Indigenous yoga: Appreciation and appropriation

AUT Director of Diversity Edwina Pio
AUT Director of Diversity Edwina Pio Photo credit: Supplied / Edwina Pio

With International Day of Yoga being marked in Aotearoa this week, calls are being made to bring yoga back to its cultural origins.

Yoga has increased in popularity throughout the west over the last few decades, but there are growing concerns the practice is not respectful of indigenous Indian culture.

The meaning behind yoga has been lost through colonisation, according to Tāmaki Makaurau-based indigenous yoga teacher Reha Kumar. 

"If we don't give credit and pay respect to indigenous yoga, we dilute and invalidate the practice," she says.

"The yoga industry is now a multi-billion dollar industry and just a money-making tool often marketing able-bodied white people.

"By promoting the indigenous practice, there is not only appreciation given to the people whose culture this comes from, but more can be learned and achieved especially in mental health which is a prime focus in Aotearoa."

Kumar said there are currently many indigenous people who are too afraid to practise yoga because it's been taken out of context, even though it comes from their own culture.

She said "yoga is universal and belongs to everyone" but less appropriation and more appreciation is "very necessary".

Former yoga teacher Megan Sety, originally from the United States, has practised and taught yoga in Te Whanganui-a-Tara for the last 20 years.

Sety said she stopped teaching yoga because she "couldn't reconcile the conflict [she] felt in teaching".

"I do think the yoga community in New Zealand, especially driven from a western perspective, is not engaging with these conversations enough or deeply."

She said indigenous yoga practitioners are highlighting the misuse of 'namaste', as its incorrect use is "cultural appropriation".

The word 'namaste' means 'I bow to you' and is a traditional Hindi greeting.

Kumar said, "The word namaste in western yoga is misused in a very disappointing way as teachers often end the class with a namaste when in fact namaste is an entry point to the class and meeting."

She said Indian practitioners like herself often "rush to say namaste... as if it's a conditioned response".

Kumar said she assimilated into the appropriate practice due to "the fear of not being accepted into a practice which has come from [her] own ancestors" as a minority South Asian teacher.

"This is how I tried to fit in until I gained enough courage to one day challenge it."

She also added western practices focus mainly on yoga's physical aspects, self-discovery, and working towards more advanced postures. Indigenous practices however focus on yoga's "eight limbs", holistic well-being and spirituality, and can be practised anywhere. 

"In the west, yoga is timed and allocated 45 to 90 minutes on the mat and inside the studio. Indigenous yoga is a lifestyle that includes physical postures, being mindful of your diet, the food that fuels, nourishes, and purifies the body and it includes how you treat others and the world."

Auckland University of Technology director of diversity Edwina Pio said yoga is a "philosophy of life" that is not limited to body movements but to "channel the energy of an individual to quieten the mind and achieve calm in a frenetic troubled world."

"While there is no doubt yoga has been commodified and commercialised in many parts of the world, the focus must be on the benefits that yoga invokes whether it be yoga diplomacy, yoga tourism, yoga therapy, or diverse positive health outcomes." 

Indigenous yoga: Appreciation and appropriation