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AvatarJen May

    Jen May
    Reflections on Cultural Appropriation in Yoga

    I first became aware of cultural appropriation in yoga as I practiced in a variety of studios in the early 2000’s. At one studio, statues of Hindu gods and goddesses were placed on the floor, essentially as decoration, and this sparked a conversation about careless and uninformed handling of sacred objects. Around this time clothing/bags/earrings with the OM symbol were really popular, and even though seeing the gods and goddesses on the floor hadn’t rung any appropriation alarm bells in my head, this definitely did. Both examples are cringe-worthy for the same reason – something sacred has been tossed out there to the world, and companies are making money on its association to yoga.

    I did my first teacher training in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at a Vinyasa flow studio. I don’t remember cultural appropriation being discussed. It was assumed that I would OM and say Namaste at the end of class. There was a sense that teachers should pass along a comprehensive set of the traditional teachings of yoga that included invoking these sacred words. I felt uncomfortable with this at first, but I was out of my comfort zone in general, so I didn’t necessarily feel that I was appropriating by using these words. Over time, I’ve found that OM and Namaste have become more authentic and meaningful to me, as centering and ending rituals. I describe them to students as rituals and occasionally go into the meaning behind them.

    Appropriation as we defined it in our course is when one culture tries on and uses another cultures’ symbols, rituals and artifacts. Another part of the definition is that appropriation is to be expected whenever two cultures meet. We are all undoubtedly enriched by this continuous mixing of cultures around the world. When we’re talking about food, traditional clothing, or music, appropriation may enrich more than harm. However, a broader understanding of appropriation that takes into account accessibility, exclusion, and the use of sacred items without deep understanding shows how it can be harmful in some cases.

    Social media may make yoga more accessible just by exposing more eyeballs to yoga content, but the content itself is disseminated in bite-sized pieces, sometimes incorrect and usually lacking nuance. We could throw up our hands at this situation and say yoga should only happen off-line in situations where we can learn in depth from an experienced teacher. But the fact is, many people are exposed to yoga for the first time through social media or youtube, where quick takes and glossing over deep ideas is the norm. Even a 60 minute class doesn’t feel like a long enough time to really do some yogic ideas justice. We hope that these incomplete tidbits either add up over time, in the case of repeatedly going to the same teacher, or they spark someones’ interest in probing deeper. My first introduction to yoga was a physical education class in college that was flawed and incomplete, but I was hooked and went on to further study and practice. Between books, DVDs, Yoga Journal magazine, and going to many classes, It didn’t take long to dive beneath the surface-level, fitness oriented yoga.

    Another example of appropriation is the use of sacred symbols as common decoration. Images of the Buddha and Ganesh are like this, seen in gift shops and divorced of their original meaning. I actually bought a statue of Ganesh within the last year, to inspire me to flow with life instead of resist, to reframe obstacles as opportunities. If I had bought this twenty years ago when I first started my yoga practice, it would have meant something different than it does now. My time spent studying yoga and working with the idea of Ganesh as the remover of obstacles makes a difference.

    As yoga evolves, becoming international; no longer elite, esoteric, and male; no longer tied to a caste system; majority women practitioners; focused on wellness rather than transcendence, it makes the analysis of appropriation more confusing. Why not just move away from the dogma, the gurus, transcend race and culture, and in the process avoid all the cultural appropriation too? It seems like a good idea on the surface, but we all come to the practice of yoga with our own cultural baggage, and it’s important to acknowledge it in order to learn from each other.

    I read a few blog posts by Indian yoga teachers about appropriation. They are upset by Lululemon and other clothing companies pushing yoga in the fitness direction and making money from sacred symbols. They see a lack of diversity in classes, especially a lack of practitioners of Indian descent and feel alienated by what they see as an assault on their traditional culture. They are bothered that yoga teachers travelling to India for trainings are majority white westerners. They feel that yoga is priced too high for people who really need it to access it.

    I’d like to think through a class I taught recently in the light of appropriation. It was a class series focused on improving balance. So yes, it definitely had a fitness orientation, and everyone coming was expecting (I think) a very physical practice. I had 17 people in the classes, mostly beginners, and it was the most diverse class I’ve taught – age, gender, and racial diversity included. I brought in ideas about mental focus, other ways of thinking about balance that dipped into yoga philosophy, and provided time for quiet and an inward turn. Was I appropriating by capitalizing on the fitness orientation that people expect? I think maybe yes to a certain extent, but I hope that people got a taste for what else yoga has to offer and will come back for something more and different.

    What I’m taking from our conversation is that more understanding and study leads to less harmful appropriation. I’m committed to learning more for the sake of my students and my own respect and love for the practice. I know that if I’ve studied and worked with ideas until they feel real and authentic to me, I can probably present them to students in a meaningful way too. Curiosity, openness, willingness to make mistakes and learn from them – all these will help me and others in reducing harmful appropriation.