When I first moved to New York for graduate school, I started doing yoga: an unoriginal choice for a young white woman, but my choice nevertheless. Yoga was relaxing and affordable. Between newcomer packages and free Saturday classes, I could exercise for less than the cost of a gym membership. I borrowed studio mats and wore ratty t-shirts. I couldn’t do a handstand, but still managed a workout.
Yoga was also, some teachers implied, something more than exercise. It was an awakening. A practice—a spiritual one. And this I struggled with. I welcomed the silences surrounding each session, but some classes also had gongs, chanting, incense. Many had mantras we were asked to repeat. Teachers told us we were awesome; they told us to find light and power within; they asked us to tap into energies so we’d be balanced and peaceful—and also, it was implied, hotter. Our classes finished with a namaste as reverent as amen, but without explanation of who or what we were addressing.
As a Christian, I wasn’t afraid of yoga: these classes were more woo-woo than witchcraft. But I did feel a little dishonest. It felt odd to lay a creed—even one as innocent as love yourself—over a workout class I was paying for.
A similar uneasiness pervades Liz Bucar’s Stealing My Religion, a book-length study of what she calls “religious appropriation.” Cross jewelry, meditation apps, and secular seders might seem innocuous. But using religious iconography, customs, and rituals outside of their original contexts, Bucar says, risks “instrumentalizing religion for political, educational, or therapeutic goals.” Worse, it can “communicate contempt for the deeply held values of religious communities.” Any form of appropriation—defined as a “dominant culture” stealing from “marginalized communities” in a way that causes “harm or offense”—is blameworthy. But religious appropriation is uniquely harmful, dealing not just with cultural artifacts like food and hairstyles but “ultimate concerns” and sacred truths.
Bucar, a professor of religion whose past work has focused on Muslim women’s dress, takes “solidarity hijab” as her first example. Worn by non-Muslims to signal progressive politics, solidarity hijab might appear on a protest poster, in a fashion show, or in a profile picture of a liberal woman speaking out against Islamophobia. But even when well intentioned, these attempts at support are also acts of religious appropriation. They bypass the pious virtues associated with the hijab—“modesty, shyness, humility, obedience” before God—and make it a costume. This transformation risks “undermining the religious meaning of hijab for Muslim women who choose to wear it.”
And, of course, that wearing is indeed a choice; Bucar finds solidarity hijab troublesome in part because many Muslim women don’t wear the covering. To make it a symbol of Islam is to exclude these women from their faith, she writes, “neglecting the diversity of the Muslim community.” She has other criticisms, too: solidarity hijab “coopts inclusivity in the form of a superficial allyship,” “functions as virtue signaling rather than addressing actual injustice,” and “de-centers” Muslims in the aftermath of Islamophobic violence.
These criticisms, though valid, aren’t novel: just the familiar problems of tokenism and slacktivism, white feminism and orientalism. As Bucar walks readers through harms related to race, gender, and ethnicity, she slips into academic jargon. Her central claim—it’s the religious nature of hijab that makes its appropriation really bad—is fresher and more interesting. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get enough space. There’s only one paragraph for Quranic verses on hijab, just a page about its implications for personal piety. I wish Bucar had offered more—perhaps a fuller reading of the Quran or other Muslim commentaries, perhaps more interviews with women about their devotional experiences, and certainly more analysis of hijab’s private, pious meaning.
Yoga isn’t so obvious a theft. But it’s a theft all the same. It’s problematic for lots of other reasons, too, Bucar reminds us: poorly paid teachers, anti-vax sentiments, gurus who sexually assault their students. Yoga can be “orientalist and racist and classist,” creepy and exploitative. Fair. But again these critiques, even when correct, obscure Bucar’s more provocative “yoga as religious appropriation” argument.
That appropriation, she writes, happens during “respite yoga,” any yoga performed for health and wellness rather than devotion. With its mantras and haphazard Sanskrit, its token oms and namastes in between squats and planks, respite yoga is “marked as vaguely spiritual and yet requires no religious commitments,” no adherence to the “Eastern devotional systems with which it is associated.” “Devotion becomes respite, salvation becomes health,” belittling the beliefs of those who practice yoga as an inherited spiritual tradition. During a training course, Bucar notices that a fellow classmate—an Indian woman who grew up practicing devotional yoga—is finding herself the odd one out. The woman struggles through unfamiliar postures and eventually curls up for a nap. “Although this yoga supposedly came from her homeland,” Bucar writes, “it was unfamiliar and uncomfortable.”
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