Yoga Medicine® – Home Forums Yoga & Politics 2024 – Final Exam: Essay #3

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    AvatarKatie Tietz

      Essay #3

      How would you respond to questions of cultural appropriation in yoga – what do you consider appropriate or inappropriate in a class setting and how would you explain practicing a culture outside of your own to others.


      Post your answer below in 700-1500 words, submissions are due by June 7th in order to receive your training certificate and hours. Firdose Moonda will review your answer, provide optional feedback, and upon approval you will receive your certificate and 12hrs of completion for the Yoga & Politics – Holding the Essence of Yoga Online Teacher Training.


        The topic of cultural appropriation in yoga has weighed heavily on my mind for a long time. As a socially and economically comfortable white American woman teaching yoga professionally in my tiny hometown in rural North Carolina, this has been an area I have felt stuck in navigating for a few years now. I value all opportunities to learn about others’ cultures especially since I mostly connect with Hispanic farm workers in my local community where I teach. I also consider it part of my responsibility as a yoga teacher, to gain an understanding of the history of yoga and the politics embedded in that history. I found this course to be thought-provoking and immensely beneficial for navigating my own personal and professional journey with cultural appropriation in yoga. With a deeper understanding of some of the more spiritual aspects of yoga such as chanting, using Sanskrit, and quoting the yoga sutras that we discussed throughout the training, I have more confidence in my decisions as a yoga teacher in my community. For many years, I have neglected to share some of the spiritual teachings of yoga – mostly due to ignorance and lack of understanding on my part. Honestly, I was intimidated and felt unqualified so I have stuck with the therapeutics of yoga and the many physical and physiologic benefits in my teaching career. I have often felt pressured to be a more spiritual teacher. After our deep dive into the history and politics of yoga, I feel more confident in my decision to focus on the physical and physiologic benefits of yoga and more equipped to blend that with new-age spirituality through mindset, positive psychology, and neuroscience through the benefits of a mind-body integrative practice such as yoga. I feel confident in sharing yoga from this perspective because it feels authentic, and I have seen in those I work with the many benefits of the movement and breath work. I think at the core of my inner reflection throughout this course was an analytical look at my why for teaching, which has always been to share yoga with those who may otherwise not even try yoga because they can’t relate to the practice for any number of reasons ranging from physical health or religious beliefs, or just simply because of social barriers such as geography and costs. I haven’t found an eloquent solution to many of those barriers, but I have made all my local classes “Pay What You Want” which has helped at least with the issues of costs, and I’m fortunate to have a “day job” that allows me to do this, which I realize is not an option for many. It isn’t a perfect solution, but in my rural community, I have seen benefits. At times, I have felt that because I’m not a “spiritual” teacher, I was watering yoga down by focusing on the science. This course has taught me that is not true at all, and in many ways having a more scientific approach can make yoga more relevant in my community. Thus, to address cultural appropriation in yoga, I would encourage my colleagues to do a similar thoughtful inner study, maybe take a course such as this one to help clarify some of the considerations of yoga history and politics since it is so complex and often misrepresented in popular culture and even in the profession of yoga, and share aspects of the culture from an honest and authentic perspective. Finally, I think giving thoughtful consideration of the intentions of what a teacher shares is of utmost importance. Simply recapitulating knowledge without a clear and thoughtful intention can be irresponsible and in some cases alienating and harmful, therefore, being intentional with teaching is of utmost importance, as truly knowing the why behind what you’re teaching should guide you.

        AvatarFirdose Moonda

          @Tiffany Thank you for sharing your experience of teaching yoga in your own community. I don’t think we need to be pressured into being spiritual teachers – as spirituality is such an individual thing. I don’t know if you were in the session where I said I was asked by some students about my own religious beliefs and they were taken aback when I said, “That’s none of your business,” because it isn’t. You can indeed take a scientific approach and many Indian yoga teachers did exactly that. Good luck in your teaching and do stay in touch.

          Nataliya PotopalskaNataliya Potopalska

            Unfortunately my first experience with B.Gita and Sutras wasn’t clear. In my first TT almost 10 years ago, the person who was delivering philosophy was a middle aged man of Asian origin, who clearly and openly made sure that all the female participants knew that it is a history that dictates that the man is the power and woman should know their place. It really built a strong resistance to anything that relates to yoga philosophy. On top of that, English is not even second but by far the fourth language to navigate out of my birth country. I was very confused. How come I understand the words but can’t grasp the meaning of the text? So I left it for the better times. I am still trying to grasp understanding of my own culture and history, so I don’t feel confident and comfortable to mix and dive into different cultures.

            To be honest, it comes natural for me to deliver physical and mental benefits of yoga to people. I believe when the body is in balance the rest will come when needed. I simply stay away from Sanskrit names, chanting, jewelry and music that I don’t understand the origin of and meaning. From the few times that I read B.Gita and Sutras, I had very mixed feelings and more confusion than clarity. Therefore, I feel it will be disrespectful to the culture and history if I start to cite what I can’t embody.

            I do feel like I have been pinched by the needle when I attend the class and the teacher recites text that is not relatable to the moment of the class, it sounds fancy but very distracting for me.

            Saying all above, thank you Firdose for putting the quite complicated past of yoga into an easy and digestible learning experience. I definitely feel at ease to look for more exploration of yoga philosophy and appropriation. Please bring more!

            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.

              Kim DunawayKim Dunaway

                For me, the question of cultural appropriation comes down to intent and knowledge. How knowledgeable are yoga teachers on the background of yoga? I can only speak for myself. I have studied yoga’s roots for years and I teach yoga history and philosophy in my 200-hour teacher trainings. But I received very little history on yoga when I went through my teacher training. I really liked how Dianne Lalonde described three ways to harm from cultural appropriation as nonrecognition, misrecognition, and exploitation. For the first point, I do not think most yoga teachers present yoga with roots in America. If someone does present yoga in any form as their original thought, that is cultural appropriation. To Lalonde’s second point on misrecognition, I think this goes back to knowledge as I referenced earlier. A yoga teacher may very well misrepresent aspects of yoga including its history. For me, the question as to whether it is culturally appropriate comes down to what they know and whether they change if they learn something different. I am sure I said yoga postures were 5,000 years old at some point because that is what I heard but when I learned that was not the case, I changed what I said. If I had continued to present yoga postures incorrectly once I knew better, you could make an argument of cultural appropriation since I would be misrecognizing yoga. To her last point of exploitation, I think that one is harder to draw the line. I don’t personally care for some of the yoga events like Heavy Metal Yoga or Goat Yoga, but Beryl Bender Birch made a great comment on J Brown Yoga Talks podcast years back. She said if that if goat yoga brings someone to yoga then she’s okay with it. I can see where some might look at that as exploitation, but for me it all comes to down the intent. If the intent is to exploit, that is clearly cultural appropriation. But if the intent is to bring more people to yoga, how could that be culturally inappropriate?
                If I think about cultural appropriations in a class setting, I can think of some things that have been thrown around in other forums such as saying Namaste, chanting, or getting an OM tattoo. These are not things that I personally have an issue with, but I certainly understand where people are coming from when they feel something like these are not appropriate. Where I would personally draw the line is if someone were to dress in traditional Indian attire. I think in absence of that cultural background, that would be completely inappropriate. If someone were teaching without proper training or at least self-study, they would basically be a parody and that would be completely inappropriate. I think doing rituals or chanting without explaining the meaning (or background if necessary) is inappropriate. I think using music with Indian chants is okay provided you understand the meaning. But I think playing music to make the class “sound Indian” or “sound like yoga” is a problem.
                I live in the southern United States, and yoga is often misunderstood as religion or being of Hinduism or Buddhism. Some churches here even tell their members not to attend yoga or even meditate. I can remember teaching a class and saying Namaste at the end and one student replying with “I love you Jesus.” Some YMCA locations will not allow for saying Namaste at the end of class. I have been in the position of having to defend or explain yoga. If asked to explain practicing a culture other than my own, I think my response would be something like, “Yoga has roots in India, it has been practiced for a long time. It is not a religion, and the yoga poses themselves are fairly new, especially in a class setting. Yoga in America has been adapted and perhaps a bit watered down to fit our culture. I try to teach yoga as authentic as I can for the populations that I teach using the knowledge that I have gained and continue to learn. Feel free to ask me any question and if I don’t know the answer, I will see what I can find out.” I hope to be flexible and open if I am ever presented with such a question.

                AvatarDevon Healey

                  When this class became available through Yoga Medicine, I leapt at the opportunity to take it. “Yes!” I thought, now we’ll have all the questions answered and can do what’s “right”. Well figure out this appropriative conundrum once and for all! I laugh to myself now, because it’s quite typical that white people in the west strive to have complex issues like appropriation be neatly figured out, in simple binary terms, so that we can check the box and move on to whatever interests us next. The reality of cultural appropriation is much more complex, and I can say with full authority today – I’m no clearer on how to maintain the “authenticity” of yoga as a white teacher in the west without appropriating the culture and customs of India, I don’t think there is an easy answer here. However, after this class, I’m more curious and engaged than I was before- and I think that’s the point! Cultural appropriation is deeply engrained in our societal assimilation. As you quoted Richard Rogers, cultural appropriation “is inescapable when cultures come into contact, including virtual or representational contact. Cultural appropriation is also inescapably intertwined with cultural politics”. I found this definition to be incredibly enlightening. It makes sense to me that we appropriate many different cultures as we assimilate and connect, as yoga moved west, it became a part of our culture too. The question I find illuminating and most poignant here is – when is our appropriation harmful? Dianne Lalonde’s paper on appropriation really hits the mark for my personal teaching practice. When we are in a personal practice of misrecognition, nonrecognition, and exploitation, then cultural appropriation becomes caustic. It’s clear (for some of us at least), that dressing up as an Indigenous Native for Halloween, complete with headdress and face paint, is both misrecognition and exploitation. We (generally) shun these behaviors and discourage them among our children and community members. What’s perhaps less clear is how a vinyasa flow class at a gym in Portland, OR could also be appropriative and what this means for the many students and teachers who regularly show up for their practice. In the 12 years of my teaching yoga, I haven’t been asked once about cultural appropriation, not once, nor have I spoken about it with my students and colleagues. In hindsight, I find this to be astounding. How is it in the west that some things seem obviously and offensively appropriative and others are just a part of regular life? In response to the question of “How would you respond to questions of cultural appropriation in yoga”, I would counter that a better question is to ask – “why are we not talking about this in our yoga classes, why is the topic of cultural appropriation not discussed?”. Throughout our time together, what has become clear to me is that dialogue and education lends to liberation and liberation, as you so thoughtfully put it Firdose, is at the heart of yoga. When we discuss and engage in thoughtful discourse on subjects such as cultural appropriation in our yoga classes and beyond, we open the door for deeper thinking, connection and recognition of the people and parts that make this practice what it is. I am personally inspired to engage more in reflexivity in this regard. The practice of examining your feelings and thoughts, asking questions and understanding perspectives, adds to the richness, history and culture of yoga and our assimilation of it to western society. The practice we have today is certainly not the same one that our ancient teachers and gurus were practicing before us and yet it’s extremely valuable in the west, even in its morphed and contrasting form. I believe there is a space, as Jay Parini put it, where we can “show respect for those on the margins but still allow for a maximum of free speech”. My hope is we continue the dialogue, in all its forms.

                  Thank you for a deeply thoughtful and illuminating class Firdose. I found it stimulating and thought provoking and referenced many things you discussed in my classes and with my community. I look forward to learning more with you in the future!

                  AvatarKrissy Zegers

                    I am entering into this question with still more questions than I feel like I have reasonable answers. I have been a teacher for nearly 20 years and appropriation has been something that has been on my mind more recently, frankly because it was not even a thing I considered or was discussed when I was a newbie teacher. I went with what I was taught and blindly followed those doing the teaching to me. I feel like when I was first being trained to be a teacher we had channeled this idealistic view onto many of the “teachers” of yoga. They were put on pedestals and you blindly followed what they were teaching because they were the teachers. I don’t think until I was comfortable enough in my own skin to start questioning and digging deeper for a different understanding. Frankly, through this class, I have had a greater pause on what I have been taught. I have not had such a “full” education on any of the topics we have discussed in this course. Due to this, I am questioning so much more and realizing where I have so much opportunity to grow. Overall this class has made me think about how I am approaching my teaching and what I am or not saying. I live in an area where I have grappled very strongly with the question of… “Is the yoga being taught in my area evolving for the better or would I even call it “yoga” anymore?” Some of it feels like a boot camp cardio class versus a deeper connected practice. There is a sentiment that it is yoga because the room is decorated with yoga-inspired things, then finishes with a namaste, however, some of the qualities of what I would consider a yoga class are not present. So is this yoga? For me, I am inclined to say no. I feel like there yoga-like things being layered into things that don’t resonate with my perception of a yoga practice. But, that goes deeper into this question, my perception of the practice is my perception and perhaps there is a deeper level of something I don’t know that inspires what I see?

                    I also see yoga in my area feel more disconnected than connected however because a bunch of “Love and lights” are thrown around, so everything is fine??? We need to take a deeper look at what we are teaching, saying, empowering, etc to understand what it means to do what we do, say what we say, and share what we share. If you are being an ass, “love and light” isn’t going to hide the fact that you are being an ass, but it is going to make me question what you are all about and if you are authentic in what you are teaching. I think this holds true when appropriation happens, is there an authentic connection to the symbol being used, word being said, etc., do you understand the symbols, words, idols, etc. or is there a different intent to the usage?

                    As a whole yoga is an appropriation. That point was made clear. In the higher realms of looking at it, a certain group of people have better access to yoga as a whole. Studios and teachers are bringing in the teachings, idols, words etc. of a culture that they may not fully understand and this is where I think there is an opportunity for growth and a deeper level of understanding. We need to have an understanding of the why behind what we do and why we do it. I think the biggest opportunity that comes from this class is that many of us need more education and understanding of where yoga comes from, how it has evolved, the influences of the people and cultures that have shaped it, the understanding of, overtime who has or has not had access to it, etc. I think we also have an opportunity to not let history repeat itself in some regards. We need to take notice who are the teachers, sharers, and consumers of yoga. What is the lens in which it is being distributed? Understand that the 30-second reel on Instagram isn’t the full story behind yoga. It is also important to understand the source of the knowledge. If we are receiving our information from a highly politicized area, how is propaganda shaping the message? We need to be able to listen, have dialogue, and discuss the blending of cultures and influences that have shaped and continues to shape yoga.

                    I also think there is an opportunity where as a community there is not quiet compliance. We should have discussions, question what we thought was a norm, and be open to people questioning why we do what we do. Where are we doing harm and where are we doing good? How can we make yoga more accessible while still understanding for many of us, we still need to make money? The questions can go on and on but I guess that is the point. To try to learn from what we did before that doesn’t serve what we will do in the future.

                    Thank you for the opportunity to think about this in greater detail. For me, it is certainly still grey, but I now feel more comfortable having a conversation around it.

                    AvatarFirdose Moonda

                      Thank you Nataliya, not only for answering all the questions but for doing so in such an eloquent way, in a language that is not your mother tongue. I am sorry to hear that your early experiences of yoga philosophy were confusing – though I am not surprised. I am really pleased you were able to enjoy these sessions and look forward to engaging with you in future.

                      AvatarFirdose Moonda

                        Jen – I really enjoyed the back and forth and to-and-fro notion of the discussion you had, as well as thinking through artefacts and what they mean based on context. As you say, striving for less harmful appropriation is indeed the goal.

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