Cultural Appropriation v Cultural Appreciation. Debates in Modern Yoga

Line drawing of Ganesha, the 'remover of obstacles'. Is having this image in your home cultural appropriation if you're not a Hindu?
Hindu gods on t-shirts? Insulting or inspiring?

Inspiring or Insulting?

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, maybe it’s time to start thinking about cultural appropriation in yoga and there has been much discussion of this recently in the yoga world cultural appropriation as ‘a process that takes a traditional practice from a marginalized group and turns it into something that benefits the dominant group – ultimately erasing its origins and meaning’.

A commodity?

So what about yoga and cultural appropriation? Perhaps the issue is that in the West, yoga practice is marketed and treated as a commodity and a mere form of exercise, often by people who have no interest in where it originated and who see it as something which solely benefits the body. Worse than this, often we see photos of attractive young people in beautiful faraway settings twisting their bodies into forms which are impossible for us. Most likely, though not exclusively, these Instagram would-bes are western and white and there seems to be a disconnect between these images and the fact that yoga originated in India and is an ancient spiritual practice.

Sacred Objects and Words

There is much argument today about the appropriation of sacred objects and words as décor or fashion. Who hasn’t seen t-shirts with ‘nama’slay’ or ‘nama’stay in bed’ on, which at first may seem funny? There’s also the ubiquitous slogan which comes up on my Facebook page, Etsy and Amazon in the form of a poster, a mug or a t shirt. I quote: ‘I'm Mostly Peace-Love And Light And A Little Go Fuck Yourself. A gift for the yoga lover in your life? Well, this one thinks not. Obvs.

I do have a t-shirt adorned with a print of Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. I was delighted with it at the time especially because I had broken my elbow and couldn’t do my favourite downward dogs, despite being in training to be a yoga teacher. I knew about the god with the elephant face and what he represented in Hindu mythology and I thought it was just right for me. Now I’m wondering. I read online about the bemusement of older Hindu people in India and Thailand seeing their gods on t-shirts and wondering what place they had there. These t-shirts are bought by tourists, are cheap and sold by anyone wanting to make a quick buck. They are a commodity like ‘nama’slay’. But then, so is the latest line by Sweaty Betty, at a much higher price.

And yet people find that something about yoga resonates with them, despite not knowing everything about it and there is nothing wrong with that. Because yoga works, it appeals to many different people. Yoga is not a religion; it is open to all whether you are religious or not. Yoga is arguably a science and arguably an art. We can’t be expected to know all about it before we start. Yoga teachers need to go deeper to pass on what they can to their students.

The Lineage Question

Personally, I am absolutely gutted because if it hadn’t been for Covid 19, I would’ve been setting off on my yoga odyssey to the Himalayas next week, to connect with the roots of the practice I love and hopefully bring what I had learnt back to you. It’s traditional in India for yoga knowledge to be passed down from a Guru but I learnt mine from a fair few different teachers and from an expensive training course (another commodity) with even more teachers and no lineage. At the same time, society has changed.

Yogis in India were supported everywhere they went, given food and a bed along with great respect. No-one needed to charge for their yoga classes because they would always be supported and welcomed along the way. Often one son in a large family would decide not to get married but instead go and seek enlightenment. B.K.S. Iyengar was one of the first ’householders’ to do both. He was also one of the first Indian people to bring yoga to the west and a follower of Krishnamacharya, ‘the father of modern yoga.’ A.G. Mohan, now aged 75, was also a disciple. Along with his wife, Indra, and son, Ganesh, he teaches yoga in India today and are a direct link to authentic yoga traditions.

Indian Innovation

As we are unable to travel right now, I'm taking some online courses on which are authentic and connecting to the Indian heritage of yoga. A.G. Mohan, his wife, Indra, and son, Ganesh, are rightly bringing yoga to the twenty-first century and have set up a learning platform. There are lots of videos on there if you want to take your practice deeper and dive into an authentic experience. By learning directly from them, I respectfully hope to be able to pass on a more genuine yoga practice to my students, which honours its roots and traditions. I love yoga. I'm passionate about sharing it but also concerned that I don't want to hijack it and take it away from the people who first lived and breathed it as part of their culture. Yet, like everything, yoga needs to evolve and change to suit the needs of the modern world. The name Svasta means "sacrifice, innovative, powerful'. This speaks for itself. Innovative. At the end of the day, though, yoga is an ancient spiritual practice and we need to remember that.

A.G. and Indra Mohan

The Darker Side of Tradition

Apart from that, the twenty-first century has revealed a darker side to some Guru figures of the past, stories of sexual abuse hiding behind hero worship, status and a so-called good cause. A light is being shone onto historic abuses by those who had power over others because of their charisma, charm or reputation and it’s usually the power a man had over women or young boys. It’s the same as those in the West who abused vulnerable young people in children’s homes or when the church turned a blind eye.

Before Indian teachers came to the west in the 1950s, we knew little about yoga in the UK. We really should’ve known about it before considering the British were in India for over 200 years! What is decidedly uncomfortable to understand is that yoga and other practices like Ayurveda were considered primitive, banned and ridiculed under British colonisation. All the more ironic that now they are marketed by westerners, with India and Indian people often becoming invisible.

The Sanskrit Debate

So what to do? In order to honour the roots of yoga we should perhaps explore holistically and understand that this is a practice that involves more than just asana, making the perfect shape with your body and getting liked on Instagram. It’s about conquering ego, being humble and connecting to the inner self. It’s about being thoughtful about our impact on the world. It’s about compassion and a sense of internal ease. Using Sanskrit names, I feel, is a small step. I don’t think it’s cultural appropriation to learn about the language of the yogic tradition, even if we might mispronounce it, if we do it with respect.

The word ‘Sanskrit’ itself means ‘polished, perfect, refined’ and the language pre-dates Latin and Greek. There is also a Vedic belief that each word is encoded with consciousness and resonates when you hear it, perform it and say it. The word ‘yoga’ itself means ‘unity’ so we should question the fear of the ‘other’ of colonial times. Right wingers in India wish to ban westerners from doing yoga altogether and some westerners want to completely ‘sterilise’ it and get rid of all traces of Indian heritage.

Ask a Hindu Indian

The last word goes to Manasvini in her online article ‘Ask a Hindu Indian- is yoga cultural appropriation?’ ‘I think everyone should have the right to benefit from practicing yoga because it’s quite honestly saved my life, and I know it’s helped millions of other people. Spreading such a practice across the world has been a gift to many. Restricting people from practicing yoga due to their skin color or heritage is certainly something that would be condemned by Hinduism, the religion from which yoga is a part of, and would certainly be condemned by the gurus who traveled to America to teach yoga.’

She argues that the real issue lies with the fact that so many people practising yoga today are completely ignorant about the roots of yoga, and often misuse it as a result. Let’s be mindful of that.

I’d love to hear what you think about this topic and I’m open to listening and learning especially if you have been touched by the issues involved.

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