A scholar of critical race theory and a yoga teacher explore the problematic ways Westerners describe their travels to India.
Last year, Yoga Journal ran a travel essay by a US-based yoga teacher who had visited India with his family. His account was not unlike many Western accounts of India and in the vein of what we call “poverty-porn.” In these stories, India is consistently described as a place where those from North America or Europe can “find themselves,” “surrender,” “find grace in poverty,” “learn tolerance,” “experience culture,” or “withstand an assault on the senses.”
In other words, for all too many white yoga practitioners, India is the other. It is the “dirty” escapist fantasy that leads to a “life-changing, transformational” experience for travelers.
Most tourists, even educated yoga practitioners, may not realize that this attitude perpetuates colonial and structural forms of racism. Structural racism, also known as white supremacy in the US context today, is not about individual acts. Instead, it is about the institutional, taken-for-granted privilege that makes it possible for a US citizen to easily acquire a tourist visa to India, when the inverse is next to impossible for the average Indian. In other words, structural racism determines who gets to go where and how. So, before you plan a trip, reflect on why you want to travel to India and consider the broader history and implications.
Many people see travel as the antidote to racism. Travel can allow us to see cultural differences—this is true—but when “difference” becomes a source of self-affirmation, travel is reduced to a form of virtue-signaling, or self-congratulation, which only leads to more re-centering of the white experience. Many travel to places black and brown folks come from to experience personal “transformation” in the face of devastating inequity and call this gratitude. We have all seen this type of social media post: the “simple happiness of the locals, despite the fact that most live in poverty, made me realize how fortunate I am, and how easy it is to be happy.” This is a normalized form of racism, like referring to African-American music as “ghetto” or the everyday racist question brown folks know all too well: “But where are you FROM?”
The challenging aspect of this, for most of the white people who teach and practice yoga (about 85 percent of yoga participants in the US are white, according to the National Institutes of Health), is that you must confront and deprogram the attitude that prioritizes intentions over impact. Ask yourself honestly, “Am I going to India to make myself feel better about my place in the world?” Or worse, “Am I posting about it on social media so I can pat myself on the back for it?”
Put another way, traveling to a place—where locals cannot easily travel to where you are from—to “bring back” something you can then market or sell isn’t dharmic or yogic. It’s not even appropriative. The word for that kind of transaction is imperialism. If you are a white yoga teacher, you may go to India to better understand and learn something, and when you come back you feel that it adds value to your teaching, which you essentially sell. Is this wrong? Well, yes. Someone who lives in North America is taking intellectual property from India and turning around to teach it and sell it at a profit while nothing is going back to the country of origin. This leads to the erasure of indigenous knowledge, and more importantly, this is exactly how white supremacy endures in 2019.
It’s hard for many to hear this, but commercial yoga does not have a pretty story, and, as with many aspects of our culture in 2019, we are long overdue for an honest conversation about how race, capitalism, and colonialism have played and continue to play a role in shaping what we think belongs to us. The question then becomes, what do we do with this knowledge, not only as individuals but on a structural level? How do we proceed in a manner that leads to justice and equity? Ultimately, the question more yoga practitioners need to ask themselves before they travel to previously colonized areas is not “How can I do what I want” but “Why do I think I have a right to what I want?” This isn’t just about you or your intentions, however “good” they may be.
And finally, if you still want to travel to previously colonized areas for yoga tourism, we encourage you to consider these questions before you go:
Would you still go if you weren’t taking pictures or couldn’t post about your trip on social media?
- Would you still go if you weren’t taking pictures or couldn’t post about your trip on social media?
- Would you still go if you couldn’t buy anything to bring back (souvenirs for yourself or to sell) or leverage your time in India for financial gain?
Books to Read on Colonialism
For more information about structural racism and how colonialism shaped global racism and injustice, check out these resources:
- A Theory of Imperialism by Utsa & Prabhat Patnaik
- Orientalism by Edward W. Said
- Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor
- White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
About our authors
Rumya S. Putcha, PhD, is a scholar of postcolonial, critical race, and gender studies. She’s the author of the forthcoming book Mythical Courtesan / Modern Wife: Performance and Feminist Praxis in South Asia, and her next project is titled Namaste Nation: Commercial Yoga Industries and American Imperialism.
Sangeeta Vallabhan has been studying movement for more than 30 years, first through dance and then yoga. She has been teaching yoga in New York City for over 15 years. As the creator of solemarch, Sangeeta encourages students to use the practices of yoga to continually seek out their own voice and their true sense of self. Learn more at sangeetavallabhan.com.