The Complicated World of Yoga, and My Complicated Relationship With It

"Since its start, yoga has come to mean a wide variety of things. It has shifted and transformed in neoliberal, consumerist societies, and is continually reinvented depending on time and place."

This piece was written by Amya Bhalla, one of SPICY‘s guest contributors. Amya is a politically-minded brown queer femme who is highly involved in community and editorial work at her college, and highly values interdisciplinary learning. She is especially interested in ensuring that the work of people of color is regarded for what it is—art, philosophy, culture, and music—and encouraging PoC to make art, engage with culture and politics, foster community, and push boundaries.  

Almost every morning from the ages of 8 to 13, I had to wake up 5 a.m., chug two liters of warm salted water, and painfully regurgitate all of it. It would come out with gross things like bile, mucus, and sometimes remaining food from the night before. After that, still heaving, I would have to do an hour of stretches. This may not be what you think when someone says they do yoga in the morning, but let me assure you, that is definitely what that was.

At this point, I don’t even think of what I used to do for a large chunk of my childhood as yoga. In the past several years, yoga has come to mean white women in super tight leggings or Baba Ramdev trying to sell some new ancient cure.

I distanced myself from the yoga of my youth. I stopped at age 13 because I learned in health class that if you forced yourself to throw up, you definitely had bulimia. But given yoga’s recent surge in popularity, I have needed to reacquaint myself with it. This time, however, in a way that goes beyond my individual practice and experience, and gets at the broader implications.

Since its start, yoga has come to mean a wide variety of things. It has shifted and transformed in neoliberal, consumerist societies, and is continually reinvented depending on time and place. Then it is used to further the ends of processes including, unfortunately, Hindu nationalism, white supremacy, and capitalism.

It is a harmful and deliberately constructed myth to say that yoga is a unique practice that started in “India.” Actively perpetrating this lie is Narendra Modi, the current Prime Minister of “India” who supposedly felt the need for “India” to share its beautiful ancient practice with the rest of the world when he proposed the International Day of Yoga to the United Nations General Assembly in 2014, as June 21st. The bill turned out to be the most unanimous bill in the history of the UN,with a total of 177 member states out of 193 supporting the proposal. Who could possibly deny something as benign as yoga? Now, the International Day of Yoga has been fervently adopted globally, with large numbers of people gathering for mass yoga classes every year.

There is, however, something insidious behind this proposal. The Indian government loves to portray yoga as distinctly Hindu, disregarding the fact that a number of similar practices have existed among Jains, Buddhists, and other religions in South Asia. The Western approval and celebration of yoga—culminating in the UN proposal—has masked the dangerous Hindu nationalist agenda. It’s created anti-Muslim violence in India too,most devastatingly in the Gujarat riots and the violent occupation of Kashmir, the most militarized area in the world.

Beyond establishing an International Day of Yoga, the Hindu nationalist government attempted to make yoga mandatory in all public primary and secondary schools. However, the plea was rejected by the Supreme Court of India. This attempted change upset many Muslim organizations,who said it was an attack on the Muslim culture and religion. The BJP replied saying that 47 Muslim nations support Modi’s U.N. resolution to make yoga global, thereby further blaming the Muslim minority for their own oppression by the Hindu nationalist government that used global political power to their advantage in order to further marginalize Indian Muslims.

And by continually parading around Sanskritized Hindu traditions—ones which Dalits have historically been maliciously excluded from—the nationalists and Hindu supremacists congratulate a violent system. Without making an effort to dismantle the caste hierarchy of Hinduism, they capitalize on its exotic image in the West, portraying the Hindu religion to be spiritual and ethical andbased on mindfulness and nonviolence. This, in turn, absolves themselves of the violence that Hindu philosophy perpetrates every day.

The U.S. is most certainly on their side for that, because it makes money. As yoga is increasingly integrated into the American capitalistic culture, it interacts and is shaped by race—something that’s essential to American capitalism. Yoga journals, magazines, and photographs constantly reaffirm that the ideal yoga body is young, white, female, thin, and heterosexual. Such “ideal” bodies are then used to sell yoga-related products, intensifying what people are now calling the yoga industrial complex, at the expense of further marginalized Other yoga-practicing bodies. Decontextualized photos of exotic gurus, randomly selected images and status of South Asian deities, sacred signs, and symbols from South Asian religions are all things you would find in a regular yoga studio in America.

The biggest International Day of Yoga event—Mind Over Madness Yoga—is in New York City’s Times Square. The event is formally presented by Aerie and other brands with vested interests in the yoga market. The 2018 event featured a number of famous fitness celebrities representing the Aerie brand, and even a speech by India’s New York Consul General, thereby reaffirming India’s claim of yoga. The event’s logo is an Om symbol. The official website cover page flaunts a picture of a white woman in fitness gear holding a yoga position while surrounded by flashing billboards. Yoga is securely rendered as a part of American racial capitalism.

All this makes me want to distance myself even more from yoga than I did when I was a little kid ashamed of my culture. But yoga is only a venue, not a monolith. Many groups practice forms of yoga, like Black Girl Yoga and body positivity yoga, which dedicate the yoga exercises and breathing for healing and social justice purposes. The future of yoga should be one that centers radical healing—one that works toward the liberation of the most marginalized people and recognizes collective trauma and systemic oppression. Yoga goes beyond its use as a political tool by Hindu nationalism, and a form of white supremacy in the U.S. and Europe;  the International Day of Yoga is a perfect example of that. Yoga can be mobilized and separated from oppressive political forces that co-opt it. We must take yoga out of large institutional forces that will use it for their own ends, and into the hand of local groups that will use it for communal healing.

Think about what your practice of yoga is supporting.

Illustration by Amya Bhalla