Cultural Appropriation v Cultural Appreciation. Debates in Modern Yoga

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

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.

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