"Namaste in Bed!" Blends Yoga and Colonialism

The word “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit root “yuji,” meaning “to join” or “to unite” ( Image )

The word “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit root “yuji,” meaning “to join” or “to unite” (Image)


“Cultural appropriation” is a buzz-phrase that has been used to describe anything overtly racist, or just plain stealing from another group of people. The presence of power imbalances that remain from oppression and colonialism are still very prevalent in our day-to-day lives. This makes cultural appropriation far from equal cultural exchange, the latter otherwise known as “cultural appreciation.” Those who identify with cultures and identities that are often taken out of context in this way typically find it easy to spot appropriation. For us, discourse concerning this kind of cultural usurpation dominates our search histories and conversations with friends. However, the individuals most commonly unaware of the implications are generally the least interested in educating themselves.

The phrase “cultural appropriation” is most often heard around Halloween to describe non-Native American people wearing headdresses and tribal tattoos, or non-African American individuals sporting dreads, cornrows, and blackface. But cultural appropriation also manifests itself, perhaps less visibly, in the day-to-day aspects of our lives as well. Take yoga, for example. Its origins trace back to South Asia, a region colonized by the British. The reasons why yoga became popular, and why Indian yogis began traveling to England and the United States to “sell” yoga, are also closely linked to colonialism. Yoga’s rise in popularity is directly linked to colonialism, so much so that Indian yogis travel between England and the United States to "sell" the discipline. Yoga was used as a means of showing the British that Indians were not “backwards” or “primitive”, but that their religion was rational and scientific. This role of upholding Western standards — that knowledge must translate to scientific advancement to be worthwhile — was one that yogis felt obligated to assume.

Even though the appropriation of yoga is a far cry from the life-threatening racism brought about by colonialism, it is a facet of systemic racism nonetheless. In fact, it expresses a sheer disregard for the meaning behind a significant aspect of South Asian culture. Most yoga teachers in America do not learn about Indian cultural history. Generally, in the United States, people practice the physical aspect of yoga, the postures (asanas), which comprise only a fraction of what the overall practice represents. Regardless, many still have the audacity to put the “Om” symbol (a religious symbol believed to illustrate unity between the "three worlds" in Hinduism: earth, heaven, and atmosphere) on their water bottles and end their practice by saying “Namaste” (enter: the posters, pillows, sweatshirts, and the like sporting the phrase, “Namaste in bed!”). The pattern of people consuming the aspects of culture that are convenient and portable, while ignoring the importance of it to its people, is where the problem lies.

While it is true that culture is ever-evolving and can shift depending on context and circumstance, these issues arise when things are taken from a culture without an accompanying attempt at self-education. Our norms and traditions are a part of our identity, and seeing them be taken and abused is painful. In this regard, it is impossible to say that colonialism does not affect our society today, rather it is perpetuated through the way culture is modified and watered down to a palatable and digestible product that consumers can engage with.

CultureSerena SinghComment