It’s time for me to quit teaching yoga. It’s time for most white people to quit teaching, and potentially to quit practicing the colonized tradition that we have come to call yoga altogether.
Over the decade that I’ve been practicing and teaching yoga, I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with the appropriative nature of yoga, but the conversation I’ve been having with myself about it misses the point. The current online conversation white people are having about cultural appropriation (recently, notably @yogagirl) is no better.
Is it racist, we ask ourselves, to be a white person teaching yoga? Is it cultural appropriation? Do we have the right, as white people from the United States, to teach a physical and spiritual practice that originates with brown people, Hindus on a subcontinent on the other side of the globe?
This conversation spins its wheels without any traction or forward motion. It stays firmly in the lane of acceptability and performativity instead of transformation or reconciliation.
What needs to be reconciled is our relationship as white people with our outsized racial entitlement. What needs to be transformed is our cultural and somatic bereftness.
We must have a more nuanced and impactful conversation about cultural appropriation than the one we’ve been having. Side note: I’ve been grappling with how to have this conversation in a way that doesn’t spotlight me. To showcase my process publicly is inherently performative. It’s tricky work to interrupt whiteness--in order for it to diminish, we have to look at it squarely: what it is, how it works, and how to unbind ourselves from its toxic tentacles.
My attempt here is not to center whiteness, but to center it’s dissolution. And whiteness doesn’t go away by pretending it’s not there. In order to talk about how to untether ourselves from white supremacy, we have to talk about whiteness. There’s no un-problematic way to do it.
Many other people all over the internet--namely people of color--have already explained very well why white people doing yoga is usually appropriation. If that’s information that you need, you can start here with Roopa Singh or here with nisha ahuja. I’m writing this not because we need another explanation but because we seem not to believe them.
The question of “Is yoga cultural appropriation?” has always felt more complex to me than, for instance, “Is wearing a bindi cultural appropriation?,” because it is more complex. Esoteric spiritual practices are ostensibly more difficult to parse than a hairstyle or body adornment. Yoga’s history is complicated, I told myself and my students; BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois wanted westerners to practice yoga. Didn’t they explicitly invite us in? Wasn’t this the definition of cultural sharing? Couldn’t I appreciate yoga, rather than appropriate it?
My "lineage" as a yoga teacher is that I don’t have one. I wasn’t invited in by anyone with the authority to do so. Few of my teachers have any deliberate connection to the roots of yoga, to Hinduism or India, or to Desi teachers. (Desi describes people of the Indian subcontinent and their diaspora.) My teachers are mostly white people taught by white people who learned yoga from other white people. What I've studied and taught is a mishmash of yogic philosophy, New Age spirituality, and pop psychology. But I have been willing to take this diluted practice out into my community under the banner of liberation.
The truth is, I have practiced and taught yoga because frankly, it felt good and I liked it. White people have largely lost our connection to all of our ancestral embodied and spiritual practices. Yoga filled the void left by centuries of cultural bereftness and racial assimilation. Practicing yoga brought me a strong body, a stable mind, and a spirit that felt connected to something larger. Teaching yoga brought me a sense of meaningful work, a robust community of dedicated students, and enough money to pay my bills. No wonder I liked it.
But this year, things started to change. For a variety of reasons (changes in the neighborhood, more yoga studios opening in town, etc), attendance at my classes, which had once been full to bursting, started waning. My income from yoga sharply decreased, sometimes not even enough to cover my rent at the studio. While I’ve never been in the business of yoga strictly for the money, I started to wonder: was it even worth it anymore?
Writer and scholar Ibram Kendi says, “the actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest, particularly economic and political and cultural.”
This statement indicts me, and perhaps you too, fellow white yoga teacher. I’ve maintained my connection to yoga because it was in my economic and cultural self-interest to do so. As long as my yoga classes were full and my income from teaching was substantial enough, I was unable, or perhaps more accurately, unwilling to look deeper at the nagging misgivings I’ve always had.
For years I tried to ameliorate these contradictions by bringing my social justice background into my teachings. I gave dharma talks about patriarchy and systemic racism. I taught self-described “sliding scale, consent-based, and body positive” yoga classes. I framed up what I taught as liberatory, because I was at least making a concerted effort to push back against a system that centers rich, skinny, white women and caters to spiritual bypassing of the love-and-light variety. For a time, this framing helped to assuage my cognitive dissonance, but these mental gymnastics are all answering that same basic question:
“Is this appropriation? Is this racist? Am I allowed to do this?”
It’s not like I didn’t know that being a white person teaching yoga was problematic. I’d been called out publically for it by strangers on the internet who said yoga wasn’t mine to teach. “I’m not like those other yoga teachers,” I protested.
An Indian-American friend had privately expressed discomfort about my teaching yoga years ago. She suggested I teach “mindful movement” instead of yoga. “Isn’t that just more white-washing?,” I refuted.
I read Andi Grace’s essays about quitting yoga way back in 2014. “That’s not about me,” I told myself.
Even my own students raised their concerns to me, asking for explanations of why we chant OM, why we say namaste, why we practice yoga at all. “Doesn’t asteya mean non-stealing?,” they queried. I ignored their input, not because of hatred or ignorance, as Ibram Kendi explains, but because of (financial, cultural, spiritual) self-interest.
That this is the culture we were raised within is not my fault, or your fault either, white reader. The systems that privilege us long precede us. Yet it is no one else’s responsibility but mine for me to stop my willful participation in the perpetuation of white supremacist culture. I have known all along, on some level, that my teaching yoga was cultural appropriation--and I was willing to do it anyway. Let me say that again: I knew it wasn’t right, and I was willing to do it anyway. My ethics got much less principled when I had something to gain from bending them.
This is how white supremacy replicates itself: quietly, selfishly, and with all good intentions.
As I announced last week, I’m quitting teaching yoga.
I am deeply sorry for the ways my participation in white yoga culture has harmed Desi people. I am particularly sorry to those who took the time and energy to point out my errors to no avail. I am sorry my own self-interest got in the way of my willingness to look deeply at myself. I am working to do better. I am committed to continuing this conversation in the communities I’m part of. This writing, hopefully, is a part of that.
Please, white readers, don’t rush to defend me against myself. This isn’t about beating myself up—this is about lovingly holding myself to a higher standard, the standard that people of color have been trying to hold me to for years already. I am capable. I am not fragile. Neither are you.
I hold a vision of liberation in which complicity isn’t connected to dehumanization and disposability, in which we can see ourselves as fully human despite our mistakes, in which our humanity is increased, not diminished, by our willingness to take accountability for our missteps. (Deep bow to Black feminist scholar bell hooks for this profound framing.)
I’m no longer interested in conversations about the finer points of cultural appropriation. I don’t want to toe the line or trade in technicalities. We can’t get waylaid with “Do white people have the right to teach yoga?” anymore. I’ve been engaged in that conversation for years now, and precious little changes from having it, save marginally soothing my own white guilt.
We have set the bar far too low for ourselves.
Some questions I am asking myself instead are:
Is teaching yoga moving my community in the direction of liberation?
Is teaching yoga the most useful contribution I can make towards a more liberated world?
Is teaching yoga actively helping to dismantle the white supremacist system we live within?
For me, the answer to these question is a clear and resounding NO.
Some other questions I’m asking myself are:
What am I unwilling to see because it’s in my self-interest to ignore it?
How is my unchecked entitlement making me unable to see the impact of my actions?
What do I keep doing because I like it, because I want to, because it seems impossible to quit?
What are the spiritual and embodied practices that come from my own European ancestry?
How can I actively divest myself from practices that don’t belong to me?
What am I willing to give up in order to dismantle white supremacy?
Look at our foolishness, y’all. Look at the futility of trying to be liberatory in a colonized and appropriated practice. Look at all we must willfully ignore in order to live with that contradiction.
If you care about this work, take this conversation offline and into your own communities. Talk about it at the dinner table. Discuss it at your yoga studio. Support SAAPYA and other South Asian activist groups. Pay back your profits through reparations to Desi people. But most importantly (for white people), get off the spiritual practices that were never ours and can never be ours.
It’s clear that my quitting yoga doesn’t create massive change; it’s one small action taken by one single person. But perhaps we can begin to shift a larger paradigm, one that says that we are entitled to have whichever spiritual practices we please, even if it harms other people, that says that we can take and use what we want, however we want, because what we want is already ours.
This essay isn’t actually about yoga. It’s about the better questions we have to ask ourselves as white people if we actually want to interrupt the status quo. It’s about the ways we’re being called to divest from the systems that privilege us. It’s about imagining a future where we can see clearly that what’s truly in our own self-interest is to work for the liberation of all people, especially when it seems that it’s at our own expense.
When we start to talk about this shift, about what we must renounce, that’s potentially a sea change. When white people can have honest conversations about what we must relinquish, what we must give back that was never ours to take, we may finally begin to move in the direction of true liberation.
Because no matter how you spin it, there’s no liberation in cultural appropriation.