To a brown person, your “yoga practice” today is more offensive than your “brownface” 20 years ago

In light of the Justin Trudeau brownface incident, I wanted to bring up this argument.

Disclaimer: I am using harsh language here to make a point. Read this as satire or a caricature. It may sound very personal but try not to take it personally. It doesn’t apply to everyone but hope you can see the point I am trying to make.

Yoga as it practiced by most in the west is not a form of cultural appreciation. It’s not even a form of cultural appropriation. It’s a form of cultural decimation.

Growing up in India, the below is what yoga meant to me. When I moved to the US I was so excited to see that so many people were into yoga. I finally went to a yoga studio and I felt a little erased. You see Yoga can’t even be described in a sentence. The meaning takes years to understand.

Yoga as addressed in the Bhagvad Gita

As unnecessary as a well is to a village on the banks of a river, so unnecessary are all scriptures to someone who has seen the truth.

You have a right to your actions, but never to your actions’ fruits. Act for the action’s sake. And do not be attached to inaction.

Self-possessed, resolute, act without any thought of results, open to success or failure. This equanimity is yoga.

Most people who buy into whatever yoga now means – both in the West, or the ready market of willing Indians happy to take your money to give you the rubber stamp approval you need to not feel guilty – are taking a Sanskrit word and cultural practice that means something so divine and profound and instead obliterating it so that it no longer can even be talked about in any meaningful form. The least you can do is stop calling it yoga. Or maybe stop calling yourself a yoga teacher. And please stop using the word “yogi” to describe yourself. You are not a yogi.

I say this often and this is met with so much obvious discomfort by my own friends that they literally end up just ignoring that their behavior is “racist” by the norms they have themselves set for others.

This brings me back to the brownface incident of Justin Trudeau.

Let’s say in 20 years from now we brown people succeed in making you realize how horribly racist your “yoga practice” is. How deeply offensive the terms “beer yoga” or “acro yoga” are. Let’s say we finally start calling it “stretch practice” or “stretch & meditation” and the Sanskrit word reclaims it’s meaning.

30 years from now you decide to run for President. But you are disqualified from even considering it because you are a White person who called themselves a “yogi” 30 years ago and you are the most detestable person on earth now.

If you think you are too “woke” to be on the wrong side of anything, then have you considered that maybe you are as ignorant as the people you judge?


If you have made it this far, please take a pause and then please read the rest.

I want to take a deep breath here and bring attention back to the disclaimer at the beginning of my post. I, personally, am not offended by your yoga practice. It affects me and alienates me but I don’t hold you responsible. I don’t have any resources to point you to so that you can help “fix” the problem. That’s a good conversation but I think a separate one.

I used the example of yoga as a very real, and personal example to make a larger point. No matter what we do, we will always find out we were on the wrong side of something. This is because I believe that right and wrong are not objective, unchanging, universal truths. They are a constantly evolving interplay, a yin-yang, a projection of where we are here and now. We have to get better at recognizing this. This is literally how even science works. A well regarded theory is just one observation away from being completely invalidated. The authors of old original theories are not stupid just because their theories are no longer valid. We just have more data now to see the world in higher resolution and we need more sophisticated theories to connect more of the dots that we now see.

Trudeau doing brownface 20 years ago proves only that he did brownface 20 years ago. Who is he now, I have to judge based on his actions now. Unless we can prove that his past actions have any causal impact on his actions today. If he put on a brownface and mocked brown people today, he would most definitely be in the wrong today and I would not like it. If you continue to call yourself a yogi today, then I will not like it. But the fact that you called yourself a yogi yesterday, that’s ok. You didn’t know any better.

Are you practicing yoga because you hate brown people and you want to subjugate and distort their culture? Or are you practicing yoga because you love what it seems to offer and you are genuinely curious about it? Oh, because you are relatively wealthy and powerful, your preferences and decisions have unintended consequences? Well be careful, be mindful. But it’s not your fault. You are not a bad person.

“Brown people are good doctors” is a stereotype, but it’s a positive one. It is not racist to say that. “Brown people are terrorists” is a stereotype that is negative. It is racist to say that. “White people can’t dance” is a stereotype. It’s a negative stereotype. Is it racist? Depends. Depends on what? The power balance. e.g. There are a billion brown people in India. A brown person is not a minority in India. Let’s say a white person walks in to a remote Indian village. And someone says “white people are the devil”. This is a stereotype. And in this case it’s a negative stereotype. It exposes that white person, who is a minority in this context, to unwarranted mistreatment and danger. This is not a made up example, this happens. White people can be victims of negative stereotyping too. But in our world today, more often than not, stereotypes associated with white people are positive. And where the white stereotypes are negative, the power balance protects their downside.

This post is about this rush to judgement. This post is about this obsession with a black and white approach to right or wrong. This post is about what I think is this false belief that the world is mostly static, it was perfect until “white people screwed it up” and now we are trying to fix it and bring it back to it’s original perfect state. It prevents us from being able to navigate the reality – that the world is constantly evolving and there is no steady state. That everyone has at some point been in the wrong and will be in the future. It prevents us from seeing our own history in the right context.

I am a Muslim. From the western part of India. We were originally Hindu. 20 generations or so ago, many people from the village where my ancestors are from converted to Islam. My ancestors are most likely slave traders. They are most definitely beneficiaries of the spice trade that ran on slavery.

I spayed and neutered my cat without her consent. I didn’t ask her if she was ok renouncing her sexuality and not having any more children. I decided I was doing her a favor just because I wanted a cute cuddly thing in my home.

We haven’t yet figured out how to control time. Life is still ephemeral. Let’s remember to breathe. 🤗

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