Is Yoga White Supremacy?
Last week an article written by Professor Shreena Gandhi made headlines across the world. The article was titled Yoga and the Roots of Cultural Appropriation. This article was written by Shreena Gandhi and Lillie Wolff. Below the article, Shreena Gandhi described herself as a teacher at Michigan State University and Lillie Wolff described herself as an anti-racist White Jewish organizer, facilitator, and healer. In this article, they associated yoga with white supremacy.
Let me quote a passage. “Yoga, like so many other colonized systems of practice and knowledge, did not appear in the American spiritual landscape by coincidence; rather, its popularity was a direct consequence of a larger system of cultural appropriation that capitalism engenders and reifies. While the (mis)appropriation of yoga may not be a life-threatening racism, it is a part of systemic racism nonetheless, and it is important to ask, what are the impetuses for this cultural “grabbing”?
So, according to these two authors, people who practice yoga in America contribute to systemic racism and White Supremacy. Let me give some introduction to yoga before we examine the claims of these authors. Yoga is product of Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Yoga has been marketed as a medicine to heal body, mind and soul. Every year, June 21 is celebrated as international yoga day. While addressing the United States Congress, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi complained, ‘that more Americans bend for yoga than to throw a curveball. And, no, Mr.Speaker, we have not yet claimed intellectual property right on Yoga’ .
How did yoga come to America? Swami Vivekananda was an Indian Hindu monk. He introduced Hinduism at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893. In 1896, he wrote a book entitled Raja Yoga. He implored Americans to learn yoga. He encouraged people to learn yoga and meditation to become one with the divine. Then there were Jiddu Krishnamurti and Joseph Campbell. They literally turned Hollywood into a platform to propagate Yoga through movies and television. In 1965, at the age of 70, Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada came to New York City. He beseeched Americans to learn yoga to get a glimpse of ancient Eastern religions and their wisdom. Then we have Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He declared Hinduism and yoga as great panacea to heal the wounds of Western Civilization.
Over the last 130 years, gurus and swamis came to America and proclaimed Hinduism and yoga as superior to Western religions and wisdom. That is religious supremacy, not white supremacy. So, I do not agree with Professor Shreena Gandhi’s association of yoga with White supremacy. America has a pragmatic and consumerist culture. Americans embrace stuff from all over the world: Pizza, sandwich, Chinese food, Mexican burritos, Indian curry, Japanese sushi, Tai Chi, qigong, Italian pasta etc, etc, Yoga is no different. So, there is no White supremacy in practising yoga.
Then the good professor went on to say these words: “Dominant culture teaches white people, as well as People of Color, to numb through materialism, consumerism, entertainment, prescription and hard drugs, and alcohol. It also socializes white people to consciously or unconsciously misuse power and relate to others from a false sense of superiority. Because most white people are not taught to confront and examine the painful and uncomfortable realities of racism, and their complicity in it, the cycle of oppression, repression, and consumption continues.This complex socio-political reality of the U.S. is key to understanding how the cultural void of white society is intimately mixed with white supremacy, capitalism, and globalization; and it is within these oppressive structures that cultural appropriation and the yoga industrial complex flourishes.”
Even though I do not associate yoga with white supremacy, I associate it with the spiritual void that developed in the heart of America over the last one hundred years. During 1960s, our culture abandoned it’s biblical foundations. We embraced secularism, materialism and consumerism. To satisfy our spiritual hunger, we turned to Eastern mysticism, yoga and transcendental meditation. People started to describe themselves, ‘I am spiritual, not religious’. Today, we mourn the deaths of over 50,000 people every year due to drug overdose. This opioid epidemic also born out of the drug culture which started during the hippie revolution. Then there was the sexual revolution. The Bible restricts all sexual activity to marriage between a man and a woman. But the sexual revolution rejected the Biblical morality. Hollywood is also complicit in this transformation. In our communities today, over fifty percent of children are born out of wedlock. The cohabitation of unmarried couples became normal. This is secularism on steroids. Secularism leaves us empty and lonely.
Professor Shreena Gandhi wrote that our culture teaches people to numb their pain through materialism, consumerism, entertainment, prescription and hard drugs, and alcohol’. I agree with her on that diagnosis.
In fact, that is when the gurus, swamis and babas of India penetrated American culture with their mysticism, yoga and transcendental meditation. A whole generation of young people turned to consumerism, yoga and meditation to address all their needs: both physical and spiritual.
Then the professor went on a bizarre rant against white people. Let me quote her words, “Few white people make the connection between their love of yoga and their desire and ability to access traditions from historically oppressed communities of color. Most yoga teachers in America do not learn about Hindu tradition or Indian cultural history. This modern day trend of cultural appropriation of yoga is a continuation of white supremacy and colonialism, maintaining the pattern of white people consuming the stuff of culture that is convenient and portable, while ignoring the well-being and liberation of Indian people.Given a deeper analysis of yoga, white yoga practitioners and teachers can engage in yoga in a decolonizing way that reduces harm and seeks greater cultural accountability. First, they can be aware of the history, roots, and magnitude of the practice and give credit where credit is due.”
Give credit where credit is due? Seriously? Do I have to give credit to Italians when I eat pizza? Do I have to give credit to Americans when I fly on a plane? Do I have to give credit to the British when I speak English? Do I have to work for the liberation of Chinese people when I eat a fortune cookie or learn tai chi? Let yoga be yoga.
So, even though I differ with many of her views, I agree with the professor when she said that our generation has turned to yoga and meditation to fill the spiritual void. There is no new discovery here. We read in Romans chapter 1 that when people turn away from God, they start worshiping the natural world and defiling their physical bodies with sexual sins.
Recently I was in Hawaii, the beautiful Big Island. I was amazed by the natural beauty on this island: the bluest waters of the Pacific Ocean, the waterfalls, the rainforest, the coconut trees, the pineapple trees, macadamia fields, guava fruits, the Green sea turtles, white sand beaches, astronomical observatories and telescopes, the tsunami warning signs, the lava flowing from volcanoes like Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa. It is a beautiful assortment of natural wonders. What a beautiful planet we live on! I spent some time worshiping Lord Jesus Christ, the God of Creation. Colossians chapter 1: 16 says, ‘For by Him were all things created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible’. Jesus is not just our Savior, but also our Creator. How great thou art! How great thou art! I started to sing.
Then I stopped for a break. A black gentleman was selling coconuts by the roadside. I stopped my car and went over to him. I asked for a coconut. He cut the coconut with his sickle, put a straw in the hole and gave it over to me. While drinking the coconut water, I asked the gentleman,
‘Sir, where are you from?’
‘Birmingham, Alabama, good’old Alabama’
After exchanging the pleasantries,
I asked him, ‘Do you have any faith?’
He said, ‘I was born in a Christian home. My mama used to tell me to study the Bible. But, later in life, I left Christianity. Now I worship the nature, the mother nature, and her shakti, her power. I identify with the nature’.
I told him, ‘You identify with the nature? You left the Creator God for the creation. You should be worshiping the Creator, not the creation.’
Then I got back into my car and drove for another twenty minutes. I stopped by the roadside and went inside a building. On my way to the restroom, I saw advertisements promoting tantric yoga. Inside the building they were teaching nature worship: this earth is our goddess, the ocean is a goddess, the mountain is a goddess, and lava flowing the volcanoes is the power of the goddess. As I drove around this island, I saw many ashrams devoted to nature worship, music, yoga and transcendental meditation.
Walking around those ashrams, I thought of the Beatles. The Beatles were an English rock band from Liverpool, England. It included members like John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. They were attracted to the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. They became his disciples, learned yoga and practised Transcendental Meditation. You can listen to Hindu slokas in the background score of George Harrison’s song My Sweet Lord. When George Harrison died, his body was cremated and the ashes were scattered over the River Ganges, the sacred river for Hindus.
There is a whole worldview behind yoga and transcendental meditation. To comprehend these deep concepts, first we should understand the difference between duality and non-duality. In Indian religions, they are known by the words, Dvaita and Advaita. Dvaita for duality and Advaita for non-duality. In Duality, God and the universe are distinct from each other. God created the universe. In the creation, you can see God’s wisdom, His providence and benevolence. Yet, God is distinct and separate from His creation. Human beings are part of the creation, they are not divine. That’s duality.
Then there is non-duality, Advaita. In non-duality, God and the universe are the same. They are not distinct from each other. So, it makes sense to worship the nature because it is a manifestation of the divine. Human beings and all living organisms share this divinity. We call this pantheism. That means everything and everyone is divine. Every tree, every mountain, the sun, moon and the stars, birds and butterflies, lions and leopards, men and women, cats and bats, bugs and beetles…everything is god. That is non-duality or advaita.
Christianity faith is a faith of duality. That means, God created the universe, yet He is distinct from his creation. God created this universe for man. He manifested to us in the person of Lord Jesus Christ. He manifested to us only in the person of Lord Jesus Christ.
Hinduism has both duality and non-duality. That sounds illogical but they don’t care. In practical terms, most of the Hinduism is non-dual. God is in everything. Human beings should recognize the divinity in him or her and strive for unity with the divinity in the nature. There is brahman in everything. The brahman in human beings should unite with the brahman in the universe. There is one universal consciousness. Our individual consciousness should be absorbed into this universal consciousness. That is where yoga comes to our aid.
In Sun Salutations, many people start this yoga under the morning sun. Why? They are connecting to sun god. It is called Surya Namaskar, the sun worship. They do a series of movements that involve matching up their each breath with each pose.
The practice of yoga is connected with the ancient Indian system of human anatomy. The life force flows in human body through channels. This life force is called prana. As life force flows through channels it energizes the whole body. These channels intersect at different places in human body and create powerful centers called chakras or wheels. These chakras are alienated along the vertebral column from the base of the spine to the crown of the head.
Through yoga, one learns to concentrate the energy at the base of the spine. From this place, the energy flows upwards, through the genitals, kidneys, intestines, heart, lungs, the throat and forehead. The chakra between the eyes is called the ‘third eye’, which is a source of a higher consciousness. This chakra is called bindu or point or dot. It explains why Hindu men and women apply a dot between the eyes.
From this third eye between the eyes, energy flows to another wheel at the crown of the head. This is the site of higher consciousness. This is the point of union. The female energy (shakti) in the body connects with the male energy (shiva). When the energy in human body connects with the energy of the universal consciousness, the human and the divine comes into union. That brings liberation to human bondage. That brings enlightenment to human darkness. That brings salvation to human soul. That brings wisdom to human ignorance. That is the goal of yoga: to become one with god. If you look at god Shiva, you find him sitting in a yoga posture: Padmasana yoga posture. So, god is waiting for you in his own yoga posture as you try to unite with god through yoga.
Now let me explain the origins of yoga. The name yoga comes from the Sanskrit term yoga, the same Indo-European root word that gave us the English word yoke. As you a yoke connects two animals or individuals, you connect to god through yoga. Yoga is mentioned in Vedas, the most ancient Hindu scriptures dating back to first millennium before Christ. It is also mentioned in Bhagavad Gita. But remember, this is not the physical practice of yoga we see today. Yoga in Bhagavad Gita is about spiritual liberation, not physical health and wellness.
Bhagavad Gita or simply the Gita is part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. It features a dialogue between prince Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna. You should understand Bhagavad Gita to understand Indian culture and mindset. It’s like Shakespeare in English literature. You don’t understand English literature without reading Shakespeare. You don’t understand Indian culture without knowing the central message of the Gita. The context of Bhagavad Gita is a battlefield. Two extended family clans, the Pandavas and the Kauravas meet on the field of battle. Just before the battle begins, the hero of Pandavas, Arjuna hesitates to wage war. Bhagavad Gita captures that human dilemma. A sort of Hindu theodicy. Arjuna is in crisis, a moral dilemma incapacitates him. How can I kill my cousins? How can I slaughter my relatives? Then comes Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Vishnu to guide Arjuna. Krishna motivates Arjuna to fight in the war. He teaches Arjuna to fight without worrying about the results of the war. Don’t put attachments to your results. That only brings suffering, frustration and anger.
Krishna introduces the path to liberation through yogas. He presents ‘yoga’ as union between the human and the divine. There are four phases in life: Kama, Artha, Dharma and Moksha. There are four yogas: Karma yoga, Bhakti yoga, Jnana yoga and Raja yoga.
There are four phases in life. Kama is for pleasure and sensuality; Artha is for money and wealth; Dharma is for action and moral duty. Moksha is for liberation from karma. How can you achieve liberation from karma?
There are four yogas.
Karma yoga is the yoga of action. You act but you renounce the results of your action. Gandhi used to say often, ‘Action is my domain’. He got that from karma yoga.
Bhakti yoga is the yoga of devotion. When you renounce the fruits of your actions, it brings devotion to the gods.
Jnana yoga is the yoga of knowledge. When you practise devotion to the gods, it brings knowledge of the reality.
Raja yoga is the yoga of meditation. When you meditate, you will experience your soul. When you still your mind through contemplative practice, you will see the true identity of your soul.
Using these four yogas, one gets liberation to his or her soul. They are the paths to salvation in Hinduism.
In the final scene of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna reveals himself in all his power and glory to Arjuna. Let me read a few passages because they convey the essence of Hindu pantheism.
“O my king, thus he spoke, Krishna, the great lord of yoga, who is also Vishnu!
And thus he unveiled to Arjuna his supreme majestic form.
Krishna in this form was a great wonder to see…
His divinity was an endless profession of wonders.
There Arjuna saw the entire world, the whole world
in all of its infinite manifestations, drawn together as one,
in the body of the god of gods.”
Arjuna saw the whole world in the body of the god of gods, Krishna, the great lord of yoga. So, you see, yoga and pantheism are inseparable.
“Arjuna, look at the forms that I take,
hundreds of them and thousands of them!
So many divine forms!
So many colors and so many shapes!
Look at them all: gods of heaven,
gods of light, terrifying gods;
the celestial twins and the storm gods.
Look at these wonders, Arjuna,
so many, never seen before!
I am woven into all this world,
yet my form remains unmanifest.
All beings find their support in me,
whereas I do not depend on them at all.
“Wise are they who see no difference
between a learned, well-mannered Brahmin,
a cow, an elephant, a dog, and
an eater of dogs”.
Arjuna saw all the universe! Where? in the body of the god. This is pantheism, which is to say, that god and the universe are one and the same. There is no distinction between the two. This pantheistic wisdom brings liberation to soul through yoga.
Now, remember, this is not the practice of yoga we see today. Bhagavad Gita did not speak about physical practice of yoga. The physical exercises, asanas, poses, breathwork were developed later. This is called Hatha yoga.
In the 5th century, author Patanjali wrote the Yoga-Sutras. The sutras as 196 concise statements on how to develop a better relationship with one’s own mind. Patanjali described 8 limbs of yoga. This is known as Ashtanga Yoga, which means eight-limbed yoga. The eight limbs are
- Moral principles
- Purification of the body
- Breath control
- Withdrawal of sense
- Absorption (Samadhi)
Now these eight steps are not one after another steps. They go together. They end in absorption into the divine. A complete state of resting. It’s essence is summed up as ‘yogas citta vritti nirodha’. It means, ‘Yoga is the cessation of mental activity’. It these eight steps, only one refers to body practices or asanas.
More emphasis on physical practice of yoga started around the 15th century with the writing of Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This book was the first text that outlined yoga postures. It had 15 static postures. This book emphasizes that the physical yoga is not to be done for its own sake. It should prepare one’s soul towards the union with the divine. It should prepare one’s soul for the liberation from the body. Hatha yoga should lead one to Raja yoga, the yoga of meditation, which is the path to liberation.
More postures were added since 15th century. The yoga we practice today was developed in the last 100 years. In the 1930s, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya developed a style of yoga that combines breath with movement. This style of yoga is known as vinyasa. He taught this yoga to the maharajah of Mysore in his famous palace. The disciples of Krishnamacharya further developed yoga. They include B.K.S.Iyengar, Indra Devi, K.Pattabhi Jois and T.K.V.Desikachar.
Today we have Christian yoga, Muslim yoga, Buddhist yoga, zen yoga etc, etc. However, for most people, yoga is no more than a physical exercise. This secularization and commercialization of yoga is troubling for many Hindus. That is one of the complaints Professor Shreena Gandhi made in her article. But she wrongly connected this secularization to white supremacy.
The problem is not white supremacy. I am not denying white supremacy. There are people in our communities who think their particular race is superior to other races. But that is a symptom, not the disease. Our disease is our separation from the God of the Bible. We turned away from the God of the Bible and created a postmodern society. In this society, every one’s claim is equally true and valid. Without any relevance to truth, our culture promotes a consumerist approach to life. But it will leave our souls bankrupt and empty. That is what apostle Paul clearly told us in Romans chapter 1.
Krishna in Bhagavad Gita states that the whole universe is in his body. That is pantheism. The God of the Bible created the universe, but He is distinct and separate from His creation. Romans 1:20 states,
For from the creation of the world the invisible things of Him are clearly seen, being understood through the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.
The invisible things of Him are clearly seen….you can see the wisdom of God, His power, his goodness, his benevolence in the creation.
Then we read from Verse 21,
- For when they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God, nor were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
- Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,
- and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man, and to birds and fourfooted beasts and creeping things.
Charles Darwin wrote a book entitled Descent of Man. But this is the real descent of man. Man left the God of the Bible, and followed his foolish heart. He changed the glory of the incorruptible GOd into an image made like man, birds, animals and snakes. So, pantheism itself a product of this rebellion against God. Verse 24 states,
- Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies among themselves. 25. They changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshiped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.
Please note those words: They changed the truth of God into a lie and worshiped and served the creature more than the Creator. That is what we see in yoga. It is a path human beings created to reach God. A sort of the Tower of Babel. But it cannot take us to God.
What we need is the gospel of Lord Jesus Christ. Apostle Paul wrote here, in verse 16.
“For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believeth”
Gospel of Lord Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.
I hope you realize that you are a sinner who need the grace of God, you come to Christ, repent of your sins and be forgiven.
PRAYER: Lord Jesus, we understand the deception of New Age Movement in our time. Through yoga, meditation and mysticism it took away our generation from the truth of the living God. We pray that you open the eyes of our generation to see you as their Lord and Savior. In your precious name, we pray, Amen.