I know many would like to hear, "No, yoga isn't cultural appropriation." But it's complicated.
Let's address the giant Ganesh (elephant-headed god, son of Shiva and Parvati who removes and sometimes creates obstacles) in the room.
I recently walked into a yoga studio owned by white folks, with classes taught and attended by majority white folks, and there was a huge, beautiful bronze Ganesh statue greeting us all.
I could only laugh at the irony of this elephant in the room.
I love me some Ganesh, but what was he doing here?
The practice of yoga itself is not cultural appropriation. And, at the same time, it is really important to honor and appreciate where a practice comes from, or we risk appropriating it.
Yoga has always been syncretic. It's been practiced for thousands of years.
It began in what we now call Indus Valley Civilization, and it predated even what we now know as any formal religious practice. It has been changed, reinvented, shaped and reshaped over time.
It co-existed and was influenced by many traditions such as Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Buddhism, British athleticism, and now the new age movement. Yoga was passed down from teacher to student.
Yoga has always been a living, evolving, changing tradition. It's changing even now.
But cultural appropriation involves power. Usually a systemic imbalance of power, one that involves exploitation.
Power to pick and choose what we take from a culture and to leave the rest behind.
For example, physical practice, or asana, is one of the eight limbs. So in the Western world, in a lot of places where we see yoga practiced, primarily what is being practiced is one of the eight limbs -- asana.
Practicing just one of those eight limbs without practicing the rest is not practicing the full range and depth of what yoga has to offer.
If someone from the dominant culture does a teacher training and choses not to focus on or is unaware of the complexity of yoga's true aim or the roots of the practices, they are culturally appropriating yoga.
By remaining unaware of the history, roots, complexity and challenges of the heritage from which yoga springs and the challenges it has faced under Western culture, they perpetuate a re-colonization of it.
To me, this is a subtler, newer and very important form of colonization (a fourth wave?) we need to address. Colonizing powers, such as the British, used to take over the land of colonies then utilize and exploit the labor, natural resources, industrial power, and anything deemed of value inherent to that place.
Now, we don't have so much colonization of land, or only physical resources, but, instead, colonization of cultural informational wealth, such as we see with yoga.
Groups in positions of power colonize a set of ideas, practices, in other words, cultural riches. This sector deals in information. It produces, manipulates, distributes and markets information products. It is taken and and claimed as their own without giving any credit to where it came from.
Now, of course, there can be authentic cultural exchange, harmony and understanding in yoga.
Clearly, since the true aim of the practice of yoga is liberation, uniting mind, body and spirit, form should not limit us. But we can't bypass the power dynamics of colonization, even of information, to make us feel better on our mats.
This would be spiritually bypassing rather than really addressing the Ganesh statue in the room.
So how to practice without appropriating then?
We need to strike a balance between structure and emergence.
- The best way to decolonize our practice is to honor its roots. Of course yoga is always evolving. It's just a matter of honoring where things came from.
- If we are a yoga practitioner -- ask our teachers for more than asana. Going deeper, asking and taking the time to learn and practice more.
- Practice and teach as many of the limbs as possible. So we can experience and the full range that yoga has to offer.
- Own our positionality. Imagine if at the beginning of a yoga class teachers shared, "This is Who I am, this is how I learned, I have a lot of respect for the lineage..."
- A little humility, a little reverence, goes a long way.
- Teaching as if we know our stuff, of course, because we know we do, but also teaching as we are always a student of this practice. Acting as if wee could study it for our whole lives and be still learning, because, of course, we can.
- Show that we really care about the aim of uplift, about other's well being. This is is not just a thing we are doing.
Embrace emergence -- towards unity and uplift.
The cultural context of yoga in the west is shifting and changing.
Slowly we are seeing a revolution of consciousness towards respect, inclusion, diversity of leadership, as more and more of us step onto our mats as practitioners and leaders in the awakening of personal, human development and an expansion of love.
By practicing in a heartfelt way, we do our part to bring about this golden age- of people waking up to understanding their unity with one another.
This unity isn't possible through ignoring difference, pretending it doesn't exist or railroading it, but only by going in, looking deeply, reflecting and sharing with others who have a different perspective than ours.
Yoga is transforming as we take this ethic of integrity and unity onto and beyond our mats, out to our studios, home to our family, friends, expanding to places of work and businesses, out to our community and the world.
Rather than appropriate, let's transform this obstacle and use our practice to liberate.
I work with individuals 1 on 1 in online-learning custom coaching programs to transform your life with the tools of yoga. I also run online yoga business trainings and in-person Yoga Teacher Trainings.
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