Considering Yoga in the West: Is it Really Yoga?

By Molly Rae Benoit-Leach MSW RSW RYT
Published: February 17, 2020
Key Takeaways

Can we adapt teachings from yoga and choose to call it something different?

What really is "yoga"? When I began writing for Yogapedia a few years ago, I would have said that yoga considers all eight limbs of ashtanga yoga.


I would have said that yoga isn't a purely physical practice, but also a spiritual one.

I still believe this, but recently my lens for understanding yoga has transformed.


Sometimes in Western culture, yoga is viewed as a tool for physical health and stress relief. I write about how yoga is an effective tool to support mental health all the time.

Recently, I participated in a weekend trauma informed yoga teacher training for health care professionals. I write about it in my recent article, Trauma Informed Yoga: A Tool For Reconnection.

At this training, I found myself learning about yoga with a different lens than before.


And I found myself asking the question, "Should what we teach as "yoga" in the West be called something else instead?"

In this article, I discuss this topic and cite many other people's thoughts and drafts who are already discussing important considerations around the colonization and appropriation of yoga in Western culture.

This is something that many people do not think about. I know I didn't until only recently.

The Colonization of Yoga

It is said that yoga is an ancient practice that can be traced to South Asia – including the region that is present day India.

To start, understanding the link between colonization and yoga is important. Much like Canada and the United States, Britain colonized India.

During colonial rule, yoga and Ayurveda were banned in India. The effects of British colonization include causing the people of the land to become disconnected with who they are, their traditions, and history.

Another important consideration is that we can't be certain what traditional yoga looked like as it is debated among different schools of thought. It is documented, however, that when Britain colonized India, yogis were not respected and actually considered despicable vagrants.

In preparing to write this article, I stumbled upon a website called Decolonizing Yoga. This website launched following protests at the 2013 Yoga Journal Conference in San Francisco.

The website has evolved into a great online resource for discussions on the intersection of privilege and yoga that acknowledges many different marginalized communities.

An interesting article from Decolonizing Yoga written by Melissa Heather outlines how yoga, as we know it in the West, is actually a direct product of colonialism. She states that yoga was brought to the West "to propagate the wisdom of Indian spiritual tradition and to combat the crushing poverty of the Indian people."

To give some context, India went from a wealthy and thriving nation before British presence, to an impoverished nation after they left. Essentially, yoga was packaged and sold as means to get out of an oppressed corner.

On this very subject, The Sociological Yogi writes:

"Traditional hatha yoga practices were re-appropriated and combined with modern physical culture in an attempt to meld “indigenous” Indian exercises with more Western practices and draftls. Thus, a new, more aerobic and acrobatic version of yoga was born that was devoid of any of the negative associations of earlier centuries."

"Yoga" was re-branded, so to speak, but was left with the same name.

Using Sanskrit

Sanskrit is an ancient language that modern day Hindi is derived from. Many people wrongly assume that they are one and the same, or that they are not linked at all.

This can cause some people to use or repeat words – that they've likely heard in a yoga class somewhere – in insensitive ways or, at best, uninformed. One could argue this way of operating is not ahimsa (nonviolence), albeit unintentional – hopefully.

Read: Ahimsa: Yoga's Single Most Important Practice (Kindness)

A recent NPR article, written by Kumari Devarajan, dropped a truth bomb on me that I wasn't ready for. She shares that every yogi's most beloved word, "Namaste" simply means "hello" among modern Hindi speakers.

There are 425 million people in the world who speak Hindi. There are 24,821 people in India registered as native Sanskrit speakers.

I could not find data on how many people worldwide repeat Sanskrit words that also have a meaning in Hindi, like namaste, on a daily basis. But, guaranteed, it is a lot.

Devarajan took to twitter to ask South Asians how they feel when they hear or see the word "namaste" being used.

The general consensus is that they feel uncomfortable and disrespected, especially when the word is changed into some English-joke-hybrid (ie. namastay in bed).

Modern Yoga and Its Intersection With White Privilege

In the West, it is accurate to say that the majority of people who practice yoga are predominantly white, well-educated women.

One study by Ross et al. (2013) randomly sampled over 1000 people from 15 different studios, with respondents from 41 different US states. Of that sample, 84.2% were female, 89.2% were white, and 87.4% were well educated (meaning they had at least a Bachelor's degree).

Knowing the history of colonialism in India and how that influenced yoga, AND as a white, well-educated female yoga teacher of British ancestry – this makes me cringe.

When Americans are asked about why they practice yoga, they do not generally cite it as a spiritual practice.

Instead, they cite the physical, health, and mental benefits. This is the way it was sold into our Western capitalistic culture.

One could ask, is this really even yoga?

In her article "How to Decolonize Your Yoga Practice," Susanna Barkataki writes:

"Yoga is not now, nor has it ever been, a practice aimed at physical mastery for its own sake. Nor is it a practice aimed at "stress reduction" so we can function as better producers and consumers in a capitalist society."

Read: What Is the True Meaning of Yoga?

Can We Decolonize a Practice Without Calling it Yoga?

I wonder if we c Because it is something different.

A hot "yoga" flow class lead by a white woman, such as myself, ending with chanting "om" and "namaste" is seriously guilty of cultural appropriation. It is also arguably disrespectful and oppressive to the Hindi-speaking second generation North American student, who feels like a stranger to their own yoga practice.

Calling this practice "yoga," depending on how it is delivered, may not even accurate. At minimum, it's misleading.

Cultural Appropriation defines cultural appropriation as "the adoption or co-opting, usually without acknowledgment, of cultural identity markers associated with or originating in minority communities by people or communities with a relatively privileged status."

Sounds about right.

There is a reason why I have cited so many other people's thoughts and work on this topic throughout this article. I am learning about this deeply complex topic and I am an ally to those who feel triggered or oppressed by the way yoga is bought and sold in the West.

I want to do my best to acknowledge my privilege as one of those statistics – an educated white woman "yogi/yogini" – and I want to call upon that privilege to keep this conversation at the forefront for myself, and other yoga teachers and practitioners.

As I shared, I have British ancestry. I was taught yoga by other white women. At no time during the last 10 years that I have been practicing "yoga" was all of this even close to part of the discussion until very recently when I did the trauma informed yoga training.

I look back at my ignorance with accountability, and a desire to do better.

So, What How do We do Better?

There are more questions than answers at this time. But the most important thing is that the conversations exist.

We can start by educating ourselves on the colonial history of yoga, and feel into what is rightly ours to share or not. I know for me, I am not going to be ending my classes with "namaste" any longer, which is a big shift.

Yoga is more than asana. Most people who believe they practice "yoga," many of them privileged, do not fully understand this. I want to keep that conversation going too.

Do we say we are going to a fitness flow class? What about people with accessibility issues?

What about people who are devout to their religions and are uncomfortable with the links to modern day Hinduism that we see through use of Hindi and depictions of deities? Can we adjust it for them? Is there an entirely new word for "yoga" as we know it?

More questions than answers – and it starts with self-inquiry.

During These Times of Stress and Uncertainty Your Doshas May Be Unbalanced.

To help you bring attention to your doshas and to identify what your predominant dosha is, we created the following quiz.

Try not to stress over every question, but simply answer based off your intuition. After all, you know yourself better than anyone else.

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Molly Rae Benoit-Leach MSW RSW RYT

Molly Rae Benoit-Leach MSW RSW RYT is a psychotherapist, yoga teacher, writer, musician, lover and fur-mama. She is passionate about yoga and mindfulness practices as tools for self-care and mental health. She is currently living on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada providing counselling and yoga services in person and online. Molly can be reached through and [email protected].

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