Cultural Appropriation, Yoga, and You

(Because all great titles are a list of three things. #ThingsILearnedInAcademia)

This is not a post about what cultural appropriation is (to learn about what cultural appropriation is, see my past post here or my recent academic article, “Eating the Other Yogi,” here). This is not a post about whether or not cultural appropriation happens in modern postural yoga. Hint: it happens all the time. This post is an exploration of why and how cultural appropriation happens in yoga, and what this means for those of us who are yoga practitioners or teachers. Where do we go from here? How do we deal when we are trying to be good people (aka, not appropriative) while continuing on a yogic path?

Across my dissertation research, I’ve grown to realize that most of the yoga practiced in the Western world is culturally appropriative. That statement will likely piss off a lot of people who are very attached to their practice and don’t want to believe this. In fact, it took me a long time to come to grips with this fact too, and to really understand what that meant. But you know what? Too bad. To say that most yoga in the West is appropriative is to speak the truth (satya, anyone?), and while truth is sometimes hard and uncomfortable to face (especially for those with privilege in the yoga world, including myself) I believe wholeheartedly that people always deserve the truth, and that the truth will ultimately set us free. Also, side note, a deep practice of yoga is a practice of truth (not the truth as you want it to be, but the Truth as it is, which is a moving target most of the time). The practice of yoga is also a profound practice of non-attachment even to yoga itself, so if you are still up in arms about the claim cultural appropriation happens all the time in yoga, I suggest taking some time to reflect on why that bothers you so much.

Consuming Yoga

The fact is that cultural appropriation is often done with the best of intentions by the appropriator. If it wasn’t enjoyable, pleasurable, and desirable, it wouldn’t happen. Period. So please don’t give me the “I don’t appropriate yoga because I love it” speech. I’ve heard it before in my line of work, more times than I can count. You can be a “good” person, have the best of intentions, and still do bad things, like engaging in cultural appropriation. People culturally appropriate because they are drawn to something. They consume other cultures often with the best of intentions, out of genuine interest in the cultures they appropriate. But they also often seek out these cultures from a place of power and privilege, and without a proper understanding of the cultures they are engaging with, and this is a dangerous line to walk, often resulting in appropriating the cultures they revere. According to work by bell hooks (1992:24,26), the appropriator often sees “their willingness to openly name their desire for the Other as affirmation of cultural plurality… they believe their desire for contact represents a progressive change… [they believe] the Other can provide life-sustaining alternatives.”

In the Western yoga world today, most people desire such life-sustaining alternatives to the often demoralizing, alienating, isolating, and damaging capitalist societies we live in (especially the USA). People are drawn to yoga because they think it offers a solution, a way to mitigate the pain and suffering they are experiencing in their day to day lives. They desire it. And they are actively encouraged to desire it by an industry that sells yoga to the masses as a quick fix to underlying, systemic conditions.

Stuck in a job that requires more than 40 hours of work a week, doesn’t provide paid holiday/sick leave, and doesn’t give you any maternity/paternity leave? Do yoga! Experiencing secondary trauma from the seemingly never-ending video evidence of murders of black/brown people by police? Do yoga! Stuck in the prison system that dehumanizes non-violent offenders locked up for life because of crap mandatory minimum sentencing and three-strike laws? Do yoga! Can modern postural yoga actually solve these issues? No. Not all all. It will take systemic changes to actually solve these problems. But we are encouraged to use yoga as a stop-gap measure, as a way of treating the symptoms of a much larger and more complex disease. Because when you can treat the symptoms (for a cost) but never cure the disease, it’s possible to make a shit-ton of money. Cue: yoga is a booming $16 billion dollar industry.

This is no coincidence. As yoga became more popular in the West with the countercultural movements of the 1960s, yoga became appropriated and reinterpreted through a Western lens that imposed ideas of individualism, capitalism, and consumerism on the practice. It was turned into a “profession,” as something to be bought and sold–it was turned into a commodity. We are taught to consume yoga, to find pleasure in it despite the fact that yoga is not about finding pleasure. We are sold yoga as a “30 day transformation” and as a way to “find your bliss” and “manifest joy.” We are never actually sold yoga. We are sold an appropriative misrepresentation of the practice designed to get us in the door and spending money.

This is exacerbated by the professionalization of yoga as a career. The “job” became predicated on a prescribed set of skills that we can look up via a quick google search for “yoga teacher job description.” Take a look at some of these gems garnered from just such a search:

Yoga aims to create balance in the mind and body through exercise, breathing and meditation. As a yoga teacher, you will teach yoga as a form of exercise that increases fitness and wellbeing. (National Careers Service UK)

As a LifePower Yoga Instructor, you will provide various Yoga training services that offer members programs to maximize workout efficiency, improve fitness, increase stamina, enjoy their fitness experience and improve overall sense of well-being. (A job listing from Monster.com)

Yoga instructors help to guide students in yoga through a variety of postures, or asanas, and breathing exercises referred to as pranayama. Instructors provide hands-on direction to make sure students are performing movements properly and applying the breathing techniques. Yoga instructors may work in a class or in a one-on-one setting. (LiveStrong)

Are we teaching yoga, or are we just physical fitness trainers? At least the first description mentions meditation and “breathing” (did they mean pranayama here? Because I hate to break it to them, but that’s not exactly what the sanskrit term means). Although of course the description of what a teacher actually does has nothing to do with either of those, and only discusses yoga as “exercise” and “fitness.” And LiveStrong at least mentions pranayama, although again defines it incorrectly as just breathing. This next one from Best Sample Resume is probably the most ridiculous (cue laugh-cry):

Yoga is an ancient form of exercise originating from the country of India. Yoga has been known to help people exercise without straining themselves. It is quite fast and effective and this is the reason why it has become so popular in the west. Many gymnasiums now offer yoga as a form of exercise with other unconventional exercises like aerobics, pilates, etc…

Duties and Responsibilities of a Yoga Instructor

  • Yoga instructors have to teach their students about the various yogic positions…
  • They have to take into account the health problems of the students and teach them accordingly
  • They also have to take the age of each student into account as their students can be anyone
  • They have to monitor each of them carefully to ensure that they are doing the position properly
  • They have to be experts themselves and have to be in great shape
  • They can even offer dietary advice to their students but they can do it only after consultation with a dietician
  • They mostly teach their students proper breathing techniques as they are most important aspect of yoga [yet of course this “most important aspect of yoga” is mentioned as a site note in the last bullet of the job description”, talk about hypocritical!]

Because clearly yoga was just ancient exercise. That was sarcasm, in case it didn’t come across right. And don’t even get me started on the statement that yoga instructors “have to be in great shape” comment.

What is so troubling about these descriptions of the job description for a yoga instructor is that we have defined the skills and activities of such teaching primarily on asana alone, or postures, and more specifically on the teaching of those postures in a group class setting (or less common, but more lucrative, private classes). Breathing is sometimes mentioned, but often misrepresented in these descriptions. The profession of yoga is predicated on a job that isn’t actually teaching yoga, but is just teaching a fitness class in the vein of Jane Fonda’s workout videos of the 80s.

The industry supports this, with most “yoga studios” only offering group fitness classes and rarely incorporating other aspects of the practice in their classes, workshops, or retreats. Add in yoga products that present the practice as something that you “do” at a set time, in a set place, through consumption (buy the mat, buy the props, buy the clothes, buy the class). Oh, sure, in these settings you may have a mention here or there of some philosophical aspects of the practice, and a breathing technique or two. But these are out of context, usually incredibly brief, and may not even be completely understood by the people teaching it.

Ex: alternative nostril breathing is a practice often taught completely devoid of the philosophical roots, meaning a yoga instructor will walk you through how to do it but won’t explain why. In fact, the teacher might not even know the philosophical, energetic and tantric reasons behind what they are trying to teach as most TT programs only offer 20 total hours of philosophy, pranayama, and history of yoga combined. And it’s optional how TT programs divvy that time up (usually pranayama is the first to be cut, as it is the most complex and requires the most background to understand). In short, the vast majority of what we are taught to teach, and subsequently get to teach via the yoga industry is group fitness classes that without more context and background are, at their heart, at their essence, culturally appropriative. And if someone wants to go into teaching yoga as a career they will likely be locked into this system where if they want to earn a living in said industry, that is what they have to teach. It’s risky for one’s career to actually teach yoga. But it’s big business to teach yoga fitness classes that are appropriative and that commodify the practice.

So we are stuck, consuming yoga even as we appropriate it horribly.

But isn’t yoga just a moving target, anyway?

A recent facebook post by Matthew Remski drew attention to this paradox many yoga teachers face today, but it also proposed a disturbing solution.

“Honestly, I don’t know whether what I’m teaching is yoga anymore.”

If I had a dollar for every time I heard this sentence from the fantastically skilled yoga teachers I talk to, I’d be able to afford the rent on a yoga studio in a gentrified neighbourhood. Just joking.

Seriously: they pause after they say it. Something between fear and equanimity is hanging in that pause.

Here’s a composite of the speaker: a highly sensitive and generous teacher who after ten to fifteen years of study, training, and teaching feels an oncoming crisis in self and cultural identity, presenting ambivalence along a number of yoga vectors. They love the sensations, aesthetics, and meanings of vinyasa, but they’re increasingly aware of repetitive stress [injuries]. They love postures, but they’re also learning about functional movement. They’re inspired by the ancient wisdom literature but they also know they’re living in a world that scripture cannot have imagined. They cherish the feeling of practice transmitting an essential wisdom through timeless techniques, but they’ve also read Singleton. (Shakes fist.)

They know they’ve benefited deeply from the solitude of self-work but they’re bothered that yoga is mostly the refuge of a privileged class that often wants consolation more than justice. They know self-regulation is essential but that it won’t address climate change or help BLM directly.

They teach in neighbourhoods that used to feel locally vibrant. As their skills increased with age, they were able to offer richer programming. But they also had to charge more for it, because gentrification. Sometimes they feel themselves locked into a consumerist feedback loop that is growing further and further away from the community they originally intended to serve, but which is also disappearing.

They know that some devotees define moksha as the goal that makes yoga yoga. They’re inspired by this, but wonder how many ways there might be to feel freedom. They don’t associate their practice with religion, but the cultural appropriation discussion has made the religious roots of practice — and their love for or aversion to this — undeniable.

They know that therapeutic goals and transcendent aspirations can pull the limbs in opposite directions on the yoga mat.

Sometimes the person utters the sentence with an enigmatic smile, and seem okay with it. That’s cool. But there are those who seem distressed by the problem, and are wondering whether they have to quit to retain their integrity, I feel a prickle, and I just figured it out.

I’m thinking: “But isn’t that just it?”

Isn’t practicing with equal parts of hope and doubt — along with the creativity of their friction — a movement towards freedom? Isn’t the self-inquiry that cuts right down to the nub — about everything — exactly what you wanted? Didn’t you always want to improvise the most skillful response to any given stimulus, regardless of whether it’s been taught or written about?.. Maybe not being able to name what you’re doing is a sign you’re doing that rare thing to which the sages, whoever they were, gave a provisional name.

My issue with this approach is that it argues it doesn’t matter what we do with the practice so long as we, personally, feel that it is yoga. Remski argues that this doubt that people experience because they are finally coming to realize their practice is appropriative is just totally fine, don’t worry about it. Look, I get that learning is always an uncertain process where we are confronted by doubt. This is especially true when the things we learn are polluted by culturally appropriative histories, commodification, and consumerism, not to mention colonialism (both past and present, because colonialism isn’t ancient history, folks–just ask the Native Americans involved in protesting the DAPL). It’s harder to wade through the mess of appropriative, commodified yoga to a deep understanding of what the underlying practice is. But there is an underlying practice.

Yes, yoga has been part and parcel of many different traditions, across a variety of religious, spiritual, and atheist demographics throughout its very diverse history. But there is an underlying unity in the philosophical aims of yoga and in aspects of the practices used that it is possible to point to. Sure there is diversity in how we interpret this underlying unity, but that doesn’t negate the fact that there is something underneath it all. While Andrea R. Jain (in her book Selling Yoga) and many other researchers like Georg Feuerstein (in his book Yoga Traditions) do make it a point to talk about how yoga has taken many forms depending on the time and the social group in question, they admit it is still possible to point to an underlying shape of this thing “yoga”; in other words, it’s not just anything we want it to be (cue: white desires that spur and subsequently justify appropriation), there is something we can trace called “yoga,” otherwise these histories of the practice couldn’t exist.

https://i1.wp.com/bestanimations.com/Signs&Shapes/sphere-shape-spinning-animated-gif-2.gif
For me, I like to think of yoga using the metaphor of a blob. And yes, I’m still working on a better comparison, but bear with me. We can think of yoga as a shape made up of a set of practices, beliefs, values, norms, etc. (a cultural object), that are bound together in a networked, fluid form. It is constantly shifting as the circumstances of where that shape is in space and time change, as it adapts to it’s environment, but at the same time as the outer edges shift and change shape, the center of the blob for the most part remains the same over time. So although yoga does shift a bit in different settings, as all cultural objects do (because we consume and produce cultural products differently across space/time to make them relevant to our needs in that moment, this is what makes cultural objects living history), in general the ways we consume and produce yoga do have similarities across space/time that allow us to point to this blob and call it “yoga” across space, across time. We are able to trace this thing called “yoga” because there is an underlying essence to trace.

So trying to argue that as many western yogis finally begin to realize that the thing they have practiced and taught for so long might just be a commodified, appropriative version of something much deeper and greater creates a doubt that isn’t justified somehow because yoga has evolved over time is an attempt to justify appropriation because we don’t want to believe we are appropriating yoga. It’s not truth. We can’t come away from discussions of cultural appropriation in yoga with the claim that appropriation doesn’t matter, that we should just not care, or that anything is yoga because yoga doesn’t exist at all, or that to doubt that what we are doing is yoga is actually what the underlying practice of yoga is at its essence. This doubt many yogis today feel reflects a deep disconnect between a commodified, appropriative version of yoga taught in the West, and a realization that this is not what yoga is at its heart, that the underlying essence of yoga is much, much more.

Sure, this doubt a symptom that they are finally breaking through the nonsensical constructions of the practice that have arisen in recent decades. They’ve entered a deep stage of the learning process where we learn to doubt what we once believed, where we come to deconstruct false conceptions. This is a necessary and difficult part of learning–it is the uncovering of samskara and falsehoods that become embedded in our selves and lives. But that doesn’t mean the doubt and confusion of that stage in the learning process is what the practice is, or what the practice is about, or that we should just ignore it because it doesn’t really matter.

Remski’s post captures some very profound and important developing debates about the westernized yoga most people practice and teach today. But just giving up and saying “who cares, it’s all yoga” and that “if your confused, that’s what yoga is, so just stop worrying and keep doing what you are doing anyway” is not the solution, and not even a yogic solution to those questions. Instead of turning away from the confusion and doubt because it’s uncomfortable, or just living there in that doubt because we are afraid of what may come, we instead need to plot a course that takes us straight into that feeling so that we come out the other side with deeper faith, a better understanding and sense of the practice, and a better sense of how to engage in the practice in a way that is socially just and doesn’t damage this thing we love and live.

In other words, we need to work through the discomfort to actually learn how to practice and teach in ways that aren’t appropriative and aren’t continuing the commodification and watering down of yoga. Because let’s face it, in the West today we have watered down the practice so much it’s possible for students with over a decade of practice to enroll in a TT and not even understanding that meditation and yoga aren’t separate (no joke, that’s straight from my field notes, y’all). Imagine, studying for over ten years but never even realizing that yoga is a practice of meditation. That’s the yoga world we live in, because that ten plus years of study took place in an industry that doesn’t actually teach yoga, but instead teaches group fitness classes and calls it “yoga” to make it more desirable. To make it easier to sell.

Where do we go from here?

Obviously, the practice has changed dramatically over the last 100 years. That blob has transformed so much I think we do need to ask the question, “Is this still yoga?” Because most of these recent changes have been driven by commodification and appropriation of the practice in ways that water the practice down monumentally and turn it into a fitness craze, and this is intimately tied to practices of colonialism and white privilege (hence, appropriative).

The scary thing is that this endangers the survival of the practice as something more than just an exercise regimen. I often compare this process of slow death by appropriation to the appropriation of Native American traditions. Entire tribal cultures have died out through various forms of oppression, both physical but also cultural (appropriation). It’s a shame, it’s unfair, and honestly we are starting to see this happen in yoga, where the appropriative and commodified versions of the practice are being sold back to places like India and are replacing the more traditional understanding of what yoga is, even for native populations. Obviously the case of appropriation of yoga is not as extreme as the case of Native American traditions/cultures which has been going on for far longer, but I truly believe it could become as extreme unless we start to make efforts to retain the heart of the practice in ways that allow it to be protected, even as we also allow it to shift over time to serve the needs of the modern world (because all cultural objects need to evolve, it’s what allows culture to retain its relevancy). But we do need to engage in a mindful evolution of yoga in a way that consciously works toward doing no harm not just to ourselves, or to others, but also to yoga itself.

I get that it’s easy to misinterpret all of this as an argument for Hindu nationalism (which many yogis, especially white, non-Hindu yogis, think claims of cultural appropriation are arguing). But that’s not the case either. Because we can acknowledge the religious (multiple) roots of yoga traditions and practice in ways that are not appropriative without having to ascribe to a specific religion. Saying that cultural appropriation is widespread in yoga doesn’t mean we can’t practice it as white people, or that we have to suddenly support Hindu nationalism. What all this means is that we need to respect the roots of yoga, and begin to teach in ways that honor those traditions, history, and philosophy even as we do make it relevant for us today.

I honestly don’t think this is too much to ask of people who really love the practice and want to share it, and who want to live it (ahimsa, y’all, it’s a thing, look it up, and it also applies to doing the practice no harm too). It’s just that the way the industry is set up right now, if people want to make money teaching yoga it’s incredibly difficult to actually represent yoga accurately in a way that is not appropriative. Especially when most students of yoga think of it as “just exercise” (especially for women, white people, and affluent people, let’s get real). That’s essentially how most people think of yoga today. As a workout. Because: appropriation of the practice. These things are not separate.

If individual yogis and teachers want to resist engaging in appropriation within yoga, I hate to break it to you but they do need to change some of the ways they teach. We can’t just keep doing what we have been doing because we like it, find pleasure in it, or just don’t want to face the discomfort of change. We need to represent yoga more holistically, incorporating actual teachings on the history and philosophy of the practice(s). Does this mean students need to convert? No. But I think it’s a valid expectation that students should learn about where yoga comes from, and about the philosophy that is ultimately the practice (it’s not just asana, y’all). Teachers need to start offering more than just group fitness classes, and when they do offer asana classes they need to begin speaking about why not just how in a way that gets beyond, “because it makes you feel good” or “because it will help you lose weight” (barf), and instead talk about the energetic and philosophical reasons behind the physical practices.

Let’s be frank here. For most teachers out there in the commodified, appropriative yoga world today who have only experienced brief stints of Westernized TT certification programs, this might mean maybe you just don’t know enough to teach yoga yet without appropriating the practice, and if being a yoga teacher is the path you really want to walk maybe you need to go back and study more. Perhaps you need to rethink whether or not you are really, truly qualified to teach. Are you? Really? Truly? Why do you want to be a yoga teacher, really, truly? If, in asking yourself these questions, you realize all you wanted to be is a positive life coach or physical fitness trainer, maybe you need to switch fields and go into those professions. Again, I don’t intend to be cruel here, but if you really want to teach yoga, and really want to be truthful, and really want to engage in non-harm, and really want to live your yoga practice, these are the types of deep reflection that the practice requires of us. These are the types of difficult, uncomfortable questions we need to ask ourselves. Believe me, I know, because I’ve been grappling with them for years.

And heck, if you think that’s asking a lot, get this: the more difficult thing is that most teachers, if they want to earn a living at this and avoid appropriation, also need to push back against the system and industry that makes it difficult to teach yoga for realsies, not just yoga fitness classes in the vein of Jane Fonda. In other words, asking those questions at the individual level isn’t enough, because even if someone comes away from those questions with a resounding “YES I AM QUALIFIED AND I’M GOING TO TEACH YOGA DAMMIT” they are still going to have to do so in an industry that will fight them every step of the way. If someone really wants to teach yoga, and be truthful about that teaching, and engage in non-harm, and live the essence of yoga, they are also going to have to start pushing back against the industry that has commodified and appropriated it.

And that’s where we get to this crisis and doubt that Remski spoke about in his post (despite the really weird, white privileged denial of the problem at the end). The paradox arises, the crisis arises, the doubt arises because it’s hard to make money at yoga and also present it deeply, holistically, and accurately. How do you sell a practice that is difficult, that asks us to face the darkest most disturbing parts of ourselves? That asks us to do so over and over, constantly, until the day we pass on from this life? That Patanjali himself argued is painful? Because 2.15 says: “To one of discrimination, everything is painful indeed, due to its consequences: the anxiety and fear over losing what is gained; the resulting impressions left in the mind to create renewed cravings; and the constant conflict among the three gunas, which control the mind.” How do you market that? How do you sell that? It’s hard to teach yet not appropriate in an industry based on appropriation/commodification of the practice, based on a lie of what yoga is at its essence. It’s so much easier just to say, who cares, to use our privilege and succumb to our attachment and desire for this thing we have created that is not yoga, but is called yoga anyway.

But hey, no one said yoga was easy, right?

Oh wait, I guess the yoga industry did that when they appropriated and sold “yoga” to us as a quick fix to all life’s ills (for a cost).

Love, light, and… yoga ❤

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