How Appropriation of Yoga Masks Violence | Sojourners

How Appropriation of Yoga Masks Violence

While perusing the home goods aisle at a local store recently, I came across a few candles with the words “Namaste,” “Karma,” and “Mantra” written on them. I chuckled to myself – how exactly does karma smell? It can’t be pleasant.

But these words also reminded me of something more sinister than the rampant Western appropriation of what many people associate with Hindu culture, often misidentified as Indian culture.

This commercialization, fetishization, and appropriation of Hinduism is eerie — especially in the context of colonialization, capitalization, and white supremacy where non-Christian religions and cultures are watered down, made into a pulp, and turned into dollar bills. So it’s no surprise that the popularity of yoga, meditation, Ayurveda, and other practices has led to more and more consumption of things associated with Hindu culture. But I wonder how many understand how they are celebrating a different type of culture, one based in purity laws that undermine the inherent worth of a human being, one that is associated with offshoots of certain parts of this culture. How many people understand the ways in which they are perpetuating supremacy by doing seemingly innocent things like practicing or teaching yoga classes or preaching “clean eating?” How many people understand that, in their ignorance, they are preserving the violent caste system by not challenging these practices?

I often associate the idea “purity” with Judeo-Christian history and practice. In a biblical caste system, purity determined your duty and place in society. These rules are shown in the structure of Solomon’s temple, as Walter Brueggemann explains:

The temple, and the priest who operated the temple, fashioned a series of purity laws to determine who the purer people and the impurer people were, to determine who had access and who was excluded from the goodies.

I have come to think that the three-chambered temple of King Solomon is a lot like a commercial airline. There was the outer court for women and gentiles. There was the inner court for guys in suits. And there was the holy of holies, where only the high priest could go. … So everything is delineated by rank, and therefore by opportunities that come with it. And this whole enterprise of extraction and exhibit and grandiose commoditization was all blessed by a very anemic God, whose only function was to bless the regime. So that under Solomon, you get chosen king, a chosen city, and a chosen land, to the exclusion of all those who were not chosen.

These purity laws to keep “impure” people out of holy places mirrors low-caste and Dalit people’s lack of access their holy spaces. Those purity practices continue today, thriving in fundamentalist religion. From keeping Dalit and low-caste people out of temples to killing Muslims over selling or eating beef, these purity laws allow harmful principles to flourish.

Like racism in the U.S., the caste system in India is normalized, permeating every aspect of Indian society. With some exceptions, if you asked a middle-of-the-road white evangelical Christian if racism is prevalent in the U.S., they would likely say no. In a similar vein, if you ask any Hindu upper-caste person if casteism exists, they too would likely say no. But the people directly impacted by the systemic ways in which racism and casteism are baked into society would give you a much different answer. 

So, how does yoga fit into all of this?

Yoga does not necessarily belong to Hinduism. But the ways in which it has been appropriated by Hinduism and used as a tool of exclusion is damaging.

The concepts of karma and dharma are taught in most yoga teacher trainings. Karma is the circle of life, the familiar “you reap what you sow” concept, while dharma encompasses the duties, rights, laws that inform social order. What is not taught is that these two principles have been used to justify the discrimination and violence toward Dalit people, the lowest rung of the caste system. Karma claims that because you were born a Dalit, or untouchable, you must have done something in your past life to not only be born “ritualistically impure” and deserve to be treated as such. Dharma says that people must adhere to the social order, understanding their place in the hierarchy. It is used to keep Dalit people in their place, using religion as the reason for their marginalization and discrimination. If these two concepts are required to teach yoga, in what ways are they normalized in typical yoga classes? How do they show up in a chant or a word that continues to unintentionally add to supremacist beliefs that have harmed millions of people?

It’s not only these uncritical teachings that are concerning, but the very foundations of supremacy interwoven with the practice. From exclusively using Sanskrit – a language associated with high-caste priests, or Brahmins that Dalit people were not given access to learning in order to keep them uneducated, sometimes having their tongues cut off or lead poured into their ears for hearing the language – to using this practice to spread Hindu nationalism across the world, yoga spaces have become hotbeds for ignorance toward the realities of how weaponized this practice is today and how much it is intertwined with nationalistic and supremacist attitudes.

Look at any “yoga diet:” It’s usually associated with eating a “clean,” sometimes vegan diet, mainly consisting of fruits, vegetables, and grains, practicing the virtue of ahimsa – a respect of all living things and a practice of nonviolence toward those things. Although it is not required, most yogis encourage a vegetarian, or vegan diet. None of this is an issue; eating fruits and vegetables are beneficial for a healthy lifestyle. That changes when vegetarianism or veganism is considered morally superior, that people with these diets are saintly, pure, or more intelligent, capable, or pious because of their diets. That belief leads to assumptions about the intelligence, morality, and cleanliness of Indian Muslims and Christians who eat meat, especially beef, sometimes to the point of death.

I often think about how accessible yoga spaces are – especially for the privileged in the U.S. – and that appropriation rooted in colonial thinking and capitalism is a problem. But it didn’t start with Western appropriation and doesn’t stop at it. By remaining ignorant about these issues, there’s another infection of unintended supremacy that is violent to millions of people across the globe. These things are not neutral.

I’m not interested in asking anyone to stop doing yoga or stop eating certain types of food — that would be absurd — just like I’d never ask Christians to stop praying to Jesus because of Christianity’s violent ties with white supremacy and colonization and obsession with purity. I’m not interested in imposing or evangelizing one way of life over the other. Religion, yoga, or clean eating aren’t necessarily the problems; it’s the systemic ways in which they have been used to harm, dehumanize, and demean others that are problematic. What I am asking for is that we be unafraid of taking a deeper look at the ways in which seemingly innocent practices have chipped away at the worth of certain groups people for centuries, creating a hierarchy that denied so many their humanity. No person is born impure. Human beings are worthy for no other reason but because they exist. If you believe this to be true, then it is on you to constantly ask for transformation of ancient principles rooted in inequality and violent discrimination that need to remain in the past. That, to me, is true enlightenment.

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