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Can White People Practice Yoga? Asking For 37 Million Practitioners

in Yogitorials

by Sarah Doyel

Go to any major city in the United States, and you’ll see the signs: gleaming studios in trendy neighborhoods, mats peeking out of $200 leather tote bags on the metro, and Lululemon stores with motivational phrases splashed on their window displays. Yoga has been thoroughly commodified, and it’s everywhere.

Even those of us who don’t practice yoga have surely noticed its steady increase in popularity. According to the 2016 Yoga in America study, the number of people practicing yoga in the States has almost doubled in the last three years (now at 36.7 million). Three quarters of them have been practicing for five years or less, indicating the recency of the yoga boom here. Interestingly, the study tracked respondents’ age, gender, and region of residency, but didn’t see fit to include information about race or ethnicity. Given that the study was commissioned by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal, both organizations with predominantly white leadership, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by the omission. Still, I expected that given yoga’s cultural and spiritual roots in India, and the practice’s history under British colonial rule, there would be some interest in examining the racial elements of yoga’s surge in popularity in the U.S. Apparently not.

I’ve had this question on my mind for a long time now: can white people practice yoga in a way that is not appropriative? Or is any engagement with yoga necessarily an act of cultural appropriation? If so, should we be practicing yoga at all?

As a longtime yoga practitioner and a white woman, it’s a deeply uncomfortable question to ask myself. I started practicing yoga in college as a way to ground myself in my body and alleviate anxiety. My yoga practice helped me befriend my body, heal from my eating disorder, and develop a spirituality that I sorely needed. I have no doubt that yoga made me a better and healthier person – but at what cost?

When I first started practicing yoga, I was completely ignorant of its true meaning and purpose. The free classes I attended on my college campus took place in our Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, but they focused purely on asana, or the physical poses that comprise just one of the eight limbs of yoga. There was little to no discussion of the yoga sutras or the history of the practice. I remember being relieved at the lack of religious or spiritual context, since I was just there to feel good in my body.

That divorce of the physical practice from the spiritual, cultural, and historical elements of yoga, however, is the very antithesis of yoga itself. In Sanskrit, the word “yoga” comes from the root yuj which means “to add,” “to join,” “to unite,” or “to attach.” The literal translation of the word is “union,” indicating that the purpose of yoga is to unite the physical, mental, and spiritual elements of ourselves. It is painfully ironic, then, that so many Western yoga practitioners deliberately separate asana from its purpose as a tool of spiritual fulfillment and liberation. As I became more committed to my yoga practice and started exploring studios in Los Angeles, it slowly dawned on me that I had completely missed the point. Thanks to a couple of teachers, I dipped my toes into spiritual teachings and traditions. I told myself that this limited education was enough for me to justify my practice as “real” yoga.

It was not until I started working at a yoga studio a few years ago, however, that I even considered whether I (as a white person) had any business practicing yoga. When I moved to Washington, DC, I spent my entire first summer there searching for a studio. I must have gone to at least ten different spots, and the majority of them were the same: shiny hardwood floors and exposed brick walls filled with thin white women sporting expensive Lululemon outfits, led by similarly dressed white teachers who crisply called out the English names of poses over their hip Spotify playlists. I was determined to find a more “authentic” yoga experience, not realizing that this desire for authenticity was in and of itself a problematic need to consume another culture on my terms.

I eventually landed at a studio with a robust spiritual practice, where many of the teachers discussed the yoga sutras. The owners had a strong commitment to engaging with the cultural and historical context of yoga, and it showed. There were more students and teachers of color than at all the other studios I’d visited combined, as well as a noticeable LGBTQ+ presence. Though I fit the stereotype of the thin, white, middle- to upper-class woman yoga student, it seemed that everyone was welcome. I was satisfied that I had found my place. I began working there a few times a week in exchange for free classes, and did so happily for over a year. Then something happened.

I was working at the front desk during my usual Thursday evening shift. A young woman, one of our regulars, came in with her mother. The student had received a free class since it was her birthday month, but she already paid for a monthly membership with unlimited classes, so she couldn’t use it. She wanted to know if her mom could instead. Normally, studio policy prohibited the transfer of classes between students, but I couldn’t find any rules about these particular circumstances. Worried about the risk of breaking the rules, I hesitated. The student said they couldn’t afford the $20 single-class price, and as I apologized, they started to walk away. Here’s the thing: this student—and her mother—were of Indian origin. I knew that for a fact, since I’d known the student for a while through my work there. An overwhelming sense of shame coursed through me as I realized that I was gatekeeping access to the very customs that white people had forbidden Indian yogis from practicing under British colonial rule, then stolen and commodified to the tune of millions of dollars. I called them back and waved them through. If I’m breaking an unknown studio protocol, so be it, I thought. There was no harm in letting her in, and infinite harm in keeping her out.

Not twenty minutes later, an email from one of the studio owners appeared in my inbox. He demanded to know why I’d signed the student’s mother in under a free class. I responded immediately and explained the situation, expecting him to understand and clarify the murky policy on transferring birthday classes. Instead, I received an angry message calling my actions inappropriate and blaming me for costing the studio money. He expressed disbelief at my statement that $20 was an unaffordable cost for some people, stating that students who value their practice should be able to pay the standard market value for a yoga class in DC. I was astounded. I couldn’t believe he didn’t realize that the prices made yoga inaccessible to plenty of people, especially people of color, and that he was so upset when I was trying—albeit belatedly, and with too much trepidation—to do the right thing.

The incident blew over before too long, but my unease did not. Class prices only went up. The studio, like the gentrifying neighborhood in which it was located, only got whiter. When it eventually closed, I didn’t look for another studio to replace it. I started practicing at home. Despite the fact that there are many excellent instructors in DC who do teach yoga in a responsible way, I had become too uncomfortable with how whiteness has infiltrated, commodified, and in some cases even weaponized a sacred spiritual practice. My suspicions of the white yoga community were only confirmed when, earlier this summer, I saw a white yoga teacher post a deeply anti-Black status on Facebook and claim yoga as her method for coping with her perceived victimhood, and again when news broke that a white yoga teacher and muralist allegedly stole a design from a Black artist and used it to win a hefty grant from the D.C. Commission for the Arts and Humanities. Despite my appreciation for yoga, I wondered if my participation in the tradition, along with that of other white people, was ultimately doing more harm than good.

This brings me back to my original question: can white people practice yoga in a way that benefits our community and the practice? I want to believe that we can, but the reality is that most people don’t. As Maisha Z. Johnson and nisha ahuja write,

The problem lies not with you doing the practice, but with how yoga is commonly practiced and commercialized in Western contexts like the US. Cultural appropriation is a process that takes a traditional practice from a marginalized group and turns it into something that benefits the dominant group–ultimately erasing its origins and meaning. And that’s exactly what’s happening with yoga in Western spaces. The practices are based on traditions that go back thousands of years in South Asia and other places around the world, including East Africa’s Kemetic Yoga. But this context and much of the essence of yoga’s meaning has been stripped away.”

The real issue is not that white people are practicing yoga, but rather the way in which we are practicing it. Yoga as a complete spiritual practice is a powerful force for good. If more people practiced it fully, our communities would likely be better off. The reality is, however, that most yoga in the United States is at best inaccessible and incomplete, and at worst culturally appropriative and destructive.

So, you’re a white person who wants to create a complete yoga practice, one that honors its spiritual elements and cultural and historical roots. The first step I would encourage you to take, if it’s accessible to you, is to find a studio with teachers who engage with yoga beyond asana. Though my studio had its problems, as I explained earlier, there was one teacher in particular who always incorporated yoga history in his classes, and he truly infused our practice with all eight limbs of yoga. If you don’t have a studio like this near you or can’t afford classes, search for free online classes. These are often very focused on asana, but some online teachers incorporate the philosophical teachings of yoga into their classes. You don’t necessarily have to adopt the spiritual element of yoga as part of your practice, but you do need to respect its cultural roots.

Second, do your research. This seems so basic, but I didn’t take the initiative to learn about yoga’s history until years after I started practicing. I had no idea that the British suppressed yoga as part of their colonization of India, for example, until I took the time to do a simple Google search (see: here and here). We—white people especially—cannot practice yoga responsibly until we understand it, and we cannot understand it without knowing its history.

Finally, pay attention to who has access to yoga in the United States. Look around the room when you set down your mat. Are you surrounded by other white people? Does your studio offer free or pay-what-you-can classes? Does your yoga community actively participate in anti-racist or anti-classist work, or at least have conversations about how oppressive systems show up in our yoga practices? If not, then you have two choices: find a place that does, or, better yet, be the voice for change where you are. Talk to your fellow students, teachers, and studio managers. Discuss with them the ways in which racism and classism manifest in the yoga industry, even if the conversation makes them uncomfortable (and it probably will). Ask what the owners are doing to support the local community.

Suggested reading:

“8 Signs Your Yoga Practice Is Culturally Appropriated – And Why It Matters” by Maisha Z. Johnson and nisha ahuja

“How to Decolonize Your Yoga Practice” by Susanna Barkataki

“Decolonizing Yoga: 5 Things to Remember Before Hitting the Mat” by Awanthi Vardaraj

“Why I Stopped Teaching Yoga – My journey into spiritual, political accountability” by Andrea MacDonald

Photo by Jared Rice

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Sarah Doyel is a freelance writer, activist, and health justice advocate who writes at the intersection of wellness and social change. Her firsthand experience working in the healthcare field ignited her passion for making health and wellness accessible to all, and she’s been writing about it ever since. When she’s not freelancing, you can find her running, practicing yoga, and blogging as The Feminist Vegan at www.thefeministvegan.com. Find her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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15 comments… add one
  • David Lincecum

    The practices of yoga don’t belong to anyone. I heard Deepak Chopra say this while arguing with a person involved in the “take back yoga” campaign that was initiated a few years ago by an organization in India. Deepak basically argues that the practices come from god and are transmitted to people who need them. The Chinese received qigong and tai chi. The American natives chanted and danced in spirit rituals. The Romans had ritual dances. Every culture received some form of spiritual gift and their leaders codified it in to a system. But the world became more homogeneous. The cultures mixed. Commercial Yoga is barely recognizable from its roots. But perhaps the sadhus of India with an arm permanently raised over head or a brick attached to another body part are also a part of the deviation of yoga? The change in yoga seems to have begun in India. People like Krishnamacharya developed showcase yoga for marketing purposes. Maybe he even lifted Surya Namaskara from another system and put it in yoga. When Swami Sivananda sent Sadhus to the west, he knew what he was doing. He was sending out the missionaries to spread the word. In the process, things get muddled. Ayurveda was lost for a time because seemingly the West was not ready. Some well meaning and highly trained Gurus got swept up in money and other western world phenomena. India itself began to lose yoga over time. But yoga survived. People found it in colleges and YMCA’s and on PBS and maybe it had a little namaste and maybe not. Maybe a limb or two was discussed or not. But maybe a person lost an eating disorder or another one slept better. Maybe anxiety was calmed. Maybe a knee was healed. Through all it’s trials and appropriation yoga kept its mysterious power. Many people got what they needed. We don’t need to guilt ourselves over yoga appropriation any more than India needs to guilt itself over its own loss of yoga culture. It’s a natural process. It ebbs and flows. Yoga is too powerful to be kept caged. It will find it’s way on its own. If we can’t pay the fee at the studio, we turn on the YouTube or watch replays on PBS. We practice at home in our own way. The ladies and gents of Lululemon May even mysteriously lose their greed if they practice long enough. I say drink your chai and eat your naan and chant Om with a loving smile. Yoga is so powerful that it will forgive and heal the worst side of us humans. It is a direct gift from the gods and she smiles when we practice our broken Sanskrit just like she smiles on square dancing and flamenco dancing and Tai Chi in the park.
    (Typed on a phone. Errors are regretted, but forgotten)

    • mary

      great comment

    • Well said David.

    • PS in NY

      Thank you, David. Yoga healed me mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Therefore, this white woman will continue her practice without guilt, and try to offer yoga’s healing power to others.

  • Meredith LeBlanc

    I am white as the day is long. Having been a practioner for 22 years and having taught for several, I think its unfortunate how watered down and asana based the practice of yoga in America has become. When I started, my teacher didn’t have a studio and rented various spaces in which to teach. I was able to attend 2 classes a week, and with my teacher’s guidance, I cultivated a strong home practice. I read the Sutras and the Gita and started to live a Yogic life. When studios began to pop up, I sought out those with a spiritual commitment. When I began teaching, I had a studio ask me not to include chanting or meditation. I said I would not do that. They still hired me and I had a great following there.

    I was not invited to take teacher training until 10 years into my practice. I was invited. Not I saw a poster in the studio and signed up. I had 10 years on my mat. Not took 2 classes and thought “hey, this is fun!” Part of the issue is we are being taught by teachers who haven’t even touched on the full scope of what yoga is in their own practice.

    If students only want the physical practice, I don’t fault them for that because they haven’t been shown all there is to know. Maybe they will feel the calling within to explore more, that is my hope. If not, at least they are taking care of their physical body.

  • Dear Sarah, thank you for putting your heart into this article, I feel your pain. Its imperative you understand that the principles of Yoga are Universal they are for everyone, just as we all have physical limbs, the Eight Limbs apply to all of humanity, they are universal truths. So I encourage to shake off the false notion that Yoga is only for Indians, its a false doctrine rooted in Hindu nationalism. I am a disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda, I can tell you that his mission was to come to the West and transmit Yoga science to Westerners and American specifically, this was his so-called Divine mission received from this Guru. Many great Gurus have come to the US with the same mission they actively want Westerners to have inward spirituality and Union. Yoga is simply for everyone, the problem is getting it to the population authentically and not get consumed by capitalist fitness model that dominates today.

    As a British white man (living in the U.S.) I am appalled by my Country’s behavior and every time I read about or talk about British impact on Yoga I cringe, my Hindu friends just laugh and they welcome my sincerity in Yoga they know I cannot change the past and they freely have taught me about Shiva, Ganesh, Devi. they come to me to answer their questions on Bhagavad Gita and Sutras. Should I be punished in perpetuity for being British? Should I be ashamed of being white? of course not! if ever there was a breach of ahimsa its this awful shaming that’s going on today, it makes matters worse. I encourage you to cast off this white shaming, its a divisive and harmful mindset inflicted by others who are (rightly) in a lot of pain about the situation today. Ironically the more one advances in Yoga the more inherent you realize our underlying unity of consciousness. The problem with Yoga is (in my opinion) economic, its become a luxury item. yoga is a crappy business model under the influence of fitness industry. so to be authentic and to make it affordable has to be done with a spirit of service and detachment from money. that’s not easy to do.

    Sorry for long response. I hope you hear me, go out with confidence, share the teachings from your heart and respect our beautiful ancient tradition.
    Namaste

  • matt

    Yes. You’re welcome.

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  • Sydni

    I struggle with this idea all the time, as the historical foundation of yoga is religious in a way that does not fit with my personal religious beliefs and practices (Jewish). I began practicing yoga with Ashtanga, and now, I actively do not attend Mysore classes because I’m uncomfortable with the content of the chants. I recognize that my current yoga practice, which is mostly very active Vinyasa with some Yin, is very “Americanized.” I also recognize that my very physically rooted practice of yoga is one of the central ways in which I stay mentally stable and feel physically healthy. As long as I am aware of the Americanness of what I’m practicing and where it originally derives from, what is the downside of engaging in a practice that helps me to become a better overall person in the long run?

  • Thanks for sharing this blog. Very informative

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  • Derek

    Well said David. Hopefully your comment has adjusted the “open mind” of this articles author. What else can we blame on the “White Person”?

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