Fox News Controversy on Yoga and White Supremacy Reveals Problem of Yoga Discussion

A recent Fox News headline, “Americans who Practice Yoga Contribute to White Supremacy, Michigan State University Professor Claims,” dangled like red meat before its readers, begging them to snap. Which is precisely what happened; the comments section is littered with verbal attacks directed at “stupid,” “mentally deranged” “so called professors,” suggesting “you can’t fix liberal.”

Caleb Parke’s story, tagged “controversies,” takes aim at an article on cultural appropriation and the yoga industry by Shreena Gandhi, a visiting faculty member in the department of religious studies at Michigan State University, and Lillie Wolff, an organizer/trainer with Crossroads Antiracism and practitioner of yoga.

Unsurprisingly, commenters hurling insults don’t appear to have read the original article, though they do appear to have read the Fox News story—or the headline, at least—which doesn’t pretend to seriously engage Gandhi and Wolff’s arguments. Instead, like a butcher shaving fat from a carcass, Parke carefully cuts and pastes quotes on cultural appropriation to present for his readers a very simple, and misleading, picture: professors call yoga practitioners white supremacists.

A careful and thorough reading of Gandhi and Wolff’s arguments, however, leaves the responsible reader reflecting on the suggestion that white Americans practicing yoga should continue to do so, but in ways that critically reflect on yoga’s South Asian roots, the history of colonialism, and the desire and power to appropriate from historically oppressed communities of color. Gandhi and Wolff are clear to note that there are already white practitioners of yoga who do all of the above, so they’re not arguing that it’s impossible for white people to practice yoga responsibly.

As a scholar of yoga in contemporary society and the politics of global spirituality, I can’t help but firmly agree with Gandhi and Wolff that capitalism and white supremacy engender and reify one another through the yoga industry (among other ways) by discouraging reflection on historical and contemporary systematic forms of oppression. Unfortunately, their article wades into territory that’s both intellectually problematic and ready-made for those eager to either claim yoga for themselves or to denigrate any attempt to critique dominant white culture.

This latest series of events reminds me of a controversy several years back in which a celebrity evangelical Christian coopted the Hindu American Foundation’s criticisms of appropriation and colonization in the yoga industry to serve his conservative sectarian mission.

In a 2010 blog post, Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, warned Christians against practicing yoga lest they become Hindu. (I wrote about his warnings here). When a New York Times front-page article brought to mainstream attention the Hindu American Foundation’s “Take Back Yoga” campaign designed to raise awareness of yoga’s so-called Hindu origins, Mohler interpreted it as a “vindication” of his own position on yoga. This move was possible since, as it turned out, Mohler and the Hindu American Foundation shared an essentializing vision of yoga—both saw yoga as essentially Hindu.

Mohler’s strategy was not unlike that of Fox News’s Caleb Parke who, through careful pruning and expurgation, painted a simplistic picture of Gandhi and Wolff’s arguments.

While those like Al Mohler or Fox News and its contributors aren’t likely to become exponents of multiculturalism anytime soon, how might thoughtful scholars or advocates of yoga avoid such distortions? Though never entirely avoidable, I would suggest that, when yet another homogenizing vision of what yoga is and is not is offered, that vision can be easily coopted and spun toward purposes that go directly against the goals of those encouraging historical consciousness and social responsibility. Given that, I offer up the following suggestions as ways that might help avoid the illegitimate co-optations and exploitations of arguments that often serve right-wing purposes.

First and foremost, beware of a rhetoric of origins and ownership. Gandhi and Wolff suggest that yoga teachers should study “Hindu tradition” (as if there exists some identifiable homogenous origin point) and that yoga “rightfully belongs” to Indian women. These are stunning assertions. In examining the roots of yoga, the quest for an origin is both historically unfounded and suggests that there even could be a single “essence” or “authentic” tradition. In fact, there are only contested and multifarious systems in which we find traces and signs that point beyond themselves to larger cultural complexes and social forces.

For at least two thousand years in South Asia, people from various ideological and practical religious cultures invented and reinvented yoga in their own images. The interreligious and intercultural exchanges–between, for example, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains–throughout the history of yoga problematize a definition of yoga as essentially or originally Hindu. Gandhi and Wolff also suggest that postures “comprise only one-eighth of the practice,” therefore white American practitioners dilute “its true depth and meaning” and miss the true aim of yoga, which is to “remember our innate oneness and connection with universal consciousness.”

These claims echo many critiques of commercial yoga that rest on the assumption that yoga has a single, authentic origin point and purpose. Yoga’s origins are often located in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, in which the author prescribes eight limbs or stages the practitioner must master in order to achieve the aim of yoga, stillness of the mind. In popular discourses, yoga’s aim in the Yoga Sutras is often conflated with the aim of many hatha yoga traditions, attaining awareness of non-duality or oneness. The findings of historical scholarship on yoga (for example, here) challenge such popular views on the origins or essential aim of yoga. Throughout yoga’s history, discussions have featured argument, contestation, and dissent. There has never been a universally accepted doctrine, teacher, system of practice, or text.

Furthermore, the suggestion that yoga belongs to Indian women is surprising, given women are hardly visible in most premodern yoga texts, which were authored by men. It’s not uncommon to find in such texts the suggestion that yoga practitioners should avoid women entirely given the dangers they pose to yoga practice—women, after all, might distract the practitioner, resulting in the loss of bindu or semen, a vital substance necessary for attaining higher levels of consciousness.

Homogenizing or essentializing claims about yoga’s ownership, origins, or purpose, such as those found in Gandhi and Wolff’s article, are actually in conflict with the project on the politics of knowledge these authors wish to endorse—i.e., deconstructing what are taken for granted as historical or social truths that buttress white supremacy.

We should also avoid simplifying the historical narrative around yoga’s global dissemination and popularization. Gandhi and Wolff, for example, suggest the reasons yoga became popular are tied up with colonialism. Several studies (for example, here and here) confirm this account by documenting the early history of modern yoga as a response to Orientalist stereotypes of India as despotic, unscientific, mystical, effeminate, and in need of Western domination, science, reason, and masculinity. Yoga became a means through which Hindu nationalists could display Indian strength and independence in response to these Orientalist representations, which were used to support the colonial project.

Nevertheless, the story of yoga’s popularization doesn’t end there. Yoga didn’t become a part of popular culture until the late twentieth century when it was tied to a number of social trends, including the rise of the 1960s British-American counterculture and the concomitant appeal of yoga’s South Asian roots, changes in global consumer culture toward a consumer-oriented approach to spirituality and wellness among bourgeois urban dwellers, and the continued Orientalist gaze that pictured yoga as the spiritual filler to a Western cultural void. A full account of appropriation and commodification in the yoga industry would address all of these phenomena and their role in the selling of yoga and its accoutrement.

A second suggestion to avoid conservative spin is to address the global problem of capitalism such that the perpetuation of white supremacy becomes one among many symptoms. Another way to look at this is that a focus on white supremacy in America lets other exploitations of yoga off too easy. The appropriation and commodification of yoga are tools for perpetuating white supremacy in the U.S., but also for engendering a Hindu supremacist narrative in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his allies leverage a renewed demand for ancient knowledge systems that will provide meaning and purpose, such as yoga and ayurveda, in order to get elected or sell commercial products (see here and here). They resort to traditionalist rhetoric about yoga that thrives on nostalgia while also betraying a modern flavor of capitalism, all while profiting off of a fear of lost cultural norms tied to various forms of xenophobia, nationalism, patriarchy, Islamophobia, and homophobia.

Modi works closely with a number of allies to wed yoga to right-wing causes. Yogi Adityanath (Hindu nationalist and chief minister of Uttar Pradesh) responded to some Muslim protests of Modi’s International Yoga Day efforts with the suggestion that those who refuse to perform the sun salutations known as Surya Namaskar are traitors who ought to drown themselves in the ocean or leave India; Baba Ramdev (yoga celebrity and entrepreneur) claims that he can cure the disease of homosexuality with yoga; and Sri Sri Ravi Shanker (another spiritual celebrity and entrepreneur) responded to the rise in suicides among debt-ridden Indian farmers with the suggestion that yoga can prevent such suicides—forget attention to the social structures and economic policies responsible for their dire circumstances. The interweaving of right-wing politics, capitalist economics, and commercial spirituality in all of these figures is alarming.

Despite the shortcomings in their approach I applaud Gandhi and Wolff for adding nuance to an ongoing conversation about the appropriation of yoga. As they suggest, the problem is not with yoga per se, but with a more complex entanglement of nationalist or racist politics and capitalism, an economic system that thrives on the exploitation and commodification of labor (at the greatest costs to women, sexual minorities, immigrants, and people of color).

That said, the argument that white people are usually doing yoga all wrong—implying that there is an identifiable right way to do yoga—is just too simple and lends itself to right-wing spin. In our critiques of yoga’s appropriation and commodification, let’s target the systemic and global problem of capitalism, as well as the ways entrepreneurs and politicians across the world use yoga to profit off of resurgent fears of others and the concomitant privileging of particular bodies, whether white, heteronormative, Christian, or Hindu, without offering up one more homogenous vision of yoga.