Cultural Appropriation, Inclusivity and Yoga – What I’ve Learned
First off, I want to thank you for reading this, for listening, and for being a part of this community. This has been a very intense few weeks for me, for many reasons. I turned my phone off on Friday and immediately got sick – you know that feeling, after working hard without a break, you take a vacation and spend all of it blowing your nose in bed? Sort of like that. I turned my phone off and it was like pulling a plug. I took a bath, went to bed and woke up with what feels like a sinus infection and the flu all at once. I would be lying if I said that the past few weeks haven’t gotten to me. I am not looking for sympathy or trying to make myself a victim because I’m absolutely not (and as I just wrote that I’m realizing how hard it will be for me to write this blog and not try to defend myself). I take a bath, and it becomes a point of discussion. I choose to remove myself from what I felt was a personal attack, and I’m victimizing myself. I stay silent and I’m running away. I speak my mind and I’m tone policing. It seems like no matter what I do, I’ll be offending someone, or I’ll do something wrong, so I’ve decided to take the time to write this completely from the heart. No filter.
I want to start off by saying that I am so, so grateful to be in this place. I truly am. There have been some hard lessons along the way but I feel absolutely blessed to be not just a part of this conversation, but a part in making a change. I’m tired – yes. I’m allowed to be! I’m a human being and holding space for difficult conversation is not an easy thing. I’m writing this now to address some of the confusion and misconception that has been circulating across social media lately. I want to get on with this conversation and the drama of it is pulling us down. This will be the last time I point to the specific events of this past week. I’m moving on – not from the subject, or the topic; quite the contrary (I will share in this blog where I’m currently at and some specific changes I am making within myself and in my business). I want to focus on the heart of this matter and where we are moving from here, all of us, as a community. Turning my phone off on Friday might have seemed like a small thing, but it took total silence and three days free from everything for me to arrive at a place of genuine clarity. So much has been moving around and within me and I needed this time to settle and to sit with what I actually feel. Here is my conclusion:
I am a good person. I do good, no, not just good – I do great things for this world. I do. I have scanned through my core values, my business, our business practices, my intentions, all of it, because here is the thing: when people start questioning you on a large scale, this is what you do. You begin questioning yourself, too. And I have. Am I a perfect person? No. I am flawed, just like you. Like all of us. I have never pretended to be perfect or to have it all together. I share the hard stuff. The painful. The insecure. The challenges. When tough things come my way I don’t stick my head in the sand. I do the work. And my conclusion is this: being flawed does not take away from my goodness. I have things to work on. We have things to work on, as a community. There are ways I can, and will, and already have, changed. I will share them all here. But I will not confuse this with me being bad, because regardless of what (some of) the internet is saying, it’s simply not true. I have built a business with a foundation in service and in doing good things for the world. We are not some corporate machine here to profit off a sacred practice. We are good people, doing good work, with big hearts. If you are under the belief that what we do is anything other than that, it simply means you are new to what we do and who we are. And in that case, I want to say: welcome. I’m happy you’re here.
My goal with our business is to bring more union to the world. To support people on their journey toward inner healing. To use that healing to look up and beyond our own selves so we can all be of service to people in need. That’s the core of it all. I want to get people on the mat because it makes us kinder. And yes, I want to spread this practice far and wide because it’s a practice that changes lives. If you are new to who I am and what I do, here is the gist of it: I’m a yoga teacher. I’ve been teaching for a decade and practiced almost half my life. I live in Aruba, with my husband and our baby girl (he is from here and we have lived here together for 9 years). I started our business with nothing. I didn’t have a savings account, or a job, or a single dollar in the bank. I spent two and a half years living in Costa Rica on my own, working odd jobs, bartending, waitressing, to try and sustain a lifestyle I craved deep within my soul: I wanted to heal. I wanted to feel good about my place in the world. I came from a childhood littered with trauma and loss and yoga helped me find my way back to myself. So did meditation, and therapeutic groups, and veganism, and the community I surrounded myself with. There are many tools that helped me on my path toward healing. Yoga, front and center. I spent almost three years in a shack on the beach in the jungle, immersing myself in the practice. I moved to Aruba when I met Dennis and it was here, on an island where I knew no one, starting completely from scratch, that I sowed the first seeds of what would become Yoga Girl. I did not profit off a practice and move to a paradise island, contrary to some of the comments I’ve read. I’ve been here a very long time, and the business we have built locally is in service of our own local community. Social media became a way for me to share my life, to inspire people to practice hoping it would help them, like it helped me.
I accredit everything I do to the ancient practice of yoga. For me, it’s been such an obvious thing – yoga is at the heart of everything. Personally, it’s the first thing I do in the morning when I wake up and the last thing I do before bed. I spend all day immersed in either practice, teaching or work revolving around the business that comes along with being a teacher and having a studio. Yoga is… Everything. When I started teaching a decade ago, I had no clue the practice and lifestyle I cherished so deeply would become the heart of a global platform for me to speak from. I taught my first class on the beach, scared as hell. Four people showed up and I had no clue four would turn to ten and ten to twenty and twenty to millions of people reading my words every day.
Along the way, I started different projects. Our animal rescue Sgt Pepper’s Friends, named after our dog Pepper, is one of my proudest initiatives. We have saved almost 1,000 animals in a short time and just opened a 3,000 square meter shelter here in Aruba – all of it made possible through social media. oneOeight was brought to life around the same time, an initiative to bridge the gap between social media and therapy, (and has since evolved into the Yoga Girl® site you are reading this on today). Along with oneOeight/Yoga Girl® I co-founded 109 World, a non-profit organization designed to empower people to be of service. Together we have supported Seva projects in many different countries and I’ve been able to witness first-hand what the power of a dedicated community can do. We provided clean, potable water to an entire village in Nicaragua. Renovated an orphanage in Latvia. Supported a refugee camp in Greece. Raised funds for a women’s hospital in Congo. Built a community space for children following the earthquake in Ecuador. One of my most powerful moments with 109 was just last year during our Female Empowerment trip in Sweden, just a month before the #MeToo movement was sparked. Every mission has brought with it is own kind of introspection for me, a new looking within. It is impossible to do the outer work, of living a life of service, and not do the work on the inside along with it. The two go hand in hand.
I mustn’t forget – we also have Island Yoga. Island Yoga is our local studio and it’s here that we host teacher trainings, retreats, workshops and classes of all kinds. We built Island Yoga to hold space for our local community, to once again set our roots after years of constant travel. It’s blossomed into such a beautiful studio space. At the heart of all of this, I teach. It’s what I’m here to do and it’s where I truly shine. I belong in the shala, guiding people through breath and movement and emotion. It’s where I feel most at home and it’s where I do my most important work. Of course, enveloping all of this, is social media. I share every high and low with my community and if you’ve been following our journey for a while you already know this: I speak up about what I don’t find fair, and I tell the truth about what’s going on. It’s not always comfortable, or pretty, or “inspirational”, but that’s what I’ve come to find brings the most connection. I do my best to be vulnerable and honest, every single day. Not once have I felt heavy with responsibility, or like I need more privacy, or like I want to stop what I’m doing and go do something else. Having this sort of community is an enormous privilege, and I try to guide us in the right direction, always.
Right now we are busy with Yoga Girl Foundation, a new foundation dedicated to helping children suffering from abuse. We also have a big, new and very exciting project about to be unveiled that gives me butterflies in my stomach just thinking about it. It’s been a long time coming. I have a for-profit business that does well, and non-profit organizations that thrive because of it. What I’m getting at is this: my reach is wide and I work hard as hell. None of this came from a hand-out. I work hard for what I have, every day of my life. I am not some giant corporation sitting on billions of dollars. I don’t have a PR team (contrary to popular belief!). I read all comments on my social media pages. Everything posted is written by me. We have a big team but we are all here with the same core value of wanting to be of service for the world. My business lies in building community, and it lies in the heart of the practice, in merging yoga with holistic therapy and tools for mental health. Anyone who has ever taken a class with me, or joined a retreat, or taken a training, knows this.
The questions I’ve had to pose to myself are these: Are we reflecting outwardly what we do in a good enough way? Are we honoring the roots of this practice well enough? And – are we doing enough to make sure that the healing we bring forth is accessible for everyone?
It’s easy to blame me for everything that’s wrong in the yoga world; I’m Yoga Girl. Looking from the outside, I could probably represent a lot of what is wrong yoga in the West. I’m a white woman. I live on a paradise island. I sit on a lot of privilege. I have an abundant life. One of the first questions I asked myself when faced with the topic of cultural appropriation was “*Do I have to be the one to represent every white yoga teacher out there? Every Western yoga studio, every yoga business?*”. The answer to this is: sure. I can take on that role. I’m actually 100% okay with it. I am happy to be a leader in this field and if I can shed more light and bring more education to my community, I will take that opportunity on with pride.
First off – how did the conversation on cultural appropriation get started? This is not a new topic. I was first introduced to it many years ago, when I posted a photo of myself wearing a bindi at a festival. I have since learned why it’s inappropriate to use bindis out of its religious context, the same way it’s inappropriate and downright offensive to wear a native American headdress. I haven’t put a sparkly gem on my forehead in many, many years and any photos you see circulating right now are very old. I don’t feel ashamed when I see those photos because back then, I just didn’t know any better. I do now. The conversation we are having right now was, for me, first sparked by @mabelsyoga (previously @inversion_junkie) – she was the person to first share the “Decolonize Your Yoga Practice” in my feed. Sus anna Barkataki, the author of the article, was already on my radar as someone educated to talk to on this topic. Around this same time, Nia Wilson was murdered, and something within me shifted. We had been having internal conversations about how to get more women of color into our teacher trainings for a long time, but I was fearful to have the conversation out loud. Why? It’s simple, really. I was afraid that I was doing something wrong. I was terrified that unconsciously, there was something about our marketing, our energy, our business practice, that was keeping people out instead of inviting them in. For someone who prides herself on working hard to make yoga accessible for everyone – everyone – this was a very tough pill to swallow. We have great diversity in our local classes, so why doesn’t this reflect in our trainings and groups? I wasn’t sure, and asking the question out loud seemed daunting. When Nia died – yet another unimaginable act of hate against people of color – I decided to speak my fears out loud. Am I a part of the problem? Can I be of service somehow? Are we unintentionally excluding POC? How can I help?
Sitting with this now, a few weeks later, I feel silly and stupid that it took me this long to speak this stuff out loud. And truth is, it was my privilege that allowed me to stay silent for so long. I didn’t have to yell this stuff from the rooftops because in my (mostly white) world, this stuff is not in my face. And yes, I have been kidding myself thinking that I’m “colorblind”. That on my island, there are 83 nationalities and everything is mixed and race is not an issue. Of course race is not an issue – for me. I’m white. How much time have I dedicated in the past holding space for people of color to share their experience? What do I actually know of the reality of the situation, here in Aruba, and in the rest of the world? Very little. This world is not a just one. Racism is alive and well. And for me, to make a difference and be of service to people of color, everywhere, begins with realizing this and with this shift taking place. For me, this shift came with some hard realizations. Yes, there are things we have to change to make our teacher trainings more accessible to POC. No, I have not been doing a good enough job to be inclusive. It has not been conscious, not at all, but looking at it now – almost all of my podcast guests have been white. 5 out of 26 have been people of color. Has this been a conscious thing – did I sit with options of guests to talk to on a specific topic, and consciously choose white over black? HELL NO. Absolutely not. I have invited guests to come on the show that are already present in my – mostly white – community. And the hard truth is, I engage with mostly white folx. The books I read are written by white people. The people I follow on social media are mostly white. I’ve since realizing this had to make an actual conscious effort to look at everything – everything – to see where I’m lacking. Knowing this now, is it strange that we mostly have white women joining our retreats? No! Contrary – it actually makes sense. I have been, however unknowingly, excluding people of color. Susanna told me on the podcast “we have a responsibility to look at who is not there” and it’s one of the truest things I’ve ever been told. I have not done a good enough job at looking at who isn’t there, and acting on it. For this I am deeply sorry. I will do better. We will do better. All of us.
Back to my timeline. As a next step to this, I posted to social media, asking how to be of service and also asking for advice on how to best be of actual help, I was introduced to some truly amazing people who have dedicated their lives to educating the world on race and how white women like myself can be of service. Rachel Cargle was one of them. We got on the phone to talk about different ways I could involve her and share her voice across my platform to help educate me and along with me, my entire community. There was no “bad” intention involved here whatsoever; I didn’t want a cookie from the world (contrary to what a lot of people are saying). As soon as I spoke it out loud: “Hey! We mostly have white women in our trainings and retreats and I want to change that!” – it came with a shift of consciousness and a realization of the conversation that I hadn’t been having and now, I was dedicated to changing it. I have a massive platform. 3 million people follow me across Instagram and Facebook. Since the beginning I have been dedicated to using my influence for good, and if you don’t know that, it means you are new to this community. Does it mean that I’m a perfect person? No. I’m, flawed, just like you, and try my best. Every day. And when I come across something I could be doing better, I dive into it. This is why I don’t delete comments, or block people, or delete or edit posts. I don’t shy away from the hard things because I genuinely want to bring good things to the world. Yes, it was embarrassing to be confronted with how little time I’ve spent trying to bring WOC into my community. It was even more embarrassing that I’d barely even noticed it was a problem. But here we are. It’s a problem. And I’m going to fix it.
Bringing Rachel Cargle in to write and educate the community, and having her on the podcast, was one of the first action steps I took after Nia Wilson’s murder. Why is this relevant to the topic of cultural appropriation, you might ask? Because everything connects, and because this is how this conversation got started. One woman in particular came off very strong in her thoughts on this topic. I accredit her for being loud, for getting my attention, and for helping to shift the conversation from the black community to the Indian community which was 100% needed. It was work I should have done before everything else. If I had her attention, and new social media handle (if there is one), I would thank her. Not for the drama, but for the shift in focus. I needed to look at my own stuff – my own business, my own life – before I started looking elsewhere. Now, to make something extremely clear: I did not silence this woman. I did not block her, delete her comments or report her page. I tried very, VERY hard to separate her personal dislike toward me from the validity of the points she was making, they were, and still are, valid. Her emotions, however intense and directed at me, were valid also. If it wasn’t a fact that I was the only one being targeted on her page (I know after receiving a lot of backlash on this she also started including some other teachers in her photos, but for weeks prior to this I was alone on the other end of her posts, Instagram stories, photo shopped images and captions) I might have been able to be more objective. I just couldn’t. I am only human. Being on the other end of this was very, very hard. Right now, I wish I could have been able to sit with the discomfort of her emotions directed at me. I couldn’t. It was difficult, and made me uncomfortable, and I felt personally attacked. I know now that I wasn’t but the #boycottyogagirl hashtag was what did it for me – it was what made it very clear to me then that this is not only about cultural appropriation and yoga in the western world, it’s also deeply about me. In social media, I see this a lot. It’s easy to get caught up in another person’s profile, in another person’s life. I chose not to block her and not to delete her comments, but I did choose to remove myself from the conversation. I left the comment feed. Where does the line draw, between holding space for a person to share their pain (and rightfully so?) and allowing yourself to be on the other end of something vicious? I still don’t know. I know that remaining in that comment section would not have made me anymore able to contribute to the conversation. So I left. I debated shutting the comment section down, but didn’t want to end what was also a valuable conversation with POC contributing immensely. So I put my phone away, tended to my family and went to bed.
The next day I awoke to not only comments and DMs but angry emails saying I not only tone policed, but silenced a woman of color. That people were being outright racist in my feed, trying to defend me. That people reported and had her account removed from Instagram. It was awful. Yes, for me too – awful. I’m not sure what everyone is suggesting I should have done here – I’m just painting you the picture from my end. The woman was deleted off of Instagram, most likely by people reporting her page trying to defend me from bullying. I wish that none of that happened. I wish I’d taken the time to monitor all those comments. Do I also wish we could have had that conversation without photo shopped images of me swimming in money and hashtags urging people to boycott me? Sure. But mostly because it was a massive distraction and people got lost in it and started debating her instead of listening. This was not what I wanted and not what I asked for and I wish I could change this fact. I’ve tried to find her without luck. I’d like to believe that she has been made aware of that, with so many people engaged in this conversation, and that she simply does not want to be found. That’s ok, too. I’d like to take this moment for apologize for my inability to hold the space needed for that original conversation to move in a better direction. I’m sorry she was kicked off Instagram. I’m sorry she was silenced. If she’d like her platform back, under a different name, write me and I will share it for it to grow.
I have learned a lot in all of this. I’d like to believe that next time I find myself in a similar place, I’ll be able to hold the space. I know now that this is not personal, or about me. It is a result of what probably was a lifetime of injustice, and I merely, for a moment, represented a little bit of that. And here is the thing: I can take it. I have the emotional capacity to sit with someone else’s pain. I do. Especially if it’s the pain of feeling like you’ve had your culture stolen – a culture I myself make a living from. I just couldn’t process it all through social media, in what felt like a storm. So… I’m sorry. I am. And to everyone about to jump into a defense, or say that she was over the top, or that it was bullying, and that I shouldn’t have listened to it in the first place, I would like to ask of you to listen, too. Listen to Susanna speak on the podcast (find it here). Listen to the story of her with the face in the burning pavement, having fled to a new country under serious threat just because of the color of her skin, her background, her family. White people – listen to the real stories of oppression, of injustice, of racism that POC can tell you play out to this day. It is not only understandable to be angry. It’s 100% justified, and right. And if we find ourselves in a place where being on the other end of something loud, or angry, or painful – let it unfold. Hold the space for it to burn through. Listen. And I know there is a balance here, somewhere. I don’t know where it is and it’s probably different in each situation. I use this saying a lot: Do no harm – take no shit. With everything I’ve learned these past weeks, I think in conversations on race between white people and people of color I’d change the saying a little bit for us white folx. How about “Do no harm – take some shit?”. Take some shit for the thousands of years of pain inflicted onto minority groups. Take some shit for the job you might have gotten, even though there might have been a person of color better suited for the job. Take some shit for the fact that people of color earn less cents to the dollar than you do. Take some shit for the fact that women of color are four times as likely to die in childbirth than you are. Take some shit for racist slurs thrown in their faces, maybe not by us, but by people who look like us. Take some shit for the oppression posed onto people of color for as long as any of us, or our parents, or grandparents can remember. Take some shit for colonization. Take some shit for slavery. Take some shit for the Holocaust. Take some shit for the privilege we sit with every day. Take some shit for the system that benefits us, even if we don’t want it to. Take some shit in a social media feed. In conversation. In the day-today moments that challenge us. And know that whatever discomfort comes along by someone’s anger directed your way is small, small, small compared to the pain of being on the receiving end of society so inherently racist it seeps into the actions of everyone well-meaning person you know.
CULTURAL APPROPRIATION AND YOGA
Now – onto the topic of cultural appropriation and the changes we have made at the studio and within our global business. I have evaluated my actions and our business practices from every angle. We have more views on the topic coming, but for me, the podcast with Susanna was so unbelievably helpful, as has speaking to different people of Indian descent, reading on the topic and immersing myself anyway I know how. I know many of you would like for this conversation to be black or white, yes or no, “do this” – “don’t do that” but as with every important discussion, what matters here is that you do your own work. Unpack your own stuff. The same way I teach asana; I’m not going to stand at the top of class and demand everyone do exactly the same thing I believe is right. I don’t say “never practice headstands” – I merely share my own experience with them and why I, after years of practice and study, have come to the conclusion that they don’t benefit me and thus, I no longer teach them.
So. It is my belief and understanding that engaging in cultural practices with deep respect and acknowledgement for the origin of the practice, and practicing it correctly, without misuse, is cultural appreciation. For the most part! Not always. it is up to each of us to carefully dive into our own practices and evaluate if we feel ourselves steer into the area of appropriation. I loved how Susanna phrased it on the podcast; is it bringing about more union? Or is it causing separation?
Is it cultural appropriation to teach yoga as a western person? For me, this is a very certain no. No, I am not appropriating culture by teaching, or by practicing yoga. I teach and practice with immense respect for the practice. I know where it comes from and I’ve been immersed in the study of it since I was 19 years old. When I teach, it’s from the heart and everything I weave together in a class is designed to bring about more union – with ourselves, with each other and with the earth we walk upon. I do not teach an exercise class. I do not repeat what my teachers have taught me blindly – I know my stuff. I’m always learning, growing, evolving, and I hope I will continue to. It’s called a practice because we are never finished, and like my practice, my teaching is constantly evolving. It did not take much pondering for me to arrive at this certain knowing, because I know it in my bones. I know it in my heart.
The next question I posed was on SUP Yoga, or beach yoga, or yoga taken out of the context of the yoga shala. This was a harder one. We had a circle in the studio with everyone on the team, including people tuning in from afar, and it posed a very interesting discussion. For me, practicing yoga in nature has always elevated the practice for me. Being out on the ocean, sea below me, sky above me, everything silent… There is something absolutely serene and beautiful about it. When I practice on the water, I feel more in tune with myself because I feel in tune with the earth. Balancing on the board forces me to stay present, to listen to my body, to be here, now. It’s impossible to think about your to-do list or whatever else is on your mind when you’re moving through Surya Namaskar on the ocean (at least, for me). In my book, when taught as a practice, and not as an “adventure”, with focus on calming the mind and tuning into our surroundings, with focus on creating more union, SUP Yoga does not fall under the category of cultural appropriation. Not everyone in our circle agreed – someone had an experience that felt too physical, not mindful enough. Someone else thought maybe we should change the set-up of the class so that it involved a meditation circle on land also. Someone said SUP Yoga was their first ever yoga experience that felt like home.
What I come back to, again and again, is that it’s important that people find the practice, because its life changing. SUP Yoga is one of those things, that at least in our studio, has brought a ton of people in and given them their first ever “aha-moment” in practice, which led them to taking our beginner series, which led them to practice every day. For me, that’s union. I don’t know where we will end up in regards to SUP Yoga – we might change the name of it altogether. We might change how we market and describe the classes. We might change the set-up for it. We will bring more focus toward it being a mindful practice, and a practice to bring about peace and less of an “adventurous thing” that people try once and never come back to. When people leave the practice, they should feel more at peace, just like leaving a practice on the mat. If the conclusion of this work ends up being that they don’t – that it’s a variation of the practice that brings about more separation, and not more union? Then we’ll abandon it. Simple as that.
Another question we are evaluated are hosted classes at the studio, and special events. A class we have held twice at the studio is Glow In The Dark Yoga. For me, this was easy. I have taken part in these classes twice, and however joyful and exciting they are for the studio, the energy level is wild and crazy and more gimmick-y than anything else we have done. We will not continue with these classes, and I will explain to the community why. We once hosted Beer Yoga (which actually was a regular, standard yoga class that involved a craft beer tasting in the garden outside afterward) taught by a beautiful teacher with good intentions, who I personally like a lot. When we booked the class I knew it would come with some backlash, and I have to admit, I didn’t feel 100% good about it then. We will host no such classes or workshops at the studio anymore. For me, once we had this conversation it became so blatantly obvious. Some things we have tried out at the studio because it’s been a “trend”, but I can always trace back to a moment of doubt where I wondered if the class would fit well into our day-to-day offering. Running a studio is not easy work and sometimes, going for what’s popular and fun is an attractive option. However, anything that relates to alcohol so very clearly does not bring about more union, and thus, in my book (after the work I have done, so please don’t yell at me about it!) falls under the category of cultural appropriation. We will be very mindful about these things as we move forward as a community.
We have decided to bring more focus toward the history of the practice in our yoga teacher trainings, and probably to also bring in a teacher of Indian descent to talk to each group specifically about the topic of culture and appreciation versus appropriation. This way, every YTT graduate will be able to in an ever stronger way, carry the flag out into the world and ensure the practice continues on in a way that fully respects the roots of the culture from where it came.
The harder questions to answer were about the tools that come along with this practice and whether or not we are
1 – using them correctly, and
2 – honoring their origin and history.
The more studying I do here, the more it baffles me. Some of this is so unbelievably basic I had to trace my experience all the way back to my first encounter with it – why didn’t I know this? No one ever taught me. Some specifics, like Buddha statues, has blown my mind. With other things, I should have been more mindful and studied more. Here are some specific changes I immediately made at the studio:
We had a statue of Kali in our Terra Shala, and depending on where the teacher was teaching from, students were sometimes pointing their feet toward her in Savasana. Showing your feet to any deity is disrespectful (I have just learned this). You should not place statues of deities or Hindu gods in or near bathrooms, around shoe racks, under laundry lines or anywhere people might point their feet toward the statue. The best placement is in the northeast corner of your house – and the statue should always face inward, toward the house (if it’s at an entrance, for instance). I have relocated Kali to a better place – my home – because I did not take the time to properly educate the entire team about Kali’s significance, for me and for Hindu culture, and it seemed like a good decision to simply remove her from the shala. The statue is of deep personal significance to me and does not actually relate to what most of the teachers speak of in class. In the future, if we ever place deities around the studio I will take great care to educate the team on what the statue is known for and where it comes from.
We also had a Buddha head at the studio that I have now removed. This was also absolute news to (the things you learn as soon as you dive into a topic!) but although you can find them in so many places, there is great controversy surrounding the decapitation of the Buddha. Now that I think of it – why is Buddha’s head cut off? Imagine if people started cutting the heads of Jesus statues and put them all over the place… The world would be outraged. I have spoken to some Buddhists who don’t feel it disrespectful but that any imagery of the Buddha takes you on the Buddha path, and with some that felt it is deeply disrespectful. I don’t want to take any chances with anyone – if it might offend even one person with roots in the culture I’m appreciating, why do it? I have a beautiful statue of the full Buddha, in his whole essence, at home. Now, the question remains as to what to do with the Buddha head. I appreciate all suggestions! Also, if you have a Buddha statue in your home, make sure to never put it on the floor. Always elevate your statues.
Another change we are making is changing the name of one of our smoothies at the café. The Hanuman Smoothie is one of our most-loved smoothies; banana, peanut butter, cacao, almond milk… It’s delicious. Does it need to have the name of a Hindu monkey god? No. We are renaming it now.
I will never again put my mala beads on the floor. I deeply respect and cherish my beads – they are absolutely sacred. I meditate with them every day and have different ones for different intentions, different crystals and from various times in my life. I am not appropriating culture because I know the history of the mala and I honor it deeply. However – I was always under the impression that placing your mala beads on your yoga mat was a very sacred thing to do. I’d bow to them in child’s pose, and they’re easy to pick up for meditation after asana practice. Placing anything sacred on the floor is considered disrespectful in Indian culture (something I’ve actually known, I just couldn’t understand how it related to my practice!) and this is a part of my practice I can so easily change. I can place a stack of blocks by my mat, dedicated to holding my beads if nothing else is available. Or better yet, put them on a table by my mat when I’m practicing at home. Honoring culture does not take away from my practice – it adds to it. I’m humbled by the fact that there are such basic things I didn’t know.
Finally, to our most challenging task and the topic of most discussion: what about our boutique? It’s easy to make personal changes that relate to my own experience, but what about when I’m responsible for other people? We are pondering this now, and my conclusion is this: we will only continue to sell things in the boutique that relate to the Hindu, Buddhist or Native American culture if we can remain confident in our ability to educate people on their true meaning and origin. We sell mala beads in the store and most of them are sold during retreats and teacher trainings, giving me adequate time to talk about their meaning and explain how to properly use them in class. But what about purchases that happen outside of our groups? We will provide an extra level of education to our sales staff (most of whom are already practitioners) and print cards to provide for every purchase. There are other items that we sell, like singing bowls and Tibetan bells, that require an additional level of learning. We might stop selling these items altogether. Our team is immersed in doing this work now, and I will let you know what we decide.
About the dream catcher above my baby’s bed – it was handmade by my best friends when I was pregnant; each person put a string onto it representing their personal blessing and prayers for the baby. I cherish it deeply. I have spoken to two people of Native American descent and so far, they don’t find it offensive and recommend I keep it. I’m doing more research! And will let you know what I find.
Finally, we have decided to offer free classes to our local Indian community. I am very excited about this and hope to see a big increase in attendees of Indian and Hindu descent. This is a big deal for the studio, and we had a meeting just today to talk about the work each of us must do to make sure we remain inclusive and respectful of a culture we appreciate so deeply.
Now, if you made it all the way to the end of this blog… Thank you. Thank you for reading. I just read this out loud to my husband. “Isn’t this all a bit much?” he asked. Well… Is it? I don’t know. This was a huge, huge deal for me. I’m treating my response as such. I just had my livelihood, my identity, challenged! Of course I’m going to take it seriously. And what a beautiful thing, to get to anchor into who I truly am. We have so much work to do, and I feel more passionate about it than ever.
I’m grateful. For all. If you disagree with much of the above, share it in the comment section. If you agree with much of the above, share it in the comment section! Let’s continue this conversation.