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From India, with love: cultural appropriation and 50 years of Light on Yoga

Police commandos from India’s northern state of Punjab take part in a laughter exercise during a yoga session. Ajay Verma/Reuters

From India, with love: cultural appropriation and 50 years of Light on Yoga

Fifty years ago, Indian guru BKS Iyengar published an instruction guide to yoga that helped to make the practice a global sensation. Today, Light on Yoga: Yoga Dipika (1965) is regarded as the book that introduced the physical and spiritual practise of yoga to the West.

While Iyengar – who died last year – might have been pleased by his ongoing impact, the past 50 years have also witnessed controversy about the globalisation of yoga. Recently, the University of Ottawa cancelled a free yoga class for the disabled. Why? Because of concerns about “oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy”. This decision has sparked the latest round of debate on whether yoga in the West constitutes cultural appropriation.

BKS Iyengar. Marat Z/Flickr, CC BY-NC

It’s true that yoga has a special relationship to India. While yoga is not a singular tradition, India is usually seen as the land of its birth. In recent years, the Indian government has made worldwide headlines with its nationalist promotion of yoga.

India now boasts a national yoga ministry and has promoted an International Day of Yoga. It encourages yoga within schools. It includes yoga within its Traditional Knowledge Digital Library.

But yoga has also long been a participatory culture with practitioners in many different places. For many people – including some Indians – it no longer connotes much other than the globalised wellness industry. Indeed, it’s quite possible that yoga’s success within global consumer culture has inspired much of this nationalist fervour.

Nationalism and globalisation have often gone hand in hand. For many 20th-century Indian promoters, spreading yoga beyond the nation was frequently an important nationalist project.

Late 19th-century advocates of yoga, such as Swami Vivekananda, thought that the practice could represent a distinctively Indian contribution to the world (Vivekananda also hoped that the world could pay). Yoga allowed many Indians to look powerful on a global stage, even and especially when India was not politically strong.

When Iyengar’s now classic Light on Yoga appeared for an international English-reading audience, it represented Indian cultural heritage in empowering rather than embattled ways.

Appearing in the mid-1960s, a period of dispirited national mood after India lost a border war to China, Light on Yoga projects confidence that India has much to share with the world. Despite its modest demeanour, the book exudes poise and openness, not fragility or anxiety, when it comes to spreading the practice worldwide.

Women practice yoga during a performance on a glass bridge at the Shiniuzhai National Geo-park in Pingjiang county, Hunan province, China. REUTERS/China Daily

While we usually think of Light on Yoga as a set of physical instructions, it also offers cultural instructions about how to consider the practice. Iyengar’s manual brought together philosophical description, imaginative storytelling and scientific language.

The book created a very distinctive form that described each pose, or asana, through stories, philosophical teachings, physical instructions, medical effects, and photography. This form of writing located yoga within different ways of knowing the world.

By including these diverse ways of thinking about yoga, Light on Yoga valued the ability to speak in many ways to many people. Indeed, this diversity reflected something important about yoga itself. As the book famously declared:

As a well cut diamond has many facets, each reflecting a different colour of light, so does the word yoga, each facet reflecting a different shade of meaning and revealing different aspects of the entire range of human endeavour to win inner peace and happiness.

People practise Metta Float Yoga at the adriatic cost in Meduli. Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters

This concern for plurality shapes the modern ideas of Indianness that emerge in the text. Reading Light on Yoga, one can feel simultaneously connected to forms of devotional Srivaisnavism and to Darwinian theories of evolution.

The manual’s rhetoric resonates with the language of the Upanishads – the central texts of Hinduism – as well as with the vocabulary of Western medical anatomy. Anticipating today’s hot question of whether yoga is religious, Light on Yoga suggests that yoga is not exactly a religion in itself:

[Instead, it is a] science of religions, the study of which will enable a sadhaka the better to appreciate his own faith.

Being “Indian” and being “Western” are not adversarial identities in Iyengar’s book. Instead, they are intimately intertwined. This approach, which suggests how yoga can support expansive forms of identity, is one of Light on Yoga’s key legacies.

Yoga was globalised by Indians, in dialogue with people from many parts of the world, long before the practice became a billion-dollar industry.

None of this is to say that we can’t productively ask questions about how power, inequality, and respect shape yoga in its travels around the world. I believe we should. But one of the important legacies of Light on Yoga is its cosmopolitanism.

If we’re going to defend yoga against desecration, let’s defend this generous openness to the world.


Shameem will be on hand for an Author Q&A between noon and 1pm AEDT on Tuesday, December 1, 2015. Post your questions in the comments section below.