James Russell's Blog

© James Dylan Russell 2018

Cultural Appropriation Part 2: Emerika

page-feature“The wrongs of our past have resurfaced
Despite all we did to vanquish the traces
My very language is tainted
With all that we stole to replace it, with this.
Europe is lost
America … lost.”
- Kate Tempest

Cultural Appropriation is a process in which a dominant culture adopts the intellectual property, traditional knowledge, symbols, customs and ideas of another culture, in a colonial manner without permission and with little understanding or consideration of their origin and meaning. Typically, members of the dominant group profit through the appropriation and the minority culture is penalised, often through an irrevocable erosion of their cultural identity (adapted from A. Miller 2015).

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Yoga is a Sanskrit word - ‘yuj’ - (to yoke/join.) It is both the praxis and the realisation of refined states of awareness - which like other subjective experiences, e.g. love & ecstasy, transcend the limited confines of time, space and proprietary control. A variety of metaphysical maps, methods and symbols pointing the way to that awareness evolved through centuries of self-enquiry and experimentation within specific cultures located on the Indian subcontinent. The artefacts and philosophical technologies preserved by these cultures are the subject of widespread appropriation and commodification. Their context is often obscured and original meaning distorted beyond all recognition.

The resulting disparity between indigenous Indian yoga and American/European yoga has become increasingly apparent over the past fifteen years - in which time yoga has significantly gained in popularity, and transitioned from an alternative pursuit on the fringes of society to a popular leisure pastime.

Capitalism

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“How do we celebrate capitalism in America? We place commerce at the centre of all our cultural activities.” - Sri Louise

American and European society is shaped and defined by neoliberal capitalism and its prime directive: profit - which is ostensibly generated through the production and consumption of goods. Within the neoliberal capitalist paradigm, the production of culture is motivated, like all other industries, by the desire for profit.

This system rests on the premise that individual (and collective) happiness is achievable through consumption - whether it be the acquisition of a new car, wearing certain clothes or the fulfilment of sexual desires. However, yoga soteriology rejects this kind of gratification based happiness which is cited as a further source of sorrow and bondage. Yoga is based upon the fundamental principle that ‘mokṣa’ - freedom from the suffering of worldly life, can be directly experienced through a process of self-enquiry and contemplation.

The ideology of yoga is thus fundamentally at odds with the rapacious consumerism that drives the capitalist machine. In the ‘yama’ & ‘niyama’ ethical guidelines found in Patañjali’s ‘aṣṭâñga yoga’: non-greed, non-stealing, moderation and contentment are advocated. ‘Haṭha yoga’, from which most modern styles originate, evolved from the fierce asceticism of tapasyin yogins who reject the trappings of wealth and societal norms. Both Haṭha and aṣṭâñga yoga are based upon renunciation and progressive withdrawal from entanglement with materialism.

Imagine if American yoga practitioners on a mass scale began renouncing wealth, meditating, practising austerities, actively engaging in yama & niyama - perhaps even experiencing profound shifts in awareness, expanded consciousness and mystical revelation. It would represent a challenge to capitalist hegemony & the status quo. So mainstream culture assimilates and resolves the conflicting ideology, in much the same way as with the radical subcultures of 1960's counter-culture, punk and hip hop: through a reductive process of re-contextualisation and crass commercialisation. Yoga is steadily diluted and dumbed down until it has lost much of its original potency and meaning. Capitalism assimilates rebellion by commodifying rebellion and then selling it back: thereby neutralising the threat at the same time as generating profit.

Homogenisation

The yoga tradition is rich in its diversity and religious plurality. There are many paths to mokṣa and yoga finds expression in numerous ways:

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And yet when we look at the way that yoga is most commonly presented in the Euro-American media we find:

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As yoga intersects with capitalism and popular culture, much of its original context, diversity and meaning is diluted or discarded. Rajiv Malholtra calls this process ‘digestion’ and has observed that the perception of difference within cultural and religious contexts often produces mental unease - ‘difference anxiety’: which is typically accompanied by the need to nullify and eliminate said difference. The anxiety is mitigated through the association with familiar, homogeneous ideas. This phenomenon can be clearly seen in the way that the mass media reframes yoga through a western gaze - which typically marginalises ethnicity & religion, and extrapolates those elements of yoga which lend themselves well to commerce.

Popular media outlets present an increasingly homogenised, secularised version of yoga - a commercially viable reconstruction which favours image, physical fitness and self-improvement over transcendence, religion and self-enquiry. As noted by Sri Louise, the escalation of this trend can be clearly seen when examining the covers of Yoga Journal, a company who claim to be the world’s largest yoga media brand.

Yoga Journal - 1970 - 1980s:
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Yoga Journal 2000+ :
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In the late 1990s, there was a shift in YJ’s content and visual image: a radical departure from its previous editorial scope, and a new emphasis upon style-orientated, physicalised yoga - modelled by young, thin, highly objectified and predominantly white women. In the re-designed title, the word ‘yoga’ is emphasised, and the word ‘journal’ rendered barely visible - making space for the ubiquitous, idealised ‘āsana’ - posture. ‘Yoga’ has thus become wholly synonymous with posture. A more fitting title would be ‘Posture Journal,’ yet the magazine retains the word ‘yoga’ and trades globally upon the cultural prestige that this Sanskrit title affords. The word ‘yoga’ itself has been appropriated - removed from its original Indian context, divested of its association with ethnicity, religion & spirituality, and instead reframed in the image of physical perfection and white privilege. The reader is invited to participate in a fashionable, exotic lifestyle with enough familiarity to negate the threat of difference anxiety.

A large portion of YJ’s revenue is generated from advertising so that over 50% of the printed magazine’s content is given over to adverts. The latest edition (Feb 2018) contains 94 pages, of which 64 pages are advertising space - primarily targeting affluent women and advertising a range of products from moisturiser and supplements to luxury holidays. Physicalised, body-conscious yoga is the perfect conduit for the same advertising strategies employed in countless women’s fashion and lifestyle magazines.


Symbolic annihilation

“Rather than asking if yoga is Hindu, instead ask: why is it so important to some people that it isn't?” - Sri Satish K. Sharma

So called ‘modern postural yoga, is lucratively marketed as the dominant narrative on a platform which claims to represent a global yoga community. YJ are owned by the multinational corporation AIM. The magazine claims a combined print & digital readership of 11 million people, and their website boasts that:

“For 40 years, Yoga Journal has been the #1 authority on yoga and the yoga lifestyle…the magazine’s welcoming, inclusive point of view puts every reader in front of the world’s best teachers.”

Yet the magazine’s modus operandi consciously excludes indigenous interpretations of yoga and ‘the world’s best teachers’ are presented as predominantly white, north American teachers. In 2007, YJ was challenged by the Hindu American Foundation for its omission of references to Hindu culture. YJ responded that Hinduism: “carries too much baggage.”

Clearly Hinduism is problematic for corporatised yoga, yet the product they’re selling trades upon a Sanskrit word ‘yoga’ which has a context and meaning within the culture of Hinduism & Sanātana Dharma. Yoga is recognised as one of the six ‘darśana’ - viewpoints of Hindu philosophy. In The Bhagavad Gītā, the main paths of yoga are outlined by Lord Kṛṣṇa - a Deity worshiped and held sacred by millions of Hindus across the world. Although the practices of haṭha yoga are largely secular, its source texts are frequented by an array of Deities such as Brahmā, Śiva and Ganeśa. Haṭha yoga is steeped in a particular type of enquiry and self discipline forged in the crucible of Sanātana Dharma.

Thousands of years of history cannot be erased any more than the religious customs of 950+ million people can be ignored. Or can they?

George Gerbener has coined the term ‘symbolic annihilation’ for situations in which the mass media deliberately under-represent certain groups in society, through a process of omission and trivialisation. This is a form of ‘subtle violence’ (Bourdieu), that disregards the significance and legitimacy of their cultural identity.

Yoga Journal’s neocolonial policy of Hindu exclusion continues even to the present day and is a textbook case of symbolic annihilation.

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The cover of the UK based ‘Omyoga’ magazine presents a similar formula as Yoga Journal. Additionally, their logo appropriates the symbol and word ‘Om’ - a transcendental mantra found in various sacred texts including Bhagavad Gītā and Upaniṣads.

“Om is the supreme symbol of the Lord,
Om is the whole. Om affirms; Om signals
The chanting of the hymns of the Vedas.”
- Taittiriya Upaniṣad


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Omyoga trades upon the cultural capital of an ancient word and symbol, irrespective of its heritage and meaning. The symbol has been relegated to the role of a decorative emblem: a signifier of exotica upon the stylish logo of a commercial lifestyle brand.

The Branding of yoga

“Branding becomes troubling when the balance tips dramatically in favour of the sponsoring brand, stripping the hosting culture of it inherent value and treating it as little more than a promotional tool” - Naomi Klein

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Ideas and knowledge in a variety of forms are treated within our society as a form of capital, or ‘intellectual property’ which is bought and sold on the world marketplace. This can be seen in higher education in the UK, or in the watertight legal systems which copyright and patent huge portions of information and ideas. The same protocols used to copyright html code and corporate logos are now being employed to trademark symbols and codes from the yoga tradition. Some of the logos in the image above clearly show how Sanskrit words are either taken directly: e.g. ‘prana’ - from ‘prāṇa’; or slightly modified, like ‘satva’ - from ‘sattva’ and ‘manduka’ from ‘māndūkhya’. ‘Om’ has become ‘Ohmme.’ ‘Jivamukti’ is described on Wikipedia as “a proprietary style of yoga created by David Life and Sharon Gannon in 1984 ” - yet the word originates in ‘Jīvanmukta,’ a Sanskrit term originating in Advaita Vedānta.

“I have called this phenomenon of stealing common knowledge and indigenous science... intellectual piracy.According to patent systems we shouldn't be able to patent what exists as prior art. But the United States patent system is somewhat perverted… it does not treat the prior art of other societies as prior art.” - Dr Vandana Shiva

There are countless examples of this practice. The brand retains a tie with Indian/Hindu culture, a badge of authenticity and trades upon the cultural value of this association. In most cases what is then offered to the consumer has little in common with the idea that the word or symbol expresses in its indigenous context:

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The United States Patent and Trademark Office currently lists 2268 live registrations for trademarks containing the term ‘yoga’. A number of these applications are from well known teachers seeking to cement their brand identity and copyright the coupling of their name with the word yoga.

“Brands will become religions and some individuals, who are seen as an expression of their brands, will themselves become religions.” - Jasper Kunde

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Note: this ad boasts that Kino MacGregor has “over 1 million followers and students around the world. I wonder if Jesus had this many followers during his lifetime.

Appropriation deniers claim that noone can own or control yoga - and yet businesses like those above, are making proprietary claims over the words and symbols that form its cultural landscape. Branding is a form of declared ownership. A popular fallacy is that because yogic knowledge deals in existential truth, it is therefore freely available for the benefit of all. This position rests upon a false sense of entitlement that typically takes freely with one hand whilst profiting on the other without any form of accountability to the parent culture. Indigenous wisdom is proclaimed as ‘a gift’ to the whole world and yet this so called gift is then sold on and exploited for profit. The yoga industrial complex asserts ownership of yoga every day - protected by neocolonial legal systems and supported by prejudiced media platforms that present corporate hegemony as the natural order.

Conclusion

There are now more choices of yoga ‘style’ than ever before. Paradoxically, what is largely being offered is a homogenised āsana-centric presentation which favours commodification and corporate sponsorship. By severing yoga's links with Hinduism and spirituality, yoga businesses are able to expand their market to a wide spectrum of consumers including Christian and atheist demographics. Within this new context, yoga is typically promoted as a tool for performance enhancement and stress management rather than a vehicle of liberation. Modern yoga doesn’t want you to transcend or opt out of materialism, it invites you to participate in it more productively.

When examining the way that yoga is commercially promoted, it’s helpful to remember that many large-scale yoga businesses are owned by corporations - controlled by CEOs, directors and shareholders who may have little interest in yoga and even less interest in the preservation of its heritage. The culture of the corporation is profit - an ethos that invariably plays host to the antithetical traits of 'graha' - greed, and 'steya' - stealing.

Appropriation is a form of theft and commodification a symptom of greed.

Globalised appropriation extends beyond the binary of east and west - because multinational corporations are unhampered by geographic borders and act with impunity to colonise myriad areas within society. The only loyalty of the corporation is to the profits of its shareholders.

Maybe its time that we change the way that we engage with the current system? In a top-down capitalist economy there is some power available to us in the choices we make as consumers. If we are fortunate to have disposable income to spend on yoga then we can choose to purchase with discernment - or to not purchase at all. We can choose whether or not we want to buy into and feed certain cultural narratives. We can stop supporting and enabling those platforms which annihilate indigenous yoga through their deliberate exclusion of Hindu voices. If we stop buying the magazines and the products they sell, then the platforms will collapse. We do not need any of the items for sale at the yoga marketplace: certainly not the new Lululemon pants (made in a sweatshop in Bangladesh), the branded (pvc) yoga mat, the luxury retreat in Bali or the Gucci yoga mat bag (retailing for $329.) Rather than taking an online yoga class with the latest yogalebrity (hosted on a multinational yoga platform), we could seek out a local, unheard-of teacher. Perhaps ask them about the philosophy and culture of the yoga tradition. We can't all travel to India but it may be possible to connect with Indian yogis and teachers in our local community or on social media. Perhaps visit the local Hindu temple or take time to read and study the Upaniṣads, Bhagavad Gītā or Yoga Sūtra.

If we boycott the brands, then we can disrupt their power and influence.

Those of us who teach yoga have the opportunity to create change from within - by engaging critically with popular yoga platforms and by learning more about the mechanisms of cultural appropriation & reflecting upon our own role in its perpetuation. The neocolonial fantasy that anyone can redefine yoga on their own terms has spawned such travesties as goat yoga, beer yoga & rage yoga - and is an affront to the people in whose culture we are at best visitors. As yoga educators, we each have to ask ourselves who we wish to serve and represent: the yoga industry and its wealthy corporate stakeholders - or the values, beliefs and spiritual legacy of an ancient and venerable culture.

James
3rd Feb 2018

Online References
Kate Tempest: katetempest.co.uk
Amara Miller: The Sociological Yogi - amaramillerblog.wordpress.com
Rajiv Malholtra: Infinity Foundation - rajivmalholtra.com
Sri Louise: PostYoga, A Manifesto - postyoga.wordpress.com
National Council of Hindu Temples (UK): nchtuk.org
Hindu American Foundation: hafsite.org
Yoga Journal: yogajournal.com
Decolonising Yoga: decolonizingyoga.com
Wikipedia: Jivamukti entry
Dr Vandana Shiva: vandanashiva.com
The Morningside Review, Hallen Korn: Patenting Culture, The Cultural Conflict of Intellectual Property
US Patent and Trademark Office: uspto.gov/trademark


Printed References:
Burley, Mikel. (2000) Haṭha Yoga: its Context, Theory and Practice Motilal Banarsidass,Delhi
Carrette & King (2005) Selling Spirituality Routledge, New York
Easwaran, Eknath (2007) The Upanishads, Nilgiri Press
Gramsci, A. (1971) Prison Notebooks, Lawrence & Wishart Ltd, London
Haralambos & Holborn (2014) Sociology Themes & Perspectives, Harper Collins, London
Jain, A.R. (2015) Selling Yoga, Oxford University Press, New York
Klein, Naomi (2000) No Logo, Harper Collins, London
Krishnamacharya, T. 2011(1934) Yoga Makaranda, The Nectar of Yoga, English Translation by TKV Desikachar, Media Garuda, Chennai
Malholtra R. (2007) Being Different Harper Collins, India
Mallinson & Singleton (2017) Roots of Yoga Penguin Classics, Penguin Books
Satchidananda, Swami (2005) (1978) The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, Integral Yoga Publications, Virginia
Singleton, Mark. 2010 Yoga Body, The Origins of Modern Posture Practice Oxford Universtity Press, New York
Sjorman, N.E. (1999) The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace Shakti Malik Abhinav Publications, Delhi
White, David. (2014) The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, A Biography Princetown University Press, New Jersey


Magazines:
Omyoga
Yoga & Health
Yoga Journal - selection of archived copies from 1979 until Feb issue 2018


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