Today I want to write about the recent viral news story regarding the cancellation of a free yoga classes offered in Ottawa. The story has been met by a great deal of debate and discussion on the nature of cultural appropriation, how cultural appropriation relates to yoga, and concerns of “reverse racism” and “over-sensitivity” by marginalized populations. I feel many responses I’ve seen on the story have ignored some very important points about cultural appropriation and yoga that are relevant to the conversation.
The Ottawa Incident: What Happened?
The incident involved a free yoga class offered at the University of Ottawa through the Centre for Students with Disabilities that was cancelled because of administrative concerns regarding inclusivity and cultural sensitivity, namely that the class was culturally appropriating yoga from a historically oppressed population (India under colonialism and imperialism). Center staff originally explained the decision to cancel the class was a response to complaints from several students and volunteers about issues of cultural sensitivity and appropriation, as well as the fact that the center were short on staff and didn’t have the capacity to continue the programming.
The yoga teacher attempted to bargain with the university to continue the classes, including discussing the removal of references to yoga philosophy (which were already sparse to begin with), focusing on “stretching” and “fitness”, and refraining from using Sanskrit (which she hadn’t really been using much anyway), all strategies that have been used successfully to integrate yoga into schools in California, for example. However, the center ultimately admitted there were no direct complaints about the class, and that they decided to drop the courses because the university was concerned about issues of cultural sensitivity and because “they couldn’t get a French name and nobody wants to do it.” The student federation president also added that “they suspended the class as part of a review of all their programs to make them more interesting, accessible, inclusive and responsive to the needs of students.”
A recent post by the disabilities center clarifying the situation is worth sharing, as I think draws attention to some of the miscommunication that has developed around the details of the events:
Never did the Student Federation at the University of Ottawa, or the Centre for Students with Disabilities, release the statements around cultural appropriation to the Ottawa Sun in the interview that we had with them on November 19th. The Ottawa Sun received emails exchanged between the Centre for Students with Disabilities and yoga Instructor. These emails, we would like to highlight, are outdated and have led to a lot of miscommunication about our program. [In other words, the quotes regarding concerns about cultural appropriation are from email exchanges between the center and teacher that were given to the news agencies, and were from several months ago during the review process.]…
The consultation process has been going on since the beginning of summer 2015 and because of that, the CSD has had a lot a feedback on how to improve the program to better accommodate their members. The statements quoted by the Ottawa Sun were a small-misrepresented message out of a larger conversation around the program. For example, the following concerns needed to be addressed.
First, the attendance of the Yoga classes was declining, this program has been running for the past 8 years without any re-evaluation and we wanted to ensure that students’ money and resources was being used in a responsible and efficient way to better promote the centre. There were some real concerns about how yoga was not meeting the mandate of the centre, and serving the needs of students with disabilities namely, students with physical disabilities and mobility issues. As the primary goal in the mandate of the CSD is to ensure that activities put on for the service users are accessible, it is our responsibility to address the issues and act upon them.
It is important to stress that the Student Federation at the University of Ottawa is very disheartened by the rhetoric being used around our due process to evaluate our service centres as we all take our jobs very seriously and work tirelessly to represent and support our students.
We do not condone and are very disappointed by the harassment and violence some of our staff experienced, due to the misrepresentation of our process. Acknowledging that many students are not given access to safe spaces in and around their campuses, the CSD in no way thought that suspending this program for the semester with the intention of improving it for a January return would cause this much uproar. Let us please revaluate this conversation and have a more conducive dialogue around how to make our campuses more accessible to those who do not feel safe.
So clearly there is a lot going on here in this case. Before I talk about whether or not this was actually cultural appropriation, I want to clarify some problematic arguments that have arisen regarding what cultural appropriation is, whether or not it’s possible to culturally appropriate yoga, and ultimately come back to this particular Ottawa case to demonstrate why it is not a case of cultural appropriation (but why we should still care about the possibility of appropriation in yoga).
Defining Cultural Appropriation
Appropriation is defined as a process where one group takes intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from another group’s culture without permission or understanding of the original history, meaning, or use of the appropriated good (adapted from Ziff and Rao 1997). The process is characterized by a power difference, where members of a dominant group have more power, taking from a culture that has often been systematically oppressed. Cultural appropriation is always a transaction that goes on between two groups, and as such is a process that always should acknowledge the agency of both groups, including that of the group being appropriated.
For example, Buyukokutan (2011) notes that particular outcomes, such as exploitation or equitable exchange, are more likely depending on the “whether the would-be appropriators and legitimate owners of the appropriated resource can strike a mutually beneficial bargain” (620). In this way, he draws attention to the way appropriation is not simply a one-way process, but often serves to benefit both groups (if unequally). As such, appropriation is best understood as reciprocal “exchange,” if an unequal one. Appropriation is a transaction where the dominant group has substantially more power to control that process and ultimately benefits much more as a result. As a consequence of the power differential involved in appropriation, the process can be harmful, whether that damage is cultural, emotional, economic, or intellectual, and is a cause for concern for this reason, since (regardless of the intentions of the taker) it may negatively impact the culture, identity, or life course of those experiencing appropriation.
Typically only members of the dominant group profit from appropriation, often through commodification of the appropriated cultural good that simplifies the meaning or history, utilizes stereotypical representations, or results in the symbolic annihilation of the original culture—when the original culture is marginalized, misrepresented, or ignored entirely, including when the origins of the appropriated cultural object are erased or when historical oppression experienced by the non-dominant group is trivialized (see Gerbner 1972; Gerbner and Gross 1976; Coleman and Yochim 2008). It is thus by culturally appropriating “that one asserts power and privilege” because the act of appropriation is largely driven and controlled by the more powerful, dominant group (Hooks 1992: 36). Thus, the terms of “exchange” take place according to the needs and desires of the taker in ways that benefit the dominant group. Often, the taker is also able to engage in the politics of self-serving distinction, utilizing the appropriated culture to garner higher prestige or status unavailable to members of the nondominant group.
Can Westerners Culturally Appropriate Yoga? (Hint: Yes, and so can Indians)
Michelle Goldberg has responded to this event with an article that claims Westerners practicing yoga are not guilty of cultural appropriation. She argues the Ottawa case is part of a larger trend where certain groups who she claims “know very little of the cultures they purport to protect” are overly-sensitive about appropriation, and fail to understand the historical case of cultural diffusion of yoga to the West. (She cites the website Decolonizing Yoga as a example of such groups, which is incredibly problematic considering she claims such people know “little” about yoga or cultural appropriation, and this is definitely not the case for those involved with this site.) In general, her article argues westerners practicing yoga are somehow incapable of engaging in cultural appropriation because claims of appropriation “completely ignore the agency of Indians themselves who have been making a concerted effort to export yoga to the West since the late 19th century.” Thus, it’s somehow impossible for westerners to culturally appropriate yoga because Indian gurus have been engaged in exporting yoga for centuries, with the implication being that the Ottawa case is an overreaction and misapplication of the term cultural appropriation and is, in fact, people just being “overly sensitive.”
First, there are some serious problems with her brief vignette of the history of diffusion of yoga to the West by Indian gurus, and her argument that Indians have been exporting yoga to the West willingly over the last century and as a unified group. Goldberg rightly identifies that “Indians saw getting Westerners interested in yoga as a way of undermining British colonialism.” But what is left out of this discussion is how practices of hatha yoga, in particular, were actually reconceptualized (cough, appropriated) by educated, middle-class Indian intellectuals like Vivekananda in order to create a new formulation of “yoga” that was more acceptable to Westerns, Indian elites, and Indian nationalists. This newly formulated “modern” yoga was aligned with nationalistic projects to distance the developing independent Indian state from Orientalist stereotypes that portrayed India as “superstitious” and “traditional,” and instead sought to portray India, through a reconceptualization of yoga, as “modern” in order to gain support for India’s independence. Sri Yogendra and Swami Kuvalayananda, for example, started the Kaivalyadhama Health and Yoga Research Center in 1928 to study yoga as a modern science (based in Western practices of medicine).
So we have to understand that yoga, even in India, was a fractured, multiple, and diverse practice historically, and did not reflect a unified group of individuals or a unified ideology (which Goldberg implies). We also have to acknowledge that certain styles of yoga (such as hatha yoga) were themselves appropriated by wealthier Indian intellectuals from subordinated, oppressed, and poor Indian populations. In this appropriation process, practices and conceptualizations of yoga changed. For example, Singleton notes yoga became more focused on physical postures as gurus like Krishnamacharya incorporated Western practices like bodybuilding (physical culture), gymnastics, and military-style drill systems into their teachings as part of nationalistic projects that promoted yoga as a “traditional” way to build stronger Indian men (to counteract Orientalist portrayals of Indian men as effeminate) and to build a stronger nation state (ideas based in eugenics, which was popular at the time but lost credibility after the horrors of WWII and the Nazi regime).
Goldberg also argues that “nationalists sent the Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda as a sort of missionary to America, where he introduced yoga philosophy in the 1890s.” But we have to problematize this, too, because at the time Vivekananda’s travels to the West were seen by many Indians as blasphemous, attention-seeking, and potentially damaging. That’s not to say all Indians felt this way and in general Vivekananda did have a great deal of support from those back in India, but again, this points out how we cannot assume any one Indian guru (like Vivekananda) spoke for all yogis or Indians.
Academic research shows that one of the main motivations for Vivekananda’s trip to the West was actually to raise money. He was broke, unable to find stable employment, and it was his financial struggles and difficulty dealing with the new responsibilities he faced upon the death of his father that initially drove him to connect with his guru, Ramakrishna (who Vivekananda had actually disliked when he initially met him prior to his father’s passing). In fact, the entire “official” narrative of how Vivekananda was petitioned by Ramakrishna to continue his spiritual transmission after his death by starting the Ramakrishna order is likely over-exaggerated, as evidence actually shows Ramakrishna did not wish Vivekananda to become a sannyasi, a form of religious ascetic, while his mother lived (most likely because, with the death of his father, Ramakrishna felt Vivekananda was needed to help support his family, meaning he could not renounce material desires and completely detach himself from material life; he did so regardless of Ramakrishna’s concerns, a decision that ended up changing India, Hinduism, and yoga forever). Similarly, evidence indicates that “Ramakrishna never formally initiated the future Vivekananda and the other young devotees,” as the renunciation undergone by Vivekananda took place several months after Ramakrishna died in a very unorthodox initiation that featured strong Christian content and was likely self-administered by Vivekananda and his followers (De Michelis: 105-107).
It was only after traveling for several years in India spreading his teachings and struggling with poverty that Vivekananda “hit upon a plan” to “raise the masses,” but recognized that he needed two things to do so, men and money. Because he had a difficult time raising funds in India (in part because there were so many sanyassins, or religious aesthetics, “wandering about teaching the people metaphysics”), he went to America to “earn money myself, and then return to my country and devote the rest of my days to the realization of this one aim in my life… I give them [Americans] spirituality and they give me money” (Vivekananda, quoted in De Michelis: 109). So Vivekananda traveled to America of his own accord, primarily as a means of earning funds for his religious projects, and contrary to Goldberg’s claims he was not sent as a spiritual emissary representing all Indians or all yogis.
In fact, Vivekananda ran out of money soon after arriving in New York but was “adopted” by prominent members of the occult religious organizations in the USA, including the recently formed Theosophical Society in New York and other new age religious groups such as metaphysics, harmonial religions, and mesmerism, whose members were “impressed by the handsome monk in the orange robe” and his “perfect English.” It’s worth noting that Vivekananda only started wearing orange robes during his time with Ramakrishna, who actually found the attire worrisome. Regardless, this apparel lent Vivekananda credibility in his new role as spiritual guru both back in India and especially in the West; he was able to start earning money almost immediately by giving talks and classes to wealthy white American occultists and by receiving donations.
De Michelis notes that “he acted as a wise counselor and teacher, as a friend and as a ‘soiree ornament… entertaining the wealthy and curious'” and that his popularity was partly due to “the fascination exercised in cultic milieus by Oriental teachers” who were romanticized by Westerners as “providers of genuine teachings, whatever their credentials” (111). Vivekananda applied to present at the Chicago Parliament of Religions as a “representative of the Hindu monastic order,” but this was a self-ascribed title and didn’t reflect any actual diplomatic representative status he possessed. So we have to understand that Vivekananda’s trips to the USA were self-motivated, even if it was for a good cause that he believed in, and that the formulations of yoga he disseminated to the West did not represent all Indians or all yogis (in fact, De Michelis recounts how his formulations of yoga were modified as a result of his interactions with new age spirituality in the West, which he adopted into his own understandings of the practice and then brought back to India). So Goldberg’s claim that it’s impossible to appropriate yoga is based on a misunderstanding of Vivekananda’s “mission” that ignores the ways his travels to the West were self-induced as a means of raising money for his spiritual projects, and not a reflection of some common approval of Western transmission by all Indians or all yogis.
Goldberg also claims that appropriation by Westerners is impossible because another prominent Indian guru, Krishnamacharya, gave teachers like Indra Devi “permission” to share yogic teachings with the West as some sort of “go forth and teach” missionary venture. But again, this is problematic as it ignores concerns Krishnamacharya actually had regarding Western appropriation of yoga, and is based on claims by Devi that such an interaction and conversation occurred. In fact, evidence actually indicates Krishnamacharya didn’t want to teach Westerners originally, especially women. Devi was a Russian noblewoman who adopted the stage name of Indra Devi to sound more Hindi during her involvement in several Indian films, and it was only after the Maharaja of Mysore, who funded Krishnamacharya’s yoga school, spoke on her behalf in 1938 that he even accepted her as a student of yoga. In fact, this revealing and prophetic quote from Krishnamacharya indicates that he was concerned about Western appropriation of yoga, contrary to Goldberg’s claims (thanks, Sri, for drawing my attention to this in your latest blog post):
The foreigners have stolen all the skills and knowledge and treasure of mother India, either right in front of us of in a hidden way. They pretend that they have discovered all this by themselves, bundle it together, and then bring it back here as though doing us a favor and in exchange take all the money and things we have saved up for our family’s welfare. After some time passes, they will try and do the same thing with Yogavidya. We can clearly state that the blame for this is that while we have read books required for the knowledge of yoga to shine, we have not understood or studied the concepts or brought them into our experience. If we still sleep and keep our eyes close, then the foreigners will become our gurus in Yogavidya.
In fact, while Krishnamacharya did teach Westerners this mostly occurred later in his life, and was related to changes in funding as his school stopped being funded by wealthy donors like the Maharaja in the decades following Devi’s study with him and instead became funded privately through fees charged to students. This meant that Westerners, who often were more able/willing to pay to learn yoga from such a renowned teacher, became a prime target market for Krishnamacharya even in India. It’s also worth noting that many Westerners actually trained with Krishnamacharya’s Indian students who then went on to teach, such as Pattabhi Jois, not with Krishnamacharya himself, and it’s likely he had little control of who his students taught even if he was concerned about Western appropriation of yoga.
I realize all of this history can be a bit overwhelming, but what I’m trying to point out is that cultural appropriation by Westerners was in fact a concern of many Indian gurus, even those who did end up teaching non-Indian students. Ultimately, we can’t argue (as Goldberg does) that cultural appropriation is impossible because “confident, outward-looking men who established modern yoga were eager to bring their system to the wider world” and as such charges of cultural appropriation are “invalid” because they “completely ignore the agency of Indians themselves, who have been making a concerted effort to export yoga to the West since the late 19th century.” Goldberg’s argument is flawed because she doesn’t understand that cultural appropriation is always a process characterized by an unequal power relationship between two parties, and as such always takes into account (or should) the agency of the party being appropriated from. Also, her argument lumps all Indians into one group, although it is clear that no Indian yoga guru spoke for all Indians, or all yogis, and as such no guru could “give permission” for yoga to be disseminated to the West, since there is no group that has this authority. Just because a few Indian gurus actively worked to export yoga does not mean they wanted that export to be appropriated by the Westerners they taught. It also does not mean that Westerners can do whatever they want with the practice because cultural appropriation is somehow “impossible” or “doesn’t exist.”
Ultimately, anyone can appropriate a cultural object like yoga, including Westerners but also Indians. The idea that because a handful of Indian yoga gurus actively worked to export yoga to the West somehow it is impossible for any Westerner (or anyone) to appropriate yoga is incredibly problematic and potentially damaging, and ignores research on what cultural appropriation is and how it works. While I would argue on the whole most applications, adoptions, and variations of yoga in the West are not culturally appropriative, just because most of the time it’s not appropriation doesn’t rule out the possibility that it could be cultural appropriation. We should still discuss the possibility of appropriation on a case by case basis to ensure our actions do not inadvertently, adversely harm others. We need to better understand what cultural appropriation entails, something Goldberg does not adequately address in her article.
Bringing it Back to Yoga: Was the Ottawa Case Culturally Appropriative?
Now, in applying this definition of cultural appropriation to yoga, I think it’s clear that some extremely commodified versions of Western yoga that ignore yoga’s roots, do not acknowledge the practice’s rich history, use stereotypical and simplified versions of the practice, profit off a romanticized and orientalist image of yoga, and transform yoga into a power fitness activity reminiscent of Jane Fonda aerobics set to the soundtracks of pop music and featuring scantily clad thin white women can be culturally appropriative. Such formulations profit only wealthy Westerners who own such corporations, and do marginalize, misrepresent, or ignore entirely the origins of the practice. With that said, these culturally appropriative representations of yoga are actually few and far between if we look at the everyday practices of yogis in the West and the great diversity of yoga classes and studio systems. They are more common in the media, sure, but that’s often because the media gives a skewed representation of yoga in the West.
Most of the time, the variation we see in yoga in the West is a natural product of cultural diffusion as cultural objects, like yoga, change and evolve slightly with each iteration of diffusion as each teacher or student puts their own interpretation of meaning and use on the cultural good in order to make the cultural object more relevant for their lives and needs. For example, even power yoga classes can and do train teachers on yoga philosophy and history and acknowledge the practice is more than just physical fitness, implying that it is not cultural appropriation that is happening. Many studios, even those that seem the most “Westernized,” can and do provide workshops for students that go deeper than more surface-level (but still yogic) asana classes.
Sure, yoga has changed in ways that are sometimes hard to reconcile. And yes, there are obviously some aspects of yoga culture (like industries producing fashion “yoga” clothes) that are highly problematic, as such industries can often support unsustainable, exploitative systems of inequality. The fact that yoga is often used as a form of self-distinction to signal high-class status is similarly troublesome. But what I’m trying to get at is that most yogis do not use yoga in this way, or passively absorb and reproduced this culture. These problems (when they do exist in yoga) are often part of larger problems of corporate power, consumerism, and capitalist global exploitation that are not just present in yoga in the West today but in the Western world more generally. We should continue to talk about them, but it doesn’t mean we need to stop practicing yoga. For example, this interesting article from Vice on the Ottawa case discusses some of the ways we can still practice without culturally appropriating yoga.
While it can be hard to disseminate the more philosophical or meditative aspects of the practice in group classes, this doesn’t mean teachers aren’t aware of the deeper aspects of yoga. In fact, the lack of these type of yoga teachings in Western yoga has more to do with the corporate nature of mainstream yoga publications (which, again, present a skewed picture of yoga in the West removed from the everyday practices of yogis) as well as limitations in the standardized format for teaching group asana classes (which have become the staple cash flow for studios) than because teachers are culturally appropriating yoga. In fact, I would argue that most yoga as it is practiced in the West is not culturally appropriative in the sociological sense of the word. In general the evolution of yoga in the West is a complex phenomenon that has many factors, and reflects a more general cultural diffusion as yoga was adapted to meet the needs of a different audience (both geographically, but also temporally as modern society evolved and changed over time).
As for the Ottawa case, I think it’s clear that this, similarly, was not a case of cultural appropriation. First, there were many other reasons the classes were cancelled, such as low enrollment and concerns about accessibility for differently abled students. The teacher obviously did have a deeper understanding of yoga practice and the history and origins of the practice, but was seeking to create an entry level class for students of all levels that focused on overall health and well-being, a goal that is not contradictory to a broader understanding of the practice of yoga but rather reflects a particular type and level of class given the interests of students and constraints of the university system.
With all this said, I want to reiterate that just because not all Western adaptations of yoga are culturally appropriative does not rule out the possibility that it could be cultural appropriation. We should still discuss the possibility of appropriation on a case by case basis to ensure our actions do not inadvertently, adversely harm others. To do so, we have to understand what cultural appropriation entails, have a dialogue with all members involved, look closely at issues of power, and remain mindful about the nature and consequences of the process.
I also think it’s worth seriously considering whether or not, in attempting to make yoga more available within school or university systems, the practice has been so de-contextualized as to make it unrecognizable. I understand the benefits of integrating yoga into schools, but institutional constraints in these sites often mean that the spiritual nature of the practice becomes impossible to even acknowledge. At this point, I think we have to ask whether or not it is even yoga anymore, or if it has been so appropriated to fit within school systems that we have symbolically annihilated the roots of the practice in this process in ways that are in fact culturally appropriative.
The Ottawa case is, I think, an example of this process, as yoga is changed dramatically to try and fit into institutions that demand a lack of spirituality. Can we still retain the essence of the practice, and can the practice still benefit students if the spiritual roots are removed to fit into school systems? Are there alternative ways to incorporate yoga into schools (say, after school programs) or make it more accessible to populations that might benefit (like children) that would still allow the roots and history of the practice to be acknowledged and taught? This is a complex topic. There is no easy answer for those interested in increasing the reach of yoga and spreading the benefits of the practice. However, in sacrificing the complexity of the practice in attempts to gain a wider audience we risk falling into McYoga and McMindfulness traps, where yoga and mindfulness practices are yoked to unsustainable systems of productivity, individualism, and consumerism in ways that ultimately culturally appropriate the practice.
Love, light, and… yoga ❤