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The Crime of Yoga

The Crime of Yoga

What’s wrong with yoga? If you haven’t been paying much attention to recent moral concerns of the American left, you might assume any opposition to yoga would come from those on the right who object to it as culturally alien or associate it with Eastern religion. For example, recently parents in a Georgia school district objected to the use of yoga and mindfulness practices to reduce student stress. The statements of two of the parents make clear their concerns about the religious (and non-Christian) nature of the practices:

“No prayer in schools. Some don’t even say the pledge of allegiance,” Cobb County mother Susan Jaramillo told NBC affiliate WXIA. “Yet they’re pushing ideology on our students. Some of those things are religious practices that we don’t want our children doing in our schools.”

Christopher Smith, whose sons attend Bullard, shared a similar sentiment on Facebook.

“Now we can’t pray in our schools or practice Christianity but they are allowing this Far East mystical religion with crystals and chants to be practiced under the guise of stress release meditation,” he wrote. “This is very scary.”

It might come as a surprise, then, that yoga has also started to become controversial on the far left. At the University of Ottawa, Jen Scharf had been teaching a free yoga class for the disabled for years with the Centre for Student Disabilities before the Centre began having concerns with what they called “cultural issues.” The problem, apparently, was that that yoga comes from India, and it is therefore “cultural appropriation” for non-Indians to practice it. The instructor suggested changing the name — from “yoga” to “mindful stretching” — but the class ended up being canceled.

Shreena Gandhi, of the Religious Studies department at Michigan State, and Lillie Wolff, “organizer, facilitator, and healer,” also have concerns about yoga. In “Yoga and the Roots of Cultural Appropriation,” they even link yoga to “white supremacy.” They lament that yoga teachers in the U.S. “do not learn about Hindu tradition or Indian cultural history.” The physical aspects of yoga are only part of the practice, and by using these outside the larger context, Western practitioners “are perpetuating the re-colonization of it by diluting its true depth and meaning.”

This is “cultural appropriation,” they say, and it is “a continuation of white supremacy and colonialism, maintaining the pattern of white people consuming the stuff of culture that is convenient and portable, while ignoring the well-being and liberation of Indian people.”

They do not recommend that Westerners stop practicing yoga, but they do implore readers to “take a moment to look outside of yourself and understand how the history of yoga practice in the United States is intimately linked to some of the larger forces of white supremacy.” They ask them “to go beyond an unaccountable surface level relationship with yoga to a deeper, more transformative place of practice, awareness, contemplation, and engagement.”

Oddly, the complaint of conservative parents in Georgia is that yoga is a religious practice that shouldn’t be taught in schools, and the school officials say it’s just exercise. But the complaint from the left is that it’s just being used as exercise without embracing the religious and cultural practices that gave rise to it.

As different groups of activists draw from such divergent, incompatible moral frameworks, following contemporary debates can be bewildering. To a rural, conservative Christian who associates yoga with urban liberals, and who might be suspicious of its Hindu origins, the claim that it is (or usually is) a white supremacist practice must seem nearly insane. It may even confuse cosmopolitan liberals for whom dabbling in a wide variety of cultural practices is a sign of tolerance and openmindedness.

When did cultural appropriation become a crime? When did it become white supremacy? As the emerging victimhood culture spreads, expect to keep hearing of new kinds of offenses like cultural appropriation. Expect to see old terms like white supremacy used in new ways. Expect to see practices long thought of as benign, perhaps even liberal, come under attack.

Photo by lululemon athletica (Flickr: Yoga Journal Conference) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


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