Are We Guilty of Hijacking Yoga?


By Alexandra Gandolfo

It’s a workout craze promising balance of the mind, body and soul that has classes packed with (mostly) women outfitted in Lululemons and rolling out their plastic mats. Yoga, the exercise in question, is an ancient practice originating in India that we know today as the thing we do before Saturday brunch. It’s meant to help the practitioner grow spiritually through the strengthening of the mental and physical self. It is so old, in fact, that some debate whether it predates the first written copies of the Hindu scripture it is historically attached to. Considering that it was conceived at roughly the same time as the invention of writing, yoga has had plenty of time to make like the Vrksasana pose and grow.

This growth, however, is exactly what has Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and many others in India, calling for a geographical indication of Yoga. A geographical indication is an international policy that recognizes that something from a certain region of the world is only authentic if it is created there—think Gruyere cheese, which can only be considered Gruyere if it comes from that region of Switzerland. This would establish that India, essentially, owns yoga and that for it to be authentic it would need to be made in India. But since yoga isn’t something you hold in your hands, it’s proving difficult for Modi to accomplish.

We live in a world where the cultural, spiritual, and traditional permeate borders and nationalities. This is not a bad thing; it’s the only natural recourse with the advance of technology and travel. But just because it’s on the Internet or in a store doesn’t mean it’s new—it’s just “new” to us. This is a phenomenon I like to call the Newness Bias. Thus it is also becoming harder and harder to see where appreciation of the world around us stops and appropriation begins, and this is no less the case for yoga.

Yoga has seven officially recognized branches: Hatha, Raja, Jnana, Bhakti, Karma, Tantra and Kashmir Shaivism. Each represents a different path of yoga that varies in focus and difficulty. The most commonly practiced yoga is Hatha, introduced to the U.S. in the 1960s by yogi B.K.S. Iyengar with his book “Light on Yoga.” Since its splashdown into our pop culture, yoga has remained in vogue but is also an example of the Newness Bias. Many companies have taken the official forms of yoga and distorted them to service their end goal: the dollar. Classes like bikram or mommy-and-me yoga are not genuine forms of the practice, but rather riffs on the originals devised to better fit the coming and going of popular trends.

The thing about yoga is that it is a great workout, but it’s also about the deeper beliefs of working the mind with the body. We’ve forgotten this in our excitement for yoga-related products that do not share a real relationship with the practice. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn to appreciate yoga for what it’s really worth. Kimberly Ciano, author of “Occupy Your Body,” is a registered holistic health practitioner, health coach and yoga instructor from Long Island, N.Y. “I realized I began learning yoga long before I even stepped foot on a yoga mat,” she responds via e-mail. “If I had to sum up a personal philosophy on yoga, it would be that there can only be personal philosophies.” Ciano goes on: “In my mind, cultural appropriation is a tough topic to tackle because, as in any issue involving two or more distinct parties, there are varying perceptions about what is occurring…I think that businesses may appropriate yoga, as their goal is money, [but] people may appreciate yoga for their own personal wellness, as far as their understanding of yoga may lead them.” So are we the Grinches who stole yoga? Yes and no, but if you yearn to learn its history, technique and deep values, then right on along the road of appreciation. But like Ciano says, yoga will only be as meaningful as you let it.


A graduate student at Emerson College, Alexandra Gandolfo is equal parts literature, black coffee and bagels. Follow her @ally_cat_g.

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