Is American Yoga Racist?
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“Imitation,” it’s been said, “is the sincerest form of flattery.” But just like the minstrel shows that featured white comedians dressed in Black face singing old Negro spirituals and “talking Black” for White audiences, imitation in a racially unequal context is never value-free. Only in America, perhaps, does the sight of millions of Whites chanting and singing in Sanskrit and singing the praises of Shakti and Shiva seem so culturally unproblematic. Perhaps, rather than try to distance themselves from a seemingly isolated yoga event in Santa Barbara, yogis should take a good long look at themselves in the mirror – at their economic privilege and their assumptions about race and culture – and try to embrace their own hallowed yogic principle of ahimsa – “to do no harm.”
What might that mean in practice? For one thing, instead of lampooning the experience of ethnic communities, why not take your hallowed mind-body practice directly to them? These are some of the most stressed-out communities in America and if yoga holds so much promise, surely these communities deserve better access to yoga’s presumed benefits. And what is Yoga Journal doing to nurture body and beauty standards beyond what one Black commentator has called the “bendy, skinny white girl model”? It may come as news to Journaleditors living in their own narrow cultural enclave, but “big and beautiful” – and “of color” — are definitely “in” these days. And as so many industries have learned, it’s potentially a lucrative market, too. So let’s dispense with the pseudo-demographic justifications for keeping yoga modeling as racially “pure” as the Augusta Country Club.
And lastly, it wouldn’t hurt if the Yoga Alliance, the industry’s informal trade association, adopted some affirmative action and diversity training guidelines, just like the rest of the world has.
Yoga doesn’t need to be “ghetto fabulous” – culturally sensitive, compassionately inclusive, and humble and corporately responsible would be fabulous enough.