“Where the Whole World Meets in a Single Nest”

The history behind a misguided campus debate over yoga and “cultural appropriation.” 

Yoga Cultural Appropriation.
The spread of yoga in the West is not just a story about Westerners raiding some pristine subcontinental reservoir of spiritual authenticity.

Photo by Pressmaster/Shutterstock

This weekend, a story about a canceled yoga class at the University of Ottawa went viral. Apparently, some student leaders at the school’s Centre for Students with Disabilities were worried about “cultural appropriation.” According to the Ottawa Sun:

The centre goes on to say, “Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced,” and which cultures those practices “are being taken from.”

The centre official argues since many of those cultures “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy … we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga.”

Ordinarily, it wouldn’t be worth commenting on a single incident of college student overreach. But the idea that Western yoga constitutes cultural appropriation isn’t limited to the University of Ottawa. It’s a major theme of the writers at the website Decolonizing Yoga and has filtered into online feminism. As S.E. Smith wrote in xoJane, “While many people appear uncomfortable when it comes to talking about cultural appropriation, yoga furnishes a textbook example; westerners lift something from another tradition, brand it as ‘exotic,’ proceed to dilute and twist it to satisfy their own desires, and then call it their own.”

What these arguments really demonstrate is how jejune the whole “cultural appropriation” charge can be—particularly when it’s wielded by people who know very little of the cultures they purport to protect. In the case of yoga, it completely ignores the agency of Indians themselves, who have been making a concerted effort to export yoga to the West since the late 19th century.

Back then, Indians saw getting Westerners interested in yoga as a way of undermining British colonialism. Britain’s colonial administrators tended to be contemptuous of Indian religion; indeed, they treated the purported backwardness of Indian thought and culture as justification for their continued rule. Indian nationalists believed, rightly, that if they could popularize their spiritual practices in the West, they would win support for independence.

Thus nationalists sent the Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda as a sort of missionary to America, where he introduced yoga philosophy in the 1890s. “By preaching the profound secrets of the Vedanta religion in the Western world, we shall attract the sympathy and regard of these mighty nations, maintaining for ever the position of their teacher in spiritual matters, and they will remain our teachers in all material concerns,” Vivekananda wrote to a journalist friend.

Swami Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga, published in 1896, became a best-seller and had a lasting impact on American culture. One small example: Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, heard Vivekananda speak in Chicago and was deeply moved; Baum’s biographer Evan I. Schwartz argues that the quests of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion are allegories for the four yogic paths that Vivekananda elaborated.*

Vivekananda’s yoga didn’t involve the asanas, or poses, that we know as yoga today, because asana-based yoga is a modern phenomenon—one that emerged from the Indian nationalist movement’s attempt to develop a distinctly Indian version of what was then called physical culture (essentially, physical fitness). The short version of this story, which scholars like Mark Singleton and Joseph Alter have described, is that Indian innovators combined facets of medieval tantric practices with elements from Indian wrestling exercises, British army calisthenics, and Scandinavian gymnastics. They called their system “yoga,” a word that previously had had very different connotations.

The confident, outward-looking men who established modern yoga were eager to bring their system to the wider world. Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who created the fast-paced vinyassa system that is the basis for so much of what the West knows as yoga today, ordered his Russian student Indra Devi—the subject of my last book—to share what he’d taught her internationally. (Devi ended up opening the first yoga studio in Hollywood, where she taught Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson.)

There is, of course, plenty to critique in the way Indian culture has been interpreted by Westerners. (See, for example, Urban Outfitter’s Ganesh socks.) But Indian writers on cultural appropriation generally recognize what some Western champions of identity politics do not, which is that Indians have played an active, enthusiastic role in globalizing their spiritual practices. As Gita Mehta wrote in her great 1994 book Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East, “As our home industry expands on every front, at last it is our turn to mass market.”

That mass marketing continues up until this very day. Earlier this year, Narendra Modi, India’s right-wing nationalist prime minister, succeeded in getting the United Nations to recognize International Yoga Day on June 21, which was celebrated with mass yoga demonstrations worldwide. There was much to deride in International Yoga Day; it served as PR for India’s highly reactionary government and was widely seen as an affront to India’s Muslims. But it shows that the spread of yoga in the West is not just a story about Westerners raiding some pristine subcontinental reservoir of spiritual authenticity. 

India is a country of dizzying dynamism, one that has always eagerly absorbed elements from other cultures into its own while proudly sharing the best of its own culture with the world. “All humanity’s greatest is mine,” wrote poet Rabindranath Tagore, who won the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature. “The infinite personality of man (as the Upanishads say) can only come from the magnificent harmony of all human races. My prayer is that India may represent the co-operation of all the peoples of the world.” Tagore—who, incidentally, wrote India’s national anthem—founded a university whose motto translates to, “Where the whole world meets in a single nest.”

This is the essence of cosmopolitanism. Obviously, power plays a role in the way cultures develop. Symbols and practices can be wrenched from their traditional contexts and used in ways that are disrespectful. When privileged American kids party while wearing Native American headdresses, it looks like they’re donning the spoils of a long-ago war. But the way that some contemporary activists would silo different cultures—as if anything that travels from outside the West is too fragile to survive a collision with raucous mixed-up modernity—is provincialism masquerading as sensitivity. There’s no such thing as cultural purity, and searching for it never leads anywhere good. As Kwame Anthony Appiah put it in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, “Cultures are made of continuities and changes, and the identity of a society can survive through these changes. Societies without change aren’t authentic; they’re just dead.”

*Correction, Nov. 23, 2015: This article originally misattributed an allegorical interpretation of The Wizard of Oz to “Oz’s biographer.” The interpretation is Evan I. Schwartz’s, L. Frank Baum’s biographer. (Return.)