Published on SBS Life, April 2016.
The commodification of yoga is proof of a culture that empowers white people to tap into ‘otherness’ and convinces people of colour that rejecting difference is a way to fit in, writes Neha Kale.
Kerrie* was the type of girl around whom I could never be sure where I stood. She would smile at me on the way to maths class on the same day as ignoring my friendly query about an assignment. One lunchtime, she asked if I was going to band practice, although I’d abandoned my recorder in Year Six. Suddenly, I realised that she thought I was the grade’s other brown girl. “There are so many of you, I can’t keep track,” she said, with a well-meaning laugh.
The yoga classes that I’ve been attending since the start of the year have heightened my sense of wellbeing but they’ve also guaranteed a standing date with Kerrie’s ghost. Although abandoning my twenty-something belief that balance is a byword for weakness has felt like a personal evolution, encountering the enthusiasm with which my white classmates chant in Sanskrit (while I mumble the words halfheartedly), a studio adorned with garlanded Indian deities whose grinning faces I’d long forgotten, and instructors who swore by philosophies that I’d spent my life actively renouncing, clouded the energy I reaped from tadasana with a bewildering sense of guilt.
I suspect that for my classmates, who wore leggings stamped with Ohm signs and expressions of easy devotion, yoga – true to the advertising – simply offers a blissful union of mind and body or a holistic alternative to hitting the gym. For me, the strangeness of partaking in an activity linked to a culture from which I’d distanced myself outweighs the post-class sensation of floating on air.
As yoga has shifted from patchouli-scented basements into sun-splashed city studios, accusations of cultural appropriation have followed suit. In November last year, the University of Ottawa cancelled free yoga classesafter complaints that the practice was taken from a culture that experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and Western supremacy, while last April, Kamna Muddagouni, a Mumbai-born Melburnian, (rightly) argues that a million-dollar industry increasingly ruled by slim, white instructors and Instagram-friendly slogans conveniently overlooks the fact that “yoga is a spiritual practice with Hindu roots”.
Despite this, yoga’s mounting popularity – there are now 36.7 million yogis in America according to a January 2016 study by Yoga Journal – has meant that these issues are being slowly addressed. From websites such asDecolonising Yoga, which offer tips for honouring the ritual’s South Asian origins, to a wave of studios dedicated to serving students of colour, we’re wising up to the fact that yoga – like hip-hop and headdresses – has been repackaged for the benefit of middle-class, white devotees.But for me, this army of white instructors peppering classes with references to Indian mythology isn’t half as jarring as the ease with which these are embraced. This ease feels like the ugly flipside of my life-long discomfort. A discomfort that manifests in an internal gymnastics, practiced most days by people of colour, in which one must size up stupid, arbitrary things like a craving for naan bread against the silent assumptions of a teenager at a checkout, rehearse snarky dismissals for mentions of Bollywood and swallow the urge to spit back “Perth!” when a colleague asks you where you’re really from.
This ongoing labour stems from the delusion that you must do whatever it takes to prove that you’re an individual with passions and interests rather than some interchangeable member of an invisible race.When I first started practicing yoga, I admired how effortlessly my classmates could spring into a headstand and move from cobra to downward dog. But it was their ability to tap into the signifiers of ethnicity without fear of being ridiculed, laughed at or dehumanised that I envied a whole lot more.
As you get older, you become brave enough to make decisions that improve your quality of life. In the last year, I’ve resolved to get eight hours’ sleep, avoid working on weekends and prioritise my yoga class no matter how busy I get. I’ve also stopped caring whether or not the choices I make play into some racist fiction about how someone of Indian descent should be. Kerrie made me feel like I wasn’t a whole person but if I take responsibility for it she’ll always have the last laugh.