A kerfuffle about a Canadian university where yoga classes were cancelled after concerns about cultural appropriation were raised by the Centre for Students with Disabilities sparked Michelle Goldberg, author of a biography of yoga pioneer Indra Devi to discuss the complicated issue of cultural exports, cultural appropriation, and the history of yoga.
Devi was a Russian-born yoga practitioner who was part of an Indian Nationalist movement to fight the British colonial characterization of India as a backwards, primitive place by exporting its culture and traditions, including yoga. Nationalists funded global lecture tours by the likes of Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda, who introduced yoga philosophy around the world, winning over such converts as Wizard of Oz author L Frank Baum.
Hindu nationalists synthesized “yoga philosophy” with “Indian wrestling exercises, British army calisthenics, and Scandinavian gymnastics” to create the system we think of as “yoga” today. The creator of the vinyassa system, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, sent Indra Devi abroad to teach yoga, and she opened the first yoga studio in Hollywood, teaching celebrities like Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson.
Today, yoga’s significance is fraught for many reasons, but cultural appropriation isn’t one of them. For example, the extremist, violent, xenophobic Hindu nationalist regime of Narendra Modi has exulted in the globalization of yoga, using it as proof of Hindu superiority over the country’s Muslim minority.
India is a country of dizzying dynamism, one that has always eagerly absorbed elements from other cultures into its own while proudly sharing the best of its own culture with the world. “All humanity’s greatest is mine,” wrote poet Rabindranath Tagore, who won the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature. “The infinite personality of man (as the Upanishads say) can only come from the magnificent harmony of all human races. My prayer is that India may represent the co-operation of all the peoples of the world.” Tagore—who, incidentally, wrote India’s national anthem—founded a university whose motto translates to, “Where the whole world meets in a single nest.”
This is the essence of cosmopolitanism. Obviously, power plays a role in the way cultures develop. Symbols and practices can be wrenched from their traditional contexts and used in ways that are disrespectful. When privileged American kids party while wearing Native American headdresses, it looks like they’re donning the spoils of a long-ago war. But the way that some contemporary activists would silo different cultures—as if anything that travels from outside the West is too fragile to survive a collision with raucous mixed-up modernity—is provincialism masquerading as sensitivity. There’s no such thing as cultural purity, and searching for it never leads anywhere good. As Kwame Anthony Appiah put it in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, “Cultures are made of continuities and changes, and the identity of a society can survive through these changes. Societies without change aren’t authentic; they’re just dead.”