In late 2021, I took up an online course on 'How to Kickstart a Corporate Yoga Business". The lovely teacher unintentionally hurt my feelings. She said that sometimes it's better to pitch yoga as 'stretching exercises' to companies, for calling out Yoga as Yoga may sound to 'woo woo' to certain decision makers.
Sadly, this is not the first time I've seen my culture being appropriated for capitalism. And I'm not the first to write about it either. But this conversation is important and must be amplified as cultural appropriation causes immense disrespect and harm.
To all yoga practitioners, I hope that this pieces encourages you to examine your own beliefs and patterns around yoga; invite a more robust swadhyaba (self-study). For teachers, I hope that after reading this blog you are inspired to teach with greater discernment and right knowledge - in case you aren't doing that already.
Now if you are saying:
Remind me what cultural appropriation is?
Here it is:
When we participate in another community's cultural practices, without understanding the entire context and market a misguided version to make tons of money, it is cultural appropriation.
How does it cause disrespect and harm?
Let me give you some examples: I've seen 'Om' being designed on a yoga mat where feet are meant to be placed. I've seen advertisements of events like 'beer yoga' and 'ganga yoga' (ganga meaning weed) on magazines and Instagram. These kinds of events are sick-to-the-stomach disrespectful to many Indians. Om is sacred for us. It is the sound of the universe and we don't put put feet on anything we consider sacred. Also, yoga (including the asana) is a spiritual practice for self-transformation. We don't and should not practice yoga postures while smoking joints. You can do what you want, but just don't call it yoga.
Cultural appropriation of yoga also causes harm to eager practitioners who never get to experience the fullness of the practice. Yoga, an indigenous practice of at least 1500 thousand years gets destroyed in the collective consciousness of our popular culture when little or no effort is made to understand it. On the contrary, when yoga is approached with the correct knowledge, the experience is that much more profound, potent and life-transforming.
To dismiss cultural appropriation as a non-issue is to dismiss the many communities, often the non-white ones, that have been oppressed, colonised and their culture been exploited for profits.
Why is it so easy to appropriate yoga?
Yoga is a non-linear philosophy with multiple sources of origin and it has also evolved as an idea through the passage of time. Therefore, it's easy to miss the wood for the trees. There is a certain intellectual and spiritual rigour required to understand this simple yet profound and layered philosophy, let alone live it. It is an ongoing engagement that promises to reveal more of itself the longer you stay with it.
For example, I've said 'Namaste Yogis' to a roomful of students just because it is a trend in yoga pop culture when in fact I know that in India we don't take the word 'yogi' lightly. Yogi or a Yogini is a revered titled bestowed upon masters of yoga who have attained the highest level of meditation i.e. samadhi.
Since yoga is non-dogmatic, ever-evolving and like any philosophy open to disagreement and healthy discourse, how does one know if a new yoga trend should be considered appropriation or simply a natural part of evolution of the practice?
My personal take it that as long as yoga is not facilitated in studios or classroom as only a physical practice but within a yoga asana class, an equal emphasis is given on:
using prana (our energy force),
engaging in dhyana (mind-focus) and
finding a meditative state to help unite the physical, emotional and spiritual body, we are practicing yoga.
I personally like to imbue yoga philosophy in an asana class to help guide students the ways in which they can use their bodies as a vehicle to reduce suffering and remember who they truly are: a spiritual beings having a human experience.
My position on using loud music in yoga classes
There is nothing wrong with filling yoga asana classes with loud thumping music but it just isn't yoga.
While I may lay over loud music on my Instagram reels but when I teach yoga asana, I teach in silence or soft music. Moving in silence can be difficult, boring or uncomfortable, but getting to know oneself has never been an easy pursuit. Worthy? Yes. It is in these white spaces created through silence, when the breaths flows in co-ordination to the movement, when the mind is drawn inwards (not on Rihanna's latest track) that there is room to experience a sense of inner peace, an unchanging, omnipresent presence (outside of our thoughts and feelings) that is already within us. To meet this unchanging presence through the many practices of yoga is to be constantly engaged in the journey towards self-transformation, self-love and inner freedom.
According to Yoga Sutras (one of the most popular sacred text of yoga by Patanjali ), yoga asana is just one of the eight limbs of yoga. Unfortunately, in pop culture, yoga asana has taken the centre-stage as the very definition of yoga. The yoga I knew from my Indian upbringing—the spiritual philosophy embedded in everyday experiences—is no longer seen as yoga. Practices in the other limbs of yoga—such as purification of body, mind, and speech, practicing restraint and controlling human impulses, the practice of pranayama (breathwork) to manage the life force (or prana) within, the practice of selfless service as a way to acknowledge the interconnectedness of all humans and meditation to learn mind-control —are often ignored or forgotten to comply with what's trendy and making money in the popular yoga culture.
As a yoga teacher, when you realize you are a part of something that is so old, so ancient and so profound - you realise what an honour and responsibility it is to teach yoga the correct way.
Regardless of our ethnic background, we have a duty to educate ourselves as we engage in these practices, especially being aware of the historic oppression of the people who were trying to practice them in peace and that way universally, we can all engage mindfully with them.
How do you know yoga is being appropriated?
I am sure there are several ways in which yoga is being appropriated but here are two observations:
#1 When it starts to feel exclusionary..
There are people who are invisible in this practice. Everyone should feel invited into a yoga class. it's safe .. if it doesn't feel that way. If you are looking into a room and it feels very exclusionary - look for the invisible. Until we start to name cultural appropriation, it may not even occur to us, that brown people are not showing up.
Not only should we have South Asia (especially Indian) representation but we should also invite differently abled representation, larger body, all ethnicity, all age groups to participate and teach yoga. Representation creates a community of inclusion.
Even though yoga originated from India, it belongs to all - every human has the right to freely practice it, live it and teach it as long as it's done and passed down with current knowledge.
For those of us teaching yoga, it's an opportunity to acknowledge that there is pain here. It is awful to feel excluded and we need to ask ourselves - what can we do to educate ourselves in yoga? How can we start to practice with more compassion for those have been historically removed from practice including people of color, people of south indian backgrounds, who just want to know that we are known and recognized for this practice.
#2 When sacred symbols and concepts are casually being commodified and used
Many yoga studios who offer 'energy exchange' as a option wherein you can off your professional services in exchange of free yoga class are called karma yogis.
How to NOT appropriate yoga?
#1 Acknowledge the problem, think critically and ask hard questions:
To avoid appropriating yoga, learn the history of their practice and ask questions to make informed, inoffensive decisions.
Here are some questions we need to ask:
Is my practice - the way I am engaining with it, the words I am using, the mantras I am chanting or the yoga-centered products I am purchasing - causing harm to the indigenous people who were ridiculed by this ancient ancestral practice by colonists?
Addressing the problem is an ongoing enquiry, much like the practice of yoga itself. If your teacher guides you in a Sanskrit mantra, inquire about its meaning, pronunciation, and history. When you choose yoga apparel, consider what the deity or printed symbols represent.
Do I really understand the origin and essence of the practice that I am so freely allowed to practice and promote?
“Does the yoga practice I engage in serve as another form of measuring myself or does it promote inner Knowing, peace and love for all things and being?
#2 To all yoga studios and membership-based online platforms: Hire more teachers of color especially Indians.
Yoga, ayurveda (sister science of yoga) and other such practices are related to ancestry. And since genetics are passed generationally, such practices have therefore been passed on to us physiologically and energetically. During colonialism, these practices were deemed less than and were banned from being practiced. So there is ancestral pain and inherited trauma from colonialism that needs to be acknowledged.
One of the ways to acknowledge this pain is to counteract the harmful effects of exclusivity and underrepresentation that is prevalent in yoga culture of the North Americas.
If you are really clear about what ethos you want to practice yoga, it won't matter what new modalities or cool new yoga retreats are coming up all over the world. It all comes back to ones' honestly, one's study. It is never about the teacher, a yoga teacher is just a vehicle to share the knowledge, to facilitate an experience.
Yoga considers ones' direct experience of the practice as it's most reliable source of knowledge. Sincere seekers of the knowledge will find the practice transformative for they would pass the practice of yoga by being the practice of yoga - a journey towards self-transformation.
Be curious about how yoga is and can get appropriated - ask questions, read, listen, debate and engage in a non-harming and compassionate way.