Can Yoga Be Considered Cultural Appropriation?

Yoga has become increasingly popular over the past five years, leading to Instagram accounts showing complex poses, YouTube videos of yoga challenges, and the creation of hundreds of fitness classes.  The form of yoga practiced primarily in the United States can be referred to as western yoga and utilizes traditional poses along with other movements.

Historically, yoga began in India as a Hindu religious practice and many of the poses we perform today still have traditional Sanskrit names.  Many western yoga classes use the Sanskrit and Americanized names interchangeably – the mountain pose is also referred to as a ‘tadasana’ and an ‘uttanasana’ is a forward fold.  Typically, classes end by bowing down with hands pressed together while saying “Namaste,” which literally means “I bow to you” in Sanskrit.  It is used as way to say goodbye, and in some cases, as a greeting.

A few months ago I read an article about a yoga class at a Canadian college that was cancelled because administrators thought the class was a form of cultural appropriation.  Even after attempting to rename the class to “mindful stretching,” the university would not allow it to restart (Duffy, 2015).  Cultural appropriation is when people from one culture adopt ideas or practices of another culture. Although cultural appropriation usually has a negative connotation, it does not necessarily have to be considered an aversive term.

Cultural appropriation is negative when one culture becomes dominant over the other, and abuses their right over the cultural practices.  For example, the use of Native American symbols as sport names is controversial because the names are used in a demeaning nature.

Westernized yoga could be considered a form of cultural appropriation because the poses are borrowed from the traditional Hindu practice.  However, the classification of yoga as a form of cultural appropriation does not mean that we should begin to boycott yoga classes.  Yoga classes do not seek to devalue the traditional importance of Hindu yoga.  Western yoga merely borrows the poses from traditional yoga and uses them as a nonreligious practice.  Although yoga may be called cultural appropriation, it can be positive.

Personally, I believe the cancellation of the yoga class was unjust.  Even though the class is adopting the practices of another culture, they were not exploiting the culture in any way.  If anything, I think that the increased popularity of yoga in the United States is making people more aware of the culture behind yoga.  As more people begin to practice yoga, they learn about the culture and history of the practice and realize that real yoga is more than just poses. Its rise popularity brings forth an increased awareness and understanding of culture.   I know that from taking yoga classes I have a better understanding and a newfound respect for the therapeutic value of yoga, which is an underlying premise of the Hindu religion.

Moreover, I think the idea of the college to rename the yoga class “mindful stretching” is more offensive than the yoga class itself.  At least by calling the classes “yoga,” they are crediting the culture from which the poses originate from.  By simply calling the practice stretching, they are negating the history of the practice.

Do you agree with the cancellation of the yoga classes? Do you think that yoga classes should be stopped because they are a form of cultural appropriation?

Reference:  Duffy, A. (2015, November 22). University of Ottawa students derided for cancelling yoga classes over fears of cultural appropriation. Retrieved February 15, 2016, from


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