Did the West steal yoga?

As Google celebrates yoga pioneer BKS Iyengar with a Doodle on its home page Monday, some critics are saying that the popularity of the ancient Indian discipline among Westerners amounts to cultural appropriation.

Google celebrated the birthday of yoga pioneer BKS Iyengar, who would have turned 97 today.

On what would have been the 97th birthday of BKS Iyengar, Monday's Google Doodle honors the Indian guru's worldwide yogic practices, even as they bend, twist, and stretch into a battle over who, if anyone, owns the 5,000-year-old discipline.

Many Indians are likely thrilled to have yoga celebrated in today’s Doodle, but others recently have opposed Westerners running around in pricey Lululemon togs, posing for contorted selfies, and vying for the rights to charge high sums to attend hybrid classes. 

BKS  – that's Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja – Iyengar, who died last year, spent eight decades sharing his practices and philosophies via his version of “Iyengar yoga” around the world. 

But not everyone sees it as sharing. In November, the University of Ottawa pulled the mat out from under free yoga classes at its Centre for Students with Disabilities because of a complaint that the practice amounted to “cultural appropriation.” 

Naturally, the battle moved to Twitter:

“A year after BKS Iyengar's death, we're watching a cultural family feud over his legacy and the ongoing commodification of yoga,” writes Susan Scafidi, academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University in New York, in an email.

“Google's decision to recognize BKS Iyengar with a doodle could certainly be interpreted by some as taking sides in the cultural tug-of-war over yoga, especially in the wake of a US court decision in October denying copyright in the Bikram Yoga Sequence. Who owns yoga? According to Google, everyone.”

Ms. Scafidi writes that “the cultural acquisitiveness of Westerners can strike a nerve in postcolonial societies like India, whose territory and natural resources are their own, but whose cultural products are still being harvested for export, sometimes without sufficient respect for their origins.”  

She argues that yoga is “a classic example of a contested cultural product with both religious and medical significance that has been the subject of cultural appropriation, and some argue misappropriation.”

“BKS Iyengar has been honored by the Indian government, among others, for his role in spreading the practice of yoga around the world, a voluntary sharing of culture,” she adds.

“But for some members of the source community, that apparently generous impulse has been eclipsed by the aggressive marketing of designer yoga fashion and the rise of consumers who worship at the temple of Lululemon."

Others, like journalist Deepak Singh are amused by Americans blurting the word "namaste"  at the drop of a yoga mat without the cultural reference points he had growing up in India, where the word is a respectful salutation to elders and not a particularly spiritual utterance. 

Mr. Singh offered up a light-hearted the dialogue over yoga culture with his piece for National Public Radio in July titled, "What's In A Namaste? Depends If You Live In India Or The U.S." 

What does Singh make of Monday's Google Doodle? "I find it funny that yoga became a fashion in India after it got popular in the West," he tells the Monitor.

Arts educator nisha ahuja created a YouTube video to help would-be practitioners understand how this appropriation happens, “Yoga has been turned into something completely opposite of that in the North American and capitalist context, and that’s a result of cultural appropriation. And so, yoga has been turned into something that has been diluted of its original meaning. It's been turned into a plaything.”

But Michael Kugelman, the senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, says that from the perspective of most people in India, “This is much ado about nothing.”

“I think there are certainly small minorities of folks in India and also outside of India that may articulate this argument that it’s culturally inappropriate, but at the end of the day most Indians are delighted that yoga has become such an international phenomenon, because, among other things, this has helped enhance India’s global image.”

He adds, “The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often times in his speeches overseas referred to yoga and its importance. When he was in New York he said it was a good way to deal with climate change.”

“So, one of the most powerful people in India is not afraid to sing the praises of this institution on very global stages,” Mr. Kugelman points out. “Those that have been protesting represent a relatively small percentage of people in India and overseas. India, like many other countries has a conservative wing. The party of Modi may take a hard line on certain issues and some folks who support this party may be among those who have voiced opposition, but again it’s very small.”

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