American Yoga as an Example for Cultural Appropriation
„Yoga cannot be taught, because yoga is a process that one must go through. […] Yoga has been turned into something completely opposite of that [yoga as a path, as medicine, just being present] in the North American and capitalist contexts and that’s a result of cultural appropriation. Yoga has been turned into something that has been diluted from its original meaning. And been turned into an entertainment, it’s been fetishized as something exotic or something that we held. That’s very contrary to a yogic philosophy”.
This statement comes from the singer, songwriter and actress Nisha Ahuja during an interview, where she speaks about the „cultural appropriation” of yoga in North America. The video is published on the Website «Decolonizing Yoga», a platform which highlights the voices of queer people, people of color, disability activists and more in relation to yoga. You can find articles about topics related to queer and trans issues, body acceptance, „race”, feminism and cultural appropriation.
The picture on the cover of this essay shows, that are a lot of transformations of yoga in todays globalized world: The picture was found on the Instagram-account called «Yoga», which has 1,4 million followers. It captures the Brazilian model Izabel Goulart with her German boyfriend and footballer Kevin Trapp doing acro-yoga on Noronha beach in Brazil at Christmas 2018. They are doing yoga wearing hats of Santa Clause and like that mixing an Indian, spiritual practice with a Western tradition.
There is a huge amount of such transformations of yoga, which seems to have been „morphed into something new in North America today. […] Yoga is thought everywhere from spas to prison, and for everything from weight loss to spiritual transcendence”, says the description of the book «21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice» written by different authors, among them the founder of «Decolonizing Yoga», Be Scofield. Yoga has a chameleon-like ability to adapt in a lot of different contexts: The American yoga has adapted ancient Indian yoga poses and spiritual aspects and combined it with Western attributes to make it more popular in for the American population. Gokcen and Burcak mention examples of commodified and hybridized forms of yoga like acro-yoga, antigravity yoga, spinning and yoga, budokon (a mix of yoga and martial arts), yoga and chocolate, yoga and wine, as well as doga (yoga for dogs or with your dog) (Gokcen and Burcak 2015: 494). A study of the «Yoga Journal» and the «Yoga Alliance» published in 2016 estimated that – back then – there were 36,7 millions of people practising yoga in the U.S., and the money spent on classes, clothing, equipment and accessories increased to $16 billions per year. Because of the huge spread and popularity of yoga, the phenomenon needs further investigation.
In the seminar «globalization» we talked about different approaches to the phenomenon of globalization: We read texts about economic, financial and social global flows as well as about neoliberalism and social movements. What builds the frame for this essay is a perspective on „cultural” globalization conceptualized by Arjun Appadurai, a postcolonial researcher: In his book called «Modernity at large. Cultural dimensions of Globalization» he writes about the rapid movement of people, goods, ideas, images and practices around the globe, crossing the boundaries of national territories (Albrow 2018: 1412). Appadurai points out, that globalization is linked to an inexorable modernity, where cultural communities (and artefacts) are not located in nation-states anymore, mainly due to the new electronic media. There is a new development of a rupture: The five different dimensions of cultural flows („scapes”) – ethnoscapes, technoscapes, financescapes, mediascapes and ideoscapes – are degenerated from local places (Appadurai 1996: 46-47) and there’s no coherence between them: „The new global cultural economy has to be seen as a complex, overlapping, disjunctive order that cannot longer be understood in terms of existing centre-periphery models” (Appadurai 1996: 33).
Through the metaphor of the scapes it’s getting more understandable, how cultural materials move across borders in different directions. Such materials are very diverse, confirms Reckwitz, a German sociologist, who calls cultural materials „movement cultures” (Reckwitz 2017: 104) as for example tango, salsa, chi-gong or yoga. He examines a phenomenon he calls „Singularisierung” (2017: 8) (in English: Singularization) emerging since the 1970ies/80ties: This term explains how the new (Western) middle class seeks to be special and unique and appropriates or combines different cultural objects from diverse origins (2017: 146). The desire to be extraordinary is now a societal expectation, especially in the life of the academic and highly qualified middle class. Everything that has to do with lifestyle, how people eat, where they travel, how they look after their bodies, how they chose their circle of friends – they don’t just live life, they curate it (2017: 9). The parameters of this lifestyle are authenticity, self-fulfilment, cultural openness, diversity, quality and creativity, says Reckwitz: «The new middle class feels entitled to appropriate foreign cultures. People appropriate yoga from India or tai-chi from China and they also adopt the tattoo from the sub-proletarian milieu, they think it’s cool. […] And drink their beer in the proletarian pub. One just takes what he wants from all the cultural resources, also from the past. People live in old dwellings, have tattoos and do tai-chi – historic tradition, geographic strangeness and different class is getting appropriated” (Reckwitz 2017: 328). As Reckwitz states, there are people belonging to a certain class, who are able to appropriate resources from all over the world to create their own singularity (special identity).
On these grounds this essay discusses the following core questions: What does the concept of cultural appropriation contain and why can American yoga be seen as an example of cultural appropriation?
I consult the articles from Rogers (2006) and Ziff & Rao (1997) for the theoretical part about cultural appropriation only as the scope of this essay doesn't allow for further considerations. To answer the second research question, the essay draws on specific texts about the transnational dissemination of yoga (Strauss 1997), about cultural appropriation within the American yoga sphere (Miller 2916) and on the „hybridity” of American yoga (Gokcen and Burcak 2015).
To start the discussion about the concept of cultural appropriation, it is necessary to lose a few words on the terms „cultural” and „appropriation”.
„Cultural” is a term that can’t be defined in an essay of this extent, because so many scholars in the history of social sciences and of other disciplines tried hard to find definitions and had a lot of troubles getting to the heart of it. The term is often used, but there is no universal understanding of „culture” or „cultural”. That’s why only a few words should be lost on it in this essay.
Ziff and Rao start their text with an already existing definition of cultural appropriation (by the Resolution of the Writers’ Union Canada, June 1992) as „the taking – from another culture that is not one’s own – of intellectual property, cultural expressions or artifacts, history and ways of knowledge” (Ziff and Rao 1997: 1). If someone is taking away something from someone else, it implies that cultural appropriation is always relational, that’s why the authors state that „another culture” means that there has to be insiders and outsiders (1997: 2). But the dichotomy of included and excluded members of distinct „cultures” today is obsolete: Through the expansion of globalization and through more contact between people from all over the world, the meaning of „culture” has changed and has to be analyzed relationally, with focus on the exchange of meanings between societies and groups of people (Hall 1997: 2).
In social anthropology „culture” is, amongst other things, seen as a practice of ascriptions: „Culture” is made by a group of people who ascribe certain characteristics to another group of people (Dahinden 2014: 118), meaning that it doesn’t exist outside of social and political spheres. Today, the term „culture” is often used to emphasize the „own” in opposition to the „other”, thus the identity of the former is only definable through the designation of a counterpart (Abu-Lughod 1991: 58). Finally, „culture”, when used in relation to cultural appropriation refers to values, customs or social system shared by a certain group (Ziff and Rao 1997: 2). What is appropriated are mostly some kind of cultural goods or some type of creative products. Logically, the characteristics credited to the „other” group are valued positively, because they are being adopted (something negatively valued is not an object of appropriation).
The word „appropriation” originates from the Latin word „appropriare” and means “to make one’s own”, what provokes the connotation of an unfair or illegitimate disappropriation (Rogers 2006: 475). Cultural appropriation, therefore, implies that symbols or cultural practices are taken out of its original context without permission (2006: 477). People appropriating the goods from elsewhere benefit personally and financially, which is harmful especially when the source community is a minority group suffering from exploitation, or when the acquired objects are sacred or have special meanings.
As Adrienne Keene, the author of the blog «Native Appropriations», states that „there is always an inherent power imbalance — it is the dominant group taking from a marginalized group. With cultural appropriation, this also often plays out in the realities of colonization: It is the colonizer taking from the colonized”. The argument that cultural appropriation has a lot to do with power differences is also confirmed by Rogers, who discusses four different types of cultural appropriation: „cultural exchange”, „cultural dominance”, „cultural exploitation” and „transculturation” (Rogers 2006: 475). The first and the second types are not really useful for this essay, because „cultural exchange” with respect to cultural appropriation is a non-existing ideal. It describes an exchange between cultures with equal power, which is almost never the case when we talk about cultural appropriation. „Cultural dominance” means that a dominant „culture” is imposing its cultural elements on a subordinated one, which isn’t connectable to the appropriation of yoga in the States (2006: 477). The two types from Roberts texts, which are most aptly for this topic, are „cultural exploitation” and „transculturation”. The first refers to the appropriation of cultural traits of a subordinated „culture” by a dominant one without permission or reciprocity. The problem of this type (but also type one and two), Robert writes, is that it bases upon a very essentialist, a-historical and static conception of „culture”. It denies subordinated people’s agency (answers, reactions, resistant actions) and implies a dichotomy between centre and periphery or between the „developed” world and „primitive” people (2006: 489). As already explained, todays interactions are more complex than this binary view, and through globalized interactions, the relations between „exploited” and „exploiter” are multi-layered.
The fourth type, the „transculturation”, describes when cultural elements are made by different cultures: „Transculturation involves ongoing, circular appropriations of elements between multiple cultures, including elements that are themselves transcultural. […] Cultural forms literally move through time and space where they interact with other cultural forms and setting, influence each other, produce new forms” (Lull cited in Roberts 2006: 491). The fourth type criticizes the previous three types and the assumption of „cultures” as closed entities (2006: 477-78). „Transculturation” is also theorized as „indigenization”, the phenomenon that cultural elements get appropriated in a locally very specific way, and as a consequence, new cultural genres arise while traditional cultural forms disappear (2006: 491). Through „transculturation” it’s shown that „culture” is relational and an ongoing process of absorption and transformation (2006: 495). It describes forces of homogenization but also of cultural appropriation constituting particularity (2006: 499). Cultural appropriation finally is inescapable and diverse, and the conditions in terms of the degree, of voluntariness, inequality and imbalance vary: „transculturation” as a type of cultural appropriation depends upon the social, economic and political context in which it occurs (2006: 476; 499).
Besides that, cultural appropriation is an active process, it doesn’t just happen. Just to show a film of another culture doesn’t constitute cultural appropriation (2006: 476). Cultural appropriation is political, and the question has to be asked, about who gets to control the processes of allocating the resources and if anyone is getting harmed by the appropriation (Ziff and Rao 1997: 8). Does it damage the community or the appropriated good itself? Does the appropriation benefit the appropriators? (1997: 10; 12). Ziff and Rao don’t use the term „transculturation” in their text, but they depict the phenomenon when „cultures” blend and merge and thus create hybrid „cultures” (1997: 5-6). Hybridity is a concept often theorized in globalization studies and means “a two-way borrowing and lending between cultures, a form of transculturation or sociocultural process in which discrete structures and practices that existed separately, are combines to create new structures, objects and practices” (Canclini cited in Gokcen and Burcak 2015: 494).
The authors Gokcen and Burcak see American yoga as an example of a hybrid cultural practice, because it has appropriated asanas (Indian yoga poses), mantras (spiritual aspect of the practice) and combined it with characteristics of the American „culture”. The cultural pattern (yoga) is taken from its original context and applied in a different geographical space, where it forms a new cultural practice (2015: 494).
Yoga is a very old Indian practice, and the theory and practices of postmodern yoga stem from the teachings of Hinduism (De Michelis cited in Gokcen and Burcak 2015: 495). With regard to yoga in the States, authors emphasize that its official introduction traces back to Swami Vivekananda’s speech in 1893 at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Gokcen and Burcak examine how yoga is transformed to be successful in the American market. They expound that the products of yoga are used heavily in medical and fitness domains. Further on, the mission of the «American Yoga Association» (AYA) for example is, to mediate the yoga philosophy without religious contents, but in a way that it is adaptable to „the particular needs of Americans” (AYA cited in Gokcen and Burcak 2015: 495). The same strategy is taken over by the «Yoga Ed.», a company which uses yoga for educational purposes. Its creator, Tata Gruber, says that she took all the Hindu language elements and everything that people could associate with spirituality or religion out of the programme (Gruber cited in Gokcen and Burcak 2015: 495). Other American providers eliminate the chanting to make yoga more popular in health clubs, whilst others introduce terminological changes such as „push ups” and „lower back” instead of sacred Hindu texts and chakras (Alvarez cited in Gokcen and Burcak 2015: 496). Sacred Hindu aspects get eliminated and replaced by prayers and readings from religions of choice (Morris cited in Gokcen and Burcak 2015: 496), and kirtan chantings (musical form of narrating spiritual or religious ideas from Hinduism) are growing in popularity. These chantings are appropriated in America but transformed into meditation serving to escape from overwork (Eckel cited in Gokcen and Burcak 2015: 496).
The research from the anthropologist Sarah Strauss focusses on how the set of ideas and practices of yoga moved from India to other geographical contexts and are now practiced by a trans-local community. She looks at the circulation of the knowledge of yoga in the United States, in Western Europe and in India since the late 19th century, more accurately since the speech of Vivekananda (Strauss 1997: 2). She explains that yoga, through Vivekananda's rhetoric, „has been understood to have an exchange value […]: Spiritual lack in the West, material lack in India” (Strauss 1997: vi; 3). He presented yoga to the Western public, and four years later to his countrymen, in a way which has never been observed before. He produced a dichotomic view of yoga as, on the one hand, a „wonder that was India” (Basham cited in Strauss 1997: 4) and on the other hand as „a method for universal salvation” (Strauss 1997: 4). His idea contains a combination of Hindu texts, tantrism and Buddhism and of Western ideas about rationality and individualism (1997: 5). In terms of cultural appropriation, it is interesting to see how Vivekananda, who grew up as a privileged child of Calcutta and had a commitment to a devotee of a Hindu saint (Sarkar cited in Strauss 1997: 4), presented yoga as India’s gift to the West. In return, monetary aid to the poor Indian masses should be the exchange gift from the West to India (Raychaudhuri cited in Strauss 1997: 19). After his first journey to the West, Vivekananda said to his Indian audience: „We must go out, exchange our spirituality for anything they have to give us: For the marvels of the region of spirit we will exchange the marvels of the region of matter” (Vivekananda cited in Strauss 1997: 19). This dualism reinforces an essentialist view on both the West and India: While India is associated with spirituality, the West is seen as embodiment of materialism (Fox cited in Strauss 1997: 17).
When we bear the introduction of this essay in mind, where we figured out that the Western middle-class choses attributes to increase its particularity (singularity), the next argument is substantial: Yoga, as associated with spirituality, in Western contexts is serving as a method to acquire „spiritual capital”. Yoga can be understood as commodity which is customized for a specific audience (Strauss 1997: 17). Regarding the concept of cultural appropriation, doing yoga is used as a medium to reach a higher social status (through the appropriation of spirituality).
Rogers confirms that acts of cultural appropriation constitute identities of individuals and groups, as well as their socio-political positions (Rogers 2006: 476). Miller, who writes about „eating the other yogi”, criticizes the view of cultural appropriation as „exchange”, when in fact it is not an interaction between equally privileged people. The „taker” uses the appropriation for self-distinction and to gain higher status or prestige, which is normally not available to the expropriated group / individuals (Miller 2016: 11). Miller takes over the term „eating the other” from bell hooks to explain cultural appropriation: through commodification of the appropriated objects, the difference of the „other” is eradicated and its history gets denied through decontextualization. The cultural backgrounds of the object are depoliticized in order to „enhance the white palate” (hooks cited in Miller 2016: 11): „The Other will be eaten, consumed, and forgotten […]. By eating the Other, that one asserts power and privilege” (2016: 11). Appropriation, Miller writes, is controlled by the dominant group: in the States, the dominant group is composed of mostly white, female, well-educated, wealthy, young and skinny persons. So, within the American yoga sphere, there are exclusion and discussions of how a „real yogi” should be (Miller 2016: 2), and especially curvy people are excluded and marginalized (Miller 2016: 8). The „normative” yogis are able to gain fame, social capital, financial support, more opportunities for teaching, workshops, video series, and they are getting sponsored or can easily get modelling deals (Miller 2016: 8).
Conclusion and Critique
To answer the first question of the essay (What contains the concept of cultural appropriation?), we can conclude that cultural appropriation is an active process, which includes the taking of something (properties, cultural expressions or artefacts, history or knowledge) from a „culture” that is not one’s own. I have argued that cultural appropriation is relational and the goods that are appropriated are creative, cultural products, which are positively valued by the appropriators. Furthermore, cultural appropriation is an unfair or illegitimate act, where the appropriators make profit out of the appropriated object (be it financially or socially).
By considering Rogers' article and his four types of cultural appropriation („cultural exchange”, „cultural dominance”, „cultural exploitation” and „transculturation”) I have shown that the fourth type – „transculturation” – fits well to conceptualize cultural appropriation in today’s globalized reality. „Transculturation” describes the process of cultural forms interacting with other cultural forms, which influence each other and create new, hybrid forms. The concept of „indigenization”, which can also be seen as a form of cultural appropriation, shows that cultural elements get appropriated in a locally specific way and form new cultural genres. Last but not least, there has to be said that the degree of cultural appropriation depends upon the social, economic and political context, but it is a genuinely political issue and its investigation uncovers the distribution of power between the involved.
A further conclusion can be made concerning the second essay question on why American yoga can be seen as an example of cultural appropriation. As explained, yoga is seen as a hybrid cultural practice, because it combines Indian yoga poses and spiritual practices with characteristics typically associated with the American „culture”. Through the appropriation and transformation of Indian yoga, a new cultural practice was formed („transculturation”). The American yoga is commodified and made suitable for the American audience: Religious contents are erased; Hindu language elements are replaced through English terms and even sacred elements of Hinduism are being changed through other religions of choice.
Lastly, Vivekananda saw the dispersion of yoga from India to the West as an exchange: The West receives spirituality and, in return, India is getting financial aid to improve their situation of poverty. Howver, this essay showed that his view bases upon an essentialist understanding of the two entities, which today seems obsolete. Vivekananda is right when he says that Indian yoga is associated primary with spirituality, an important fact in relation to cultural appropriation: yoga in Western contexts serves as a method to acquire spiritual capital and is used as a medium to reach a higher status in some kind of environments. That is where the criticism about cultural appropriation is especially appropriate: We learned that often when appropriators take something, its being used for self-distinction and by eating the other. At the same time, the cultural backgrounds of the appropriated goods are depoliticized in order to adapt to the local context.
It has to be said that authors like Miller state that one has to be very careful with appropriating other cultural goods, because also with the best intentions, appropriative acts can be damaging. Normally, the appropriator is interested in the culture they want to appropriate something from, but as there seems to be an identity crisis in the West, they search alternatives in other places. Miller writes that the “others are eaten because they are desired” (Miller 2016: 14).
Authors who recognize how cultural appropriation harms the appropriated good or people, ask themselves how one could response to it, for example as a Western person, who wants to do yoga in a way that doesn’t harm anyone. Ziff and Rao scrutinize how one should response to cultural appropriation and they give the examples of introducing laws of properties and ownerships (individual and collective). The UNESCO convention for example tries to repatriate cultural treasures to their places of origin, but questions arise about who exactly should get the ownership, what is considered as a public good or not, and what has to be protected or not (Ziff and Rao 1997: 16-18).
To round off this essay, I would like to mention that the dispersion and appropriation of yoga is so widespread, that there are cartoons and jokes about it: „In a cartoon seen in Switzerland, the yogasana called ‘the Bridge’ was used as a visual gag: A man is on his living room floor, bent over backwards in the Bridge position; his wife is on the phone, telling his boss that her husband cannot speak because he is ‘making the bridge’ to the weekend. This phrase, ‘to make the bridge’ is slang for taking the day off between a legitimate holiday and the weekend; the yoga posture completes the joke” (Strauss 1997: 302).
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Written for the Seminar "Globalization", Department for Sociology, University of Bern.