Recently I read an article by a women asking whether or not the Western practice of yoga is actually a form of cultural appropriation towards the Hindu faith and the Indian culture. The article was highly misinformed regarding many points, however I have been seeing more and more people asking this exact question. Is the yoga that has prevailed in the West a form of cultural appropriation?
I have always struggled with the idea of cultural appropriation. I have usually found other cultures speak to me more deeply than my own. Further after learning about them, I am often too nervous to express that which seems more truth to me due to perceptions and misunderstandings. It can be argued to me all day about not worrying about what other people think, however being a human looking for connection there is a certain level of care I do need to put into myself regarding the thoughts of others.
There have been many examples where people have put the idea of yoga being cultural appropriation. Two of the newest stories being the donation yoga being canceled at a Canadian college, and the uproar in Georgia. Although many yogis have reacted to these points, few, I think, are really looking into the heart of the issue which is, what truly is cultural appropriation, and is it happening in yoga?
As the internet defines it:
- Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture. Cultural appropriation is seen by some as controversial, notably when elements of a minority culture are used by members of the cultural majority; this is seen as wrongfully oppressing the minority culture or stripping it of its group identity and intellectual property rights.
Still further investigation give a more informative story, mainly the ‘plagiarism’ of a culture as well as the misrepresentation due to a lack of knowledge or ignorance of the culture whos ideas, dress, or representation is being used. (A clearer definition can be found here).
That being said as a definition, is yoga in the West truly taking the deep and spiritual practice of yoga and creating a massive faux pas of cultural appropriation? To a certain extent I would answer yes, on many accounts. The prevailing idea of yoga in the West and its perception to outsiders really looks like ‘stretching’. These ideas always would irk me and for the most part I would have to ask myself why? All the while playacting to their ideas in order to pay my bills. The truth is deep down, though I thought I was fighting for my own definition of yoga, really what I was concerned with was the ideas that these groups had on yoga were culturally appropriating this wonderful practice.
Still those arguing that all yoga is cultural appropriation is still falling short of understanding the true ideas behind yoga. For the true yogis there is a sense of ‘as long as people start somewhere at least they can begin to develop that hunger for more’. Yoga is not a, strictly speaking, Hindu practice. It was developed long before the Arians came to India with their own cultural and religious ideas which meshed into Hinduism. Further as it developed with the Vedas it was also incorporated into Jainism as well as Buddhism growing up rooted in three distinct spiritual practice. Although yoga still lends itself to the Indian Culture, it was also brought to the West as a way to bridge the gap between the East and the West. Filling in the gap of Westerns void of spiritual concepts, and adding to the technological development of the East. Ergo when Parmhansa Yogananda brought yoga to the West he was charged with bridging these gaps, and creating a cultural exchange. How the West has transformed this practice is a different conversation entirely. Further in my understanding of Yogananda, he would be happy to know that yoga has taken off in some form or another as well as it did regardless; and being from a long line of ‘true’ yogis I think that can underpin the conversation as a true conclusion.
However contemporary scholars and thinkers might disagree with my assessment, claiming that the way in which yoga has been transformed is truly the highest definition of cultural appropriation. True it is deplorable what has happened to this practice in the West, however should that be reason to punish all of us? For some, there is a deeper connection with something so long formed that it has awakened a deeper truth in us that would be far from stealing these ideas and misusing them. In fact for many the practice of yoga has deepened into the true spiritual journey and quest it was meant to be. If we decided to change our faith, start wearing bindis, and observing holidays, is it right to stamp us with a label of cultural misuse? We have done all our research and are truly just expressing our deepest soul level of truth.
Long before America was even stumbled upon by the West, India was known as being the Spiritual melting pot of the world. Yoga and each spiritual path in India have undergone countless changes incorporating all faiths and culture into their own as a welcoming ground for the transfer of ideas. Should we deny this age old acceptance for our own peace of mind regarding something that has fallen so far from its truth?
I do agree, and many with me, that the practice of Yoga in the West is due for a major Renaissance. Mainly there needs to be further understanding and study of where the practice truly came from and what its real purpose is. Instead of doing countless sun salutations to Katie Parry, or Coldplay we should be recognizing the breath, or listening to traditional mantra music that is inspiring. AUM should be a must in a yoga class, as well as encouraging students to read the long ago texts that work to integrate the practice as a whole. Those whom disagree, should instead of seeing this as an attack, or trying to convert them to other spiritual practices, should instead look to yoga as a spiritual tool perfect for interweaving their own Spiritual identity.
Yes I agree on some level yoga is a massive cultural appropriation of the Indian culture, but only by those studios and teachers that have not given the study of tradition its due. However that is discounting the massive group of Westernized yogis that have taken to heart the deeper study of yoga. Furthermore the intellectual community that is not well versed in the practice, or in the true understanding of the Indian Culture or history of yoga aggravating the community with their questions is not helping; but this further harming yoga as a whole. Yes, yoga in the West should return to its intended purpose as helping us find what truly speaks to us Spiritually. However we should tread carefully on these egg shells to make sure that when introducing these ideas we fully understand it as a whole.
Practice in Peace and Love ❤
(Worried Your Yoga Practice is not Practicing Yoga? There are some answers that might help)