‘Cultural appropriation’: discussion builds over western yoga industry

Practitioners fear Indian culture has been ‘suppressed by colonisation’ while some question accessibility

Yoga has been a big part of Nadia Gilani’s life since she was introduced to the practice by her mother at the age of 16. A few years ago, after various personal struggles, she became a full-time yoga teacher.

But almost immediately, she realised not only were most yoga teachers and students in the UK white, but the accompanying wellness narrative has divorced yoga from its 5,000-year-old roots.

“The lack of people of colour in the industry is a massive problem,” Gilani said. “There is a big issue with diversity, in terms of both teachers and those who practice it. What especially annoys me is when Sanskrit words like ‘namaste’ get emblazoned on T-shirts, images of Hindu gods are turned into tattoos, or ‘om’ symbols are printed on yoga mats. It’s cultural appropriation and it’s offensive.”

If her mother had not introduced her to yoga, Gilani wonders if she would have found it at all. “Flashy studios, costing up to £20 a class. It’s gatekeeping, in a way.”

This week, practitioners in India have once again sought to draw attention to what they see as cultural appropriation of yoga, amid allegations it has been whitewashed. Vikram Jeet Singh, a yoga instructor in Goa, told This Week in Asia that “his own culture” has been “wiped out and suppressed by colonisation”.

In the west, he added, yoga has “become synonymous with a workout session stripped of any kind of cultural background, where you have to show up with $100 Lululemon leggings and an equally expensive mat. That is not right”.

Yoga has developed from an underground practice to a multibillion-pound industry driven by celebrity fans such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Aniston. In 2019, the global yoga industry was worth an estimated $37.46bn (£30.53bn).

Teachers of South Asian heritage in the UK, such as Nikita Desai, have posted videos claiming yoga has become “colonised” and inaccessible to many, the Times has reported. Online teacher Cat Meffan said she had to learn about issues around appropriation, which was not taught when she studied to be a teacher in 2014.

In her book The Yoga Manifesto: How Yoga Helped Me and Why it Needs to Save Itself, Gilani writes at length about the problems in the industry. But she said she did not like words such as “colonised” to describe the spread of the yogic practice.

“I don’t think claiming yoga back as an Indian practice for only Indians is the way,” she said. “These conversations have to be nuanced. It’s not as simple as saying ‘the west has nicked yoga’.

“I was born in the west, I’ve got a western practice and I’ve got a western modern life, which is why I think the call to ‘decolonise’ doesn’t quite work. I need my practice to fit with my modern life. Of course, I’m more sensitive because I had to deal with growing up as a person of colour in the west. But this isn’t about bashing white people – everyone has to be sensitive. I could easily make a mistake too, and what’s important is having those discussions afterwards.”


Nadia Khomami

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘Skinny, bendy and blonde’: women of colour challenge racism in UK yoga
Despite its roots in India, the sector is not diverse, and women report ‘wall of silence’ about studios’ lack of inclusiveness

David Batty

21, Jun, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Yoga with Modi: Indian PM stars in cartoon video of poses
India’s leader says yoga is key to good health and has convinced UN to launch world yoga day on 21 June

Michael Safi in Delhi

29, Mar, 2018 @12:41 PM

Article image
Justin Welby prostrates himself in apology for British massacre at Amritsar
Archbishop says sorry ‘in the name of Christ’ over killing of 379 unarmed protesters in 1919

Harriet Sherwood

10, Sep, 2019 @6:04 PM

Article image
‘Painful memories’: what will the royal family do with the Koh-i-noor diamond?
India’s Narenda Modi has suggested Queen Consort should not wear infamous gem on coronation day

Anita Anand

14, Oct, 2022 @12:18 PM

Article image
Are yoga classes just bad cultural appropriation? | Nell Frizzell and Reni Eddo-Lodge
A yoga class has been suspended by a Canadian student body after a complaint that it was culturally insensitive. Nell Frizzell and Reni Eddo-Lodge debate the issue

Nell Frizzell and Reni Eddo-Lodge

23, Nov, 2015 @3:54 PM

Article image
My first adventure in yoga: less cobra, more corpse
Stephen Moss marks International Yoga Day by trying his hand – and head – at hatha. Can he stop thinking about lunch long enough to let peace take hold?

Stephen Moss

21, Jun, 2015 @7:00 AM

Article image
Sex please, we’re the British Museum: Tantra exhibition to open
Curator assures the public that stereotype-busting show will not include Sting or Kama Sutra

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

23, Jan, 2020 @4:25 PM

Article image
One sure way for Britain to get ahead – stop airbrushing our colonial history | William Dalrymple
Today, as Islam and Christianity clash, honest study of the White Mughals of India gives reason for hope

William Dalrymple

02, Sep, 2015 @2:15 PM

Article image
A one-way passage from India: Hackney Museum explores fate of colonial ayahs
Indian women were often employed to care for British children, but some were abandoned on reaching London

Esther Addley

01, Mar, 2020 @5:57 PM

Article image
I teach yoga – its appropriation by the white wellness industry is a form of colonialism, but we can move on | Nadia Gilani
All of us in the business can help to make yoga more accessible to those who need it, says yoga teacher Nadia Gilani

Nadia Gilani

03, Jan, 2023 @3:00 PM