Peripheries: The problem with ‘spiritual’ mindfulness

Mindfulness seems to have sprung up everywhere recently as a promised antidote to the burnout generation and constant pressure to increase productivity. Companies such as Google, Accenture and Nike are incorporating mindfulness into the workplace to boost creativity and provide an outlet for stress. It is undoubtedly beneficial for us to consider methods of stress reduction. Many mindfulness practices are by nature-inclusive. Taking time for silent meditation in the morning, doing sun salutations or participating in a vinyasa class are by no means limited to people of Hindu or Buddhist origins. However, in today’s mainstream culture, many of these practices have co-opted elements of cultural spirituality while simultaneously attempting to repackage the practices as secular and open to all.

The yoga that was born in the Indus Valley 2,500 years ago was not designed solely as a form of exercise. The word “yoga” means “union” in Sanskrit and is part of ancient philosophy regarding conscious living and awareness in the world. To date, this worldview has not achieved full acceptance in American society. As an Indian-American, I have witnessed firsthand the ridicule surrounding my family’s religious practices and the general skepticism and dismissive attitude toward polytheism. Sometimes the very same people who sneer at immigrants when they don’t speak English are the ones chanting “om” as part of their wellness routines. People should learn about the context and history of their yoga practices, but, above all, should consciously eliminate the hypocrisy that emerges when some people explore yoga as a health trend while many non-Christian people, especially people of color, feel uncomfortable publicly expressing their beliefs.

This problem has been exacerbated by the commodification of mindfulness. Mala beads are sold as accessorized jewelry rather than religious objects. Hindu deities, especially Ganesha, are regularly emblazoned on workout wear. The word “namaste” has been transformed into a trendy phrase that is found on tank tops and tapestries. Saying the word at the end of class and vaguely mentioning “divine energy” pays lip service to yoga’s origins while blatantly ignoring its history. As someone who has been made to say variations of the word in religious contexts, it feels strange and sometimes uncomfortable to speak the word, heavy with an American accent, before bowing to a white yoga instructor.

Yoga studios have become bastions of fitness for white upper-class women, and this is no accident. People of color are consistently sidelined by the fitness industry, especially yoga. A 2012 study found that more than four-fifths of yoga-practicing Americans are white. It is difficult to believe that this is an example of cultural exchange. Today’s yoga and mindfulness are new, American phenomena. This is natural: The pressures of 21st-century lifestyles in a religiously diverse and multicultural country should elicit adaptations of old practices that fit more closely with modern contexts. However, let us not continue to conflate mindfulness practices with cultural spirituality when it suits us. We must either seriously learn about relevant cultural history or divorce our secular mindfulness practices from religious and cultural ones.