Yoga: Whose Practice is it Anyways?

By: Megan Patel

March 4, 2016

Yoga is the new “it” thing. This eastern tradition has seeped into American culture and society—albeit with a capitalist twist. Storefront windows are littered with colorful yoga tights and designer yoga pants. Coming in at a whopping $100, neither these articles of clothing or yoga instruments are accessible for the average consumer. A variety of yoga studies cater to a plethora of tastes. People have combined yoga with dance, yoga with cats, and yoga with stifling heat. This has brought up the question of cultural appropriation—whose religious practice is yoga anyways, and if yoga is made secular by the West, can it even be called yoga anymore?

The first written record of yoga was by Patanjali in his 196 Yoga Sutras in 400 CE. He described yoga as the “suppression of thought and mental fluctuations.” Though some of Patanjali’s Vedic thought went on to influence the formation of yoga in Hinduism, it also influenced Buddhist and Jain ideas on yoga as well. When the Sufis arrived in India around the time of the Delhi Sultanate, they too adopted practices of yoga. The British later disseminated the physical components of yoga to the West with the invention of the printing press. Therefore, despite the Indian government’s claim on yoga, its religious roots are murky. 

Yoga in Hinduism is described in the Bhagavad Gita. Hindus believe that there are four branches of yoga that will help achieve salvation and bring you closer to God. The first branch of yoga is called Karma Yoga (selfless action), and it focuses on service. The second branch of yoga is called Bhakti Yoga (loving devotion), and it is composed of singing, dancing, and worshiping. The third branch of yoga is called Jnana Yoga (self-knowledge), which focuses on understanding the scriptures, your body, and your soul. The fourth branch of yoga is called Raja Yoga, which emphasizes mental engagement.

Georgetown’s Hindu Student Association, Catholic Daughters, and Magis Row all co-hosted an interfaith yoga event. The yoga instructor that led us through the practice was Catholic. She beautifully articulated how yoga helped her connect with her faith tradition. Yoga offered her a space to take a deep breath, clear her mind, and focus on her relationship with God. By providing a space that calmed her, she was able to reflect deeply on the intersection of her faith and her role in the world. The room was filled with people of all faith traditions, as well as people who did not identify with a particular faith at all.

To me, this is what yoga is all about. Everyone was able to discern, still their minds, and calm their bodies. We all became aware of how powerful our bodies really are and the gifts we have all been given. Unlike Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that were only accessible to upper caste Brahmins, or today’s expensive yoga classes, this practice was accessible to everyone. It provided us a peaceful space to reflect on our collective unity and critically think about removing a practice from its roots. Though the physical aspect of yoga is beneficial, it is important for people to understand that the most important part of yoga is within—it is the mind that matters the most.

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Yoga: Whose Practice is it Anyways?