You stroll into a yoga studio wearing a cute bindi that compliments your outfit. The Lakshmi goddess print on your leggings sparkles in the light. You slip your shoes off into the cubbies and smile as you breeze past the Ganesh statue that sits atop the shoe rack.
You spot an open space on the side of the studio you love. Head right in, drop your water bottle and roll out your mat. Casually you lay your necklace on the floor to get ready for the sweaty practice to come. Everything’s normal in yoga world, so far. Or is it?
A lot of cultural appropriation is happening here. And it’s easy to miss if you don’t know what to look for or why it matters.
First of all, I’m not here to shame anyone. I am here as someone who cares passionately about preserving the depth and breadth of the yoga tradition we so love, to share my perspective as a yoga practitioner, diversity educator, yoga culture advocate and Indian woman, born in England and living in the U.S.
I am also not here to give you absolute answers - such as this is appropriation and this is not. Because it is complex. And nuanced. And it is far more important that you consider some questions and ask yourself about appropriation, rather than look to an outside authority to determine answers for you. No one of us can speak for all of us.
And I’m so grateful that you are here.
So what is cultural appropriation and how is it different than cultural appreciation or honoring another culture?
The oxford English Dictionary says cultural appropriation is: “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”
- Cultural appropriation involves power and dominance.
- And it involves doing harm.
Power and Dominance.
Cultural appropriation involves a dominant group with power taking from a marginalized group that has less systemic power.
So let’s talk about power. In modern history, colonizing powers, such as the British, used to take over the land of colonies then utilize and exploit the labor, natural resources, industrial power, and anything deemed of value in that place. Now, we don’t have so much colonization of land, or only physical resources, but, instead, we have colonization of cultural informational wealth, such as we see with yoga. So those in the West still have more power, wealth, access etc.
Groups in positions of power colonize a set of ideas, practices, in other words, cultural riches. This sector deals in information. It produces, manipulates, distributes and markets information products. It is taken and and claimed as their own without giving any credit to where it came from. So, for example, a large US or UK based company who manufactures yoga leggings with deities on them is benefiting from the power imbalance that exists between India and the West.
Usually this systemic imbalance of power involves exploitation. And it includes the power to pick and choose what we take from a culture and to leave the rest behind without regard for the impact on the communities affected.
Often, when we take or borrow something from another culture we think we are being innovative and adding flair or exotic spice to our style. We don’t realize that there may be harm caused.
When I see an OM symbol, a sign of unity and spiritual transcendence, hanging carelessly in the wrong direction, I feel it in my gut. It’s painful. Like my whole culture and experience is being erased. So let’s go back to our sparkling Lakshmi pants. For many Indians this is disrespectful of their culture and traditions. The feet and legs would be a completely inappropriate place to put a representation of a divine being.
The bindi also, is a marker worn during religious ceremonies and to denote connection to various forms of the divine, including in marriage. It isn’t used as just a fashion accessory. So what do you think? Does it:
- Represent a power imbalance?
- Cause harm?
Now, of course, there can be authentic cultural exchange and sharing of cultures in yoga. But we can’t bypass the power dynamics of colonization, even of information, to make us feel better on our mats. To ignore the cultural, social, economic and personal pain caused would be spiritually bypassing rather than really addressing the Ganesh statue in the room.
So how to practice without appropriating then?
Coming towards a tradition with openness, willingness to listen, respect and humility are wonderful ways to engage mutual exchange. And we need to avoid harm and address power imbalances.
- First and foremost, consider whether our actions may be causing harm.
- Another powerful way to avoid appropriation is to honor yoga’s roots. Learn about the lineage. Explore the expanse of this practice far beyond just the physical. Read the sutras and cite sources of these wisdom teachings.
- If we are a yoga practitioner — ask our teachers for more than asana. Going deeper, asking and taking the time to learn and practice more. Practice and teach as many of the limbs as possible. So we can experience and the full range that yoga has to offer.
- Own our positionality. And honor our lineage. Imagine if at the beginning of a yoga class teachers shared, “This is who I am, this is how I learned, I have a lot of respect for the lineage...”
- Centralize those who have been left out. Consider yoga’s legacy and the tradition. And what we may be missing by historical and present day omission. We Indians and desi’s are here. Include us. Centralize us. Ask us. Invite us in. Lift us up. Historical oppression and omission has often decentralized us from a voice that should be ours to share. Include us and know there's room for you in the circle and in the practice.
- Really be committed to studentship. Practicing and teaching as we are always a student of this practice. Acting as if we could study it for our whole lives and be still learning, because, of course, we can. A little humility, a little reverence, goes a long way.
- Honor iconography. Make sure, if we are using images of deities or regalia such as statues, malas or bindis, that we know where they came from, what they mean and have a sincere intention at heart.
- Avoid exploitation. Show that we really care about the aim of uplift, about other’s well being. This is is not just a thing we are doing.
- Engage in courageous conversations in yoga sites. These are conversations that aren’t always comfortable but deal with the real. We need to make space lean into hard conversations, like these. We need to reach for each other. As we change ourselves and the world. We are all connected. Authentic yoga practice and teaching are fundamental cultural rights worthy of respect.
Yoga is unity and helps us see that anything other than union is just illusion. It gives us the tools to heal division and separation and get to union with self, with others, with the world.
Thank you for reading. And thank you for your practice.