For Melissa Shah, yoga has always been entirely Indian. Her first memories of the practice don’t include top buns, athleisure wear or even exercise. Instead, the 33-year-old recalls trying to manage her childhood asthma, coughing and wheezing through deep-breathing exercises.
For South Asians, yoga isn’t about image or aspiration. It’s simply an everyday physical and mental health routine.
Shah said she felt a sense of belonging in learning unfiltered yoga among other South Asians in Queens, New York, where she grew up. But when she started visiting white-dominated studios outside her community, she says she felt excluded and uneasy, like she was participating in a foreign practice. So she got her instructor’s license, and she started building her own community to take it back. Then, the pandemic hit.
Industry professionals say yoga in the U.S. has long been branded with a white face, and white influencers have reaped the most benefit from the boom of online yoga during the pandemic.
“If you were to go on YouTube and be like, ‘I just want a free yoga class,’ you're probably not going to find someone who isn't white,” Shah said.
These virtual practices aren't going anywhere, instructors say, even as studios start to open again.
A YouTube search for the most popular yoga channels shows dozens of white creators listed as "most relevant" on the platform. YouTube did not respond to a request for comment.
“The algorithm favors certain qualities,” said Sean Feit Oakes, a yoga instructor and industry expert. White people who already had a following were the most likely to thrive over quarantine. “So a brown-skinned person is going to have a hill to climb.”
South Asian instructors like Shah say they’ve been working to “decolonize” an industry that for decades has centered white elites. The pandemic, which put online yoga at the forefront, is giving them an opportunity. They’re able to connect with each other, build coalitions and reach a broader group of students. But the cultural appropriation runs deep, experts say, and fighting it will take time.
The scramble to get online and who got left behind
Tejal Patel, 38, used to teach yoga classes in studios and in Manhattan’s Battery Park before the shutdown last March. Anxiety started to set in, and she wondered how she would keep her practice alive when no one could go outside.
She managed to launch her website, Tejal Yoga, after a 12-hour marathon workday, and the Zoom reservations started coming in. Building her practice allowed her freedom and reclamation in a certain way. She now incorporates and funds other South Asian yoga instructors, some of whom lack a platform of their own.
“Yoga in the studios has always felt really distinct and separate,” Patel said. “I wasn't getting that feeling or that connection from Western yoga studios versus this rich cultural, spiritual practice I grew up with.”
She didn’t want to learn about her own culture from somebody outside of it, she said, so she took it into her own hands.
But the jump hasn’t been that easy for everyone, Oakes said. He described being successful in the YouTube yoga space as a “performance.” Instructors need a nice camera, angles, lighting, backdrops and clothes. On top of that, they need to have a significant online following already. For burgeoning South Asian instructors who don’t glamorize their practice for clicks, that’s not always a possibility.
“Sexiness goes far,” he said.
March 2020 showed a sizable spike in views and subscribers for popular yoga influencers, according to Social Blade, a website that tracks the growth of YouTube channels over time. While already-famous yoga channels featuring Desi creators grew as well, their channels are less likely to be promoted by YouTube on a blind keyword search.
When the terms "yoga" and "yoga with" were searched on YouTube by NBC News, channels listed as “most relevant” were overwhelmingly white. In fact, it took a significant amount of scrolling to find a channel run by a person of color. None of the five most popular yoga influencers on YouTube, whose platforms have all grown during the pandemic, responded to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, those who relied on their in-person studios for exposure lost much of their livelihoods.
For Patel, who has an Instagram following of nearly 19,000 and hosts the podcast “Yoga Is Dead,” it’s been an opportunity to grow and to highlight her peers. She doesn’t want to gatekeep yoga, she said, but she wants to re-center it.
“There has been such a separation of yoga from its roots,” Patel said. “It's not about keeping yoga the same, but it's about not calling something new when it just clearly isn't.”
A history of white elites co-opting yoga and wellness
Pranamasana, exhale. Hasta uttanasana, inhale. Padahastasana, exhale. Ashwa sanchalanasana, inhale.
Eight more steps and 12-year-old Divya Balakrishnan would have completed another repetition of Surya Namaskaram, the sun salutation yoga sequence. She moved intentionally, focusing on her hands, her feet, her posture and her speed. It was a daily ritual, and each morning, she tried to go faster, more seamlessly, for more rounds.
“It was the first physical practice that I really committed to mentally as well,” Balakrishnan, now 28 and an instructor, told NBC Asian America. “It gave me a little bit of a reprieve from the really, really negative voice that was constantly going off in my head telling me that I was too fat, that I was too dark.”
She liked to keep her yoga private through her childhood. Like any other kid, she wanted to fit in with her peers. But the first time she took a yoga class in college, she was the only person of color in the room. There were no Sanskrit descriptions or breathing exercises. It was just a workout.
That sanitization is part of a decades-long trend to make yoga and wellness more marketable to the Western palate, said Sophia Arjana, associate professor of religion at Western Kentucky University and author of “Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi: Orientalism and the Mystical Marketplace.”
“There's the idea that the West is rational, the East is mystical,” she said. “And then it casts practices and traditions like yoga and ayurveda as elixirs for the ills of the West, but in a commodified form that often erases its religious origins.”
While many associate the start of yoga in the U.S. with the hippie movement of the 1960s, it was actually introduced much earlier. Actress Greta Garbo and her contemporaries learned yoga from Russian instructor Eugenie Peterson, who traveled to India in her 20s, changed her name to Indra Devi and brought yoga to Hollywood in the 1940s.
There was a resurgence of the practice in the '60s as it became popular with the general public, but it stayed the most relevant with white elites, Arjana said.
In 2018, actress Gwyneth Paltrow faced backlash after she tried to take credit for the popularization of yoga, saying in an interview, “I went to do a yoga class in L.A. recently and the 22-year-old girl behind the counter was like, 'Have you ever done yoga before?' And literally I turned to my friend, and I was like, 'You have this job because I've done yoga before.'"
Paltrow, whose lifestyle brand Goop has also been criticized for cultural appropriation and pseudoscience, is one of the key offenders when it comes to fetishizing and marketing Eastern traditions to a white, upper-crust audience, according to Arjana.
Included in Goop’s product line are a $1,000 yoga mat, a turmeric latte powder, ayurvedic herbs marketed under the label “Organic India” and an “Ashwagandha Energy Body Wash.”
“By partaking in these practices but erasing their original identity and by saying that these practices are something else, that is an act of cultural colonialism,” Arjana said.
Goop didn't respond to a request for comment.
Shah recalled feeling out of place in the yoga world for the first time when she worked out in a trendy Manhattan studio.
“It was new for me to feel that way in a yoga class or environment,” she said. “And I'm like, ‘OK, well, I'm just gonna ignore all that because this is the only place I can afford to go to.’”
How South Asians are creating their own spaces
After years of feeling a little lost with her practice, Balakrishnan finally found a yoga studio with a diverse group of students and instructors. She said it gave her the confidence to get her instructor’s license.
“It just felt like a pipe dream,” she said. “Like I didn't ever think anyone would actually look at me and be like, ‘I want to learn from her.’”
Like many others, she had to take her practice online during the pandemic, and she uses Instagram to connect with her clients and peers. There’s a lot of work ahead, she said, but the unforeseen benefit of pandemic yoga is the ability to connect with people all over the world, not just those who can physically come to you for a class.
“This whole past year, I've been teaching virtually, and it's been such a gift,” Shah said. “I've been able to offer practices to people I never would have been able to meet otherwise. And I can pretty much take classes all the time from BIPOC instructors.”
Patel knows what it feels like to start in the yoga industry and feel silenced by the way it's marketed in the West. But things are changing, she said. The South Asian women who she works with are using this online yoga boom to build new infrastructure and connect with peers and clients. Her virtual sessions, often featuring other Black and brown leaders, are constantly booked with people from across the country.
“Yes, there is a benefit to having a big following,” she said. “But there's also a benefit to doing the work that you want to be doing authentically in the world and attracting the people that are going to come to you, support you and learn from you.”