helenschki

Yoga And Cultural Appropriation

20 posts in this topic

I know this is an on-going complex discussion and sometimes quite an uncomfortable one, as always when you have to check your privileges. I guess with most cultural phenomenons it is difficult to avoid cultural appropriation and bastardization and imho I think it is important to self-reflect and try to listen to the members of the group whose cultural expression you are using.

 

As being part of a privileged group with a history and tradition (or well it is still very much happening) of abusing and oppress minority groups I can of course not be the one to determine what is cultural appropriation when it comes to yoga and what is not. But my personal feeling is that most yoga instructors do try to respect the tradition and in general I have, with my quite limited experience, felt that the classes I've taken have been marked by a certain respect of the practice. But sometimes I feel that some teachers take it too far, like they pretend to be in India and I get the feeling they play a role. And I always feel guilty when I have these thoughts because who am I to judge? But it does give me a kind of an itch sometimes.

 

I am very conflicted about this and would greatly appreciate your thoughts.

Laura, Vanyogalife, Mana and 2 others like this

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Man, I have really thought about this a lot in the past. I've found it is good for me to be quiet and stop questioning when I can directly deduce that I'm not hurting anyone. But in the interest of exploring the topic...

 

Personally, I do not ever feel as though I am appropriating a culture because my practice is my full body prayer. My best practice is private. I don't mind saying that it's the only 'prayer' that I have ever executed with entirely good intentions and regular attention. I remain devoted because it served me when I had nothing to give and basically felt like my life was a long catastrophe that I was waiting out. I am humble on my mat, and can now sit with all of the blackness that drove me there. I am never going to India (they don't need me there) and I am not throwing myself completely into something dogmatic because that is against my nature and feeds into the falseness of new-wave American yoga culture that is, yes, driven by money. The number one way to be disrespectful is to be INSINCERE and wear, preach, market something that will fade out of your life as soon as you find Jesus, or Crossfit. Intention matters.

 

In the end, I am so grateful to the good teachers I have known who have traveled and studied (history, anatomy, tradition, language) so as to pass on what they've learned in a respectful way. That- doing things thoroughly, so as to benefit others- is very valuable to humanity. It will never nullify abuse and oppression, but it doesn't feed it.

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Wow puppywings that's a very honest and thought-provoking reply. Thank you for sharing your post really touched me. I can definitely relate, for me yoga has as well been therapeutic and allowed me to be kind to myself and my body. I also distinguish between what is going on trend-wise when it comes to yoga and my personal relation to the practice. For me yoga and meditation marked a change in my life and how I deal with inner stress and demons and it has helped me tremendously to view life not based on how it seems, what one can measure but how it feels.

 

But I try to keep this whole cultural appropriation aspect in mind when practicing or talking about yoga and to not use it as a trendy accessory (although excitement sometimes make me do this) and I do not like to chant a mantra if I do not know how to properly pronounce it or even what it means.

 

I like what Nico Lang wrote on the matter:

 

"cultural appropriation highlights the power imbalance that remains between those in power and those who’ve been historically marginalized. As such, a member of a dominant group can assume the traditional dress of a minority group for a Halloween party, a music performance and so on. Yet, they remain blissfully unaware of the roots of such dress and the challenges those who originated have faced in Western culture."

 

"The number one way to be disrespectful is to be INSINCERE and wear, preach, market something that will fade out of your life as soon as you find Jesus, or Crossfit. Intention matters."

 

 

You are absolutely right.

puppywings and Nix like this

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Great topic. 

 

I know of one teacher who turns his nose up at any creative workshop or yoga activity (in his city the new thing is yoga in breweries), says there's no need to have retreats, says we don't need special yoga mats or special yoga clothes, nor music. He says if you don't chant before your practice that you're not really doing yoga. He goes to India regularly and he believes very firmly in maintaining the tradition.

 

And to that I think - man, when you spew negativity even though you're coming from what I think is a good intention (trying to maintain the tradition and heritage of yoga), it doesn't negate the fact that you're going against the true meaning of yoga - union and togetherness - by intending to discredit teachers who lead retreats or come up with various workshops. How do we know that these teachers aren't leading their classes with a deep respect to the tradition yet presenting it in a way that appeals to people in the west? I personally don't drink beer so teaching yoga in a brewery is not for me, but really, who is that yoga instructor hurting? If anything, is he or she not bringing something wonderful to people who might otherwise not be inclined to practice? Sure, maybe the practice for most of the participants is mostly physical, but in my experience that's usually the first step toward moving in a more spiritual direction. And if someone doesn't take that step, then they'll surely just stay with the asana and benefit physically from the movement. What is so wrong with that, provided the instructor really is leading a yoga class rather than a fitness class?

 

We can go around and around with it and if we look at other aspects of our lives, it's like where do we draw the line between appropriation and cultural exchange? Sushi with chopsticks? Chipotle? Dreadlocks? Yoga?

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Not even Indian tradition is able to accurately trace where yoga begins, not even, where yoga ends. We can only rely on the interpretation of a minimum written heritage left so I find that even today Yoga is a work in progress.

 

At the XIXth century yoga had almost dissapeared. Under the English colonization Indians start to claim the own identity and heritage, and it is in this context that yoga begins to have a place.

 

I have a teacher who refers to yoga as the "pizza effect". The orgins of the pizza are in Italy, but as we know pizza worldway today is the work of the italians who migrate to USA at the beginning of 20th century.

 

Something similar with yoga. it is not until it has been Occidentalized that yoga is known worldwide. So even acknowledging the Indian origin, it is very difficult to strictly define what is tradition and what not.

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A great topic! This is something I think about a lot. Cultural appropriation is an interesting concept, but I do sometimes wonder if we've villian-ized the concept of culture and practices changing over time. Even looking at yoga, "yoga" doesn't mean one thing that one group of people practiced in one way some hundreds of years ago. Look at something like the Bhakti Movement in the Medieval period that brought new ideas into an existing tradition, is that a more valid change of yoga than yoga advertised for fitness in 2014? Yoga has never been stagnant, there's not one guy we can point back to in 100BC and say "If you don't do it like this guy did it, it's not yoga."

 

It's an interesting time of year for this topic with Halloween approaching which swells the discussion of cultural appropriation. It's really easy to identify at halloween because it's literally a costume and taking a whole culture and putting it into one image. But where do I draw the line in yoga? Maybe all the yoga I do is taking pictures of me in dancers pose on the beach and posting them to instagram. What if I have a regular practice, read about the origins of yoga, and post beach pose pictures to instagram? 

 

Does it have to do with intention? Overall I come to yoga to try and relieve my mind from stress and create a connection and understanding between my mind and my body, and I guess overall that's more or less consistent with the origins of yoga. But sometimes I come to the mat because I really want to try and nail crow pose to feel proud of that accomplishment, is that wrong?

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I avoided yoga for years (to my own detriment) because I was turned off by what I perceived as the combination of materialism and spirituality-lite that the modern culture of yoga in the west seemed to represent. And I really didn’t like that it seemed to be turning into a status marker, that having the time to devote to yoga and the money to invest in a pricey yoga wardrobe was sort of a class signifier. But I realized that it doesn’t pay to throw out the baby with the bathwater and that yoga has a lot to offer, and what it has to offer is bigger and more powerful than – and will outlast – the contemporary cultural associations that I may not find so tasteful.
 
And anyway, if some people are initially attracted to yoga because of the cute Lululemon leggings, and they find some meaningful benefit from doing yoga, then isn’t that still a good thing? Is it my place to judge anyone’s reason for doing yoga? This is a good question for me, because becoming less judgmental has been one of my major goals as I get older.
 
In a time when ideas can spread across the farthest reaches of the globe, humans looking to tend to their mental and physical well-being can choose from any number of spiritual and religious traditions, psychotherapy, pharmaceuticals, dietary practices, exercise regimens, systems of meditation, and more. In some ways this is overwhelming, and it is bound to lead to a cafeteria approach – picking and choosing what works rather than dedicating oneself fully to a single practice or tradition. I don’t see that as good or bad, it just is. If one person wants to get more into yoga as a full “system” and someone else just wants to do the postures for 90 minutes three times a week, I think that's fine.
 
What is clear is that most of us need something to keep from being tossed about on the waves of modern life filled with constant stressors and intrusions on our mental peace. For many people, that might be sugar, alcohol, drugs, shopping, zoning out in front of the TV, etc. Life is hard, and I myself am not giving up my red wine any time soon. But I believe that yoga helps, and it helps even if “all” you do is the asanas. I’m not in it for spiritual reasons per se, but I know that when you do good for your body, you do good for your mind, and yes my “spirit” benefits from yoga. Even just looking at it as a physical system, I am constantly amazed at how thorough, deep and effective yoga is. I’m not going to renounce such a great practice because I wasn’t born to the culture that came up with it. I count myself lucky to live in a time when I can benefit from the wisdom of people across the ages and across the globe!
 
And as for yoga at the YMCA, etc., I would actually like to see yoga become *more* democratized, and for more men, older people, heavier people, people with unfancy workout clothes, etc., to have access to it and feel that it is for them too. Will it become "watered down" by virtue of becoming more widespread? Is that bad? Interesting questions to think about!

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What is clear is that most of us need something to keep from being tossed about on the waves of modern life filled with constant stressors and intrusions on our mental peace. 

 

So well stated! Yes, I think the idea of mental peace is underrated and overlooked.

 

If we were to stick to strict tradition, so many people that could benefit would miss out.  One of my teachers volunteers teaching yoga at disadvantaged elementary schools. They learn concepts like "time-in", making time for oneself (as opposed to the negative "time-out"). The founder started the non-profit program because when she was teaching academic class, she noticed the kids weren't ready to concentrate, either because they were starving from missing meals or had trouble at home.  Research demonstrates the decrease in stress in schools with yoga. 

 

We had a fundraiser event, in which we got to practice with some of the kids on a weekend. What really struck me emotionally that this was a rare opportunity for the parents to get the chance to practice too.

 

And as for yoga at the YMCA, etc., I would actually like to see yoga become *more* democratized, and for more men, older people, heavier people, people with unfancy workout clothes, etc. have access to it and feel that it is for them too. Will it become "watered down" by virtue of becoming more widespread? Is that bad? Interesting questions to think about!

 

Actually, I started yoga from my local YMCA. We have such a low-key gym, not crowded, all ages and body types. That's a great way to put it - democratized. That is why I felt yoga was accessible to try out at the Y instead of going to a dedicated yoga studio.  Only later when I wanted to deepen my practice after doing it casually for a year, I found some nearby yoga studios with more experienced teachers that offer more hands-on adjustments.  So, I think it was a great way to get into the scene with a mixed crowd but still have the sense of community. Once at the Y, a sub didn't show up after we waited for 10 minutes. Instead of everyone going home, two people volunteered and took turns leading the class to do a practice together.

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I'm such a sucker for these kinds of discussions; I love them.

I do think it's really important to be aware & careful to not assume you understand yoga cultures and traditions because you've read a few books or gone to some classes. However, most (if not all, at this point,) cultures in existence today come from a blending of other cultures. If we never tried to understand & adopt other values we would all stagnate. I think the important part is to realize that it's part of our journey & we will never "arrive" at understanding. Even of our own culture, but especially another culture.

I am reading Yoga Mala right now & it has really shown me how important it is to find what is beneficial for you & roll with it. To be perfectly candid, the reason it is showing me this is because half the stuff in there sounds completely insane to me. But there's no reason I can't respect a difference of tradition & opinion and gain something from the rest of it.

I tend to lean toward the perspective that as long as your adoption of a cultural symbol is respectful, and you're using it for basically its original purpose, it's good to learn from other cultures.

However, what would I know. "This is America, where we unapologetically bastardized other countries' cultures, in a gross quest for moral and military supremacy!" (Just a touch of Gilmore Girls humor for the thread :D )

helenschki, Turi, yogafire and 4 others like this

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I think about this often, not just relating to yoga but a lot of aspects in life that we borrow from other cultures. As juliewa mentioned above, a lot of us come from places in which people appreciate and thrive on multiculturalism.

In Australia, most of our recipes for food were taken from somewhere else in the world. It can often be "watered down", say less chilli or hot wasabi, as we're not yet conditioned to the super hot flavours but I genuinely believe we appreciate the quality of food much of the worlds' people have created. I guess this is similar to yoga, many Western folk may be overwhelmed with loud chanting and wearing loin cloths but, I hope, appreciate the benefits and history of the practice.

I guess the most important things we can do is remain respectful and humble when it comes to yoga. We did not invent it, we did not "improve" yoga, and we appreciate the history and teachings. I really believe if everybody practiced their own interpretation of yoga the world would be a much nicer place.

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And I really didn’t like that it seemed to be turning into a status marker, that having the time to devote to yoga and the money to invest in a pricey yoga wardrobe was sort of a class signifier. 

 

This is quite tricky, isn't it? Because yoga requires at absolute minimum time to spend on yourself, something that could definitely be considered a luxury. And while it's certainly possible to build a completely free of cost yoga practice in your own home with no mat, free videos, and your pajamas it isn't really ideal. 

 

And how do I practice yoga regularly in a studio without taking on any status? I'm spending like 6 hours a week at a studio, you end up telling your friends about it with the "what did you do last night" question. I leave work and come home dressed in my yoga clothes so my coworkers and roommate see the clothes so am I gaining clothing status? It's all very interesting. If I post a bunch of pictures of me on instagram with #yogathursday #lululemon #chaturanga does that negate what I'm cultivating in class?

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I believe anyone has the right to practice yoga, no matter what they believe, where they come from, where they practice or what they wear. I once read a response to a picture on facebook that really turned me off. I don't remember exactly what the person wrote but after I read that I began to notice more responses like that. Basically what I got out of the response was that "real yoga" involved chanting, no music, no talking except for the teacher (who had to teach a certain way), and anything else was just pretending and not the real thing. I just couldn't believe what I was reading.I know everyone has the right to practice in their own way and have their own beliefs but to tell someone else that they are practicing yoga wrong just didn't sit well with me. I started yoga to help with back pain and that is what brought me to my mat each day. Then I began to "live yoga" and understand all the the practice can give you. Whatever and however yoga can be introduced into more people's lives is a good thing right? I think if yoga is taught just as an exercise it will reach a certain group of people but I bet more than a few of those people will find that yoga is more than that. With so many different styles of yoga out there, isn't there room for everyone?

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Very interesting discussion and a lot of valid points made by all of you. 

This discussion touches on so many issues and quite a few of those don´t seem to go well together. For instance the question of who has the right to define what real yoga is? Do you have more right, when you have ancestors in a culture, that has been doing yoga for generations? If you do yoga more than an hour a day? If you´ve read all the books and visited places where yoga is an old tradition? And do you do yoga wrong, if you like to hear your friends go Wauw, when they see you do something, that looks complicated? 

Personally I think the inclusive version of yoga, that has come along with the internet making yoga more widely accesible (like Candace does) is a very positive step. I think that with this inclusion, there are bound to be some yogis, that most of us would probably consider "not doing it right", because they have absolutely no clue what this tradition originally is about or because they seem to be in it for the wrong reasons or whatever. And we just don´t know. Maybe they look like they´re in it for the wrong reasons, but most likely we have no idea what backgrounds and reasons other people have. So my point with all this is: we have to accept the fact that there is no way to distinguish between the right and the wrong kind of yogis. You cannot be inclusive and at the same time reserve the right to label others. 

Another question is that of power relations when majority cultures appropriate. That is extremely complex and I think especially in a case like this, where most of are exposed to yoga very far from its origins. How are we to be conscious of power relations and oppressed minorities while attending a yoga class in our local gym? 

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Wow seems like my post really started a discussion how wonderful. Thanks for interesting views.

I would like to add that by no means do I think that one should be banned from yoga if one is not true to the art. But I merely wanted to highlight the issue of the western world and its tradition of using other culture's expressions in a disrespectful way. Yoga has become a trend it is also very white and westernised. Is this wrong? I don't think so not the way I have experienced it. But a lot of cultural domination, discrimination, disrespect and so on originate from ignorance and being oblivious. To be privileged often means that you are completely unaware of how well off you are.

In my case there are lots of elements to yoga that I do not fully understand and I am aware that I practice a tradition sacred to the ones who founded it. Therefore I think it is important to discuss and reflect on the matter. And I think the yoga community is an excellent place to do so because imho what makes it not guilty of ignorance is its openness and understanding spirit. Even to things we do not understand.

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And as for yoga at the YMCA, etc., I would actually like to see yoga become *more* democratized, and for more men, older people, heavier people, people with unfancy workout clothes, etc., to have access to it and feel that it is for them too. Will it become "watered down" by virtue of becoming more widespread? Is that bad? Interesting questions to think about!

 

I love this statement. I work at a YMCA and have convinced many people to give our yoga class a try. Many have been to classes where there is only chanting and talk of celestial beings, and they hated it. The yoga teacher at my Y is amazing. She is so structured that I can predict what comes next many times, yet she plays top 40 chilled music, we laugh if someone falls down, we laugh when I wear my clothes inside out by accident, and we always laugh when she confuses her left with right or messes up a pose. And at the end of our practice we are just as focused and clear and happy as a studio where they spent the entire time doing their practice the way they loved it. it is a fun place where we have college athletes, people trying desperately to lose weight, personal trainers, beginners, grand dads w/ sciatic issues, people who love to exercise, people who love to eat. I've taken yoga in very strict studios where I was afraid to try harder poses b/c I was so intimidated. It's a great thing to have diversity and find a place where you fit in.

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"It is your practice. Anything that brings you to your practice is to be respected."

 

This is what I have learnt and I have difficulty believing that yoga would impose anything on anyone.

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I love this statement. I work at a YMCA and have convinced many people to give our yoga class a try. Many have been to classes where there is only chanting and talk of celestial beings, and they hated it. The yoga teacher at my Y is amazing. She is so structured that I can predict what comes next many times, yet she plays top 40 chilled music, we laugh if someone falls down, we laugh when I wear my clothes inside out by accident, and we always laugh when she confuses her left with right or messes up a pose. And at the end of our practice we are just as focused and clear and happy as a studio where they spent the entire time doing their practice the way they loved it. it is a fun place where we have college athletes, people trying desperately to lose weight, personal trainers, beginners, grand dads w/ sciatic issues, people who love to exercise, people who love to eat. I've taken yoga in very strict studios where I was afraid to try harder poses b/c I was so intimidated. It's a great thing to have diversity and find a place where you fit in.

Side note: This sounds like the most fantastic class environment. I love that you have that!

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Oh dear this again. Why do Westerners inflict this upon themselves. 

Here is a couple of links to Indian sources

https://www.quora.com/Is-Western-yoga-an-objectionable-%E2%80%9Ccultural-appropriation%E2%80%9D

"When one practices yoga, the fragmentation by way of geography, skin color, language, culture, methods - starts collapsing into one. Yoga is then seen as addressed to the whole humanity and any date-stamp or cultural signature or copyrights become unnecessary. However, it becomes worrisome when this universal freedom to practice is abused by irresponsible individuals."

"the tradition with multiple labels (Sanatana, Vedic, Hindu), which gifts Yoga to the world, I am happy that you at least have use for the packaging of the gift – which are the just physical benefits of asanas and pranayama. "

This an Indian newspaper (in English) The comments at the bottom are joking and sarcastic

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/mad-mad-world/Yoga-class-banned-over-cultural-appropriation-in-Canada/articleshow/49910798.cms

"Bizarre"

"hehe hehe"

" if yoga is healing deadly diseases then why not practice it..what if it shows someones culture...what a developed country Canada is???" 

"We finally have a candidate for something even more absurd than a war on drugs: War on Yoga. Meanwhile, why do people still send their kids to university?"

 

 

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This is definitely something I get concerned with. I hate offending people or causing any possible scene so I always worry that what I post on instagram or what I do will be judged by others. However, I have truly embraced yoga and what it can do for me in many realms, and that has helped quite a bit. My friends can tell how important it is to me and I have not received any hate via social media or otherwise. At least the people close to me have noticed how much yoga means to me. I've been trying to catch up on some tradition as well and have enjoyed learning yoga philosophy. I will continue my studies on that and I always try to thank the people who created yoga, even if we don't know when or who. I am grateful to be able to practice something with such a deep and rich history. It has affected me so positively that I am forever grateful.

Love this discussion and thread.

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