Can White People Practice Yoga?

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. 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. 

Regardless of how it's practiced, yoga in the United States seems to be here to stay. The question is now: do we want to honor it or destroy it?


Further 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