Yoga is a culturally sensitive issue, apparently — it’s in the news yet again, thanks to a piece by a Michigan State University professor who declares that white people practicing yoga are “connected with a system of power, privilege, and oppression.”
“While the (mis)appropriation of yoga may not be a life-threatening racism, it is a part of systemic racism nonetheless,” states an article co-written by the professor, Shreena Gandhi, and Lilli Wolff, a self-described “antiracist white Jewish organizer, facilitator, and healer.” It goes on:
Most white people are not taught to confront and examine the painful and uncomfortable realities of racism, and their complicity in it, the cycle of oppression, repression, and consumption continues. . . . Few white people make the connection between their attraction to yoga and the cultural loss their ancestors and relatives experienced when they bought into white dominant culture in order to access resources.
The problem, according to the article, is not necessarily that white people are doing yoga, but that “few white people make the connection between their love of yoga and their desire and ability to access traditions from historically oppressed communities of color.”
When this article first gained some publicity, a lot of people were taken aback by its claims. I wasn’t; this line of thinking is not new. I actually wrote about it back in 2016, when a blogger at the Huffington Post argued that doing yoga for the physical benefits only — without engaging with its cultural elements — was “appropriation.” I thought the same thing then as I do now: I am white, I sometimes sort of stretch in my living room and call it “yoga,” and I’m not sorry.
As I wrote in my previous piece, I can totally admit that I engage in none of the cultural or spiritual elements of yoga whatsoever. I’m not even a spiritual person. I mean, I know what a “chakra” is, but that’s about it. Personally, I prefer to do yoga moves in my own living room — with a workout video playing from my laptop — while I watch some reality TV to try to get my mind off the pain that my muscles are experiencing. What on earth is wrong with that?
Although yoga may have started as a cultural, spiritual practice, it is also true that some of the moves can just make your body look better. Why in the hell am I not just allowed to do those moves, in whatever context that I want to do them? Just because I don’t want to get in touch with my inner whatever it is, that somehow means I have to have inferior glutes? I don’t think so.
The authors of pieces like Gandhi and Wolff’s always seem to think that they’re not asking that much when they say, “Don’t worry, white people, you can still do yoga — you just have to learn about some of the cultural elements first!” But really, they kind of are asking a lot. They are telling me that I have to pull out a history book before I am allowed to do a certain kind of stretch. That’s not reasonable; that’s insane.
— Katherine Timpf is a National Review Online reporter.