Is American Yoga Racist?
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Many observers have extolled the yoga industry for nurturing and empowering women, and a growing number of female yoga celebrities are finding corporate sponsors, and earning high six-figure incomes — though few admit to it publicly. (Sadie Nardini, who bills herself as a quirky yoga “rocker” earned $350,000 in 2010, well before she produced her own TV show). But nearly all of these women are white. In fact, only one top American yogi is African-American — Faith Hunter — and she’s barely known beyond the East Coast. African-Americans are involved in practicing yoga — in cities like Washington, DC with large numbers of middle class Blacks, for example –but that hasn’t done much to alter the racial power dynamics of the yoga industry. And aside from a few pioneering Black yoga teachers at the community level — the yoga teacher corps in the studios remains as lily white as ever.
The incident in Santa Barbara is not the first in yoga with a distinctly racial cast. There was a minor uproar two years ago when an Asian-American yoga teacher posted a You Tube video entitled “Yoga for Black People” that some people found similarly offensive, if not downright racist. The video combined yoga slogans and hip-hop riffs and used mocking references to Black celebrities like R.J. Kelly and Oprah to suggest that yoga culture was often shallow and pretentiousness. In one typical scenario, the producer and star of the video shouts “raise the roof” with her hands overhead and then slips into a downward dog pose, saying “raise the roof….on the floor!” The video concludes with a brief meditation in which she substitutes “O-bammmmma” for the traditional “Om” sound. Waylon Lewis, the editor of one prominent yoga blog, Elephant Journal, posted the video for comments, and while a few African-American commentators expressed genuine dismay, criticisms from other yogis tended to be muted, just as they were in response to the Santa Barbara incident. Practice “detachment” rather than indulge in “judgment,” as so many like to say.
And that’s just it: yoga, over time, seems to be fostering a climate of official tolerance toward the world it inhabits that easily shades into political apathy — and moral relativism. Take almost any controversial topic, and raise it among yogis, and you will find a healthy core of opinion suggesting that the best opinion is to not have any opinion at all. For some yogis, social and political obliviousness is a deeply-held spiritual principle; for others, it’s simply an existential one: they come to yoga, they say, to “forget about the world” for an hour, or an entire day. They would rather not have to deal with the kinds of divisive political controversies that so often distract and agitate them outside the hermetically sealed bliss of their yoga studios.
There may be a deeper and more pernicious reason for yoga’s refusal to deal with race. And it strikes at the heart of the yogic enterprise: “Orientalism.” Whites in the West, whether they intend to or not, are reshaping and exploiting a deeply-rooted Eastern practice for their own commercial purposes, raising the hackles of groups like the Hindu-American Foundation, as well as conservative Hindus in India, who say they fear a loss of cultural authenticity and ownership. To date, American yogis have tended to dismiss such concerns as narrow and nationalistic. Yoga is for everyone, they say, and can’t be “owned” by anyone — even by its founders, apparently. This is a rather novel – and democratic-sounding — rationale for cultural appropriation, and for American yogis it seems to function as some kind of “get out of guilt” card when it comes to issues relating to race. How can we be racist when we are celebrating and promoting a non-White culture’s unique contribution to the world?