Over the last few years I’ve noticed more and more private school educated white bourgeois millennials posting selfies from slick yoga studios in London, New York, Paris and Dubai with the hash tag #Burner, referring to Burning Man, a gentrified hippy festival, which takes place every summer in the desert of Nevada.
This led me to question whether the current wellbeing trend – the yoga industry revenues amount to $10 billion per year in the United States – could in fact be a form of cultural appropriation? Don’t get me wrong though; practicing yoga isn’t an issue, but the business around it, which flourishes within our capitalist system, is quite problematic. Making money off of spirituality fundamentally alters its sacred meaning. Wellness has become individualistic – yoga classes, meditation books and healing herbs are now tailored and sold for the inner-self.
And it turns out that I’m not alone in this quandary. A Michigan State University professor of Religious Studies recently claimed that “Yoga in the West is a continuation of white supremacy and colonialism”.
In the West, many people practice yoga to relax and exercise, while completely ignoring its traditional religious purpose. But this behaviour seems quite opportunistic and irresponsible. Many people who frequent yoga classes (and even some teachers) don’t even know much about the roots and the spiritual philosophy of yoga, which come from India and Hinduism.
The way white Westerners practice yoga reinforces their ethno-centric and orientalist perspectives of the “rest of the world”, usually depicted as exotic – if not barbaric. This “misappropriation” of yoga, as professor Shreena Ghandi describes, actually reveals imperialist behaviours. People enjoy taking yoga classes in Manhattan or Shoreditch, but have never really cared about the wellbeing of marginalised people in India.
The recent commodification of yoga demonstrated by the rise of fancy studios, apps and fashion is evidence of how much its essence has been corrupted. Yoga is now part of our exploitative economic system – the cost of classes is so high, they are almost exclusive to the rich.
But, it is undeniable that the explosion of the yoga—and the wellness industry itself—is indicative of the current political and social climate in the West. Millennials are under so much pressure these days to try and match the achievements of baby boomers and sacrifice over half of their salaries to pay their rent that wellbeing has become the crutch that unites them with their community – and yoga, ironically, seems to be the answer.