Whose Practice? Yoga and Cultural Appropriation

It was not easy for me to write this piece. I’ve struggled with how best to articulate my thoughts on this complicated and complex subject. In the end, I’ve written something of a meditation. This is my attempt to ask the tough questions; to put myself in a position to be implicated; to admit my complicity and to challenge others to do the same.

To start, I am a white settler in a colonial country. Lots of people whose families came to Canada generations ago don’t think of themselves as settlers – “I was born here”,  we say. I think that it’s important for me to acknowledge my family’s lineage and how that shapes my privilege in the place I call home. My family came here after loosing land in their home countries of Scotland and the Ukraine. They were displaced and sought to build new lives in Canada. What is often forgotten in my family narrative is that their new lives were built on stolen native land. Land that at the time was seen as “empty”, though it certainly was not.  The reality is that theft and displacement made it possible for my family to farm and build lucrative careers in Canada. Because of this I am now in arguably one of the most privileged positions in the world. I’m a white, middle class, Canadian citizen living in Vancouver.

Canadians find it convenient to believe that colonization is a thing of the past. We build museum displays and tourist attractions to celebrate our industrious past and the majestic lives of indigenous people. We conveniently leave out the physical and cultural genocide that made this country what it is today. In keeping with our propensity to turn a blind eye to our wrong doing, we choose to ignore that colonial inquisition is not still ongoing today. You only need to look at the current conditions on reserves; the list of missing women from Vancouver’s Downtown East Side and the myriad of pipelines set to snake through indigenous territories in BC, to see that Canada is a nation which was built and operates on racism, violence and theft.

So what does this have to do with yoga? In the most basic sense, I teach and practice on unceded indigenous territories. This means treaties were never signed between the Coast Salish people and the Canadian state, so the land title was never officially relinquished (and even if it had been, treaties are linked to lots of sneaky, backhanded manipulation on the part of the government). Considering that I am a settler on unceded land I think it is my responsibility to think through the implications of my teaching yoga. Particularly since yoga is a spiritual practice that originated from a culture and place whose current geopolitical borders didn’t even exist before British colonization and partition.

So what does cultural appropriation have to do with all this? First off, cultural appropriation happens when the dominant (usually white) culture adopts aspects of a minority group’s culture, usually to the detriment of the minority group. Cultural appropriation allows the dominant group to believe they are charitable or sensitive toward the minority group, displaying a “genuine interest” in their culture, even while they are taking advantage of and oppressing them. Perhaps now you can see why, as a white settler and a yoga teacher, I should be concerned about this?

In the yoga world, cultural appropriation can be as simple as a white women wearing a bindi on their forehead or as complicated as us learning, practicing and teaching yoga in the first place. In the “west” (a problematic, geographically inaccurate term) most of the yoga we’re exposed to is asana – the physical postures done in preparation for meditation. Though, it’s not uncommon for westerners to skip the meditation part. As a result of this focus on the physical aspects of the practice, mainstream yoga has become a commodified and often hypersexualized fitness regimen, rather than a complex, life-long spiritual practice. Focusing simply on asana makes our practice shallow and neglects the richness of the broader yogic tradition.

Yoga has become so popular in the “west” that it is even used in marketing to denote certain products as healthy, holistic or “good for you”. The people in the ads don’t even need to be doing yoga, they can simply hold a mat to demonstrate their fitness, health and belonging to the yoga community. The mat has become iconic. An object that was never used in the original practice has come to essentialize yoga. This my friends, is but one small example of cultural appropriation of yoga in the “west”.

Yoga was brought here as a gift. People from the “east” wanted to share this practice with us. It is a good thing, I think, for us to practice yoga. It can even be argued that yoga’s popularity is a demonstration of our society’s longing for connection, stillness and spiritual fulfilment.  That being said, I think it is our responsibility to offer a practice that holds reverence for the lineage, history and culture it arose from. Let us teach in a way that honours the complexity of yoga, in all it’s expressions and various paths. Let us get off our mats and see yoga as a practice in our lives, not just in studios and gyms. Critically, let us resist the commodification and cultural appropriation of the spiritual tradition to which we owe so much, so that we might pass it on to others, in the integrity with which it was brought to us.

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6 thoughts on “Whose Practice? Yoga and Cultural Appropriation

  1. A woman giving a lecture once said, on the topic of cultural appropriation, “don’t do yoga. Find a meditation practice from your own culture.”

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  3. This is excellent, and I would push it further. Mark Singleton’s book (I linked to it below) shows us the history of asana practice and its relationship to the “west.” Instead of romanticising yoga practice as something that has come to us from a pre-colonial past, we can think about how the practice itself developed in response to political upheavals from colonialism and acknowledge that we participate in and perpetuate a practice created by western appropriation and orientalism.

    http://www.amazon.ca/Yoga-Body-Origins-Posture-Practice/dp/0195395344/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1354202293&sr=8-1

    A really great post. Thank you.

  4. Pingback: White Girl Yoga | the granola life

  5. Thank you for this post. I am very concerned about cultural appropriation in my daily life, of which asana yoga has become a part. I am not sure if I have the time to build up my physical practice of yoga into a meditative practice that holds true to its origins. While I would like to build a life that honors yoga, I am not sure if simply trying to squeeze it into my schedule disrupts its validity and becomes appropriation.
    Do you happen to have any advice, or recommendations for authors on this topic?
    Thank you so much.

  6. Pingback: Musings on Mind, Body, and Movement | Walking Questions

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