India’s health system—which supports 1.3 billion people—verges on the brink of collapse. Every day, the country breaks a grim world record of Covid-19 cases and deaths, and the reported death tolls are likely a massive underestimate. Patients are dying as hospitals run out of oxygen and crematoriums have overflowed into car parks. The situation is beyond dire, and getting worse. Like most Indian Americans watching the crisis from afar, I have felt a gamut of emotions: helplessness, anger, and guilt, as an American who looks forward to picnics in the park while my relatives in India are watching their parks turn into gravesites.
Over the past two weeks, my social media feed has been flooded with desperate requests for oxygen cylinders, hospital beds, PPE, and ventilators from Indians and calls for donations. Amid the outcry, however, Desi people have noticed that one demographic remains comparatively silent: white people and brands that use yoga as a lifestyle. The white people who have commodified and profited from South Asia’s cultural traditions owe these communities aid as India faces an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
I believe that everyone should have access to yoga. In fact, many have turned to yoga to manage stress during the pandemic. But white creators and companies appear to be reaping a bulk of the profit from the pandemic yoga boom: Athleisure brands like Lululemon are recording significant profits. In March of last year, YouTube yoga influencers enjoyed a spike in views and subscribers. While South Asian creator channels gained subscriptions as well, NBC reports that “their channels are less likely to be promoted by YouTube on a blind keyword search.”
Indeed, when I searched “yoga” on YouTube, I had to scroll for a long time to find any yoga videos by creators of color. Articles about the benefits of yoga during the pandemic routinely feature white women. As an Indian American woman, I cannot help but notice the irony: as the pandemic rages on, American culture is healing itself with an ancient Indian cultural tradition—while millions of actual Indian people are dying from a virus that could be mitigated if America and other wealthy nations stepped up global relief efforts.
The truth is that the pandemic will not end until every country, every person, has access to the vaccine, and America wields a significant power in making this a reality. There are many ways white Americans and yoga influencers can help in this effort. Specifically, they can use their platforms to raise funds for organizations that are offering relief in India. They can donate a portion of profits to India, and they can raise awareness—and educate their networks–about the complex factors that exacerbated India’s crisis, including neglect from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the rise of Hindu nationalism. Most importantly, they can urge their followers to push the Biden administration and pharmaceutical companies to end vaccine inequality.
Some white people are doing this work—but there is so much more to do. As author Mira Jacob wrote in an Instagram post to companies like Lululemon and Alo Yoga, “Make no mistake: this is giving *back*, not giving charity. This is protecting the people who created and honed the practice of yoga for millennia before Western companies found a way to monetize it, people whose lives are being ravaged beyond recognition while corporations who have the means and muscle to help them post another picture of a hottie in tree pose.” (After Jacob’s post, Lululemon pledged $200,000 in aid—a start).
For decades, America’s wellness industry has mined South Asian cultures for inspiration, then repackaged our traditions with faces and branding that erases brownness and promotes Western beauty standards—the core message being that, without whiteness, our cultures or traditions are without value. This is baked in the history of yoga in the United States: Yoga was popularized in the U.S. by a Latvian woman named Eugenie Petersen, who taught the practice to Hollywood stars, including Greta Garbo, under the name Indra Devi in the 1940s. She turned her business into a mini-empire and gave a palatable, relatable face to the white elite.
In the postwar 1960s-era, white Americans looked at India as a spiritual, mystical place, where traditions like yoga became “the answer to the crisis of stagflation and social discontent,” as historian Vijay Prashad writes In the Karma of Brown Folk. This paved the way for the next rebranding of yoga as a lifestyle brand for middle-to-upper class white women in recent decades. In 2018, Goop founder Gwyneth Paltrow even attempted to take credit for popularizing yoga. Yet when I search “India” on Goop’s website, more than 100 articles appear—none of them about Covid response or the dire situation. (In an Instagram post, the brand asked followers to consider donating to the relief effort, but did not say whether the brand itself is donating any profits.) As an Indian American woman, the silence of white women who promote yoga as a lifestyle has compounded the offensiveness of this form of appropriation at a moment when India desperately seeks aid.
I, like most Indian Americans right now, am struggling with severe cognitive dissonance between the optimism over increasing vaccination in America versus the suffering of friends and family in India. At a time when anti-Asian hate is increasing, white yoga influencers, consumers, and teachers have a role to play in fighting anti-Asian racism, in re-examining their relationship with the cultures from which they profit, and in using their platforms and money to reinvest in the communities that have given them their livelihood. If a majority of those who have participated in yoga and the wellness culture worked to raise awareness about India’s crisis, or called on Congress to expand the global vaccine supply, or donated to aid organizations, the industry could make a significant impact in saving lives in India and give back to a community that has given so much to them.
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