MC Yogi performing in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park (Photo: Courtesy Jacueline Grossbard)
MC Yogi performing in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park

MC Yogi Is the Polarizing Hype Man of Yoga

Nick Giacomini went from being a Bay Area burnout to a yoga celebrity. His career is also a window into long-standing debates about yoga and cultural appropriation in the U.S.

The practice of yoga dates back to 2700 B.C., which is hard to remember at the Wanderlust Festival. But to be fair, I came in the back way. Had I walked through the yoga event’s entrance in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, I would have at least been given a guest wristband and greeted with a beatific yogi smile. Instead, I accidentally walked straight into rows of vendor tents hawking wellness-adjacent items, like free chickpea snacks rubber-banded to a coupon for 10 percent off. 

The day’s program included group tarot-reading lessons and a Larabar-sponsored lecture on how to use food to beat depression. The offerings felt algorithmically generated: you like yoga, so you may also be interested in Kind bars. If you were an alien who just landed on earth, or a Hindu deity dropping into a 2019 yoga festival, you’d probably wonder what exactly pamplemousse-flavored sparkling water has to do with an ancient spiritual practice. But spend enough time practicing yoga in the Western world and you may forget that yoga and all its capitalist accoutrements—CBD oils and healthy snacks and thousand-dollar retreats—aren’t inherently linked. I felt less like a seeker on my way to enlightenment and more like a floating demographic for a targeted ad. Eventually, my free tote bag full of free coconut water and free power bars, I stepped away from the vendors and rolled out my yoga mat for MC Yogi’s headlining set.

If you practice yoga, you’ve likely heard MC Yogi’s instrumental tracks—he calls them “omstrumentals”—on a studio playlist. MC Yogi, whose real name is Nicholas Giacomini, is the Diplo of yoga festivals. He’s a yoga devotee, teacher, and studio owner who also travels the world to play his music at events. He has 118,000 Instagram followers, and his song “Shanti (Peace Out)” has racked up ten million plays on Spotify. As a 40-year-old white man with glasses and short hair, who often wears a fedora, he looks more likely to mix you a $14 cocktail than to write songs about an ancient Indian god. But his lyrics are where he embraces the full MC Yogi persona. Here’s a typical verse, spit over a South Asian beat: Ganesh is so fresh, chillin’ on his throne / Surrounded by incense, fruit, and gold / With a heap of sweets piled in his bowl / He guards the gate and protects the threshold.

From the beginning, Giacomini felt a kinship between the hip-hop of his past and the spirituality of his future.
From the beginning, Giacomini felt a kinship between the hip-hop of his past and the spirituality of his future. (Photo: Courtesy Estevan Oirol)

Depending on who you ask, yoga has been either remixed or colonized. MC Yogi is far from the only yoga entrepreneur to combine the practice with hip-hop: Y7, a popular yoga studio with locations in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, holds A$AP Rocky–themed classes and sells yoga pants printed with the phrase “A Tribe Called Sweat.” Yoga teachers blog in defense of the choice to play hip-hop in class as “tradition meets modernity.” Consider the commercial success of hip-hop yoga and goat yoga alongside Lululemon’s record-high valuation and the swarm of people trying to sell health snacks at Wanderlust. Amid this ultra corporatization of yoga, some Western yogis are looking up from their name-brand mats and starting to have the conversation about how they got here. One friend describes walking through Y7’s punny merch-filled studio entrance as “putting my blinders on until I get to the poses.” How many of MC Yogi’s fans are putting their blinders on until the beat drops? 

The verse I quoted earlier is from “Ganesh Is Fresh,” off MC Yogi’s 2008 Elephant Power, an album that includes other A.P.-history-style flows. There’s “Be the Change,” a track about Mahatma Gandhi, notable for perhaps being the world’s first rap song to feature the words salt tax: The British Empire installed a salt tax / And stealing salt was an unlawful act / So Gandhi and his peeps took to the streets. (The lyrics don’t mention the less publicized aspects of Gandhi’s life.) More recently, MC Yogi has released “Bliss,” a synthy flow about finding joy in everyday life. “One of the things that I’ve always kind of strayed away from is boxing myself into categories,” he says when I ask him where he falls in the dual traditions of hip-hop and yoga. “Hip-hop was pivotal for me growing up, but at the end of the day, I don’t really consider myself a hip-hop artist or jazz artist or reggae artist. I’m just an artist, and there are certain sounds that really speak to me.” 

Back on Wanderlust Brooklyn’s outdoor stage, MC Yogi guides the crowd to kick their right leg up from downward dog, timed to the lyrics of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” (Tribe apparently lends itself to yoga puns.) Over roughly two hours, he moves through an act of yoga flow and bar mitzvah–style MC work, involving dad jokes, high fives, and more puns. At one point, he asks the audience to leave their mats behind and rush the front rows. The crowd forms a yoga mosh pit, high-fiving instead of punching. In 2009, The New York Times quoted from one of his performances: “We’re going to go old school—4,000 years back. Y’all ready to shake your asana?” 

When I told Giacomini I was having trouble finding a succinct way to describe his classes, he laughed. “MC means ‘move the crowd,’” he says. “The only way I can describe it is, people have a moment that’s ecstatic. The crowd opens up and dances.”

MC Yogi instructs at YogArt Buddhas and Bellinis, during the 2015 Food Network and Cooking Channel South Beach Wine and Food Festival in Miami Beach, Florida.
MC Yogi instructs at YogArt Buddhas and Bellinis, during the 2015 Food Network and Cooking Channel South Beach Wine and Food Festival in Miami Beach, Florida. (Photo: Shelby Soblick/Getty)

As detailed in his 2017 memoir Spiritual Graffiti: Finding My True Path, Giacomini was born into a generations-deep family-trucking and retail business in the Bay Area. (There’s a Giacomini Wetlands in his hometown of Point Reyes, a hippie seaside community.) He grew up a poet, a Star Wars nerd, and, spurred by his parents’ divorce, a juvenile delinquent. He had a habit of sneaking out at night to spray-paint tunnels, a hobby that led to several run-ins with the police and one arrest. He skipped school and spent his nights at rap battles, where he learned to put his poetry to beats. He still remembers one of his first-ever freestyles: The force flows strong through my mind like a Jedi / The mic’s my lightsaber, watch me elec-tri-fy. He eventually ended up at a home for at-risk youth where, thanks to his habit of carrying around an artist’s notebook, he earned the nickname Little Picasso. By the time he left, his father had started practicing yoga in the family’s empty storeroom. Encouraged by his father’s newfound peacefulness and ease, Giacomini let his dad lead him through his first yoga session.

From the beginning, Giacomini felt a kinship between the hip-hop of his past and the spirituality of his future. “One of the postures reminded me of a move kids used to do during break-dance battles: jumping into a crow pose, an arm balance, and then shooting your legs back into a plank position,” he writes in his book. “I was beginning to think there was something so hip hop about yoga. I felt like I’d found my path.” 

“MC means ‘move the crowd,’” Giacomini says. “The only way I can describe it is, people have a moment that’s ecstatic. The crowd opens up and dances.

With the zeal of a new convert, Giacomini transformed his life until it was all about yoga. He traveled to Mysore, India, where Ashtanga was founded. He practiced celibacy, one of the earliest tenets of ancient yoga. He became a vegetarian and started meditating. He still tagged telephone poles and street signs, but now he graffitied sacred cows, om symbols, and phrases like “Only Love Is Real.” He began taking classes with the Grateful Dead’s yoga instructor, the famed Bay Area teacher Larry Schultz, and at age 20, he moved into Schultz’s studio for a full-time yoga education. “Practicing yoga with Schultz was a party. It was like joy,” Giacomini tells me. It’s an atmosphere that he’s worked hard to recreate in his own classes. By 2001, Giacomini and his wife, Amanda—who he met during Schultz’s yoga-teacher training—had turned his father’s barn into Point Reyes Yoga Studio, where they both still regularly teach. 

Giacomini says he didn’t set out to become an international touring yoga sensation, but the opportunities just kept rolling in. Post–Elephant Power, which was released in 2008, he was hired for his first festival gig through friends of friends in the “grassroots network of yoga teachers.” Heather Story, senior vice president of events at Wanderlust, has been booking Giacomini for the company’s worldwide roster of retreats and festivals for the past five years. “His style is honestly like no one else,” she says. “If you go to a festival, and you’re used to dancing to a main-stage act, his class is a comfortable place. He allows everyone to enter that space without judgment in a very fun and upbeat way and without intimidation.”

As the group of mostly white women in Prospect Park slung toned arms around each other’s shoulders, I wondered how many of us were simultaneously cringing. The combination of yoga and hip-hop is a double dose of cultural appropriation (the term for when a person of one culture adopts the traditions or practices of another, especially when the borrower is from a historically privileged group.) “White rapper” can be a cringe-inducing term on its own, and MC Yogi has added rapping about Indian music and culture to the job description.

MC Yogi’s rise has been met with occasional pushback. One such occurrence received public attention after a 2014 art exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco titled “Yoga: The Art of Transformation.” Artist Chiraag Bhakta showed a work titled #WhitePeopleDoingYoga, focused on the commercialization and commodification of yoga in the West. As Bhakta detailed in a 2019 piece he wrote for Mother Jones, curators at the museum allegedly attempted to get him to soften his critique, even suggesting he change the piece’s title to #PeopleDoingYoga. Then, in a stroke of poor planning, the museum hired MC Yogi to headline a party celebrating the exhibit. The Asian Art Museum’s choice of a white performer to celebrate an exhibition featuring work meant to criticize the capitalist takeover of yoga was, as Bhakta describes to me through weary laughter, “straight comedy.” Worst of all was MC Yogi’s logo. “Onstage behind the musicians was a massive projection of MC Yogi’s name, an Om symbol, and a crown—the very symbol of British oppression over India for hundreds of years,” Bhakta wrote. (A spokesperson from the Asian Art Museum added that there were South Asian artists in the lineup at the party as well, and that addressing diversity and inclusion has become a priority at the museum.) 

“I did read the [Mother Jones] article and felt really bad about it,” MC Yogi says when asked to comment on the incident. “I don’t use that logo anymore. I feel deeply sorry. I never meant to be disrespectful toward anyone, especially the tradition that has done so much to help me heal and feel connected again.” 

I reached Bhakta shortly after the Mother Jones piece came out. “White supremacy and capitalism are so intertwined, you can’t separate them,” he told me. “We’re all stepping on different necks. But you have to look down and see whose neck you’re stepping on.” 

While reporting this story, I found myself repeatedly returning to a pointless attempt to justify Giacomini’s work. He’s studied in India, so does that mean he’s allowed to rap about Indian history? He’s featured South Asian artists on his songs, so does that balance out DJ Drez, his white DJ with dreadlocks? He teaches yoga at juvenile detention centers, so is he giving enough back to the community? I searched for a nonexistent line of respectability that, once crossed, balanced out all the necks anyone has to step on en route to the top. But each yoga activist I spoke to pointed out that cultural appropriation isn’t a zero-sum game.

In a 2014 exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Chiraag Bhakta showed a work called <i>#WhitePeopleDoingYoga</i>, which focused on the commercialization and commodification of yoga in the West. MC Yogi performed at the museum as part of a celebration for the exhibit, prompting some backlash.
In a 2014 exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Chiraag Bhakta showed a work called #WhitePeopleDoingYoga, which focused on the commercialization and commodification of yoga in the West. MC Yogi performed at the museum as part of a celebration for the exhibit, prompting some backlash. (Photo: Courtesy Chiraag Bhakta)

“If there could be a rule book for cultural appropriation, someone would have written it by now,” says Susanna Barkataki, a yoga teacher who writes, speaks, and gives workshops on how to make the practice more inclusive. She measures cultural appropriation using two criteria: First, there must be a power imbalance between the culture of the person who’s taking and the culture being taken from. Second, she looks for harm caused to the source culture. That second piece can be as straightforward as someone’s screen-printed om shirt offending a religious Hindu. Or it can be as tangled as a white event organizer who is booking a performer and overlooks a South Asian musician because they feel more connected, in a way they can’t quite describe, to a white artist. 

Barkataki walks me through a hypothetical scenario, in which an Indian artist is losing out on revenue or exposure opportunities from an art form that belongs to their culture: “You may have an Indian musician that chants a mantra out of pure devotion, who takes years to develop their own relationship with a mantra before they ever share it with the world. He takes immense care and time over each syllable. He’s not picked up by festivals, or he’s told by record labels that his pronunciation sounds too exotic for an American audience.”

Yoga teachers Tejal Patel and Jesal Parikh encountered these issues so often in their careers and practices that they started a podcast called Yoga Is Dead. Every meticulously researched hourlong episode tackles a powerful force behind modern yoga, like capitalism, gurus, or white women, and explains how each plays a role in colonizing yoga. They don’t explicitly discuss MC Yogi on the podcast—and they were careful to highlight patterns, rather than individuals, in our interview—but Parikh does have a theory about the rapper’s success. “MC Yogi created music that appeals to a Western, white society, and on top of that, he is a white man. I think if a black or brown person does the same thing, they’re not elevated to the same standard,” says Parikh.

I first heard the term “spiritual bypassing” on an episode of Yoga Is Dead. The term crystallizes the phenomenon, prevalent among liberal-minded white people, of glossing over conversations about privilege with friendly sounding axioms like “We are all one human family.” For Parikh, skipping these difficult conversations means ignoring the history of yoga. “Yoga has been steeped in conflict in so many ways, including in the Bhagavad Gita,” she says, citing an ancient Indian text that is widely considered to be yogic scripture. “In the story of yoga, Krishna is counseling someone to go to war,” she says. (The text recounts a conversation between the Hindu deity Krishna and a reluctant warrior.) With a gentle hand and sound sourcing, Patel and Parikh are going to war with the “monsters on the mat” of the yoga industry. They bring up institutional issues, like the magazine Yoga Journal’s seeming allergy to putting nonwhite people on its cover until this year. Then there’s the matter of karma capitalism, or the all too common studio practice of asking new yoga teachers to work for free. Exploitation and discrimination exist in the yoga world just as they do in Hollywood, media, and other industries that have begun to reckon more publicly with their practices. 

Imbalanced privilege and appropriation are foundational to yoga’s mainstream success in the U.S. Yoga isn’t immune from the inequities of other areas of life.

Yogis, however, have an extra hurdle to overcome. Yoga is expected to be served with a side of peace and welcoming, which means the industry’s shortcomings are buried beneath a buttercream frosting of positivity. Classes are supposed to leave students feeling tranquil and serene. We’re told to focus on our breath and observe our thoughts as they float by. If, for example, mispronounced chanting leaves a student feeling isolated in class, they may end up stewing in anger by the final resting pose. And when the time comes to roll up the mat and confront the yoga teacher, what if that teacher is wearing a tank top that says “Radiate Peace”? This atmosphere can make it feel as though any negative feelings are antithetical to yoga. “The irony of yoga is that there’s a layer of oneness,” says Bhakta, the artist. But in reality, imbalanced privilege and appropriation are foundational to yoga’s mainstream success in the U.S. Yoga isn’t immune from the inequities of other areas of life. “It’s all the same shit,” he says.

From Barkataki’s perspective, the spiritual oneness many yogis view as a unifying force still exists. “Ultimately, I absolutely agree that we are all one,” she says. “But that jumps to a spiritual truth without acknowledging the current-day reality.” 

Giacomini has taught yoga for two decades. He’s traveled to Vermont, Hawaii, and Seoul, South Korea, with Wanderlust and taught on the White House Great Lawn several occasions during the Obama administration. In that time, he says, “I know I have made mistakes.” 

“In my early work, I was mixing and mashing up hip-hop and Hinduism in an attempt to communicate the wisdom of yoga to young people in America,” he says when reached for final comment by Outside’s fact-checker. “At the time, I was ignorant of issues of appropriation. I am now more aware of the harm appropriation causes, and I am changing the way I make art and music. I’ve learned I can share my love of yoga—but from my own experience. Because I only ever wanted to uplift people, all people.”

His favorite event, and the anecdote with which he starts Spiritual Graffiti, is the festival of colors, the Hindu celebration of Holi that marks the coming of spring. When I ask him how he navigates cultural appropriation in his work—despite being asked by his PR representative to stick to questions about his memoir and music—he brings up Holi. “People would throw colored dust in the air and dance and have a really good time,” he tells me. “When everyone’s going off, you don’t see gender, you don’t see age, you don’t see how much money anyone makes, you don’t see what political preference they have or what religion they believe in. You just see human beings smiling and having fun, and it levels the playing field.” It’s a nice sentiment, but perhaps the playing field only looks level when viewed through that rainbow haze.

Lead Photo: Courtesy Jacueline Grossbard

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