“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.