Orientalism is a term that has meant a number of things in both popular culture and in academic circles. I will use the term today in the following way: Orientalism is the study, imitation, depiction, or idolatry of any aspect of a multitude of so-called “Eastern” cultures that is shaped by attitudes that are, at rock bottom, racist, reductive, and elitist. My thesis is that much of the obsession with yoga today is driven by a kind of Orientalism. In particular, it seems to me that many Americans who have been drawn to yoga have created myths about India and Indian culture that simply do not coincide with reality. Moreover, these myths run the risk of being offensive to the very people/culture they are supposed to celebrate.
As a person of Asian descent, I may be particularly sensitive to the stereotypes that many Americans have about people from “the East”. These stereotypes are often outwardly offensive, but sometimes they are more subtle, and may even be intended as complimentary. I’ve personally benefited from some of these “good” stereotypes in my life. In elementary school, teachers often gave me the benefit of doubt in academic and disciplinary matters because they bought into the myth that Asian students are diligent do-gooders. In my adult years, some employers have hired me, I’m convinced, because they had in their minds a certain conception of Asians as being straight-laced, responsible and hard-working. But stereotypes are stereotypes, and, as such, they are offensive, regardless of any good intentions behind them.
So what does all of this have to do with yoga? Well, from my perspective, it seems that a lot of the reverence for and celebration of yoga in this country is based on the following sorts of “good” stereotypes about India, its people, its culture, and its history. People from India are somehow in touch with the spiritual realm in ways that we Westerners are not. We in the modern, high tech, industrialized West have lost touch, but these simple, spiritual, “Earthly” people from India, who are so rooted in tradition and antiquity, have not succumbed to the temptations of modern life. We can learn from them (read: take from them), and yoga is one way to do this.
This characterization of India and Indian culture, I think, is totally inaccurate and reductive, not to mention offensive, and, as I’ve tried to demonstrate, it belies a certain racist/elitist attitude towards “the East”. Hindu gods, Indian religious traditions in general, mysticism, sacred mantras, devotional prayers, traditional Indian dress, everything down to the incense, are surrounded by a cloud of exotic “otherness” for many Americans. Our own Christian traditions have become boring, commonplace, and all too familiar, while, in contrast, the religions of the East are exciting and mysterious for us. To put it another way, traditional Christian virtues are just not sexy to us. How many people would want to go to an exercise class where someone was talking about Jesus and the Apostles the whole time? How many people would continue to read yoga books and magazines if, instead of Arjuna and Krishna and Ram, the writers talked about David and Luke and Paul? Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not by any means advocating that we all start bringing our Bibles to yoga class. I only mean to say that we should watch out for this (growing) tendency to exoticize Indian culture.
Americans are great at creating historical and cultural myths. More than half of what we learned in grade school about our own country’s storied past is either greatly embellished or total fantasy. I worry that we are doing the same thing in our treatment of yoga. And I see a similar kind of thing happening in the Western popularization of, say, Native American culture, Sufism, and Kabbalah. We are starving for “spirituality” in this country. Many of us have failed to have this need fulfilled by traditional Western religions, so we are turning to non-Western traditions that seem to offer something more and something different. My claim here is that in turning to non-Western religions, many people in America are engaging in a kind of Orientalism that bears all the marks of cultural elitism, racism, and, at times, anti-intellectualism.
These comments might seem surprising coming from me, someone who practices yoga almost daily and who is fascinated by Indian philosophy. But I’m not suggesting here that Americans should not take an active interest in the cultures, religions, literature, etc. of non-Western societies. What I’m suggesting is that when we do take an interest in these things, let’s make sure that in the background we aren’t subscribing to stereotypes of the peoples of “the East” as being less civilized, less modernized, and, hence, more “in touch” with spirit/earth/God. This is insulting, and just inaccurate. As I mentioned earlier, I am probably particularly sensitive to this issue because people have attributed to me, in virtue of my “Asian-ness”, certain qualities that I quite frankly do not possess. I am not good at martial arts, nor do I possess any kind of preternatural ability to move my body around in a martial-arts-like fashion because I am of Asian descent. I do not possess the Zen qualities of being always calm and collected. I’m not tapped into some kind of higher spiritual realm because I’m Asian. Just the same, let’s not insult the people of India and their rich and diverse cultures by treating yoga as a kind of magical power that we can appropriate for our own purposes.
Yoga is amazing. And the rich philosophies behind yoga are equally amazing. Let’s approach them both — the asanas and the underlying ideas/texts — with the level of respect they deserve.