Cultural appropriation has been a hot topic in recent years. With conversations and debate about the appropriation of black hairstyles in South Africa taking place on social media, it would stand to reason that, as a society, we are growing more culturally aware. And yet, as a particular brand of wellness culture and spirituality manifests itself on social media and beyond, the origins of the practices it borrows from remain unacknowledged. As the origins fade away, new connotations and histories take their place, changing the mainstream understanding of certain cultures and religions in the long-term. At the same time, some argue that in a globalised world, cultures are bound to brush against one another and evolve. So, is the whitewashing of the wellness industry cultural appropriation and a problem with long-lasting consequences? Or are accusations of cultural appropriation just political correctness gone too far?
The line between appreciation and appropriation is a fine one. Cultural appropriation is defined by Oxford Languages as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas etc. of one people or society by members of another typically more dominant people or society”. Many of the practices of the whitewashed wellness industry are borrowed from other cultures and religions. Arguably, the origins of these practices are hardly ever acknowledged. Rather, new meaning and significance is attached to such practices. Some examples are yoga, the use of religious symbols such as Om and Hindu deities, as well as some mindfulness practices such as the law of attraction (manifestation).
This is not to say one cannot engage in any of these practices. Rather, one shouldn’t do so without understanding and acknowledging the origins, meaning, and significance of these practices. According to Statista, in 2020 in the US alone, the revenue of the yoga industry was $1.56 billion. The wellness industry is putting money over morals. Yoga, as it is practiced by whitewashed wellness in the mainstream, is a caricature of a centuries-old practice. Yoga as a spiritual tradition was practiced for the purpose of establishing a higher mind/ body connection. An Indian yoga teacher in West London, Ravi Dixit, in speaking with Glamour UK voices his concerns: “You can find yoga training led by teachers who’ve never been to India or don’t really understand the basics, like the Sutras of Patanjali or the Eight Limbs of Yoga. There are online courses to become a yoga teacher in three weeks. It takes years of study to master it all – how is that possible in three weeks?” The wellness industry has whitewashed the practice of yoga, muddied its traditional practice, purpose, and origin, and continues to profit from it, while actual Hindu practitioners who provide the same services are side-lined.
There is a darker aspect to the appropriation of yoga practices. While yoga is now a mainstream fitness philosophy espoused most prominently by white influencers in Lululemon leggings on social media, the practice of yoga and Ayurveda were legally and de facto banned in India under British rule. Once, Hindus were not allowed to practice yoga, and now that same practice has been appropriated and exploited for profits. The same applies to the use of Ayurvedic remedies as the latest fad without acknowledging the history and origins of Ayurveda.
Non-Hindu people wearing religious symbols in the name of “spirituality” without understanding their sanctity and meaning is not only disrespectful, but may be considered blasphemous. In India, while images of Gods and religious symbols are found in the hubbub of everyday life—from transportation systems to the workplace—they are treated as sacred objects and treated as apart from the material. The ways in which they are circulated, viewed, and touched stem from their status as sacred. The same considerations are not given to them in the West, where Om signs are oriented on water bottles for the aesthetic, and imagery of goddesses is printed on swimsuits. Of course, yoga, Ayurveda, or the Om sign aren’t for use only by Hindus. The point is simply that considerations should be made about the origin and meaning of these things and critical questions be raised about what is and isn’t acceptable for the use of non-Hindus, and what are the constraints that should be applied to their use.
Aside from being culturally insensitive, appropriation can have longer lasting impacts. Take for example a well-known example in history—the Swastika. As Mukti Jain Campion writes in a BBC article, the Swastika symbol is long associated with religions such as Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism and has connotations of good luck. The term “Arya” means “nobility” or “honourable”. In the 19th century, German researchers looking through Indian texts found similarities between Sanskrit and their own language. Nazi nationalists then used this theory to appropriate the Swastika and turn it into an anti-Semitic symbol and justify their supposed Aryan superiority. Now, this is not to say that the wellness industry is the same as Nazism. Rather, this point demonstrates how appropriation can lead to a twisted legacy of something held sacred by a group of people. Appropriation can spread mass misinformation and simplify complex Hindu ideals. It allows people to take from Hindu concepts and rebrand them as their own, reducing and overlooking Hinduism’s contributions to society—take for example, Ayurvedic practices long established in India. Appropriation also trivialises the history of oppression Hindus have faced to keep their traditions alive by appropriating the beliefs that Hindus died protecting.
Yes, we live in a globalised world. Yes, cultures will evolve and take from one another. However, we still need to take into consideration the power dynamics that exist between cultures and we need to be sensitive in the ways we appreciate other cultures. There is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation—and that line is made up of acknowledgement, understanding, respect, and sensitivity