Do yogis romanticize cultures of the East?

Modern technology has provided us a unique window into other cultures, but windows only allow us to see a small sample of reality. Does this limited perspective encourage glamorization of foreign cultures and create a false dichotomy between “East” and “West”?

The media play a significant role in framing the line that supposedly divides East and West. Fashion magazines are known to intentionally display images of Asia and the Middle East that omit automobiles, buildings, and other signs of industrial progress. Films like the Indiana Jones series hype up a sense of adventure and highlight the mysterious and barbaric ways of distant lands. These example illustrate how the East is portrayed as somehow stuck in a glorious past that is undisturbed by the modern world.

In Orientalism, Edward Said suggests that these false assumptions were established when EuroWestern powers used romanticized images of tribal and barbaric people from Asia and the Middle East to justify colonial and imperial ambitions. These images continue to have an effect today, and the media’s portrayal of other cultures continues to facilitate a false dichotomy between “East” and “West” and separation between “us” and “them.”

This photo from a Sept 2007 edition of Vogue shows how people in “exotic” and often poverty-stricken countries were used as a glamorous backdrop for expensively-clad fashion models.

In more recent decades people in American and Europe have become interested in learning more about the traditions of other cultures, but the barbaric stereotypes from colonial days were only traded in for new ones that might be just as dangerous.

Modern-day stereotypes assume that the religious, cultural, and health practices of “Eastern” cultures are somehow wise and untouched by the politics and greed of the West. Individuals in the yoga community especially often skew the traditions of India, Japan, Thailand, and other countries to fit the mold of our own EuroWestern values, further perpetuating exotic stereotypes of the “East.”

Yoga Journal was once criticized by Kaustubha Das,the Editor of Bhakti Collective, for misrepresenting Bhakti Yoga in an article titled, “Everyday Ecstasy: See the Divine in Everything When You Practice Bhakti, The Yoga of Devotion.” Kaustubha Das expresses his disappointment in yoga-related magazines, saying:

“Well meaning authors, not well versed in a particular subject or tradition, color it through their own lens to such a degree that it becomes hardly recognizable. That coloring usually involves the imposition of modern New Age thought upon yoga’s time-honored teachings.”

He goes on to suggest that the cultural appropriation of yoga in the West presents ancient traditions like bhakti yoga as a vague free-for-all that lacks discipline and encourages a practice based in egoism.

Globalization and cultural exchange will inevitably distort ancient philosophies by taking them out of their historical and cultural contexts. Whether done intentionally or by ignorance, the exoticization of Eastern cultures can cause significant damage and limit our ability to grow as a world community. For true exchange to take place, we have to learn to engage in an intercultural dialogue without glamorizing or misrepresenting traditions that may appear at first to provide all the answers for the problems we face in our own country.

Do you think the yoga community romanticizes teachings from the Eastern hemisphere? Are we less skeptical of texts like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras or practices from Ayurveda simply because they’re from a culture not our own?

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- who has written 21 posts on Yoga Modern.

Patience Steltzer is the Assistant Editor for the World Affairs Current at Yoga Modern. She spends her time drawing, painting, sewing, writing, and practicing/teaching yoga in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. After a lifetime of having no idea what to do with her creativity and energy, she discovered yoga allowed her to find the beauty and excitement in stillness. Since then, she has dedicated herself to sharing her love of yoga with others to help them find the joy she has.

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