I never really got the hang of yoga. The only pose I can do without falling over is Downward Dog. I have always felt this to be a failing. Yoga makes you stronger, taller, thinner, calmer and more spiritually evolved. At least that’s the marketing pitch.
But now, yoga has fallen into disrepute. Critics say it’s just another form of cultural theft – a rip-off of an ancient religious and spiritual practice from people we have systematically oppressed.
Jennifer Scharf offers a free yoga class at the University of Ottawa. Or at least she did. The student union has cancelled the class while it holds consultations on how to make it more culturally sensitive. “Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practised, and what practices from what cultures (which are often sacred spiritual practices) they are being taken from,” she was told in an e-mail from the school’s student federation. “Many of these cultures are cultures that have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and Western supremacy, and we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves and while practising yoga.”
The story spread at the speed of Twitter, attracting sarcastic comments from all over. Somebody suggested that we’d better rename Ottawa because the word was appropriated from the Algonquins. Someone else thinks we should give up algebra because it was invented in the Middle East.
It’s not just the U of O, though. The yoga debate has broken out all over. Many people are deeply upset that savage capitalism has turned yoga into a multibillion-dollar business opportunity. Today, there’s a yoga studio on every block. There’s hot yoga, pregnant yoga, kundalini yoga, even (yech) naked yoga. And, of course, there’s Lululemon, which has sold everyone in the world three pairs of yoga pants. (I am wearing one of them right now.)
They’re also upset that a practice invented by poor brown people has been colonized by rich white people. They have no idea where yoga came from, and they don’t care. They just want to have a yoga butt.
All of this has true believers tied up in knots. Last year Andrea MacDonald, a Canadian yoga practitioner in B.C., wrote an anguished blog about her decision to give up yoga because she realized she was one of the oppressors. “My analysis often failed to meaningfully address colonization and my participation in that oppressive system as a culturally appropriating, white yoga teacher,” she wrote.
Susanna Barkataki, a yoga teacher of Indian descent, is pissed off too. Western-style yoga, she writes, “highlights the power imbalance that remains between those who have access to wealth, an audience and privilege in contrast to those who have been historically marginalized.” She believes that those who offer yoga are, at the very least, duty-bound to create “safe spaces” for nonwhite, non-thin, non-flexible folks.