling, bodybuilding. Even circus culture—think all the bending limbs of “circus freaks”.  

It combined a primacy on building physical strength and health with wider elements of the yogic tradition like moral philosophy and spiritual teaching. In this however it was yet again showing the influence of Western gymnasia culture. Those cultures (particularly those coming out of Scandinavia, as well as Germany and Austria) themselves included elements of philosophy, moral reflection, even spiritual development. Those elements were seen as part of a integrative, holistic human education.

There was a key development however in this “yoga craze” in India. Namely that it was seen as part of the anti-colonial against the British.

Here’s Singleton again:

In the early decades of the 20th century, India—like much of the rest of the world—was gripped by an unprecedented fervor for physical culture, which was closely linked to the struggle for national independence. Building better bodies, people reasoned, would make for a better nation and improve the chances of success in the event of a violent struggle against the colonizers. A wide variety of exercise systems arose that melded Western techniques with traditional Indian practices from disciplines like wrestling. Oftentimes, the name given to these strength-building regimes was "yoga." Some teachers, such as Tiruka (a.k.a. K. Raghavendra Rao), traveled the country disguised as yoga gurus, teaching strengthening and combat techniques to potential revolutionaries. Tiruka's aim was to prepare the people for an uprising against the British, and, by disguising himself as a religious ascetic, he avoided the watchful eye of the authorities.

In other words these are hybrid systems, part European/part Indian. By claiming that they are hybrid I’m not in any way disparaging these teachers. Individuals like Ghosh as well as the deeply influential Krishnamacharya were profoundly creative and innovative thinkers, practitioners, and teachers. Krishnamacharya was the teacher to the next generation of great yogis who would develop most of the major name brands schools of yoga that would come to the West (e.g. Iyengar, as well as Pattabhi Jois, founder of Ashtanga). Much of Western yoga are the Western transplants of this hybrid Western-Indian gymnastics-yogic blend, e.g. Ashtanga, Iyengar, the aforementioned Bikram.

Indian yogis often played up the exotic and authentically pristine Indian nature of their yoga in the postwar 1960s/1970s in the West. Ironically they often sought to create parallels within Western society to their teaching, even though their teaching itself was already deeply influenced by and partly a hybrid with aspects of Western physical education culture.

Of course there were innovations within Western yoga during the 60s, 70s, and 80s and then with yoga going more mainstream in the 1990s and early 2000s (especially in the US). But interestingly modern Western postural yoga is actually has much more lineage and solidarity and continuity with those Indian-Western hybrids of the 20s and 30s that most people realize, both supporters and critics alike (even including perhaps most Yoga teachers, Indian and Western).

The postural yoga that was brought to the West was itself birthed through deep interaction with Western physical development culture. So when that yoga came to the West it’s not surprising that it took on a very physical development and health fitness orientation. That was not—as it’s often accused of being—some Western materialist corruption of the otherwise purely spiritual Indian tradition. Since that Indian yogic tradition was itself already highly physicalist in nature.

Remember the pizza effect. Recall that pizza in the way we conceive of it largely grew up among Sicilian immigrants in New York. The kind of immigrant cuisine they were offering as “authentically Italian” in New York in the late 19th and early 20th century was itself not accepted at that time as authentic by many back in the home country. Then however pizza became an international sensation. It returned to Sicily (and Italy more broadly) and was then claimed as “the authentic home of pizza.”

Modern Western yoga is much more the pizza effect than it is cultural appropriation.

Hatha yoga was not the traditional aim of ancient and medieval yoga. It took on a primacy it had hitherto not had in the early 20th century through deep interaction with the West. Indian teachers developed their own genuine yogic physical education system. When those systems migrated to the West they were gelled with the preexisting traditions in the West of gymnastic culture, as well as other forgotten physical-health-spiritual movements already in the West (Singleton points to the harmonial movement as an example).

There’s even examples of contemporary Western yogic teachings which are themselves the innovations or next generation of Indian tradition already influenced by Western traditions, re-imported back to India. Total pizza effect.

I think the actual history very clearly undermines any simplistic accusation of Western cultural appropriate of yoga.

All that to say, having a physical fitness regimen is not a problem. Having a spiritual practice masquerade as principally a physically fitness regimen itself isn’t even really the biggest problem in the world. As the early history here suggests it’s perfectly fine to have embodiment practices be linked up with a smattering of philosophy, ethics, even meditation or other spiritual pursuits. The gymnastic cultures already did precisely that very thing.

Most of the criticisms that contemporary Western yoga is excessively materialistic or only about crass physicalism typically strike me as quite weak. In that most of the modern yogic phenomenon, even the so-called “traditional” kind was actually very physicalist. A simplistic cultural appropriation argument against Western yoga doens't hold much water when what we think of as true Indian (hatha) yoga was heavily influenced by the West already in its formation.

Alongside notions of cultural appropriation also comes talk of the need to decolonize yoga. I think that’s closer to the mark but in my view still misses the key point. The form of yoga that came to the West from India is a genuine modernist innovation by Indian teachers. This point cannot be emphasized enough. Yes it has some roots in earlier Indian practice. It was also as we saw highly influenced by a number of Western traditions but most importantly it was anti-colonial. It was not de-colonizing; it was anti-imperial.

And that aspect—the political aspect—has been essentially wiped out from contemporary Western yoga. In that regard I wish Western yoga culturally appropriated more. Western yoga should have kept that directly political and liberatory aspect of modern Indian yoga. That anti-colonial aspect of Indian yoga was also innovative. You don’t find anti-imperial anti-colonial aspects to medieval yoga.

Cultural appropriation recall is when a dominant culture adopts (or steals depending on your point of view) elements from a minority culture. But what if the dominant culture would do well to incorporate elements from a minority culture, particularly if they were to be say politically and socially liberating?

The West didn’t need the breath work, the stretching, or the strength conditioning of asana-based yoga. It also didn’t need those intertwined with moral reflection, health education, alternative healing methods, personal philosophy, or spiritual teaching. It had all of those already on its own.

What could have actually been helpful was to combine those elements of physical strength, flexibility, and alternative healing & spirituality with more critical social and political philosophy. That element, more than any other, is what Western yoga lost in its journey from India to the West and arguably it was the one aspect it actually needed the most.

If only Western yoga culturally appropriated more.