Can we have the cultural appropriation in yoga talk?
Can we have the cultural appropriation in yoga talk?
Cultural appropriation in yoga is not a new subject but new to many people that never considered the topic and what it means to us yoga practitioners and teachers. If that’s you please take 5 minutes to read below.
Globalisation made it possible for us to be exposed to different cultures and nowadays we integrate different aspects of other cultures in our day to day without even thinking about it. From the food you eat, to the products you use (often made on the other side of the world), the hobbies you choose to keep you healthy to spiritual practices to keep you sane.
In a general sense, to culturally appropriate means to adopt elements of one culture by members of another culture without the proper respect, acknowledgement and care for the values, traditions and context. This could be ideas, symbols, images, art, rituals, behaviours, music or costumes. This becomes even more unethical when the dominant culture uses these elements without acknowledgment of the minority where they come from.
Eastern practices like Yoga, martial arts or mindfulness are practiced by millions of people around the world and no doubt that the West adopted Yoga as a key practice for wellbeing and for some, a path to self-realization. But have we adopted it in its entirety or did we pick and choose what we liked about it and rejected the rest (a.k.a. cultural appropriation)?
I´m going to leave you with that question for a bit…
The term cultural appropriation has been pointed out by PhD scholar of postcolonial, critical race and gender studies Rumya Putcha as misleading and incorrect. She points out that the term is a kind of “politically correct” expression, when what we really are talking about goes deeper into unhealthy dynamics of power, racism and European colonialism. Read more here
As an afro-european yoga teacher and yoga school founder I have been asking myself this question for a long time and how our teachings reflect the respect for Indian culture and the system of yoga. Some years ago I started to listen to the Yoga is Dead Podcast and these kinds of questions started to pop -up about my own relation with yoga and especially my role as a teacher of teachers.
I personally spent many years in India, living, travelling and studying yoga in different contexts and lineages. I learned Yoga both in ashrams, schools, ayurvedic hospitals and centres but also in everyday living with the local community and friends. What I learned is that Yoga is not something external that people do but an integral part of Indian culture and Hindu tradition embedded in everyday living.
In the West when we say “I practice Yoga” we mean, I do yoga postures put together in a sort of sequence possibly with some breath awareness and meditation. In India, practicing yoga is a Sadhana (spiritual practice) and that can mean prayer, getting a blessing in the temple, saving a portion of food for the birds, adoring Saraswati (goddess of knowledge and arts), reciting the Bhagavad Gita, practicing selfless-service (karma yoga) or doing Sun Salutations and many other ways that yogic ritual is part of every household.
Coming back to my initial question, the answer is yes, we totally appropriated elements of the yoga system (mainly postures & meditation) and rejected the rest. Like I heard sometimes in the yoga studio scene – “The Om chanting is dispensable”.
The question now is how do we move from this appropriation to respect and reverence?
If you are a yoga teacher it's your responsibility to share this system in its entirety and with respect for the culture and lineage where it comes from.
Going back to the roots of yoga presented in literature might be a great way to start. The wisdom of the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and give us the cultural context from where Yoga came from and how it was developed later in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as a system.
When you practice and teach, make sure that your practice includes all the 8 limbs (parts) of the complete yoga system, not just asana (postures). Study the social and moral codes of yoga (yama & nyama) and reflect how they show up in your practice. Make sure there's a contemplative (Pratyahara, Dharana & Dhyana) side to your asana practice.
If you never had any exposure to Indian culture, take some classes or courses with south Asian teachers and see what you can learn from them and how perhaps it changes your perspective on what yoga is and how it is taught.
When you hear someone saying they invented this and that yoga system, remind them that Yoga is a complete system in itself and already invented. They might have a particular approach to it and choose to focus on a particular aspect of it but saying they invented, it's disrespectful and unnecessary.
Stay connected to your teacher and the lineage, remember that yoga was always transmitted from guru to disciple. Nowadays we call it more from teacher to student.
Most importantly, stay humble, see it as a gift that in this day and age you have access to it, what a privilege! How are you extending the privilege of having access to the wisdom of yoga, to others?
Like I said in the beginning, if you have never considered these questions, it's now the time. See how it makes you feel and examine what comes out of that process. One thing is for sure: just like some yoga poses, it's going to get uncomfortable for a bit, until you surrender and receive the gifts from it.