Who does Yoga belong to?

Recently, I left a prominent fitness organization by the name of CHAARG after being a dedicated member for a good six months. Based out of Ohio, the movement aims at “Changing Health, Attitudes, and Actions to Recreate Girls” and has chapters all over the country. The organization has a large social media presence, especially on Instagram, where girls post fitness “before and after” photos, descriptions of their workouts, and pictures of food. Even though this didn’t feel like my true identity, I struggled to fit in and get others’ approval on Instagram with my daily posts, making sure to write in “the CHAARG voice” and use the “CHAARG hashtags.” There is a word for what I was doing called “code-switching.” Quitting this organization has provided me with so much relief already.

I had always felt a bit wary about CHAARG’s treatment of yoga, since I joined the organization (I also felt wary about lack of diversity and body positivity, but that is a different issue. The chapters are doing a great job of being inclusive, and I always felt welcomed by the girls on my campus, but I believe the national organization seriously needs to rethink its website organization by including pictures of girls across a variety of cultures – and even more importantly, needs to stop equating skinny with fit). I thought that this was just a silly misgiving I had. But this nagging feeling about how yoga was being exoticized, especially as I completely committed myself to a daily practice a month ago, would not go away. CHAARG created and popularized the “#CHAARGOM” hashtag, which was supposed to be synonymous with any type of relaxation. I felt strange about using it, especially when CHAARG released the “limited edition CHAARGOM tights” which placed the word “OM” – the most sacred word in Hinduism – on the “right back upper hip” (as CHAARG called it) which was really the butt. I voiced my concerns about the placement of Om and received the comment that “We wanted to put it on the ankles but there wasn’t enough space there.” I replied noting that placing “OM” near the feet wouldn’t be respectful either, and that I hoped to see some clarification, but I received no follow-up. I offered to write a blog post as well, but my offer was dismissed.

About a week ago, I stopped and thought – what am I doing? Why am I doing this if I don’t feel that this is a respectful treatment of my culture? I left CHAARG with an explanation of why I had chosen to withdraw. I received lots of support and some backlash as well – “you don’t own the word OM. You don’t own yoga. Why are you trying to bring down this organization?” Which was true, but it seemed insensitive and irrational to me that CHAARG didn’t even want to present yoga holistically. I received a comment from CHAARG itself that said “Please reach out to me if you ever want to talk about anything!” which was basically a way of covering the bases to look like a real response, without actually doing anything in response to my concerns at all. It felt as though CHAARG wanted to continue to fetishize this little sliver of Hindu culture – which was barely recognizable as Hindu culture anymore – without having to explain itself. Because, for some reason, it’s okay for appropriation to be that convenient.

The CHAARG chapter in my life is over, but until last week’s reading – especially that of “American Yoga: The Shaping of Modern Body Culture in the United States,” the question still persisted…who owns yoga? Did I assert something that I shouldn’t have asserted? Does yoga and Hindu spirituality as a whole need to be “decolonized”?

Clearly, yoga is a fluid practice that has become enmeshed with corporatization, colonization, and marginalization, but it has taken on new identities, especially in the United States. So why does it make me uncomfortable when I see Under Armour ambassador Shauna Harrison telling me to “Put a little bass in your chakra. Go hard + go OM!” or when I am the only girl of Indian descent in a yoga class? Or when the entire soundtrack to my class is of a clearly non-Indian person struggling to croon Sanskrit chants?

I came to my mat early this morning as the sky was still a sleepy purple-blue and the rain was pitter-pattering gently on the pavement. I realized today that many people recognize a binary with the West being devoid of spirituality and the East being the hub of Truth. Yoga is a concrete reminder that this isn’t altogether true. I believe strongly in knowing the history of my practice rather than just doing isolated asana. In this regard, it is important to know the context of the work of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (who popularized Ashtanga yoga) and even earlier, of Swami Vivekananda, who first brought Vedantic philosophy to American soil when he spoke at the 1893 Parliament of Religions – thus spurring the growth of Hatha Yoga. Yoga as a physical practice has not come to us untouched through an unbroken line of isolated, sacred history – although I would argue that it has been sustained through the careful work of saints, sages, and gurus such as Swami Sivananda.

The bottom line is that it’s easy to look outside of one’s own marred and even traumatic history, to use another culture for healing and salvation. In the “yoga-sphere” in America, I still get the feeling that the Hindu culture is more attractive in the studio, more desired than Indian people itself. It’s funny because this type of thinking is almost anthithetical to the yoga philosophy, which encourages one to look inward for the Truth. That is one of the reasons why I would like to deepen my practice enough to become a yoga teacher one day, to extend this holistic understanding of yoga and its complicated history to others eager to learn.

I have CHAARG to thank for spurring me to leave that uncomfortable spiritual limbo and for inspiring me to return to my study of the Gita again, as I am especially eager to explore the Vedantic teachings of yoga (not just Hatha Yoga) and to put these into real-life practice.

OM sarve bhavantu sukinah

Sarve santu nir-aamayaah

Sarve bhadraanipashyantu

Maa Kashchid-duhkha-bhaag-bhaveth


May all be happy.

May all be healthy.

May all seek auspiciousness.

May none suffer.

OM shantih shantih shantih


2 thoughts on “Who does Yoga belong to?

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