Are White People Ruining Yoga?

May 21 at 4pm
By Sarah Han

Artist Chiraag Bhakta moved to San Francisco in 2007 from New York. As an Indian American who grew up in New Jersey, raised by devout Jain parents, he couldn't help but notice that "the Bay Area has got this bizarre relationship with Asian culture/spirituality." And as he started collecting new age-y yoga ephemera from the '60s through the '80s, Bhakta noted the absence of South Asian people amongst the imagery. 

Over the years, Bhakta – who lives in Hayes Valley "near those white monks" and works as graphic designer under the name Pardon My Hindi out of a studio in SOMA – gathered materials from friends, at bookstores and record shops, flea markets, and online. Today, his impressive collection can be found at the Asian Art Museum, as part of its current "Yoga: The Art of Transformation" exhibition. The installation, called "#whitepeopledoingyoga," is a response to the commercialization, appropriation, and white-washing of yoga in our culture through an Indian American lens.  

I asked Bhakta a few questions about his project and his relationship to yoga.

I read that you practice yoga yourself. Do you ever feel conflicted practicing something that has become so commodified and appropriated? 

Yeah I practice, not consistently though. I definitely feel weird practicing at times. Being brown in a room surrounded by chanting white people in Lululemon, ya.    

Do a lot of Indian Americans practice yoga?  

Not sure. Do a lot of African Americans play jazz? 

You found some great vintage yoga ephemera. Can you tell us more about your favorite finds?

A couple of my favorites are because they have personal messages written on them either from the author, or the person giving the piece as a gift. 

Yoga-wise, there’s a lot. Probably a book called Executive Yoga, the cover is pretty great. Or the Christian Yoga material, which is pretty ridiculous. 

Definitely all the material from this white woman named Indra Devi, whose real name was Eugenie Peterson. She was on the forefront in America. The earliest material I have from her is from the late '50s. She was pretty crazy. She changed her name, wore saris, and gave herself the title “First Woman of Yoga,” and declared herself as “ The World Foremost Authority on Yoga”

That’s a bold statement woman.

What do you hope people take away from going to see your exhibit at the Asian Art Museum?

Well, SF is a great place to have this conversation, it’s the epicenter of Western/White Yoga. There a bunch of individual pieces in the installation that might seem humorous, but the objective was to present them in an overwhelming and suffocating way, since that is how I feel about the industry.

It might make some feel uncomfortable, but that's ok. I’m hoping those who do will put their guard down for a bit, read the statement, and think about it, without being defensive. Being “positive” isn’t necessarily positive when you’re stepping all over something. Appropriation is still appropriation even if it's well intentioned.

I’m hoping people will then start seeing the same pattern in other industries because my project isn’t even about yoga really, it’s about colonization. Yoga’s just the vehicle.

"#whitepeopledoingyoga" will be on view through Sunday, May 25, so you have a few more days this week to check it out.  

Top photo by Timothy Palmer/@suprememoves; all other images by @PardonMyHindi 

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