Hinduism Race and Yoga
Shameem Black
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0281


This article explores scholarship that analyzes yoga through the lens of race. “Race” is a construct primarily used to distinguish people from each other; it furnishes an axis for the unequal division of resources, status, rights, and recognition. Scholars have begun to ask how yoga has become an object of academic inquiry shaped through the racial categories, practices, and hierarchies of colonial and capitalist encounters; how yoga has made, and continues to make, meaning within different racialized contexts; and how yoga might serve as a resource to address racial inequality and injustice. Precisely because yoga is often imagined as a path toward an ideal, scholars have been keen to understand how its forms draw upon, normalize, or challenge social and political dynamics. Scholarly conversations on yoga and race tend to cluster around three key areas. Across these diverse debates, “race” and “yoga” are often interpreted quite differently. One field, largely informed by South Asian studies, religious studies, and history, addresses yoga in the context of Western colonial encounters with South Asia. These works often investigate the colonial dynamics shaping the retrieval, transmission, translation, production, or interpretation of key texts and practices. A second dominant field, anchored in ethnic studies, critical race theory, media studies, and sociology, focuses on yoga in multicultural Western societies, often with a strong focus on the United States. In this set of conversations, attention tends to focus on analyzing racial inequalities that shape yoga and assessing how yoga might reflect or respond to such inequalities. A third set of debates emerges in health and medicine, where scholars have begun to examine the importance of racial identity and racialized structures of power in relation to health outcomes. In contrast to more humanistic and social scientific approaches, this research often addresses yoga through a narrower historical and philosophical frame. However, this line of inquiry offers important resources to show how yoga is never simply a race-neutral health intervention, but instead constitutes a practice layered within complex structural and cultural conditions. These three scholarly conversations investigate “race and yoga” through interdisciplinary lenses. Researchers interested in this area should also consult the entry for the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Hinduism article “Contemporary Globalized and Commercialized Yoga,” which includes additional references to scholarship on yoga and related themes such as decolonization, non-Western histories, cultural appropriation, and caste.

General Overview

In the last decade, broad initiatives have emerged to chart yoga studies in relation to race. Newcombe and O’Brien-Kop 2021, a volume with a wide historical and geographic sweep, builds connections between scholarship focused on yoga’s textual traditions and research oriented toward its sociological manifestations within political landscapes. The volume draws attention to dynamics of race through essays on decolonization, diversity, and social hierarchy. Given the dramatic expansion of yoga practice in the late 1990s and beyond, scholars based outside South Asian studies have also begun to inquire how yoga takes shape within new geographical and social spaces. Berlia, et al. 2016 presents research that foregrounds how yoga makes meaning within Western landscapes of racism, exclusion, and inequality. This project often emphasizes the work of scholars of color, frequently including personal practitioner narratives, to highlight voices that are less visible within Western popular culture.

  • Berlia, Beth, Melanie Klein, and Chelsea Jackson Roberts, eds. Yoga, the Body, and Embodied Social Change: An Intersectional Feminist Analysis. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016.

    Examines North American contemporary practices of yoga with attention to how race, ethnicity, and class shape the significance of yoga for differently positioned practitioners.

  • Newcombe, Suzanne, and Karen O’Brien Kop, eds. Routledge Handbook of Yoga and Meditation Studies. London and New York: Routledge, 2021.

    Identifies the centrality of race as an emerging area of research for yoga studies, noting that much of this work has been led by women of color in the United States and calling for white scholars of yoga to adopt more reflexive attention to social and structural inequality.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.