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#WhitePeopleDoingYoga Takes a Critical Look at the Irony of Western Yoga Commercialization

in YD News

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by Elise Marie Collins

For the past seven years, artist and graphic designer Chiraag Bhakta, aka Pardon My Hindi, has been mining thrift stores, garage sales and private collections for yoga images that tell a story of cultural appropriation. Do an online search for the word yoga, says Bhakta, and you will find mostly images of white people in various poses followed by cats and dogs in asana(s).

Now on display as a part of the San Francisco Asian Art museums exhibit, “Yoga: The Art of Transformation,” Bhakta’s installation  #whitepeopledoingyoga presents a vintage visual history of yoga products, guides, and advertisements from the 1960’s-1980’s. Before there was a yoga studio on every block, the wall-sized collage of found yoga ephemera reminds us of myriad long forgotten genres, Executive Yoga, Christian Yoga, Unisex Yoga and Zoga. A McCall’s pattern for a 1980’s jogging suit shows a caucasian woman casually demonstrating tree pose. A paperback cover model holds shoulderstand, seductively bending one knee and wearing fishnet stockings. Overall, the dominant demographic on the assemblage are fair skinned, unitard wearing women who look like yoga extras from the set of “Mad Men.” These yoginis of yesteryear predate the astronomical explosion of yoga’s popularity and commercial explosion in the West, yet forewarn of a culture preoccupied with choosing yoga for vanity and early branding of culturally palatable yoga to mainstream America. Bhakta explains in his artist statement:

“The act of selectively choosing what works in popular Western contexts, while ignoring aspects of yoga’s core philosophy and historic practice is telling. It shows an ironic attachment of one’s ego to a desire for ownership over an ancient practice of material denouncement that emerged from an altogether different, South Asian tradition.

In the end I feel compelled to draw parallels between the current state of yoga and the industrial colonization by the same dominant voice that now adds another conquest to its collection.”

Individually the yoga collectibles might seem curious and humorous, yet en mass, Bhakta finds their “overall voice, overwhelming and suffocating.”

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In his youth Bhakta soaked up Indian devotional music, Bollywood tunes, underground hip hop and rock and roll. He attended Catholic school while being raised in a devout Jain household spending his early youth was spent in a  motel off a New Jersey freeway where his family lived and ran the business until he was seven. During his youth a group calling themselves “the dot busters” harassed the South Asian community in New Jersey and referred to them as dot heads for their bindis.

#Whitepeopledoingyoga represents, Bhakta says, “a reflection of my personal relationship as an Indian American with yoga and it’s migration to today’s Western context, the hashtag symbolizing the commercialization and the commodification of a culture.”

He notes the lack of representation of South Asians depicted in American yoga marketing, or content creation in publications such as Yoga Journal. In the exhibition “Yoga: The Art of Transformation,” there is, he says, a “sharp turn” in the history of yoga. Rooms filled with ancient Sanskrit texts, traditional watercolors, paintings and sculptures tell a very different story of the practice of yoga. The exhibit then “enters a new level of commercialization in the West, the $27 billion dollar yoga industry has rebranded a complex and rich discipline to make it easier to sell yoga as a line of products.”

Bhakta has found his own commercial success in creating iconic images that coalesce modern aesthetics with mythic and symbolic  representations of the South Asian American experience. He has designed merchandise and album covers for a variety of musicians including Talvin Singh, Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa and the hip hop group Das Racist. Levi’s Asia commissioned a line of Pardon My Hindi graphic t-shirts that were sold in Singapore, India, Pakistan, China and Korea.

Bhakta’s The Arch Motel project, a collection of photographs of Gujarati motel owners and their motels now are on exhibit in the Smithsonian as part of the Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation. Chiraag Bhakta lives in San Francisco where he practices yoga and continues his creative pursuits. You can check out #whitepeopledoingyoga on tumblr or see more of his work at www.pardonmyhindi.com.


Elise is a yoga teacher and San Francisco native. She is the author of Chakra Tonics, Essential Elixirs for Mind, Body And Spirit. You can find her on twitter @mysticflavor of Elise Marie Collins Yoga + on Facebook.

Photo credit: Quincy Stamper / Asian Art Museum
15 comments… add one
  • I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Yoga: Art of Transformation exhibit in SF in April. It was a wonderful experience. I would suggest taking a docent led tour then exploring on your own.
    I salute Bhakta for bringing to the forefront how yoga has developed in the West over the last 50 years. There are so many contradictions when you truly trace yoga’s path in the West. I think the best thing I can say is that the West can see that the history and culture of the East is as rich as the Greco/Roman history that we all studied in school. I hope that interest in exploring the history and culture of yoga and the East in general, continues and expands.

  • Very interesting. Thanks for bringing this to greater attention. It’s cool that the Museum has opened up the exhibit space to new creative work. Seems like this would be incredibly good fodder for discussion. Sounds very provocative and kind of discomforting – like art is supposed to be, ya know?

  • Jonathn

    I liked the article. I checked out the artist’s site, and I encourage everyone to do the same. I am writing in order to raise awareness to the fact that the word “caucasian” is an epithet, and it’s use is inappropriate and offensive.

    • John Smith

      Yes. The word White is more appropriate. I prefer Gringo.

  • Becks Prescott

    I agree with, and greatly appreciate Bhakta’s position and his point. I practice yoga, and I mean mediation and asana. I learned my practice meditation practice in Indonesia, and I started practicing yoga 20 years ago here in the United States. I practice Ashtanga mostly, and therefore I have been encouraged to read and learn much about yogic thought, not just asana. When I meet people here in the United States who have not travelled to other parts of the world to practice and learn yoga (meditation especially), I find that the American perspective on yoga of many people is quite different than what I have been taught. And it is very commercialized, and this makes me sad. What guides me in my daily life from yoga is not what most Americans think yoga is, and they are missing out on an amazing philosophy that is several thousand years old. This is of course, not everyone. But it is “mainstream” asana and meditation. My hope is that Bhakta’s Yoga: The Art of Transformation will encourage people to explore the roots of yoga and all it has to offer our culture.


    • RecycleYogi

      Well said, Becks. While I’ve never studied outside the US, I was very fortunate that my first yoga teacher knew and taught the Eight Limbs of Yoga in her Ashtanga class. Without her, I would have missed out on the true *heart* of yoga – the things that transform our lives, not just poses that make us bendy and muscular. Unfortunately, 15 years later I’ve only met four instructors that teach a mind & body practice (out of dozens). I don’t mind the commercialization and growing popularity of yoga, but I am disappointed about the focus on asanas and the countless missed opportunities to teach the true heart of yoga. To me, not teaching the other limbs of yoga is robbing people of many benefits that could serve them in their lives long after they leave yoga.

  • Interesting article and I’m sure the exhibition is fascinating, would love to see it. I heard once that now in India young people in the cities are rediscovering yoga because its “cool” in the west. Or at least what we call yoga. The over-commercialization is a problem but I don’t think it will go away.

  • Matt

    When I first developed an interest in yoga, I mostly read and practiced from books like Swami Satchidananda’s Integral Yoga Hatha, and similar books written and illustrated by South Asians. Any Westerner using these books today would probably be accused of Orientalism. So… Not to be a bore, does this mean Euro-Americans should just get their hands off yoga? Not that I have any intention of doing that, I just want to understand what is wanted.

  • I think that Bhakta’s story and how it presents in his work as an artist is a larger reflection of what is currently happening in society. People are not only just wanting to be accepted for the whole of their humanity, but can now have this conversation on a global level. It’s a blessing and a curse however, the same monoculture which allows for this is the same that has evolved into remixed selective filtering of culture. Commercial, beneficial, and cool, (How many “styles” of Yoga get invented or branded everyday?) pieces of cultural identity get plucked right up, but the people and respect for their lineage are left right behind.

    I also just want to note, some of us don’t/won’t ever travel the world to study meditation and Yoga, we didn’t all study Greco/Roman history, and we are not all Euro-Amercians.

    In the grand scheme these things don’t matter. We can call this an article about critically ironically art, and Yoga, but it’s about how racism.

    Racism, yes that very uncomfortable R word. Racism when touched upon in society today is like dropping a brick in a koi pond, it creates a ripple effect that the majority of people do not know how to engage aside from sharing (which is a start, when all put our cards of humanity on the table) their own stories of where they come from, what they know, and who they are.

    No one wants a racist world. In the United States, we have to face our segregated present, collectively cringe on the past without blame and look each other in the eyes to decide what is tomorrow going to look like…..Or the TV/Yoga Celeb/Corporation will for us.

    When a child is bullied and harassed for the color of his/her skin and culture, then in adulthood the same invisible walls that allow for a part of his/her culture to become accepted into society before he/she is……that kind of causes a thing.

    Something we have to deal with together and the only tools we have are forgiveness and love.

    How do we accept people as people first, their color second, and their culture third?

    Now take money, commercialism, and the mainstream out the picture and let’s think about how we can answer that question in an everyday way.

  • Frank Sullivan

    Y U so negative? Is there no funding for finding the good in Western Yoga?
    Namaste Y’all

    • John Smith

      @franksullivan what are you talking about? The artist specifically states that this is : “a reflection of my personal relationship as an Indian American with yoga and it’s migration to today’s Western context, the hashtag symbolizing the commercialization and the commodification of a culture.”

      this is one view you do not agree with and you describe it as negative and leave a flip comment. You appear to be threatened by an individuals artistic reaction to his observations.

  • I love it!

  • Hi to every one, because I am actually eager of reading tyis blog’s post to be updated regularly.
    It includes pleasant stuff.

  • Everything gets commercialized in this country! That’s what we are all about. Ignore it. It will pass like everything else. Those of us that know the foundations of yoga will stay.

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