Meditations on Yoga

By Jen Capriola

Art by Bella Dunbar



A petite white woman on the TV screen invites me to inhale my body into Cat Pose before gently exhaling into its sister Cow Pose. I comply, feeling my muscles roll into their new position as I note the instructor’s adorable matching pink exercise set. Is it LuluLemon, perhaps? Or maybe Fabletics?

Four virtual yoga practitioners are guiding me through an online Core Power Yoga sculpt bodyweight class, made possible by my parents’ $140 monthly subscription. I like these video classes because they’re a nice blend of yoga sequences and cardio — my parents enjoy them too, and often accompany me, pulling out their specially-ordered mats, breathable yoga shorts, and matching towels. While the class concludes with a two-minute savasana, a motionless mind and body reflection dedicated to breathwork and serenity, we use this time to wipe down and roll up our mats. Our days are busy, after all.

While a typical day in our household, I find this suburban vignette dubious. These at-home yoga trends — as banal as they seem — exemplify the questionable nature of a globalized obsession with yogic culture. America’s yoga craze, fueled by flagrant capitalist pursuits, has corrupted the integrity of the craft.

A basic yoga practice revolves around a collection of specific poses integrated with intentional breathing and meditative thought.[1] Besides a basic understanding of some foundational poses, a quiet space, and focused breath, yoga demands very few prerequisites from the burgeoning yogi. Respiration, movement, and meditation: all simple processes within our own bodies. However, recent years have unveiled how something as universal as breathing can still be restricted, politicized, and commodified. Yoga, derived from the Sanskrit word for union, has instead become a hierarchical practice, transformed by Western capitalism into inaccessible, New Age, white-washed spaces.

While yoga originated in South East Asian culture with roots in Hindu thought, America’s fascination with yoga is largely galvanized by a rampant consumer market, not a spiritual one. A 2016 study conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance found that Americans spent a cumulative $16.8 billion annually in yoga classes, clothing, equipment, and accessories.[2] Practicing yoga is yet another avenue to flaunt one’s wealth and free time. There exists a dizzying array of commodities which accompany the lifestyle of the chic American yogi. Should I opt for the $550 8-week mindfulness course or the $68 reversible yoga mat and matching $100 pants? Why not both?

With every new mat, class, or app, yogic identities become increasingly inauthentic symbols and realities for “a dominant white society to casually buy and sell.”[3] Creator of #whitepeopledoingyoga Chiraag Bhakta says it best, “yoga has been put in an ironic position: colonized and commodified, a tradition rooted in detachment and equanimity has been hijacked by a grasping possessiveness.”[4]

To journalist and yogi Bhanu Bhatnagar, this economic hegemony is nothing short of “commercializing the mysteries of the universe.”[5] In his 2014 documentary, Who Owns Yoga?, Bhatnagar dives headfirst into the ample, and often ridiculous, versions of yoga found in America — if one can even label some as such. From Rave Yoga (yoga practiced in a black-light club with neon face painting) to Praise Moves (yoga-inspired poses done while reciting biblical scripture), Bhatnagar tracks all the ways white people co-opt and rebrand yoga for their economic pursuits. In countless instances, we witness white yogis craft their self-images based off of personal, inaccurate interpretations of a commodified “other.” One trendy urbanite who claims to be “innovating” the practice by removing all Sanskrit words sums her perspective up with a quippy, “why be zen when you can be fabulous?”


Indeed, the commodification of yoga, the rise of spiritual materialism, and the white-washing of cultural spaces is simply a 21st century recapitulation of colonization, imperialism, and cultural erasure. One cannot examine the economic, neoliberal proliferation of yoga without also unpacking the centuries of colonial violence which predicate it. Many of the instances of “multiculturalism” found in Bhatnagar’s film are simply surreptitious instances of neocolonial appropriation of previously colonized cultures.

Undoubtedly, reproducing non-Western cultural traditions within a settler-colonial state is inherently problematic, with even greater implications when the tradition economically and socially benefits the descendants of colonizers themselves. And while recent decades have witnessed an impressive unearthing of America’s rampant cultural appropriation, there still exist many insidious structures reliant on cultural theft which go unacknowledged. Certain subsects of yoga have become novel tools of colonial agendas, which is rather ironic as the practice was originally repressed during the British occupation of India because of its anti-imperial sentiments.[6]

So who, as Bhatnagar asks, owns yoga? Is it the American “inventors” who patent their signature yoga routines? The indigenous peoples of the Indus River Valley 5,000 years ago who originated the practice? Myself, as I roll out my mat and renew my online subscription? The fact that we’re asking this question reflects a deep seated capitalist, colonial rhetoric which posits everything can and must be possessed, monetized, and profited from. If something is for the emotional and physical wellbeing of any able-bodied person, no one should ever own it. No one claims that only South Asians can practice yoga. As yogi and author Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev states, “just because the sun touches Indian shores before it touches Doha, can we claim the sun is Indian?”[7] The issue lies not with white Americans doing yoga, but that these people consume an inauthentic exercise which not only disregards, but harms, its culture of origin.

It is quite uncomfortable to sit and consider your participation within a system reliant on a pervasive, institutionalized othering. It feels far easier to jump to justification or solutions, omissions and deletions: anything to remove guilt and move on. But, not unlike the final, motionless savasana, this discomfort is necessary and productive all the same.

Then, we can exhale and go from there.



[1] Kelly Couturier, “Yoga for Everyone,” The New York Times (The New York Times), http://www.nytimes.com/guides/well/beginner-yoga.

[2] “2016 Yoga in America Study Conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance,” Yoga Journal, April 13, 2017, https://www.yogajournal.com/page/yogainamericastudy.

[3] Batacharya, Sheila, and Wong, Yuk-Lin Renita, eds. 2018. Sharing Breath: Embodied Learning and Decolonization. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press. Accessed November 10, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

[4] Chiraag Bhakta, “The Whitewashing of "#WhitePeopleDoingYoga,’” Mother Jones, October 17, 2019, http://www.motherjones.com/media/2019/10/white-people-yoga-sf-asian-art-museum/.

[5] Bhatnagar, Bhanu. Who Owns Yoga? Aljazeera . Aljazeera Media Network, 2014. https://www.aljazeera.com/program/al-jazeera-correspondent/2014/11/27/who-owns-yoga/.

[6] Batacharya, Sheila, and Wong, Yuk-Lin Renita, eds. 2018. Sharing Breath: Embodied Learning and Decolonization. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press. Accessed November 10, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

[7] Bhatnagar, Bhanu. Who Owns Yoga?Aljazeera . Aljazeera Media Network, 2014. https://www.aljazeera.com/program/al-jazeera-correspondent/2014/11/27/who-owns-yoga/.