Westernization: How yoga became white and feminine

“Yoga? We’re not doing anything so exotic here.” That was the answer Ursula Lyon received in 1968 when she wanted to start teaching yoga at a German adult education center, then she was allowed to try it at another adult education center under the name “relaxation gymnastics” and a little later also called her practice “yoga” The 93-year-old is one of the pioneers of yoga in Germany and also appeals to an audience that does not want or can focus on physical performance in yoga.She has lived and taught in Austria since the 1980s.

In the Western world, yoga has not only established itself as an everyday practice for millions of people, but also as a billion-dollar business with great growth opportunities. If you search for “yoga” on the internet, you get a fairly uniform picture of yoga practitioners: most female, white, young, normal beauty, sporty, without physical limitations – just like the yoga teachers with the widest reach on Instagram and YouTube.

The yoga pioneer

She is also known as the “yoga grandmother”: Ursula Lyon was one of the first women to teach yoga in Germany – despite initial opposition: The 93-year-old now lives in Austria and appeals to a diverse audience.

Yoga ban for women

A study conducted by the Professional Association of Yoga Teachers in Germany shows: Four million people practiced yoga in Germany in 2018, 70 percent more than four years earlier. Of these, 90 percent were women. However, yoga was not always a female-dominated practice – on the contrary. Until the 20th century, women were forbidden to practice yoga. Yoga, which is dominant in the West today, mainly includes physical exercises and can be collectively referred to as Hatha Yoga. According to Laura von Ostrowski, indologist and religion researcher, “Hatha” is today translated, among other things, by the term “violent”.

In its original form, Hatha Yoga involves very intense practices such as hours of breathing and strict asceticism, including retaining semen so as not to lose vital energy. “The scriptures on which this yoga is based are written by men for men. By ascetics for ascetics. By Brahmins for Brahmins,” von Ostrowski said in an interview with ORF.at. elite.

women and rotten fruit

But even in the ancient yoga sutras of Patanjali, there is hardly any mention of female yoga practitioners. Not only were women banned from participating in the practice, they were sometimes cited as an obstacle to male yoga practice and cited as something to avoid along with rotten fruit and contaminated water.

While there are scattered references to female figures in yoga, it is disputed what their exact role was. How did yoga develop under these conditions into a trend sport among Western women?

APA / AFP / Narinder Nanu

It is thanks to Indian yoga teachers that yoga has now been adapted to the female body

colonialism and body discipline

In the 19th century, the popularization of yoga by the Brahmins served primarily as resistance to the English colonial powers. They brought European gymnastics to India as an instrument of oppression with the aim of portraying the Indian people as weak. “Yoga served as a political tool to oppose the colonial powers at all levels,” von Ostrowski says. Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, an Indian scholar who played a significant role in spreading yoga to the West, taught yoga to the Indian royal family shortly before India’s independence to strengthen them physically.

It was Krishnamacharya who first began teaching women yoga in private classes in the early 20th century. First his wife, his daughters and then Indra Devi, the first Western female yoga student who popularized yoga primarily among American women. At that time, the Brahmins were well networked, very well educated and aimed to spread yoga in the West, whose culture they could well appreciate – through colonization. As early as the end of the 19th century, Swami Vivekananda wrote that alternating breathing leads to better work performance if practiced regularly.

Means for self-optimization

Under this framework, yoga found fertile ground in the West. “At the beginning of the 20th century, the German-speaking area was characterized by a strong gymnastics cult, which was performed by socio-economically better-off women and organized in the same way as today’s yoga studies,” says von Ostrowski.

This tendency was paired with the logic of self-optimization in the “New Thought” movement. Yoga was adapted to these conditions and spread primarily by yoga teacher Boris Sakharov in Berlin. His books were specifically aimed at a female audience. The story: yoga for the beautiful, healthy, fertile woman.

Yoga instead of gymnastics

After the National Socialists took over the gymnastics scene, it was largely destroyed after World War II. “Yoga then took the place that the gyms had before. It was an alternative form of movement, a holistic approach with a spiritual foundation, something the West had lacked. ”

“The target group and the western narrative, however, remained the same. Yoga, as it is taught in many gyms today, has many more points of contact with the gymnastics scene in the early 20th century than with yoga as described in the ancient scriptures, ”says von Ostrowski. Women’s magazines, which since the 1990s have popularized yoga as a weight loss strategy and anti-aging remedy, have also made a significant contribution to this.

The problem of marketing

Yoga exercises are now adapted to the female body. Among others, Geeta Iyengar and Indra Devi, who were among the first female yoga teachers, made a significant contribution to this. Meanwhile, the western hype about yoga has created a market for lifestyle products that are often not even needed for practice, such as special drinking bottles and yoga outfits. Private yoga classes and yoga classes in the studio are not cheap, and you should also at least have a laptop for online classes.

People who do not correspond to the relevant body image of western mainstream yoga are hardly represented in the imagery of yoga marketing. All of this means that yoga and its potentially positive effects are still not available to everyone. “You had to adapt yoga to bodies outside Western beauty norms already in the training courses. There should also be more yoga teachers who themselves represent diversity, ”says von Ostrowski.

More than beautifying yourself gymnastics

Yoga teachers like Jessamyn Stanley, Arundhati Baitmangalkar, Madhura Bhagwat and von Ostrowski use Instagram to make yoga and knowledge about it accessible to a diverse audience. “Often the narrative of ‘old, true’ yoga is romanticized.” One must not forget the process, “which so many have been involved in weaving in”, says von Ostrowski.

She calls for more education about the millennial practice and a respectful use of symbols and practices in yoga. Because: Yoga is more than just beautifying yourself gymnastics. Lyon knows that too. Her guideline: “Yoga is something for life and can also make you aware of your responsibility for the world. And what I learned early on: perfection is mandatory. imperfection liberated. “

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