Do You Really Know the True Meaning of Yoga? Thoughts from a British Indian Yogi

There’s no denying the fact that yoga is mainstream. Yet one yogi with Indian roots explains the problems that can arise when those who love this practice don’t understand its history or true purpose—and what to do about that.
Publish date:
Puravi Joshi

Puravi Joshi

“I like your ‘om’ tattoo—can you tell me about the 5,000-year history behind it?”

I was on my yoga teacher training in Costa Rica when I noticed a fellow trainee with a massive “om” tattoo on his back and asked him that question. His response? “It’s just a yoga thing.”

I could tell that my fellow yoga trainee had absolutely no intention of offending me—but he did. As a British Indian, I replied, “Actually, it’s not a yoga thing; it’s a Hindu thing.”

“Oh, I had no idea,” he said to me, innocently. “I just thought it was a yoga thing.”

Without even realizing it, this man—who didn’t know the meaning of the om tattoo on his back—was yet another example of how yoga is often marketed, and misunderstood, in the Western world.

See also Why Hindu Mythology Is Still Relevant in Yoga

Why True Yoga Isn’t Just a Workout

Yoga is estimated to be at least 5,000 years old, originating in the Indus Valley Civilization in India. But if you google “yoga,” or scroll through yoga-related hashtags, you probably won't see an Indian person. You’ll most likely see flexible (almost always white) women practicing postures—the more physically demanding, the better—in expensive yoga pants on beaches or in chic workout studios.

Growing up in London as a first-generation British Indian, I was raised to practice yoga—but it never required breaking a sweat, nor did it involve special attire or equipment. My family learned yoga by lecture and practice, but mostly it was embedded—hidden, really—in everything we did. This is because true yoga isn’t just a workout. It is an ancient Indian philosophy espousing an eight-limbed approach to conscious living.

See also Get to Know the Eight Limbs of Yoga

In my early adulthood, I adopted a regular yoga practice as a way to manage my migraines, and to help deal with stress from my job in finance, which hit an all-time high last year when I was forced to quit my job and consequently ended up suffering from panic attacks and sleepless nights. Put simply, yoga saved me. It brought me back to a state of calm and helped me regain my true sense of self. It helped me remember to simply breathe and be. The physical asana and the meditation helped me overcome my anxiety and inspired me to become a yoga teacher. And deepening my yogic studies in this way made me feel proud to be an Indian. For many years, I had deprived myself of this deep aspect of my own heritage. Returning to yoga brought me back to a part of myself that had long been neglected.

These days, yoga philosophy—a part of my culture!—is valued by so many around the world. Now, the sound of “om” at the end of a yoga class is powerful to so many people—not just Indian people. Over the years I have grown to love and respect my teachers and friends who practice yoga, many of whom are non-Indian and many of whom are. I'm happy that people find healing and spiritual freedom in something from my cultural roots. But if I’m honest, I sometimes find myself resentful of the fact that yoga is infrequently seen for its original purpose and meaning.

Puravi Joshi

Puravi Joshi

We’ve Obscured Yoga’s True Origins

Though it could easily be perceived as trendy, yoga was actually introduced to the West in the 1920s, when Paramahansa Yogananda brought the practice United States and Europe as a path to self-realization for any and all. Sadly, due to cultural appropriation, especially in the last decade, the Western culture of “yoga” often feels exclusionary to me, and I’m sure to many longstanding practitioners of all races.

Yoga—a practice based in large part on self-awareness, self-love, and freedom from materialistic things—is now mostly depicted with stylish athletic apparel and targeted toward middle- and upper-class populations as a spiritually and physically elite activity.

I'm not saying that yoga is only for Indians (that’s not the case at all!) or that it should never be a workout. But I am saying that yoga is far more than a trendy, physical practice. And it disheartens me that much of the marketing around yoga has made it so that the entire point of the practice is often misunderstood. Cultural appropriation is when borrowing and sharing between cultures becomes exploitation. It’s cherry-picking what looks cool in a cultural practice without learning and acknowledging its complex history. Cultural appropriation in yoga happens on many levels, from the messaging we receive from some major brands and media to the Sanskrit mantras printed on T-shirts to the om tattoo my fellow yoga teacher trainee couldn’t explain.

See also Sanskrit Top 40: Must-Learn Lingo for Yogis

Many forms of yoga cultural appropriation are subtle; they involve knowingly glamorizing a cultural practice, and rationalizing doing so as harmless and fun. There are many who claim that cultural appropriation is meaningless whining from non-white people. What these claims refuse to recognize is that many non-white cultures are still fractured or repairing themselves, facing continued prejudice in the present day. Rejecting cultural appropriation as a problem also rejects that many communities, often non-white ones, have been historically oppressed, colonized, and had their cultures ransacked for profit.

So, Where Does Yoga Go From Here?

According to the yoga Sutras (classic texts), yoga asana is just one of yoga’s eight limbs. The yoga I knew from my Indian upbringing—the spiritual philosophy embedded in everyday experiences—is no longer seen as yoga. Practices in the other limbs of yoga—such as purification of body, mind, and speech; controlling human impulses; the practice of breathing to control the life force within; supporting collective humanity; and mental exercises through meditation—are often cast aside or forgotten in many forms of modern practice.

One reason for this shift is that typically when people walk into a yoga class, they’re expecting a workout. Pumping music while moving in vinyasa or “power” flow is fun, but it’s cardio on a rubber mat rather than the true spiritual practice of yoga. Asana in silence can seem boring—even scary and uncomfortable. But that’s where space for self-awareness and transformation lives. Filling the nakedness of silence with loud music and intense exercise isn’t wrong if that’s what you like. It just isn’t yoga. What I learned from the time I was a child and what I still know to be true is that yoga is as much about spirituality as it is about shaping your mind and body.

I understand why cultural appropriation can be confusing, especially when one's intention is not to offend. In many cases, students and teachers are likely not even aware of how certain words and actions can mar the religious or spiritual significance of yoga.

The average buyer of mala beads may not be aware of the spiritual meaning behind the numbers of the beads—18, 27, 54, 108—designed to develop rhythmic contemplation around the number nine. This connection makes the beads more similar to a rosary rather than a visible piece of jewelry.

Another common example is when I see a statue of Hindu deities, such as Ganesha or Lakshmi, at the front of a yoga room, or printed on a yoga tank top. I am both warmed to see India so vividly accepted—and also uncomfortable. In my family, and as widespread practice for millions across India, these deities are sacred. You remove shoes in their presence as a form of respect. They are usually kept in temples or altars. You don’t wear them on your body as you sweat, and you definitely don’t direct your feet at them in Corpse Pose. I’m sure that teachers of any race who have diligently studied in various ashrams (monasteries) of India or with Indian gurus would agree. For Hindus, these deities are not just cultural symbols or myths. They are God.

Addressing the problem of appropriation requires the kind of study that, like yoga practice itself, is ongoing. If your teacher guides you in a Sanskrit mantra, inquire about its meaning, pronunciation, and history. When you choose yoga apparel, consider what the deity or printed symbols represent. If you devote hours toward perfecting an inversion in your physical practice, try spending a fraction of that time exploring a yogic text.

I try to do my part by voicing my perspective with friends, students, and in my writing. Some say that the “yoga trend” may ultimately dissolve, just like any other fad. If it does, I'm confident that the timeless spiritual principles beneath yoga's surface will remain for all who choose to seek them.

About Our Writer

Puravi Joshi (@puravijoshi) is an ex-banker turned yoga teacher, who leads hatha, vinyasa, and restorative yoga classes in London. She also teaches yoga and mindfulness to children.