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Professor: White people who do yoga guilty of ‘power, privilege, and oppression’

A professor of religious studies at Michigan State University recently argued that white people who practice yoga are guilty of enjoying a “system of power, privilege, and oppression.”

To truly honor yoga, writes Michigan State University professor Shreena Gandhi, white Americans should understand its history, acknowledge the cultural appropriation they engage in, and possibly reduce the cost of yoga classes for poor people, a group that often includes people of color and “recent immigrants, such as Indian women to whom this practice rightfully belongs.”

Gandhi, in an article she recently co-authored, argued yoga as it’s practiced in America today is an extension of white supremacy and the “yoga industrial complex.”

“Yoga became — and remains — a practice which allows western practitioners to experience the idea of another culture while focusing on the self,” wrote Gandhi and co-author Lillie Wolff, a self-described “antiracist white Jewish organizer, facilitator and healer” who is passionate about “decolonizing” yoga.

“The explosion of yoga studios, yoga videos, apps, yoga pants, and other yoga swag over the last two decades is evidence of this. Yoga contributes to our economic system, but never forget this system is one built upon exploitation and commodification of labor, often the labor of black people and people of the global south,” the two argued in their piece, titled “Yoga and the Roots of Cultural Appropriation.”

“… We must ask, in what ways are we complicit in a system that harms People of Color, queer and trans people, poor people, people with disabilities, and immigrants? Despite our best values and intentions as individuals, our actions (and inaction) are inherently connected with a system of power, privilege, and oppression.”

The authors write that the many white people who practice yoga should continue to enjoy it, but also “look outside” themselves and “understand how the history of yoga practice in the United States is intimately linked to some of the larger forces of white supremacy.”

“Few white people make the connection between their attraction to yoga and the cultural loss their ancestors and relatives experienced when they bought into white dominant culture in order to access resources,” they write.

Gandhi is listed as a visiting faculty member in Michigan State’s religious studies department. She did not answer specific questions from The College Fix about her theory, but did say in an email: “Best of luck with your quest to better understand, and perhaps even, practice yoga.”

The article was posted on the Praxis Center, which bills itself as an online resource center for scholars, activists and artists. The website appears maintained by the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at the Michigan-based Kalamazoo College.

As for the yoga article, Gandhi and Wolff write that the “(mis)appropriation” of the popular form of exercise may not be “life-threatening” racism, but is nonetheless part of a larger racist system.

“We would argue one of the goals of White Supremacy is to buffer white people from the pain that comes from the process of exchanging cultural grounding for the unearned power and privilege of whiteness,” they write.

The authors offer a solution to yoga teachers and studio owners, saying they should “create space for conversations about cultural appropriation and cultural accountability.”

Additionally, white yoga leaders should consider the “prohibitive” cost of classes, which can be discriminative toward low to middle-income people, including people of color and recent immigrants like Indian women who “rightfully” own the practice, they argue.

The result of modern day yoga in the West is represented and marketed by “thin, white, upper middle-class, cisgender, able-bodied women,” the authors say, adding that white-dominant cultural values like “competitive individualism” distorts the ancient teachings of yoga.

The individual white people who teach and practice yoga, according to the authors, “strive” to promote their particular brand, which “conspires to create a culture of elitism.”

Read their article here.

MORE: Being black in America is a ‘disability,’ black law professor argues

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About the Author
Kyle Perisic -- University of Minnesota