Westerners shouldn’t feel ashamed of practicing yoga in their own way, they should just be okay with Indians practicing it in theirs.
I woke up today to an email by my mother-in-law who loves stirring me up. It was a Fairfax article by a Melbourne-based lawyer of Indian origin, Kamna Muddagouni, lamenting the cultural appropriation of yoga by the West. Provocatively titled “Why white people need to stop saying ‘namaste’,” it railed against the commodification of yoga, which she saw as just another example of the West’s wider ignorance about Hinduism and South Asian culture. She felt much “othered” by it.
Her argument neatly fell into the tried-and-tested post-colonial framework, which goes something like this: We, the Indians, were colonized by the West. Cultural domination was a big part of it. The selective cultural appropriation that we continue to see with “white people” wearing bindis, practicing yoga, and eating Indian is a continuation of that domination and oppression.
Now, our culture will be converted into something that it is not and peddled back to us. We must control how our culture is practiced and anyone modifying it to make it more relatable and suitable to himself/herself is not just being inauthentic, he/she is being offensive.
I find such arguments difficult to swallow because of a particular French lady who once came to Mumbai and gave my younger sister a hard time.
My sister, a Francophile, had to take a French journalist around Mumbai. Everything about my dirty, beloved Mumbai appalled her, but nothing incensed her more than a high-end city restaurant serving “French” fare that my sister specifically took her to so that she could relax in something familiar. The food was inauthentic, the wines were all wrong, and she wasn’t offered a cheese board—how dare the restaurant call itself “French.” The fact that my sister had presumed that this food was in any way French was the “appropriative cherry-on-top,” to borrow Ms. Muddagouni’s phrase.
Yet, we in Mumbai loved that restaurant. We loved it precisely because while it gave us an exotic experience, it tailored that experience into something we Indians could enjoy. It didn’t matter to us that the wines and cheeses were all wrong; the fact that there were wine and cheese at all was exotic enough for us to call it French and enjoy it.
What the experience taught me is that culture is no one’s to preserve and it is certainly not static. Culture is what we make of it. If we Indians want to add some turmeric and cardamom to our pasta sauce and put chicken instead of beef in our bourguignon, it is no one’s business but our own. The Italians and French can’t object to our love for that food, even if the restaurant puts pictures of the Colosseum and the Eiffel Tower to lend it faux-authenticity. Sure, they can snicker about it, but they can’t put an obligation on us that we either don’t partake in their culture or do so only under the conditions set by them.
That would amount to cultural oppression and domination.
If that is true, then why can’t the West enjoy, mutate, and transform yoga into something that they like and enjoy? Why does that make Ms. Muddagouni feel oppressed and offended?
“Ahhh!” I can hear Ms. Muddagouni sputter, “It’s colonization, stupid. They colonized us, remember?”
Yes, I do remember. I also remember that before being about cultural domination, colonization was a structure of political and economic domination. It wasn’t just about our food, music, religion, and texts. It was also about the fact that we didn’t have the freedom to decide for ourselves, however good or bad those decisions may have been. It was about the fact that we had economic decisions thrust on us, which no one in their sane minds would have chosen for themselves. It was within this oppressive political and economic framework that cultural domination gained potency.
So if we have to examine cultural domination and oppression today, it would greatly help to first examine the political and economic dynamics as well.
Much has happened since the British shipped out of India nearly seventy years ago. The fact that an Indian company is the largest private sector employer in Britain is one of those delicious ironies that I wish my grandmother (a freedom fighter) had lived long enough to savor. The economic structure of globalization may have been brought in with Western interests in mind, but India and China have been the biggest beneficiaries of it. Globalization may not have benefited everyone in India, but net-net we are less pissed off about it than the average white, small town American factory worker, if the current American election is anything to go by.
Politically, India is on the ascension as well. The Indian prime minister Narendra Modi received a rock star welcome in the U.S., UK, and Australia during his visits in the last two years. It has happened because all countries want their share of the growing Indian economic pie. That Mr. Modi is a fervent practitioner of Hinduism and its four pillars—“yoga, meditation, abstention, and liberation” as listed by Ms. Muddagouni—should mollify her aggrieved colonized spirit somewhat.
Culturally speaking, Indians haven’t done too badly for themselves either. For all the effort put in the British to define the culture as inferior, exotic, and occasionally threatening, Indians have not only preserved their own food, music, religion, dance, and films, they have also appropriated many other cultural bits and pieces and made them uniquely their own. English language, for example. Some of the best writing in English fiction in the past decade has come out of South Asia, after all.
So politically, economically, and culturally, Indians in India have done pretty well for themselves and should be proud of it. Are they threatened by Australians in Lycra yoga pants sweating out a pranayama at 104-degree Fahrenheit? Nah! They are too busy watching Hindi films, dancing to “Jai Ho,” and eating pasta in curry sauce to worry about it.
Which leaves the Indians living in the West who see themselves as the torchbearers of Indian culture in foreign lands? Should Australians be mindful of the pain they are inflicting on the Ms. Muddagounis of the world with their “nam-aasss-tays?”
They definitely don’t need to, because Ms. Muddagouni has choices but is too lazy to research and exercise them. There are many yoga schools in Melbourne that offer no-frills yoga, classes focused on meditation, spirituality, satsangs, vegetarianism, and have gurus visiting from India regularly to lecture the disciples in the Hindu way of life. Yoga in Daily Life is a good place to start. If merely the sight of white people doing yoga offends her delicate sensibilities, there are also yoga classes that are mainly attended by Indians living in Melbourne such as the Vasudev Kriya Yoga class. She can have an immersive identity experience there.
However, for her to say that whichever yoga class in Melbourne she walks into should offer her an experience that is authentically Hindu enough for her is what Australians call “acting precious.”
As a racial and cultural minority in Australia, I expect respect and a right to dignified existence. I don’t expect reparations for colonization and I don’t expect to control how, when, and where Australians should engage with Indian culture, as long as it is done with respect and/or affection. Because for every Australian stretching it out in yoga pants, there is an Indian somewhere happily adding coriander powder to his Napoli sauce.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.