Last weekend, I presented a TED-style lightning talk titled "5-minute yoga sequence to lose weight FAST!": Solving the Misinfodemic of Yoga's Meaning through Cultural Appreciation at Alumni Weekend for Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Please enjoy the script and video (coming soon!).
I have a small request before I begin my talk: sit up a little straighter in your chairs. Put your phones and notes away. Connect one hand to your heart and your second hand to your belly. Close your eyes or soften your gaze. And start to breathe into your hands. You don’t have to change the quality of your breath, just observe it for a few more moments, feeling the rise and fall of your hands on your body… Now lower your hands. Open your eyes. And notice what you feel. Maybe you feel nothing. Or maybe there’s a resonance of the focused breathing, maybe a sense of awareness of the room around you.
Today, I’m going to talk about yoga. But my title is misleading. I won’t be explaining the secret yoga product you can buy to shed 10 pounds in 5 minutes - although I'm sure you can find plenty of those if you search online. Instead, I’ll be explaining why as a Boston-based yoga teacher and a freelance writer, I have come to dread opening my inbox to find requests to write potentially misleading articles on yoga and weight loss.
I’ll be doing so by presenting the misinfodemic of yoga’s definition – in other words, the phenomenon of culturally appropriating yoga. Next, I’ll explain how to practice, prescribe, and conduct public health research on yoga by appreciating the roots of the practice rather than appropriating yoga. Finally, I’ll outline how cultural appreciation can apply to other avenues of global and public health.
From the #MeToo movement, to the opioid epidemic, to the public health crisis at our southern border, to the gun violence that kills over 39,000 Americans each year, to the national healthcare crisis that has 28 million Americans uninsured and unprotected from illness, we live in a time that is tinted with trauma. It’s not only cannabis that we’re turning to for relief, but also yoga and mindfulness. Yet I’m disheartened to see that Western media sources still focus on yoga as a commodity or workout instead of providing education on the philosophical and spiritual elements of yoga may truly change our minds.
Among its cited health benefits, there is evidence to suggest the mind-body practice of yoga can help to reduce stress and manage symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD. On a physical level, yoga has been linked to relief from back pain and arthritis and to reducing blood pressure in individuals with hypertension.
So, why then might it be harmful to promise scores of health-interested readers that practicing yoga will lead to a whitewashed “yoga bod”?
Problem story: “It’s not what you think”
It wasn’t until a few months into teaching yoga that I had a shocking realization that I had approached the practice with an ethnocentric attitude.
I did my yoga teacher training while I was a Master's student here at HSPH. I spent the summer after graduating teaching yoga in Myanmar. On the way back to Boston, I had an overnight stay at a yoga studio in Kolkata, India. During a trip across the poverty-stricken city to the studio’s second swanky location, I asked my driver – a yoga teacher of Indian origin who was born into his parents’ business – about his favorite part of his work.
He hesitated before responding, “It’s not what you think…”
Slowly, with measured speech, and likely unaware of how his words would hit a Westerner who had just committed her career to the practice, he began to explain. To him, yoga isn’t about teaching group fitness. It’s not about the brand-name yoga pants, nor the proclaimed health benefits of the practice. In his humble opinion, yoga’s meaning is in bringing hope and awakening to those who need it the most. He had been doing so through teaching trauma-informed yoga to prisoners, but he promised that there were many avenues to act.
His words struck me like a lightning bolt, and I thought, “Are we unintentionally discriminating against Indian culture simply because of misinformation about the true meaning of yoga?”
Today, yoga has shifted from its Indian origin to become a multi-billion-dollar industry that normalizes ethnocentric views of yoga by removing chanting, Sanskrit language, and spirituality. In doing so, we are stripping yoga away from its intended meaning and attaching it to desired health outcomes for the dominant white culture in America. This is known as cultural appropriation.
Solution: Cultural appreciation
So what is the way to solve cultural appropriation? How about cultural appreciation?
If we hope to practice yoga, to prescribe yoga, and to conduct public health research on its potential impacts on population health, then it is imperative that we move away from our current paradigm of yoga – one that is based on cultural appropriation – and toward one that serves to honor the roots of the practice.
If we look to the historic yogic texts, we see that physical postures are only one of eight parts of the practice. This is a sentiment that many modern yoga practitioners may be unaware of, but one that British colonial leaders knew when they forbade Indians from practicing yoga for fear or awakening a revolution against colonization. Whether it’s through movement or through the simple act of witnessing our breath, the techniques taught in yoga classes are merely doorways into accessing yoga’s ultimate objective, which is not to lose weight, but to reach a higher state of awareness of the world within us and around us.
Yoga - in its Hindu theistic philosophical sense - comes from a Sanskrit word that is often translated to “union”, or joining together of the mind, body, and spirit, so that our actions can be aligned with our values. Union can also signify linkages that are collective – linkages across social strata, across languages, and across borders, between those living in privilege and those who live in poverty, between those who have and those who have not.
Links to global health: “Doesn’t that shock you?”
Furthermore, the principal of cultural appreciation is equally important to yoga as it is in global and public health. More often than cultural appropriation in global health, I’ve seen cultural secularism – or claiming ignorance or rejection of the cultures of those who we work with.
Why might cultural secularism be harmful? I witnessed a clear example of how cultural secularism may hinder global health work in Marseille, France.
I spent a summer working with an organization that supported the rights of marginalized communities in Marseille for my Master’s thesis research. My office worked with Roma families who had recently been evicted from informal settlements after migrating from conditions of destitute poverty in Romania. Social workers in the office worked directly with families to understand how the legacy of historical trauma continued to shape the current health, housing, and financial needs of Roma families; by contrast, the directors seemed to primarily interact with budgetary spreadsheets.
Towards the end of my summer internship, I had the chance to interview one of the directors. That day, as we walked through the dusty, winding back-streets from the main office in Marseille to his secluded work space, we crossed paths with a woman covered head to toe in a black burqa. The director waved a finger in her direction, looked at me with his brow furrowed in frustration, and asked, “Doesn’t that shock you?”
Perplexed, I gazed past the woman and up to the walls lined with elaborate graffiti art of a woman with lonely eyes, then down to the overflowing garbage bins laced with the stench of liquor and urine and seemingly fermenting in the beating sun, then finally to the top of the street, to an alcove where I had seen a family of homeless Roma migrants plant their sleeping bags at night.
The director averted my gaze back to the veiled woman with another abrupt wag of his finger. “How can she have the nerve to wear that in this country?” he asked.
I was shocked – not at the commonplace scene of a veiled woman walking down the street, but that he failed to acknowledge that perhaps this woman’s appearance was an expression of her culture rather than an intentional offence against his nation. This interaction was symbolic of the attitude I saw projected onto migrants from those in power.
Sadly, the office I worked in that summer eventually dissolved because the directors believed that social workers should approach their work with a secular view of ethnicity, race, and culture rather than working specifically with Roma families in helping them to understand their rights – an argument that has been a slippery slope into xenophobic and nationalist rhetoric in France.
Unfortunately, the failure to recognize the culture of those who we work with may be a common experience in global health, which may hinder our ability work toward improving the health of diverse populations. Global health is a field that still tightly clings onto certain unjust traces of colonial medicine – a field that once associated disease with the “backward morals” of indigenous populations and that linked traditional medicine with “heathen religions.”
As Maya Angelou said, “History, despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived. But if faced with courage, we need not live it again.” Just as there is a pressing need to take history into account to decolonize yoga, it is equally imperative that we decolonize global health.
The line between appreciation and appropriation is undoubtedly a difficult one to straddle, and yet the absence of acknowledging the culture, language, and humanity of those we work with is equally perilous. The distinction between appropriation and appreciation is one that is rarely agreed upon, making it essential that we continue to check ourselves, assess our privilege, examine our biases, and understand historical legacies of collective trauma when we work with or borrow from cultures that are not our own.
I encourage you to take up yoga, or continue its practice, but when you do so, be curious and mindful of its cultural origin. I invite you to read the history of this sacred practice, and understand its true meaning as a philosophy of living. Additionally, I hope that you include my message of cultural appreciation into your work in global and public health in order to recognize our fundamental interconnectedness and ignite meaningful social change.