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Is Your Yoga Practice Stealing From Religion?

In her new book, a religious-ethics scholar grapples with the implications—and inevitability—of religious appropriation.

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Liz Bucar was concerned about her students. The Northeastern University religious-ethics professor says they were using the term “cultural appropriation” without fully understanding the concept or its implications. As a result, they were shutting down complicated ethical conversations they needed to be having. When it came to the notion of religious appropriation, well, that was an entirely foreign concept for them.

In her new book, Stealing My Religion, Bucar writes that “they never consider that forms of religious borrowing might be harmful in the same way” as cultural appropriation. She wrote the book because she wanted them to think more deeply. Where better to explore that than in the murky realm of yoga. Or should we say yogas. 

Devotional yoga offers chanting, sutras, and traditions

Bucar, who is also a certified Kripalu Yoga teacher, suggests that there are two kinds of yoga—devotional and respite.  Distinguishing between them helps us understand the complex way we approach the practice in the West.

Devotional yoga is rooted in Vedic study and evolved out of Hinduism. Here lives the chanting, the mudras, the sutras, the Bhagavad Gita. We may think of it as traditional or authentic because it seems more like what we imagine sages to have done in Hindu ashrams.

“When yoga first came [to the U.S.] it was very devotional,” she says. While it did draw some adherents who were interested in the philosophy, it wasn’t palatable for many Westerners. “It was too Eastern, too foreign, too brown, too challenging.”

To make it more accessible to a broader swath of people, “yoga advocates basically told people: you can pull out asanas and don’t worry about the metaphysics and the cosmologies and the ethics,” she says. They were promised a primarily physical practice that was safe and unchallenging to their worldview. That’s the framework from which “respite yoga” evolved.

Respite yoga promises better wellbeing

The practice Bucar calls respite yoga is all about physical health, stress reduction, and overall well-being. She describes it as “feel-good yoga, good-vibes-only yoga.” It’s the kind of secular practice we expect from a studio or a fitness center.

The benefit of a secular yoga practice is that it can be accessible to more people, regardless of their religious or spiritual leanings. But eliminating the esoteric parts of yoga distills it down to little more than calisthenics and deep breathing. And while medical research confirms the physical and mental health benefits of such exercises, for some people, that just doesn’t seem to have the same appeal as the practice we call yoga.

“The thing that makes yoga valuable is that it is sort of vaguely spiritual,” she says. “There’s something attractive to us about accessing Eastern forms of spirituality and wisdom and practice techniques that are ancient and meaningful.” But we may feel more comfortable doing it if we can overlook yoga’s religious origins, she says. And that’s when we begin wading into religious appropriation.

What’s wrong with borrowing from religions?

Like cultural appropriation, which “borrows” from culture at large, religious appropriation involves cherry-picking aspects of various religious traditions and claiming them—or dismissing them—to suit one’s own practice. Bucar says this tendency has evolved as increasing numbers of people describe themselves as “spiritual, not religious”—who tend to believe in a higher power, but eschew the specific commitments required by religions.

People in this category tend to approach spirituality as something that can be “individually curated,” she says. “Yoga is an example of that—where you pick and choose the different practices you want to do. And then you get to assign whatever meanings you want to it. So you want your Sun Salutation to be a prostration to a god? Great. You want it to just be the thing you do in a hot room in the morning, and forget that cultural context from which that practice came? That’s fine, too.”

That’s why we can go to a yoga studio and sign in under the watchful eye of a Buddha statue, sit on a Mexican blanket wrapped in a shawl embroidered with Ganesha images, and meditate in a haze of sage smoke. We are taking appealing elements from various religious contexts and tucking them under the umbrella of what we call yoga.

Yoga’s evolution

This is not to suggest that there’s any such thing as “pure” yoga. “Yoga itself comes from all sorts of traditions,” Bucar says. In addition to Hinduism, she cites the influences of Jainism and Sikhism, aspects of Buddhism, as well as older Indian philosophies. It was influenced by colonization before it came West. Once it arrived in the US, it influenced and was influenced by Transcendentalism, the Harlem Renaissance, bliss-seeking hippies in the 60s, and eventually monied White elites.

Today, yoga is being claimed by marginalized groups representing various races, gender identities, body shapes, abilities, and circumstances. It’s being reclaimed by South Asian practitioners calling for the acknowledgement of yoga’s Indian roots.

The point is that yoga doesn’t happen in a bubble, Bucar says. “It happens within a world that has inequities and injustices. It happens within whiteness and white supremacy in the US. It happens within a context of Orientalism. It happens within a context of capitalism. It interacts with those forms of structural injustice and, sometimes, makes them worse.” As yoga practitioners, we have to grapple with where we stand on that.

The approach to religious appropriation

Her answer to countering religious appropriation isn’t to pull away, but to dive in more deeply.

“This sort of [religious] borrowing by itself is not necessarily a problem. This is the way that cultures interact; the way religions interact,” she says. “There’s no way to avoid it, quite frankly.” Bucar suggests that cultures–including religious cultures–evolve and change as a result of coming into contact with one another. Exploring various spiritual paths can be an opportunity for mutual understanding—if there’s respect, reciprocity, and a sensitivity to cultural context.

“Careful engagement with the religion of others has the potential to help us understand communities different from our own,” she writes. “But it can also fundamentally change the way we see the world and provide ways for dismantling structures of privilege, inequity, and alienation.”

That engagement necessitates some self examination—svadyaya, if you will. For her, that has meant wrestling with whether or not there are ways to “borrow” religions respectfully and responsibly. Or whether being respectful means giving up certain practices altogether.

Can I still do yoga?

Bucar says that whenever she talks publicly about this subject, “the first or second question is always from someone who raises their hand and says, ‘Can I still do yoga?’”

“If you [are] asking that, then there’s something about things you’re doing that you’re uncomfortable with,” she says.  That discomfort is a signal that you may want to sit and grapple with the question, seeking the answer that’s right for you.

It’s a question she’s had to sit with herself—examining the issue through the lens of her positions in society. She says how she approaches her practice depends on whether she is practicing privately at home or in a yoga class, where certain gestures might seem performative. “Things become more difficult when I step into the role of yoga teacher. I have come to see that this role requires leading others through religious appropriation, and my opinion about how to do that is still evolving,” she writes. “When I teach, I still focus on a respite experience, but try to provide an opportunity to learn about devotional yoga as well.”

But that’s her personal decision. “I don’t want [people] to agree with me on where I come out on yoga and what I’ve decided for myself,” she says. [My decision came from] sitting with the discomfort, and thinking about my own privilege in the world. And that’s not the same for everybody. But the point is to take that time and do it. It’s not to come to the same answer.”

No right answers

“We can’t have it both ways,” she says. “We can’t say that yoga is special and different from other exercises because it’s an ancient spiritual practice, but then ignore the fact that it comes from a devotional context.” While she stops short of saying that yoga itself is a strictly Hindu practice, or necessarily a religion itself, she does acknowledge that yogic techniques are powerful and that they can change us—even if we’re not expecting that change.

“This is hard stuff to figure out.” she says. “There are no right answers. There’s no-one-size-fits- all, but that struggle is what I want to encourage people to do and not be afraid of.”

And if the process leaves you with more questions than answers, that’s okay with Bucar. “In religious studies and religious ethics, we’re okay with sitting with discomfort,” she says. “I think that part of my job is to get students to sit a little bit with discomfort and let that anxiety be productive.”

That sounds just like yoga.