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Yoga, Power And Privilege: What To Consider Before Your Next Yoga Class

A blue yoga mat half rolled on the ground against a white wall
Marco Verch
Recognizing and finding solutions to cultural appropriation is an important piece for yoga and wellness spaces in the Western world.

Yoga in the Western world often looks like a 30-minute class that goes through a series of physical poses. But this is only a piece of yoga's intended spiritual and cultural practices...and many are working to bring the intersection of power, cultural appropriation, fitness culture and yoga to light.

Breathing, concentration and physical positions are all pieces of a yoga practice. But if you’re scrolling through Instagram or YouTube, it may seem like a cute outfit or being able to hold your feet behind your ears is paramount.

Yoga is a cultural and spiritual practice with roots in the Indian subcontinent that is thousands of years old. In the Western world, much of that history has been swallowed up by fitness trends and consumer culture.

Host Anita Rao talks with three people about how yoga came to be the way it is in the U.S. and solutions for putting culture and context back into yoga spaces. Tejal Patel and Jesal Parikh are the co-hosts of the podcast Yoga is Dead, where they examine power, fair pay, harassment, race, cultural appropriation and capitalism in yoga spaces. And Roopa Bala Singh, assistant professor of law and civic engagement with a doctorate in justice studies, also joins the conversation. Singh is a licensed attorney and host of the podcast Critical Yoga Studies.

Interview Highlights

Jesal Parikh on how yoga is much more than a physical practice:

In the yoga philosophy, there's this idea that you can only control your own actions and your own reactions — you can't control anybody else or the world around you. So the whole practice is aimed at what can I do to make myself feel empowered, feel better, operate in a way that works for me? … And I think that gets lost when we focus just on the physical, and I think that there's so many great practices within yoga that help us to address parts of our body, parts of our soul, parts of our mind that other fitness exercises don't do. And not saying that those fitness exercises are any less important or great, but it's not a spiritual philosophy, right? There's a distinction. When you go to your kickboxing class, or your cardio boxing class, or the gym and you're on the treadmill, or you're doing spin, or whatever it is, there's not this idea that you're there to address your own behaviors and actions and the way that you operate in the world. With yoga there is.

Two Indian-American women standing side by side. One wears an orange knitted sweater, the other wears a burgundy sweater.
Tejal Patel, Jesal Parikh
Tejal Patel and Jesal Parikh bonded over a shared experience at a New York City yoga studio. They are now co-hosts of the podcast 'Yoga is Dead.'

Roopa Bala Singh on why divestment isn’t a solution to the cultural appropriation of yoga:

I want folks to understand that when you say that, well, then I'll just not do yoga — you're affirming a mistranslation, you're doubling down on a narrowing of yoga that serves a commodification purpose, like a displacement type of purpose. So I feel like, what can you do? … Continue to understand: it's your breath, it's your practice. It’s something that I say in yoga classes all the time. This is not about a synchronized or uniform experience. If I say inhale and exhale, just take it as a cue for wherever you're at with your breath. Your own commitment to liberation, essentially, and your breath is not affected by the commodity.

A South Asian woman in a black and white checkered top sitting in front of a mirror.
Roopa Bala Singh
Roopa Bala Singh, professor of law and civic engagement, explores the intersection of gender, race and yoga in her podcast Critical Yoga Studies.

Tejal Patel on advice for people seeking yoga teacher training in the U.S.:

You don't always have to get certified, you don't always need to learn just to get a certificate. You can have continuing education because this is your jam, because being a student that's going deeper into yoga is really how you understand yoga and your positionality, your intersectionality in the world a lot better. And those are the ways that I want to see people really take up a yoga practice, one that fits their whole life and becomes part of their whole way of being, rather than a 60-minute class that they're turning on and turning off.

Music on this episode was featured from the playlist below, created by Jesal!

Stay Connected
Kaia Findlay is a producer for Embodied, WUNC's weekly, live talk show on health, sex and relationships. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist and the host and creator of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health. She's also the managing editor of WUNC's on-demand content.