Appropriation and Yoga

As I approach 20 years of yoga practice and 17 years teaching, I have become more clear on my position in regards to appropriation. I believe this issue is an essential one for all white practitioners, and especially teachers, to address. This essay will explore appropriation from within the context of my training, and how my thinking about appropriation developed across time.  

My entry point into practice and initial study of yoga was appropriative. I began practicing in 2001 via Gaim VHS tapes I bought from a kiosk in Barnes and Nobles. When I entered studio culture, a’la yogaland, I trained under white teachers of various approaches without any real sense of yoga in its larger context of Hinduism, the cultures and traditions of Indian people, or even spiritual practice. When I started teaching, it was entirely asana based. I’ve often wondered what would have been different had I been more aware of my actions at this time.


By 2005, I had met the person who would become my first principal teacher (Antonin “Tony” Nenov), but it wasn’t until 2010 that I committed to a more narrow focus of study with him. I became fixated on breath centric practices and the metaphysical framework for yoga provided by the lineage holders of Sri Krishnamacharya, specifically AG Mohan, who was Tony’s teacher. I was studying privately with Tony on a weekly basis and working through the online Sūtras course with Mohanji. Both teachers moved me through the Yoga Sūtras and the metaphysical framework provided by Sāṅkhya. During this period of time, the framework of yoga was embedded in my person, and my teaching platform began to move me away from studios and its culture. I began to see that much of what was offered there was skewed in ways I was unsure how to name, as yet.


In 2015, I began studying under my current teacher, Jaime Ortega, who trained with teachers in the lineage of Sri K via his son TKV Desikachar. With Jaime, I began exploring more of the therapeutic potential of breath centric yoga practice, which is very important to me in the work I have been doing at a drug rehabilitation hospital for the last 7 years. I am invested in the pragmatic applications of breath training via this system of techniques, in part because I have witnessed its transformative potential in our society’s most vulnerable. It is not through my own creativity that dysregulated patients become more organized and calm. I simply teach from an established body of work which I have learned from a specific lineage of teachers.


There are 3 teachers I consider to be lineage holders for Sri Krishnamacharya’s body of work: AG Mohan, TKV Desikachar, and Ramaswami Srivatsa. I am not familiar with Ramaswami’s work first hand, so I will leave that to the side. Mohan and Desikachar were contemporaneous students of Sri K for more than two decades. They studied with him privately, and their interpretations of his work are homologous. This gives me great confidence in the fidelity of their mutual understanding and how it is being passed forward. While this congruency to their teachings was not the reason I initially fell in love with this practice, it has certainly given direction to my studies, practice, and teaching. Since 2010, I have focused on these teachings to the exclusion of all others.


As I began to explore the issue of cultural appropriation more fully around 2015, I took into consideration various points of view on the matter.  White teachers and Hindu teachers were talking about this publicly via social media. I also considered the matter through an anti-colonialist lens called African Internationalism. (I study AI under the leadership of the African People’s Socialist Party, and it frames my political organizing, which was also revving up during this same period of time.) I made my first public statements about the appropriation of yoga on J Brown’s podcast in 2016. That episode is now behind a paywall, so I can not link it here. To this day, I stand with those positions. What I have learned since is summarized here.


The demands I have observed from Hindu people amount to this: stop appropriating yoga, and honor Hinduism as its source. While there is some variation in what that entails, the main thrust of the matter feels straightforward: forms of practice which have stripped itself of all ties to the Dharmic frameworks for yoga should cease calling itself yoga. I see general agreement among Indian lineage holders that teachers should not reinvent the wheel and call it their own.


Hindu people are the rightful custodians of yoga practice; therefore it is problematic for white people to maintain power over the yoga industry, from its narrative to its standards to its decolonizing processes. In order to reverse the flow of that power, we need to follow the lead of Indigenous stewards of practice in all things related to yoga, and dismantle white led organizations like Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal.


Because there are many views among Hindu stewards of this practice about how to return yoga to them, the leadership I follow is from within my own lineage. To date, none of my teachers have excluded white people from their student base, nor are they making demands that white people cease teaching yoga. I understand that the more secular nature of the practices that are taught in Sri K’s line are not universally respected. Nonetheless, I feel that my place in this process is to teach from his body of work and point to my teachers and sources of knowledge, rather than mediate disputes between lineage holders.


In conclusion, my intentions are to continue teaching yoga from within this specific lineage. I honor Sri Krishnamacharya, Mohanji, Antonin Nenov, and Jaime Ortega by teaching my students what I have learned, and what I believe to be an integrated and healing practice. I have looked far and wide to return to this simple idea.


Special shout out to Adrienne Totino for the editing work! Thank you!