Double-consciousness and the branding of BIPOC Yoga

Patrick McCartney CC-By Attribution 4.0 International



As relative levels of disposable incomes rise it enables more participation in leisure behaviors within the global wellness industry. There is a curious overlap between the consumption of both yoga-inflected lifestyles and skin whitening products, which occurs through the pursuit of spirituality, wellness, beauty, and social justice activism.

What this essays intends to explore is the correlation between the rising consumption of yoga lifestyles and skin whitening products, which is complicated through the activation of yoga as an instrument for social justice through the broader concept of self care, which is intended to operate as a radical intervention against perceived white supremacy, as Hi‘ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart and Tamara Kneese explain, radical care is a survival strategy for uncertain times.

One might not immediately think about 21st century transnational yoga’s potential entanglement with an obsession for lighter skin or how yoga might be employed for marketing purposes to suggest that yoga can help make one’s skin whiter or the double consciousness it might invoke. Yet, this is what appears to be happening, at least, on some levels within the beauty industry, which is a subset of the multi-trillion-dollar wellness industry.


Is there a sense of irony that people who use skin whitening options at alarmingly high rates are also consuming more yoga-inflected lifestyle options? The curious entanglement is the combination of spiritual practice and social justice activism as a radical form of “self care.” All of which occur through the same rise in disposable income that enables consumption of privileged leisure/lifestyle options.

While Yaba Amgborale Blay asserts that skin whitening is a global phenomenon “practiced disproportionately within communities ‘of color’ and exceedingly among people of African descent” and, that “history of skin bleaching can be traced to the Elizabethan age of powder and paint,” there is a larger, more complex, historical precedent. This nuances Blay’s assertions in perhaps unexpected ways. First, segment analysis forecasts for the global skin whitening market shows that the “Asia Pacific emerged as the largest market, accounting for 54.3% share of global revenue in 2018.” Zion Market Research explains, that

“The major factor that is driving the growth of the skin lightening products market is increasing consumer consciousness regarding their physical appearance. Skin lightening lotions and creams are the fastest selling product type in the skin lightening products market, owing to their easy availability. Moreover, lifestyle changes coupled with increasing disposable income is also likely to boost the skin lightening products market in the years ahead.”

China is a large market, yet according to Global Market Insights, “Japan is the largest market worldwide for Whitening Products.” These statistics complicate Yaba Amgborale Blay’s claims, since Asia reportedly accounts for more than half of the $13 billion global whitening product market. China comprises 40% of sales, while Japan contributes 21% and South Korea a further 18%. That is a total of 79% of the global sales. [[[Actually I”m not sure if these figures are for the total Asia portion of the global sales or the portions of the Total Asia sales. IE does China = 40% of global sales or 40% of Asia’s sales???}}}}}

The global market is expected to grow to over $24 billion by 2027. Within the lotion segment serum and toner are the stronger product types with 6.8% CAGR (Combined Annual Growth Rate). The reason for this is rapidly rising disposable income that increases purchasing power for grooming products.

The general rise in disposable income fuels both the consumption of yoga-inflected lifestyles and skin whitening products. {{{what else is linked in some way? directly/obliquely}}}

Comparing the market size of yoga and pilates studios with skin lightening products in China we see an interesting correlation, which begs the questions:

Does adopting a yoga-inflected lifestyle make people more comfortable in their own skin, enough that they do not want to use skin lightening products? Does yoga induce a desire for whiteness?

The reason for asking this question is that one of the dominant narratives in the marketing of yoga focuses on cultivating the mood of self-acceptance and accumulation of inner power/fortitude. Further empirical analysis is required to determine whether people who incospicuously consume yoga experience a reduction in anxiety around the colour of their skin.

This has something to do with the long-standing value placed on women (and increasingly men) being bái fù mei (white, rich, and beautiful). Eric Li and colleagues assert, that

‘Whiteness’ or having white skin is considered an important element in constructing female beauty in Asian cultures. A dramatic growth of skin whitening and lightening products has occurred in Asian markets. Contemporary meanings of whiteness are influenced by Western ideologies as well as traditional Asian values and beliefs.

These traditional values are run deep. Hiroshi Wagatsuma explains how the value of white skin has existed in Japan for more than a millennia, and that the perception of skin color relates to a whole complex of attractive or objectionable social traits that is documented to have been established long before sustained contact with Europeans or Africans during the Nara Period in the 8th century.

Another way to look at this is through analyzing LAMEA’s (Latin America, Middle East, and Africa) cosmetic and yoga markets. KBV Research claims, that the “LAMEA cosmetics market is expected to reach $538.3 million by 2022, growing at a CAGR of 5.6% during the forecast period.” While Allied Market Research forecasts that yoga and pilates studios in both the “Asia-Pacific and LAMEA are expected to witness growth at a CAGR of 12.9% and 12.1% respectively,” up to 2025.

We see a steady increase in consumption of both yoga related products and cosmetics, which includes skin whitening products. Is there any connection other than both resulting from increased levels of disposable income?

As a result of unintended deaths and other health complications many countries have banned skin whitening products. This includes the Ivory Coast which banned skin whitening creams in 2015. Yet, the perceived need to use such products persists.


Just last week Johnson & Johnson announced they are dropping their skin whitening creams altogether. While Unilever’s Fair & Lovely cream is to be renamed.

Prohibition creates …black markets

Practicably speaking, if various creams and potions become no longer available through discontinuing products or wholesale banning, how will people continue with their beauty regimes and aspirations? Will this create a situation in which people resort to even more extreme measures that could further impact on their health and wellbeing?

  1. The New Economics of Colorism in the Skin Whitening
    Industry: Case of India and Nigeria
    227 Ramya M. Vijaya

I’d like to invite you to explore a smaller tributary of the idea of white washing yoga. One that brackets off the suggestions that white people are ruining yoga and that BIPOC (Black Indigenous People Of Colour) are in a better position to act as stewards of decolonization or indigenous knowledge keepers of a monolithic and imagined Yoga, which, ironically, often involves its own unconscious bias by promoting colonially-constructed narratives as remedy to decolonize yoga and supposedly honor its roots.

This essay isn’t focused on a historical survey of colorism. Even if, as Radhika Parameshwaran explains, that “There is no established causal relationship or even correlation between skin color and caste. But here’s what I will tell you, there is a strong perception that skin color and caste are linked and as long as that perception lasts, it will matter a great deal. So, I would say there is a widespread and entrenched perception that lighter skin color equals higher caste.”

Instead the intention is to demonstrate how yoga is employed and perceived to be an instrument to create lighter skin coloration through particular imagined yoga lifestyles. This adds an interesting blemish to the project of branding India through looking at how yoga’s role in soft power strategies is applied via the cosmetic/beauty industry and the unrelenting obsession with fair skin. Not that I suggest a conscious project on behalf of the Indian state to infiltrate the beauty industry, rather that a strategic syncretism is at play.


Issues arising from the desire to attain lighter skin coloration are particularly relevant across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where the potential health risks with bleaching skin to attain prescribed levels of beauty are regrettably well known. Many studies show just how pervasive and potentially fatal the practice of using various cremes and lotions are to anyone coerced into aspiring to have “fair” and “lovely” skin, which is also embroiled in the controversy around the efficacy claims related to Patanjali’s supposed Coronil cure for COVID-19. Generally, the consumption of skin whitening products is linked to leisure behaviors which are tied to cultural perceptions of skin color.

As Evelyn Nakano Glenn explains, “Light skin operates as a form of symbolic capital, one that is especially critical for women because of the connection between skin tone and attractiveness and desirability. Far from being an outmoded practice or legacy of past colonialism,the use of skin lighteners is growing fastest among young, urban, educated women in the global South.”

Yet, this obsession affects both genders and is not necessarily a patriarchal imposition as the industry’s revenue is increasingly driven by men and their demand for skin lightening products. As Jaray Singhakowinta explains, Thai men are having glutathione injections to whiten their skin and also having laser and chemical treatment on their penises.

There is a dark side to yoga that includes its perceived ability to effect change that pathologises dark skin as requiring a remedy or medical intervention. Dark skin is framed as a skin disease that can be alleviated, if not cured, with yoga.


In Japan, “Face Yoga” has some level of traction that has been exported globally to, at least, keep up with the Kardashians. Koko Hayashi explains her brand of Face Yoga to be “a great natural alternative to botox or plastic surgeries.”


However, the original Face Yoga Method™ is also from Japan and similarly claims to help with making one look younger and have more radiant, glowing skin.


The Anfukuji temple in Kyoto is linked to the famous Tōfukuji temple branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. For a time it offered “Face Yoga Workshops (顔 ヨガ ワークショップ)” that claimed to reduce one’s visible aging by 10 years (マイナス10 歳; minus 10 sai). Fumiko Takatsu is the creator of the Face Yoga Method™. She asserts that it is a “completely natural alternative to anti-aging remedies. By practicing a series of facial exercises you can learn to tone the muscles beneath the facial skin and increase facial circulation and blood flow which results in a more youthful and radiant complexion.”


Here is where we flesh out the argument by pondering yoga’s smear campaign in various markets. It is apparent that not just in India, but across Asia, certain “Yoga lifestyles” and “Face Yoga” methods are offered as “natural” options to help that do not require cremes, pills, or injections. While it is apparent that this phenomena has a certain media presence in Asia, it is as yet unclear how deep yoga goes as a perceived path to lighter skin in Africa and Latin America.

South Asian cultures have a complicated relationship with color. While we ought to be careful of reading into earlier textual sources contemporary ideas and values of racism and colorism, one myth pertinent to understanding some of this complexity and the construction of otherness through color is the story of King Vena and the origin of the Niṣāda people. One mention includes the very prominent Bhāgavata Purāṇa (Book Four, Chapter 14).

Kundan Kumar Raj explains that the Niṣādas were one group of forest dwelling hunters who existed outside the Brahminical social order and were considered mlecchas (barbarians) in various medieval texts (purāṇas). Prior to this the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa ( defines mleccha as a marker of “barbarian speech”. One example is “helayo helayaḥ” as a Prakrit variant of the Sanskrit “he’rayo he’rayah,” which means “Hail, friends!”

This is something that the (not 4th century CE yoga sutra) grammarian, Patañjali, also mentions around the 3rd century BCE. These topics of mlecchas, etc have been covered by several eminent scholars over the past century. One purportedly historically xenophobic anecdote is king Brahmadatta Caikitāneya disdain for the accents of others, which was reportedly so great that he could not even stay in the same territory as those who spoke an eastern dialect. This is mentioned in the Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa (1.337–338) and speaks to the idea of being an outsider as indelibly linked with unrefined or abusive speech (kuyavāc).

Descriptions of others includes appelations that refers to those who have kṛṣṇā-tvac (“black skin”) (Ṛgveda 1.130.08). In their translation of the Ṛgveda (1000 BCE), Stephanie Jamison and Joel Brereton point out, that “The word ‘color’ [varṇa] in the final pāda of the verse is a frequent way of referring to a cohort, a unified group of people (Ṛg Veda 1.104.02). And that this hymn refers to the warring of the Ārya with their enemies, namely the Dāsa/Dasya. This is the same group of early Vedic tribes who gave us the word, “yoga.” Which means “action” in a very martial sense.

Aloka Parasher-Sen explains, that “Mlecchas” acts “as a reference group comprised not only foreigners from outside the geographical area of the Indian subcontinent but also included any outsiders who did not conform to the values and ideas and, consequently, to the norms of the society accepted by the elite groups.” This was a value shared heterodox reformers like the Jains and Buddhists who were against internal non-conformists residing within the same land. However mleccha has come to refer more generally to outsiders located physically beyond particular borders and is in some ways linked to the term for “outsider” (bāhīka), which is located early on in the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 1.7.3.[8] along with its synonym, jahika, which is located, amongst other places, in the Mahābhārata 8.30.14.

These examples are included to demonstrate that the culture that gave us the word “yoga” had clear ideas about who outsiders were and how this related to those who had dark skin and spoke differently. An imagined golden age of equity and diversity at yoga’s ground zero is not accurate and any assertion to the contrary does not honor yoga’s roots in the way it might be intended. Especially from so-called “indigenous knowledge keepers” and “traditional stewards” working to promote their own X+Yoga hybrids for symbolic profit and distinction in a mature, if not saturated, industry.

Even though, as mentioned, ought to be cautious with interpolating ideas of racial/cultural/linguistic prejudice on ancient texts and the groups dwelling within, what is clear is that these issues were important enough for ancient poets to sing about 3000 years ago. More importantly, ideas of skin color and othering have a much longer history in South Asia that precedes colonialism and Europeans and ideas of “white supremacy.” Not to say this hasn’t become entangled today, but here Pashington Obeng’s book on the history and contemporary issues of Africans in India presents a fascinating account dating back approximately 1500 years. Similarly, Agnieszka Kuczkiewicz-Fraś and Renata Czekalska look at Africans in India and Indians in Africa.

And yet, today, skin color as a way to mark group identity is as significant as the controversies around it. One only needs to look at the Indian marriage sites to see how important and durable it is. Or, it seems, was. As has recently capitulated to public protests to remove the skin color filter from its search engine.


Let’s turn more closely to how yoga and skin color is entangled. Hydroquinone is the chemical most widely used to lighten skin, yet it is banned in many countries.

Not only is yoga promoted as a natural alternative but so is the perceived advantages of Ayurvedic treatments as alternatives for using toxic chemicals like hydroquinone. For instance, ubṭan is a paste made up of meal, turmeric, oil and perfume. It is rubbed on the body when bathing to clean and soften the skin. While ubṭan is a generic name for ointments applied to the skin, various blends are commercialised that might purport to offer sun-protection and skin-lightening properties that typically include tumeric (Curcuma longa), chick pea (Cicer arietinum), and Indian sandalwood (Santalum album).

Yoga for Glowing Skin

The process of “whitening” or “lightening” the skin is often misrecognised through euphemistic expressions, like “reducing dullness” or “increasing radiance” or through “glowing” or creating adjectival phrases, like “fair glowing skin.”

This is seen across the internet. While other examples aim to support assertions that describe the twinkling skin as attainable through 6 yoga poses for “that radiant yoga glow.”

We all want beautiful, soft, youthful skin. Sure, potions and lotions help, but real beauty lies beyond man-made products. Gorgeous skin begins internally. And let’s face it, who doesn’t want to feel beautiful from the inside out? A daily yoga practice can drastically influence and rejuvenate your skin. The physical, mental and emotional balance from yoga works similarly to a regular skincare routine, but better. It will naturally enhance your skin, creating a radiant glow. Yoga works in various ways to revamp the quality of your skin. It flushes out and eliminates toxins from the body.

Yoga is presented as one of five modalities that can help with “face glowing.”


Where this gets somewhat insidious is that international companies like Loreal are only going part way to solving this issue. Really, their efforts are superficial and only go skin deep by rephrasing their skin products replacing “whitening” with “glow.”

For the time poor busy person who has little opportunty for time pass, one can get all the benefits through “do minaṭ yoga.” If one is looking for something to do during a COVID lockdown then Ira Trivedi offers #YogaIra #Lockdownyogawithiratrivedi in which glowing skin and lustrous hair can be achieved.

Yet other advertising campaigns are more direct with their communication and how it can help with “skin whitening”:

Graceful, beautiful and glowing skin is in trend. Have you ever wondered how the biggest celebrities of Hollywood & Bollywood maintain their great whitening and twinkling skin all the time? Now it’s time to reveal their top secret, they follow and embrace the Yoga in their lifestyle.

There are Straightforward Yoga Poses for Skin Whitening which includes the pseudoscientific claim, that “enhancing blood dissemination in your face” is achievable by “turning around the stream of gravity, a headstand reproduces a ‘cosmetic touch up’ by letting your Skin Whitening hang in the inverse heading, which means disposing of wrinkles. The upset position of a headstand likewise flushes crisp supplements and oxygen to the face, making a shining impact on the Skin Whitening.”

It seems, the perception, at least, is that lighter skin is achieved through exercise flushing more blood through the skin and that sweating also seemingly removes, through a sort of tapasya burn off, all the perceived “impurities” of darker pigmentation.

Abhishek Maheshwari, a yoga instructor offers 10 yoga poses for glowing skin, “Pranayama, breathing exercises, headstand, and fish pose are primarily the best for glowing skin’.


A more comprehensive list of “Yoga Poses for skin whitening” by Sarvyoga, includes: Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation Pose), Bow Pose (Dhanurasana), Downward Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana), Plough Pose (Halasana), Shoulder Stand Pose (Sarvangasana), Padmasana (the best Meditation Pose), Corpse Pose (Shavasana).

Ramdev has specific classes about #YogaAsanaForPhysicalBeauty which are problematic for all the essentialised claims made, particularly through his company, Patanjali. Here is another example in which Ramdev gives advice over the phone to a woman wanting help with her skin problem.


For all the laudable social justice ideas that an upgraded, yet “true yoga” is about inclusion and access, especially for non-white (BIPOC) people, there is some problem with honoring both its imagined roots and staying true to improving equity and diversity in Yogaland. Even if spiritual practice and social justice are united through “yoga” to offer events that “reclaim wellness,” ultimately this is just another way to rebrand and create another X+Yoga hybrid that is heretically sealed from criticism through the new religious movement it is inspired by. As Reclamation Ventures is yet another brand capitalizing on wellness, spirituality, and social justice activism.


How is heritage and lineage preserved? Whose heritage and lineage is preserved?

Alli Simon claims that, “One sutra from the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali states that we are not going to change the whole world, but we can change ourselves and feel free as birds.

If a classical concept of yoga is perceived to equate to Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras, which many assert it does, and honor this text as some sort of yoga “bible” that contains the definitions for what yoga was, is, and will be, how do we reconcile the obvious issue that this classical version of yoga was prescribed for ascetic Brahmin men?

And that the aim of Patanjali’s yoga is isolation (kaivalya) and not increasing diversity? Of course concepts, practices, communities, and meanings change. It is somewhat confusing how yoga heals racial trauma. Does this involve BIPOC people gaining the perceived privilege of whiteness through sweating and gaining “glowing” more “radiant” skin? Is this how racial trauma is healed through white washing it? Is the adoption of yoga-inflected lifestyles counter-productive to the intended goals of decentering whiteness and its perceived supremacy?

We ought to consider the insidious changes in language that companies engage with to temper febrile minds regarding the idea of whiteness and the potential hazards of trying to lighten one’s skin colour. Changing the label does little. Yet, even more problematic is the way in which both Yoga and Ayurvedic products and options are promoted as parts of alternative lifestyles that can supposedly make the skin more radiant and glowing. Again, this does little to actually address the fundamental issues around the insatiable demand by men and women to lighten the colour of various body parts. And somehow this has evolved to cross over with wellness and spirituality with social justice actions to create an affirmative “self care” environment. However, like the dualistic philosophy that underpins yoga’s metaphysics, sāṃkhya, “Yoga” seems to be engaged in a metalevel double entendre (sleṣa) whereby it is able to generate self acceptance and cure pathologies that come with being othered as well as having kṛṣṇātvac (black skin) and being an outsider (bāhīka).

The concept of white washing yoga refers to sanitizing its commodification outside of a “traditional” context. This sanitizing is deemed as cultural appropriation and racist. Yet in many instances heightened levels of cognitive dissonance seem to be present. Geetika Pathania Jain explains, that

Much before yoga could be accepted as a wholesome and family-friendly practice available at a yoga studio next to a Starbucks cafe at the local strip mall, many yogis would work assiduously to strip away yoga’s sinister overtones and would guide in its re-emergence as a secular and peaceful practice. The dreadlocks had to go, and the ash-smeared hashish-smoking yogi was replaced by a yogi of pleasing hair-length and body hygiene.

From a business perspective one wonders how well the consumption of a dreadlocked-ash-smeared-hashish-smoking version of Yoga might translate and catch on beyond its marginalized domain on the outskirts of India’s society in the far away lands where this image would repulse and terrify most people from wanting to try yoga. Yet it’s not just the culturally insensitive westerners who might feel this way.

As David White explains, “Even today, sinister yogis are stock villains in Bollywood film plots, and as soon as one ventures out from the subcontinent’s metropolitan areas, yogis are such objects of dread and fear that parents threaten disobedient children with them: “Be good or the yogi will come and take you away.” Yogis are bogeymen, control freaks, cannibals, and terror mongers.”

It seems, then, kind of ironic to chastise consumers of yoga-inflected lifestyles outside of a “traditional” Indian context when most middle-class Indians who have taken to incorporating various brands of yoga into their own lives have a quite unfavourable impression of “traditional yogis” themselves.

Yoga ought to be understood as a technology that is adapted to suit its relative context. Technology is ever evolving otherwise it becomes obsolete.

This includes well-to-do areas of Mumbai where yoga is as removed from the Himalayan cave as it is in London, Osaka, or Cape Town. The Yoga Sutra Yoga Studio is an interesting case. It is a sleek, modern studio with mirrored walls and mango wood floorboards that offers classes in a variety of styles in a ocean-side posh area of Mumbai.

We have Power Vinyasa Yoga, Ashtanga, and General Hath classes as well. Our Body Balance class is a dynamic exercise combining the arts of Yoga, Pilates, and Tai Chi, all choreographed with music. This class is a fun and exhilarating way to burn calories, and strengthen your body. Pre and Post- Natal classes are offered for all the mothers of Mumbai and for their kids we have kids classes and teen classes.

Is this yoga studio in downtown Mumbai an example of white washed yoga returning to India? Is this internalized racism? The rhetoric and studio layout could be transplanted into a yoga studio anywhere in the world. How might we best spot the white washed yoga from the traditional yoga?

Where are the dreadlocked-ash-smeared-hashish-smoking yogis in Mumbai’s yoga studios?

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