Cultural Appropriation: What Is It and How Does It Apply to Yoga?

Let’s talk cultural appropriation.

A debate has sparked in my comment section over the past couple of days and I want to address it in a way that doesn’t involve digging through drama in the comment section. You all know I don’t block people or delete comments – I let discussion flow, always. However, it is my own decision to address issues as they come up in the most sensible way I see fit (which for me, rarely involves a few sentences in the comment feed). I choose not to engage with people that don’t seem interested in conversation and prefer to spark conversation led with a genuine interest for constructive change. The topic of cultural appropriation is a sensitive and important one and I will give it the time and attention it deserves. Also, I want to add: it is not an easy thing to receive this sort of feedback through social media. I, like you, have an ego and my gut response to being called out is to lash out, to react, or to separate myself. I have done neither of these things. I am not the social media person who blocks people and deletes comments as soon as I am questioned. The Yoga Girl community is strong because we evolve and grow together and writing this, I am both thankful and humbled by this conversation.

First off: what is cultural appropriation and how does it apply to yoga? Wikipedia defines it like this:

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. It is distinguished from an equal cultural exchange due to an imbalance of power, often as a byproduct of colonialism and oppression. Particularly in the 21st century, cultural appropriation is often considered harmful, and as a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating, minority cultures, notably indigenous cultures and those living under colonial rule. Often unavoidable when multiple cultures come together, cultural appropriation can include using other cultures’ cultural and religious traditions, fashion, symbols, language, and songs.

Yoga was banned in India during the British rule and has become adopted by the western world with millions of practitioners and yoga studios on almost every corner. I am traveling right now and wish I had more time to dedicate to this but let’s begin with this question: Is it cultural appropriation to practice yoga as a white or non-Hindu person? Is it cultural appropriation to teach it? Am I culturally appropriating Indian culture by doing the work that I do? Here is the answer, from where I sit right now (at 11pm at LAX): I DON’T KNOW. There are many, many things I don’t know. I teach yoga the way it was taught to me and with the respect and immense love I hold for a practice that helped change my life and the lives of millions of people across the world. I can’t give you a firm answer and I have spent the past months learning more and asking hard questions. We will have article submissions dedicated to educating my community (and myself) on this topic together with people who are educated and able to carry a conversation that’s constructive. I have podcasts coming on the subject talking to professionals in the field that know far more than I do (not only covering the topic of yoga but feminism and more). Because that’s what I like to do when I’m faced with something I don’t know how to answer – I learn. I read. I listen. There are many, many white yoga teachers in the world and many, many yoga studios. A part of me first felt like it was unfair – do I personally have to represent them all? Every teacher, studio owner, business owner out there? But then, just because there are many more people doing the same thing, does it mean that what I do doesn’t matter? Of course not. What I do most definitely matters, regardless of others in similar shoes. It’s my responsibility to do the work. I pride myself in setting a different standard for quality of work, service and integrity within the yoga world. This community right here is one of the largest ones of its kind – we should all do the work! And it begins with me. I am very privileged to be where I am and now feel both grateful and lucky to get to carry this conversation further forward (especially after reading comments and messages and realizing just how much education is needed on this).

I don’t have a section dedicated to the origin of yoga on my personal website because it’s a website about me, not a general, informational site about the practice of yoga. I’ll be honest: it’s never once occurred to me to add one prior to this. There are amazing resources out there for people looking to learn about the history and philosophy of the practice. People don’t come to to learn about the history of yoga, they come to learn about Rachel Brathen. Should I add an “about yoga” page to my site? Maybe! Would it hurt to have one? Definitely not. I have spent a little time browsing through the personal websites of well-known yogis out there and have yet to find anyone with a dedicated “about yoga” page. And it’s simply something I haven’t thought of because my site is not “about yoga” – it’s “about Rachel”. I blog, rarely about yoga. I transcribe the podcasts for the hard of hearing. I share my schedule for retreats. Not having a Wikipedia-style page describing the origins of the practice does not mean I am culturally appropriating yoga. However, after realizing the need of bringing more light to this topic I will most definitely be adding a page touching on the history, culture and origin of the practice. What a beautiful addition it will be to the site (and such an easy addition to make)! I humbly thank the people who brought the possibility for this simple tweak to the site to my attention.

Now, onto other questions that were raised in my comment feed. Should we stop burning incense at the studio? Using Tibetan bells for meditation? Should I take down the dream catcher above my baby’s bed? We have a Buddha on our altar, as well as collected crystals and palo santo. Everything is sacred and in my own practice I merge tools from different cultures; some Hindu, some Buddhist, some Native American, that have personally helped me connect deeper to a place of peace within myself. In my book, using these tools is cultural appreciation, not appropriation. But what if I’m wrong? Should I stop? I don’t know. I hope not. Yoga, meditation and ritual helped change my life and are tools of healing used by so many. But if after furthering my education on this the end result is yes; then I will. But it is not a decision I can make in this moment.

I have been teaching yoga for a decade. I’m a good teacher. My teaching is a result of immersing myself in the art of the practice for half my life, and like the 35 million+ people (in the US alone!) that practice yoga, it’s a practice I hope to keep for the rest of my life. In the USA alone, commercial yoga is 16 BILLION dollar industry. Wrap your head around that. 16 billion. My business as a yoga teacher collects a small part of that. I work hard as a teacher and entrepreneur every day. Our business has introduced thousands of people to the yoga practice for the first time, and also makes it possible for our three non-profit organizations to thrive. I have made a point of not using my social media for ads or marketing over the years because my aim is always to get people to practice – that’s my number one goal in everything I do. If making money was my end game I would have made many different choices and you would have seen me as the face of commercial sport and yoga brands long ago. You haven’t. I will never be a Nike, or Lululemon, or an ALO Yoga girl. I want to change the world with what I do and partnering with billion dollar corporations is not my way of doing so.

My work in the industry is focused on teaching. On writing. On speaking. On being of service. Our teacher trainings are deeply immersive and of course, as teacher trainings most definitely should, cover all limbs of yoga; the yamas and niyamas, Patanjalis yoga sutras and the history and origin of the practice including the Indian sages that intentionally brought the practice to the west, hoping it would spread far and wide. Do I make money doing what I do? Of course! It’s my job. I put energy out and bring energy back in. I one day hope to be able to change the broken yoga studio model and support other teachers in their ability to balance what they receive with what they put out.

Have I been guilty of cultural appropriation in the past? Most definitely. I used to wear bindis, many years ago. My best friend and I would do third eye meditations when we lived in Costa Rica and got into the habit of placing sparkly, sticky gems at the center of our foreheads. We were 19 and 20 years old. When she died, it was one of the things that made me feel closer to her. The first time someone told me to stop wearing a bindi, that it was appropriating culture, I had no clue what it meant. How could something that means so much to me, that I wear with such awe and respect, ever be offensive to someone else? It makes me feel closer to my best friend, I argued. I’m wearing it with good intentions. It took a little bit of time but not much for me to understand why wearing a bindi on my forehead just wasn’t okay. I studied it, read up, asked around. Eventually it clicked. And I stopped. The same way I have stopped using words like “tribe” and “gypsy”. It’s offensive and these words have been diluted through years of misuse. We used to print “Find Your Tribe” on tank tops for oneOeight for gods sake! We don’t anymore. Haven’t for years. And for the cherry on top of an embarrassing past – I have an OM tattooed on my body in a location less-than appropriate for what it culturally signifies. A group of friends and I got the tattoo together, we practiced and taught yoga as a group and I’d always wanted the OM somewhere on my body. The side of our right foot was the one location we all agreed on. As the feet connect with our root chakra, and I told myself “my feet take me places – they are my most sacred part of my body” I didn’t reflect on any of it until later when I was schooled on the placement of the tattoo (in Hindu culture, the feet are considered impure and placing the OM there does not align with what culture suggests). Is my OM tattoo cultural appropriation? Yes. If I could have it undone would I? Yes. I didn’t know better then. I do now.

So how can I make sure I know better, in this instance, right now? By seeking out more education. I’m not going to stop teaching yoga. I’m not going to close my business. What I will do, is evaluate how I can in deeper ways display my respect for the origins of the practice that impacts my life so greatly every day. A few decisions we have made is to begin offering members of the Indian community free classes at the studio, and to dedicate more time on this specific subject in our teacher trainings to ensure our graduates leave our training with an even deeper understanding of how to honor the history of the practice as teachers. Also, we have a launch of something new coming that has been in the works for a long long time that will greatly support getting rid of the myth that is the thin, white, flexible yoga person. Yoga is a life-changing practice. It makes me a better person. And I get to personally witness the healing it sparks in people through community, self-compassion and dedication to service every day. It is my deepest hope to continue making it available to everyone who needs it.

How else can we assure we are not appropriating culture as teachers, practitioners and business owners? Let’s talk. The comment section below is open. I’m about to board this flight!

Stay tuned for more.



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