Originally published at Dissident Voice
Over the past decade the United States has seen an exponential growth of the Hindu practice of Yoga, which has inspired the government of India to create International Yoga Day every June 21st in an effort to encourage peace and harmony. Yet, India has a long history of perpetuating brutal violence on its many minority populations and is using International Yoga Day as a tool to brand itself to yoga tourists by promoting a false narrative that Western yoga practitioners are eating up through cultural commodification and appropriation.
The epitome of the current state of yoga in the West can be found at the Sedona Yoga Festival. The Sedona Yoga Festival is an annual gathering of yogis from across the country that converge in Sedona, Arizona for a weekend of workshops, yoga classes, talks, and various events pertaining to yoga and spirituality.
Sedona is famous for its vortexes, which many believe to be swirling sources of spiritual energy emanating from the landscape’s beautiful red rock formations. As a result, Sedona has become known as the capital of New Age spirituality in the United States with a plethora of tours, teachers, physics, and energetic healers.
In other words, this is a town whose entire economy is based on the commodification and consumption of eastern and indigenous spirituality.
As I entered the hotel of the Festival, I was immediately struck by the hallways lined with tables of businesses with yoga products for sale and unsurprised by the sea of white bodies populating the rooms.
One of the sessions at the Sedona Yoga Festival was a yoga hike where people hiked to a vortex site and did yoga while soaking up the spiritual energy of the mountains. During the hike at one point I set down my backpack on a boulder when it fell over a few moments later. A yoga hiker immediately remarked, “Someone or something pushed that over,” because apparently gravity isn’t a thing in Sedona, Arizona, land of magical vortexes.
Throughout the hike, the teacher often asked me to join them in yoga, but I refused. It’s uncomfortable to be surrounded by white people who enthusiastically adopted a lifestyle that I was forced to give up.
My parents immigrated to the United States from India and we regularly ate Indian food, performed Hindu rituals, and visited family in India frequently.
But my life at home was completely different than my life at school where I was expected to act white in order to succeed. One day my teacher introduced his lesson by bringing in a Bollywood music video as the class laughed at the apparently funny music and dance. This moment, and thousands of others like it, made me feel ashamed of myself and the culture I grew up in. I spent my entire adolescence trying to de-Indianize myself to fit in America.
I was at a conference recently and someone described assimilation as “The less noise you make and the less you look like the “Other” the more likely you are to survive.”
After years of forced assimilation I arrived as a student to Prescott College wanting to reconnect with my culture, but looked around and realized that I was the only Indian-American on our small northern Arizona campus. Yet, despite having only one Indian-American student, the campus is saturated with upper-caste Hindu culture. The one patch of green grass is called the yoga circle, there’s always someone meditating somewhere, multiple yoga classes are offered weekly, and many students adorn Hindu symbols and paraphernalia and greet each other with “Namaste”. I’ve even witnessed school events that have been closed with a collective chanting of “Om”. It’s unsettling to witness my white peers adopt this cool new Yoga trend while I was chastised for practicing that very same thing in my youth.
In her book Karma Cola, written in the 80’s, Gita Mehti wrote, “It is possible that in the not too distant future if the Indian wants to learn about India he will have to consult the West.” Mehti’s prediction became true in 2016 where the only people around me who could teach me about India (albeit a highly commodified version) were white. This phenomenon can be found not only on Prescott College’s campus, but all over the country where Indian food and culture is more valued than Indians themselves. Roopa Singh perfectly summarized it in an interview on the Huffington Post when she asked, “Is yoga considered more American than I am?”
A recently released study by the Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal estimated that approximately 36 million Americans practice yoga, up from 20.4 million in 2012 and that about $16 billion were spent on yoga classes, clothing, equipment, and accessories.
It comes as no surprise then, given the booming yoga industry in the West, that India would want a piece of the pie. Prime Minister Narendra Modi hassaid “the country had missed the opportunity to market yoga and herbal medicine worldwide.” That’s when Modi successfully proposed to the United Nations in September 2014 to declare June 21st as International Yoga Day.
On the surface the purpose of International Yoga Day was to use yoga to promote respect and spread world peace, but it had the additional aim to brand India as a spiritual tourist destination for Western yoga practitioners. The government now offers yoga visas for foreigners in an effort to eliminate bureaucratic red tape. Modi also appointed former tourism minister Shripad Naik as the head of the ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy). The ministry is to promote traditional medicine and practices and was responsible for organizing the world’s first International Yoga Day on June 21st, 2015.
International Yoga Day was a massive undertaking with thousands of events organized all over the world and in every state in India.
But, not everyone was happy with the promotion of International Yoga Day. The government of India’s claim that yoga is “ours” erases the existence of diverse minority groups within the country who don’t relate to yoga in the same way, such as Dalits, Bahujans, Adivasis, Muslims, or Sikhs.
Muslims are one of the largest minority groups in India, making up about 13% of the total population. Many Muslims were upset that the secular Indian government was sponsoring the Hindu practice of yoga.
The reluctance of Muslims to embrace International Yoga Day is understandable considering the history of anti-Muslim violence in India such as the demolition of mosques, bans on the consumption of beef, and Hindu mobs killing Muslims.
In response to the Muslim protests against International Yoga Day one Indian politician even said “those opposing yoga should either leave the country or drown themselves in the ocean.”
Shripad Naik, of the AYUSH ministry stated, “It is yoga and has nothing to do with religion.”
Despite the controversy, International Yoga Day went ahead as planned. Headline writers across the world had a field day with terribly punny headlines such as “India ties itself in knots over International Yoga Day”, “35,000 Bend It With Modi…” and “India stretched its soft power on International Yoga Day…”
In Forbes Rani Singh wrote, “Just the photographs from Delhi and other international cities holding yoga events themselves were a more potent PR tool that any number of images of leaders shaking hands, or press releases trumpeting trade deals”.
For a moment, yoga, and more importantly India, was the global symbol for world peace.
“We are not only celebrating a day, but we are training the human mind to begin a new era of peace and harmony,” Modi said to the crowd of yogis during the event. “This is a programme for the benefit of mankind, for a tension-free world and to spread the message of harmony.”
But, Modi fails to embody his own message of peace and harmony.
Students in the majority Muslim region of Kashmir protested International Yoga Day by taking down a tent that was set up on the grounds of Kashmir University in preparation for the event amid pro-freedom slogans.
Kashmir is the most densely militarized zone in the world with 700,000 Indian military personnel (1 for every 17 residents) occupying a region at the base of the Himalayan mountains. For perspective, at the height of the Iraq War, the United States had about 135,000 troops. Additionally, approximately 8,000 Kashmiris have been disappeared, 1 in 6 tortured, and 70,000 people killed.
Two days after the Yoga Day protest at Kashmir University, police arrested a student named Muzamil Farooq Dar near the university gate for alleged militancy links. “His rented accommodation was searched and his roommate terrified,” says a Kashmiri student.
Protests immediately erupted and every day students would boycott classes and march throughout campus demanding for Dar’s release. One day outside the Vice Chancellor’s office police fired bullets into the air to disperse students. The Kashmiri student continues, “This created huge chaos, police came in and lathicharged everyone. Some students were injured as well.”
Authorities ordered a total lockdown of Kashmir University. For days no one was allowed on campus. Classes were canceled and students forcibly vacated from student housing. Meanwhile the police couldn’t prove that Dar had any links to militants despite his torture and harassment during detention. They released him after 9 days.
Uzma Falak further describes the week of International Yoga Day, “While chasing protesters in the Old City, police officers entered the city’s grand mosque, firing teargas shells inside the premises. The resistance leaders had called for a shutdown on the Saturday against the ‘desecration’ of the mosque. And yet another boy – severely hit by pellets and undergoing treatment – risks losing vision in his left-eye.”
The stark juxtaposition of the events in Kashmir the same week as International Yoga Day shows that International Yoga Day wasn’t about yoga or peace at all, but rather an attempt to grow the country’s global presence. India can’t claim to be the world’s biggest democracy while also being responsible for the world’s densest military occupation.
Further exposing the hypocrisy behind International Yoga Day, in March 2016, a report on the hiring of yoga teachers by investigative journalist Pushp Sharma was released. Despite the insistence by the Indian government that yoga has nothing to do with religion Sharma found that “As per government policy – no Muslim candidate was invited, selected or sent abroad”. The AYUSH ministry is relatively small, but this policy of discrimination has wider implications in the Indian government of the systematic implementation of Islamophobia.
The Indian government’s attempt to brand itself as a spiritual holy land is working. At the Sedona Yoga Festival one attendee said, “I think the whole world could take a lesson from there”.
The Sedona Yoga Festival was the same weekend Sharma’s report was published, but there was no mention of it. The Yoga Alliance held a session called “The Future of Our Industry”, but there was no mention of cultural commodification or diversity which shows that the Yoga Alliance is not grappling with any issues of cultural appropriation.
For white yoga practitioners who already spend countless hours researching and learning about various asanas and yoga poses, it wouldn’t be asking too much for them to also learn about how yoga comes from an upper caste culture and to take a stand against caste discrimination. It wouldn’t be too much to ask them to oppose the Islamophobia inherent in the AYUSH ministry and the broader Indian government, especially when it comes to Kashmir and it should be expected that yoga studios donate a portion of their revenues to social justice organizations.
In the film When The Coolie Becomes Cool, which focuses on the cultural appropriation of bindis, Vijay Prashad says:
I’m not saying that nobody should wear bindis. Everybody can wear bindis. Wear bindis, it’s great! As long as at the same time you’re going to stand with us as we fight against different forms of white supremacy.
A class called “Brown Sugar: Yoga For Folks of Color” that takes place once a month in Brooklyn at a studio called Third Root Community Health Center is an example of how yoga can be used to fight white supremacy.
The class opened with participants gathering in a circle and the reading of a short passage of writing about what it means to be a person of color. Several students shared that they never step into other studios because of bad experiences practicing yoga in majority-white spaces.
Calia Marshall, the founder of the class, recalled one instance she felt uncomfortable in a yoga class when the teacher asked everyone to do a shaking movement. “He said ‘alright everyone put on your headdresses and let’s pretend we’re Indians and doing this Indian dance’. He was talking about indigenous sacred dances and making a joke out of it and it hurt my heart.” Marshall added, “I think misrepresentations happen frequently in yoga because it comes from a culture that we didn’t grow up in. I certainly have made my fair share of mistakes, which is why I’m constantly asking questions and surrounding myself with others who are doing the same.”
With International Yoga Day now a yearly event, will Western practitioners of yoga continue to blindly accept the propaganda espoused by the government of India or will they hold India accountable to their manufactured ideals? If western yogis are going to adopt portions of Hinduism into their life, then they should recognize and act when Hindutva acts as an oppressor, as well as other forms of injustice.