Arguments are simmering in America that when Westerners practice yoga and meditation they are engaged in a neo-colonialist appropriation of an ancient heritage. Proponents of this argument will tell you that the statue of the Buddha or Shiva on your mantelpiece constitutes the imperialist theft of another culture's sacred imagery. Is this what you are doing when you bend in surya namaskar or chant OM before yoga class--exploiting another culture?
I've been practicing and teaching yoga and meditation most of my life and want to respond to this argument.
It's an important question. We Americans are wildly privileged. If you have traveled in India or to other developing countries, you know how rich and privileged we are. It's important to be mindful about situations in which our actions might derive from or be taking advantage of that privilege.
The West has a history of colonizing other countries and then romanticizing and appropriating aspects of their heritage. So an American sports team calls itself the "Washington Redskins." Madonna is blasted by cultural critic bell hooks for appropriating hip-hop music. A white rancher, a descendent of those who "won the West," hangs a Native-American dream-catcher from his rear-view mirror.
We've all encountered people who decorate their homes with symbols and artifacts from cultures they know little or nothing about. And how many Western "teachers" have taken ancient Eastern techniques and turned them into money-making gimmicks? I'm thinking of expensive seminars and retreats by self-help gurus and corporate trainers who charge a mint for sharing practices passed down for centuries in India or Tibet free of charge. In Salt Lake City, there was a teacher who ran a "very special retreat" called the "5-5-50." Five days. Five people. Fifty-thousand dollars.
Complicating the problem is the fact that many yoga teachers begin teaching yoga without really understanding the heart of the yogic path. You can see Hindu symbols displayed backwards in yoga studios or find that what you thought was going to be yoga is really aerobics with stretching. A majority of Americans sill may not realize that "yoga" is an ancient physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual way of life, of which asanas, the physical postures, are only one part. In Ashtanga, or Raja Yoga, asanas are one limb of an eight-limb system. The other limbs are directed toward spiritual liberation.
In addition, the very heart of yoga will get lost if we stereotype the American yogi as a svelte, young, upper-middle class white woman doing Warrior II on the cover of Yoga Journal. A fascinating website, "De-Colonizing Yoga," focuses on this latter issue and on making yoga more available to people of color. An Atlantic Monthly essay, "Why Is Your Yoga Class So White," makes the same point.
But here are some of the reasons I think the argument about imperialist appropriation is misplaced and an overreaction.
I was trained as a yoga teacher in the 1970s by sanyassis (monks) sent to the United States by a tantric yoga guru in Bengal. Usually, we think of the colonial power being the one sending missionaries to the colonized country to convert the heathens. But the twentieth century saw a huge number of Hindu and yogic teachers coming to the US. Vivekananda was the first--arriving in 1893 for the Chicago World Parliament of Religions. The great yoga teacher Paramahansa Yogananda was next. He arrived in the US in the 1920s and became a national sensation. His book, Autobiography of a Yogi, transformed many lives, including my own. Later came Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swami Satchidananda, Swami Muktananda, Meher Baba, B. K. S. Iyengar, Yogi Bhajan. And Amma, Amritanandamayi Ma, still visits regularly to share her life-changing darsan, hugging thousands of Americans.
None of them worried about their teachings being "appropriated" by Westerners. They shared them freely. Because the teachings transform lives, lead to liberation, and can change the world.
Hatha yoga, the physical side of yoga practiced in most American yoga studios, is already a multicultural phenomenon. A yogi named Krishnamacharya in Mysore, the teacher of famous B. K. S. Iyengar, developed modern hatha yoga by combining ancient yogic traditions with late 19th-century Western gymnastic and body-building systems. Many of the most popular yoga series like sun salutations are relatively recent inventions, existing nowhere in the ancient yogic texts like Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. The ancient texts are primarily concerned with spiritual liberation. Asanas are just one part of a complete holistic system.
Many, many people in the West are hungry for spiritual transformation. Yoga and meditation are priceless gifts India has given the world, gifts that are transforming global human consciousness. Just this year Indian Prime Minister Modi sponsored the United Nations' adoption of "International Yoga Day."
A true guru will tell you that yoga transcends nations, borders, and boundaries. Brahman, the term in yoga philosophy for Absolute Reality, the Divine Consciousness, encompasses the entire universe. It exists for all. No one owns it. No one can "appropriate" it. Brahman is not in danger of being limited or tarnished by the ignorant West.
When traditions migrate to other cultures, they evolve. When Buddhism went to China, it met Taoism. From this meeting, Zen was born--hardly something to lament. When Indian Tantra went to Tibet, Vajrarana, or Tibetan Buddhism, was born. This new tradition gave the world the Dalai Lama. Yoga will be transformed by coming to the West. It already has been. The important thing is to be part of its flowering, not its degradation.
If your goal is to offer the "5-5-50," become a rich New Age guru, you may be betraying the spirit of yoga. But if you approach this great tradition with humility and reverence and a desire to share what you have discovered, then you'll honor the heart of the path.
A recent post on a Kundalini Yoga Facebook page said that the first requirement of being a yoga teacher is to realize that you are nothing. Why? Because in the openness of that humility and emptiness of self, something priceless can be born.
So let's all of us yogis bow to this ancient spiritual tradition of India, learn and teach all the limbs of yoga, and in our practice and in our hearts hold a deep sense of gratitude for this gift that our spiritual Mother, Mata India, has bestowed upon the world.