Shreena Gandhi, a religious studies professor at Michigan State University, has made headlines with her provocative article calling the practice of yoga “white supremacy,” and referring to those to whom yoga “actually belongs” (hint: not YOU, you privileged villain).
Ironically enough, a little research shows that modern yoga actually owes a great deal to Scandinavian physical culture methods of the early twentieth century; the various popular poses (“asanas”) have been traced to a Danish system referred to as “Primitive Gymnastics,” an activity originally as blonde as winter biathlon!
Exported to India and combined with methods of meditation popular there, “Primitive Gymnastics” morphed into the blend of Eastern and Western influences we see today. The exotic Oriental trappings and promises of spiritual insight which “Primitive Gymnastics” acquired during its Indian sojourn made the healthful activity far more attractive than it had been as a series of Scandinavian stretches; cynically viewed, the de-Westernization of this form of physical culture was a brilliant marketing campaign.
There’s no need, however, to take quite as cynical a point of view as that. Similar stories of cultural transformation of sports and physical activities abound, and consist of blends of cultural contributions creating common human activities accessible to all. Judo, for instance, grew from Jigoro Kano’s Western education and sports orientation, and while based in feudal Japanese styles of fighting, also borrowed some techniques from Western wrestling.
And judo, once created, was proudly and deliberately spread abroad by Kano’s students—and, in contrast to today’s anti-“cultural appropriation” principles, required students to actually adopt a form of Japanese costume (the judo uniform) during practice. (Thank goodness, because when you let the West invent its own costumes for an activity, the result might be yoga pants.)
Enjoying physical activities, for their own sake or with additional levels of cultural appreciation—or even the occasional cultural misunderstanding—is good for the physical and mental health. In fact, the critics of “white” practice of yoga, could probably benefit a great deal from settling down and doing some serious deep breathing. In fact, they can just practice Corpse Pose, as far as the rest of us are concerned, until they get their mental balance back.
They’re trying to take your Downward Dog,
Your Cat and Cobra too—
Adopting a Spoiled Child’s Pose
Your motives to construe.
No chamomile can calm them down,
Nor GMO-free veggie;
Their yoga pants have wadded, or
Been yanked into a wedgie.
They’d untwist your Bharadvaja,
If they could. But they can’t, so—
Take a solid Warrior stance
And tell ‘em just where they can go.