I was recently reading a blog written by a fellow yogi about cultural appropriation. This writer’s main point of view was how yoga was being perceived and mis-used by Western teachers, and how many had no respect for the culture. It went in to further detail about the oppression of the South Asian communities during the British rule, the ban of yoga, etc, etc. After reading the article, which was posted by another yogi on Facebook, I made a mistake…and clicked on “comments”. This is where I realized people had chosen to argue over this topic.
View #1: Yoga is sacred, Sanskrit is sacred, the God/Goddess idols are sacred. If you teach, do not butcher the language or the asanas, or disrespect the deities. Do not forget what the South Asians had to endure.
View #2: Yoga…is yoga. Why attach so much emotion to this? If you believe in yoga, learn yoga, or teach yoga, the rest is just background noise. Learn for the sake of learning this ancient practice without linking it with terms such as “cultural appropriation”.
Here is a recollection of simpler times. Circa 1997: I was living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, almost a teenager, attending Sandford English Community School, which was a British school that had opened in the 40s. Being an international school meant that we represented almost every nationality. We celebrated different holidays, dressed up in the clothes from our friends’ countries, danced, ate unique foods…all in the name of international unity. Racism? What racism? And what is cultural appropriation? Would me learning African dance be in that category? I hope not, because those are some of my best memories.
2001 – I went for a religious pilgrimage in India with my family, and one of the stops was Mathura’s ISKCON Temple (Vindravan Chandrodaya Mandir). Non-Indians wore traditional garbs and danced while in a beautiful state of nirvana, singing “Hare Krishna, Hare Rama”. I was amazed to see how a religion that was confined to one sub-continent for so long had managed to attract the western hemisphere. I saw no signs condemning them for cultural appropriation.
Let’s fast forward to 2011, which is when I started to practice yoga in one of Vancouver’s thriving studios. Coming from a Hindu background, I was trained since childhood on how to properly recite the Gayatri Mantra, say “OM”, and was also told the stories of the many Gods. When I first heard chanting in a yoga class, that too from a non-Indian, white woman, I was excited. Of course, the pronunciation was different, which comes down to accents. The pauses were different, which is just rhythm. But the message was the same. Ironically, that is also the first time someone explained the Mantra to me. Knowing that there was an entire community of yoga teachers in Vancouver delving in to a religion that was given to me at birth actually intrigued me. In fact, the Bhagavad Gita, a book I had recited in Sanskrit at home without any sense of meaning, only became an important part of my life when my guru, a white male, encouraged me to read the English version. I ended up seeing a completely different side to my own religion, one that made more sense, made it more relatable, and made me gain more respect for everything my ancestors and family stood for.
Yes, yoga does have a shady past, specially during colonization. Yoga schools were shut down, sadhus were deemed to be evil, and many yogic practices were replaced by modern medicine or fitness programs. But that is not the only thing that has happened to it during its past. Keep in mind, yoga is over 5000 years old, therefore, we cannot deny the fact that it went through several different changes in this time. In spite of its evolution, changes, and sub-categories, the definition still remained the same: Unity.
I applaud the North American and European people for allowing yoga to become a part of their lives. I do, of course, understand the cultural appropriation discussion as well. It certainly does seem disrespectful when I see a teacher walk in to the studio with her shoes on and there are idols of deities all around. But I have pictures of deities in my own home as well, and forget all these “offences” when I am the one committing them. I do not cringe when teachers mis-pronounce Sanskrit words because, you have to admit, those words are tough. I do not to use them in my class purely because I never remember them. However, if we remove all this deity talk, or history pains, what we are left with is the only thing we should be concerned with: yoga. Not the physical asana practice, but that of the mind. Where we tell the mind that we will continue to seek, not through the pose, but rather through the breath. Where we will learn absolute love, without judgement, without preconceived notions, and will continue to increase our knowledge.
So there you go. Another thing for you to think about. If you practice yoga whole-heartedly, then nothing else should matter. So go ahead, white teachers, do your thing. But do it genuinely and with integrity. Spread the love, care for your followers, and teach them how to breathe so they may take yoga off the mat and make it a part of their everyday living. That’s all I ask. Xx