Why I Stopped Teaching Yoga – My journey into spiritual, political accountability

Over the past few months people have been asking me, “why did you stop writing?”. “Are you teaching anymore?” I got an email from a stranger who asked, “Where did you go?” It’s taken me months to untangle the threads that wove this transformation together.  Like most transformations, it runs deep.

After much soul searching, traveling and reflection I can not-so-cautiously say, I don’t teach yoga anymore – and to be honest, there’s not many people who I think should. At least not in the way most of us do now.

314750_10150318345863544_1387160463_n

I took this photo at my teacher training.

I did my teacher training in 2011. Since becoming an “accredited yoga teacher”, I’ve taught classes in several studios; co-created a social justice based yoga collective that offered yoga on a sliding scale to folks who otherwise might not access it; taught anti-oppression workshops in yoga studios across north America; met and worked with some incredibly inspiring teachers; wrote a reasonably successful blog; had my writing published on many websites – I even planned to open a healing space in my hometown, the un-ceded Coast Salish territories of so-called Vancouver British Columbia.

Through out all of this, I have always had nagging doubts – doubts that became increasingly challenging to ignore. And like Alice, down the rabbit hole, when I followed the tug of those doubts, I came out the other side a truly different person, with some radically different goals in life.

When I first started blogging it didn’t take me long to write a piece that went viral. One of the teachers I most admired was even suggested to me as friend on facebook, because our mutual friend (a prominent yoga blogger) wanted my work to be on his radar. This same piece was shared by one of the political organizers I most admire in Vancouver. It was pretty mind-blowing to me.  For such a new teacher, this success definitely came as a surprise. I wanted to write because I wanted to articulate the ideas that were floating around in my head. I didn’t necessarily expect them to be useful or impactful to anyone other than me. It seemed though, that folks who care about yoga and social justice were looking for someone who could articulate the discomfort they felt. Many people told me they found my voice valuable and needed. I felt useful and that felt really good.

This elation quickly faded though, when I started to receive criticisms from folks of colour. I received these critiques both online and in school. At first and still to this day, they arrived in lesser frequency than the waves and waves of compliments I was receiving. But here’s the problem – most of those compliments were from white people. White people, who like me, were not aware (aka. blinded by our privilege) to some glaringly obvious problems in my work. My analysis often failed to meaningfully address colonization and my participation in that oppressive system as a culturally appropriating, white yoga teacher.

When these critiques started coming in I will admit I felt very hurt and this lead me to become defensive. I looked for reasons to dismiss the critiques because they felt painful to look at and inconvenient to consider or process deeply. I was, as most white folks (especially white women) are when we get called out, so wrapped up in how much it hurt to be told I was failing and fucking up – that I used my pain as a reason not to look at my mistakes with the empathy, patience and clarity they needed.

One day, crying in my front yard to one of my best friends I told him, “I just don’t know what to do. I feel like I’m doing the best I can and I just can’t let go of how much this hurts. What should I do?” In his painfully typical, sage and patient way he suggested, “maybe you should focus less on how much this hurts and more on what it was that you did wrong. What was it that you did that made these critiques start coming? Try to shift some of your focus that way and see what answers come.”

Hearing that made me realize what a tremendous (and typical) mistake I was making. I was focusing more on my own pain, privileging my emotional response over the critiques of the very people who I was oppressing. I took some deep breathes, worked to settle my discomfort and started to focus on the work of understanding the critiques.

I started to ask questions. I sent some of the online critiques to other yoga teachers. People whose politics I respected. One after the other, they all told me some variation of, “these people are reacting from a very emotional place. You do good work, just focus on that and keep doing it.” I was literally being told that I should ignore the critiques. That I should “let it go”. And I was told this over and over again no matter who I asked. And as much as this was something a part of me really, really wanted to be able to do, I just couldn’t. I knew I needed to get to the bottom of what these critiques were pointing out.

Eventually in my process of asking everyone I could find whose opinions I respected, I eventually asked a mentor of mine – this time not a yoga teacher, but a well loved and deeply respected facilitator. They kindly and patiently pointed out to me: you’re like the Jackson Katz of yoga. You’re saying things that folks of colour have been saying for a long time. And sure, some white folks are listening to you and that’s good, but it’s reinforcing of your privilege that they are listening to you, when these critiques already existed (and they didn’t say this to me at the time, but really, other people had articulated these ideas a lot better than I had) – and you, a pretty white yoga teacher needed to say them for them to be heard or seen as valuable. Maybe you need to shift your work towards uplifting the voices of people who are already making these critiques? See where that takes you.

The time this person took to offer me this explanation, I realize, was a gift. A really beautiful, valuable challenging gift. Finally, someone was helping me focus more on what I had done wrong, rather than encouraging me to ignore the critiques and just move blindly forward. From there I decided to stop blogging, focus on teaching and facilitating and see what I could learn from stepping out of the online spot-light. Since then I’ve reached some radically different conclusion in terms of how I feel about yoga – which I want to share with all of you.

Before I share what I’ve learned I want to make clear what my intention is in with writing this piece. I’m not trying to attack anyone or take away from the good work people are doing. What I’m suggesting is a re-frame. I’m hoping, that maybe what I’ve written here will spur you to action, but I’m also aware that it might make you feel a lot of emotions, especially if you are a white yoga teacher. It might make you feel angry, sad, hopeless or defensive, but whatever you feel I hope we can share in the journey of diving into deeper accountability together. My hope is that this offering will encourage discussion, bravery, reflection and critique – not tear anyone apart.

296502_10150318345183544_1037012454_n

Photo I took of the temple and shoes at my teacher training.

I would encourage you to keep in mind that the ideas I’m about to share with you literally took me years to shape in my own head. All the ideas presented here are gestures to some of the meaningful learning I’ve done since I stopped blogging. Lots of conversations, so much reading, travelling, self inquiry and facing some big fears. As such, this blog, while longer than average, is literally just scratching the surface. If you have follow up questions I would encourage you to do some of your own research. Talk to people and ask questions till you get answers that feel right to you. Answers that feel real and bold and brave. And if you need – I would be happy to refer you to resources. What I can’t do, is explain all the ideas presented here in endless detail. It’s a blog piece – I’m inviting you to do some of your own research, reach your own conclusions. See where it takes you.

I also want to make clear that I do and always will, value my yoga practice. It has been in many ways a life raft for me through some of the hardest challenges and deepest healing that I’ve experienced in my life. No matter what happens in the future I know that what I have learned from yoga will always be with me. Being able to feel my body, ground into connection with the earth, introduce breath to places that are tight and hiding, sit through pain and discomfort without immediately reacting – all of these things are lessons that I attribute to my having had practiced yoga for the last ten years of my life. All that said, I can’t take part in yoga the way we share it in the west anymore. It took me along time to admit this to myself and make the necessary changes this realization entails, but what I know in my heart, my mind and my gut is that what we are doing in western yoga is an entitled, willfully ignorant act of theft.

The truth is, I feel, that we are appropriating and destroying the practice that we rely on and love so much.  Recently I watched a video produced by SAAPYA titled “We Are Not Exotic, We Are Exhausted: A Film On Being Desi and American, Now”. One of the youth in this video explained this process, from their perspective, much better than I could:

“It’s cultural appropriation with white females, even white males, doing yoga but they don’t even know why they are doing yoga. It’s cultural appropriation because of the fact that it can be turned into a billion dollar industry with these clothes and mats. Yoga isn’t about buying the right things and doing poses. Yeah they say its about reaching, going inside of you to find something spectacular, to find your soul or something. But I don’t think they understand that yoga and finding your soul runs deeper than that.”

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 5.32.52 PM

Screenshot of SAAPYA’s most recent video.

In many ways, the most challenging part of this learning process for me was coming to terms with the fact that I don’t actually know what yoga is. I thought I did – I thought it was about healing trauma, getting into my body, but I realized that I had been missing the mark completely.  I was missing much bigger picture, where some of the most valuble lessons in yoga come from.

A friend of mine, who is of South Asian descent, a woman who grew up practicing yoga her whole life, helped me see that how we practice yoga in the west is a HUGE departure from what it looks like for her and the culture she comes from. She helped me understand that yoga is a multifaceted spiritual practice, philosophical tradition, medicine system and way of life – not an exercise regimen. And when we see it this way, we miss some of yoga deepest teachings.

This same friend used to be part of a teacher training program in Vancouver and was told she needed to teach “our yoga” aka western yoga rather than what she had been taught her whole life. As a result of her refusal to adjust how she teaches she is no longer part of the teaching staff. Can you imagine, a white woman telling someone who has practiced yoga her whole life, that she needs to teach a more Americanized, more white version of a practice that she has practiced her whole life? It’s absurd. This dynamic is exactly why most of us aren’t exposed to any of the philosophical or cultural roots of this practice until we do our teacher training, if we are exposed to this information at all.

What hearing this story taught me is that I don’t and can’t know what yoga’s roots are, because its not part of a culture that I belong to. I could perhaps dedicate my life to learning and unpacking my understanding of yoga, going to India and really digging into that learning, but even that endeavor feels contentious for lots of reasons.

What I’ve come to see is that when I come into a public forum – whether I’m opening a business, teaching a class, writing a blog or speaking in a video – I am claiming that I know and have the right to create what yoga is. This is part and parcel in the process of appropriation and this is part of how we have created what Frank Jude Boccio calls the “yoga industrial complex”. We’ve commodified, materialized and westernized a practice that has roots in a culture that we (and by we I am speaking largely to white folks here) are not a part of. We are taking an aspect of this culture removing it from its context and then we are changing it, claiming to own it, attempting to copyright and sell it and ultimately shaping it into something that is harmful to all of us. However, this harm is unevenly and more deeply experienced by the people from whom we are stealing. Roopa Singh explains this really well when she says:

“What happens when people rely on a country or culture as a panacea for their own wounds with respect to race, lineage, and home? No one comes out of this kind of political or personal violence unscathed, and segregation in yoga is injurious to us all.”

In the time since I stopped blogging I started to re-engage in work resisting industrial expansion – specifically against oil pipelines. One of my most valuable lessons I’ve learned came from time I spent at the Unistoten camp in Northern so-called BC. In the process of working in solidarity with indigenous front line communities, settler folks like me are asked to consider the cultural roots they come from. “Remember, we all come from beautiful origins” is something I’ve heard my friend and mentor Mel Bazil say many times. The process of starting to trace back my family’s origins has lead to me see the way that many European folks have lost touch with exactly what many of us are seeking in our yoga practices. We have become so spiritually hungry and lost we are willing to steal. We feel comfortable doing this because whiteness breeds entitlement – the feeling that it is our right to practice and change a practice that isn’t ours in the first place.

index

Photo from Unistoten Camp website.

For many white settler folks, whose family lines run back to Europe like mine, the times when we lived in community, on shared lands, in harmony with the moon, the earth and each other are much further behind us than those of the indigenous people whose land we occupy today. This is not to say that these ways only exist in the past, many indigenous communities, despite massive state violence, have maintained or relearned the practices our ancestors worked to destroy. Also many European traditions of witch-craft, herbalism, magic and other land based skills persisted and are still practiced today by European folks. That said, for the majority of us settler folks, we’ve lost touch with the spiritual practices  which ground us to place and the natural world. Those spiritual practices were intentionally and often violently stolen from us through the imposition of capitalism, the division of communally held lands, witch hunts and the forced introduction of Christianity. As a result we land where are today: living on lands we don’t have historical or ancestral connections to, with very limited access to spiritual practices that are culturally derived – and this, I feel, is part of what leads so many of us to practice yoga. Not only are we able to heal our bodies physically, we are able to nourish ourselves spiritually. What I would like us to consider though, is that what we are doing to yoga is tantamount to what happened to our ancestor’s spiritual practices. The solution to being spiritually lost is not to steal from others and then claim what we steal for ourselves.

Appropriation is a very difficult and unpopular topic to address in yoga circles. When the wesbite Decolonizing Yoga was launched I was excited, because it meant that perhaps there would be a forum for us to address racism and colonization in the yoga world. And I’m going to be painfully honest here, much to my disappointment I think Decolonizing Yoga has failed to do meaningful decolonizing work. It doesn’t mean that they can’t, but they have a lot of work to do to get there.

Some of my work was up on the site when it first launched and it is where most people came to know my work for the first time. I have considered asking to have my writing taken down from the site many times. When the critiques I mentioned earlier in this piece came in, I sent them to the founder of Decolonizing Yoga, along with some critiques of the site itself. It was brought up to me that the site doesn’t mention the land from which the work on the site was being done – a central and very basic part of decolonizing practice. Further, much like Yoga Journal, none of the content at the time was written by South Asian authors, let alone addressing cultural appropriation. When I brought this up to the founder of the site she told me nothing had been written on the topic that she felt could be posted on the site. I did some research and sent her some articles I thought would be good to post. They weren’t hard to find, just a couple hours on google. One by one she turned each article down. Eventually I posted on my facebook that I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the nature of the site. She responded publicly quite politely and as if she was committed to working on improving the site, but in a private message was quite defensive and upset with me for making the post.

This behaviour, I have found, is pretty typical of white yoga teachers – including me. When appropriation is addressed, many of us get defensive. We stop being able to listen. My theory behind why this happens is that we get scared. We rely on our yoga practices to heal our bodies, ease our minds and give us a sense of purpose and spiritual connection. I think the idea of looking at ourselves with a critical lens is scary to us because most of us have no idea what we would do without our yoga practice. And I will admit, it’s been a scary and destabilizing thought for me too, for sure. But I really do believe we can do better than this. We can turn to our own cultural roots to discover practices that build spiritual sustenance. And yes, yoga is a practice that anyone can come to, but I’d encourage you to ask yourself, is the yoga you are practicing a spiritual practice? Or is a glorified fitness regime that is more invested in outwards appearances than deep spiritual work? Because what I know, is that yoga is a practice that can give us deep learning and that most of what we are doing, is running as far a field away from that learning as we can.

6970028159_ff3fcf52a8_z

Photo from Flick’r

That being said, there are some really amazing teachers and leaders who I feel are doing some essential and game changing work in the western yoga world. These projects consist of people I have learned a lot from who I would encourage all of you to keep an eye on. Check out The Underground Yoga Parlour for Self Knowledge and Social Justice, Total Liberation Yoga, Third Root in Brooklyn and People’s Yoga in East La. And finally I would encourage you to watch South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America (SAAPYA) and Roopa Singh. I can confidently say that Roopa is doing some of the most meaningful, spiritually integral and politically brave work that I’ve seen in all my time as a yoga teacher and blogger. Watch her – and do your best to really listen.

I’m going to leave you with a note of painful honesty, because I don’t want to let this go unsaid. This is a community that I have often felt pretty alienated and isolated from. I know I’m not the only yoga teacher out there who cares about social justice and I know that it is not often our intention to stifle these conversations, but the truth is, we do. We often focus more on our latest instagram post of our favourite new pose, than we do on the impact of our actions on the world. I have seen some of the wisest, most thoughtful and inspiring teachers I know leave the yoga world, because their ideas were not well received, because they didn’t want to teach huge vinyasa classes or for very little money – or because they realized that this practice is just not right for them. I would encourage you to not let the people who leave exit your mind quietly. Why are we losing so many teachers and role models who want to challenge systems of oppression? Why do they feel silenced in the yoga community? And beyond that, take note of who isn’t here. Who doesn’t show up to class? Really dig deep and ask yourself why. These questions do not have easy answers.

If the answer seems simple – keep digging.

If these questions make you uncomfortable, don’t turn away – take a deep breath and ask yourself why.

The rabbit hole awaits, and trust me – it’s not as scary as it seems.


This project officially ended in the fall of 2014. In the fall of 2015 I launched my new magic + writing project. If you’d like to follow my current work you can find it at www.andigracewrites.com

Advertisements

216 thoughts on “Why I Stopped Teaching Yoga – My journey into spiritual, political accountability

  1. Thoughtful about witnessing people dismissing and deflecting above, rather than taking time to process the gift of less-than-comfortable information being offered. It is my understanding that spending time hearing, processing, and deciding what parts of the offering are of value to you is an essential element in the very deliberate act of decolonizing.

    • Thank You Thank You!! I have been practicing and teaching yoga for 20some years now. I own 2 studios and it has been a struggle no doubt bc I have tried my best to stick w what my teacher Esther Myers taught. I was a student of hers, graduated from her 700 teacher training, and studied and practiced with her until her untimely death in early 2000. I live in Rochester NY and there has been a big boom here, w one particular studio(s) who have for the most part monopolized the yoga community. I’m a mom and pop, authentic studio and at times I contemplated in leaving the business for all the same reasons you wrote about. What kept me was certainly not the money bc it’s not much, but my students who I have helped change their lives and to do my best to keep the practice of yoga authentic and staying with it roots. I so appreciate your words and know exactly how you are/were feeling. It saddens me that ‘we’ are changing this beautiful practice that has been around for over 5,000 years to satisfy ‘our’ selfish needs. I’m doing my best to hold it down, but at times it has not been easy. Thank you again for sharing this!! Very powerful, brought me to tears while reading!!

  2. Your piece brought up a lot of really good points, and I admire the bravery and effort it took to articulate these points. One issue I had, however, was not knowing what yoga was about when you taught it? Didn’t your teacher training introduce you to the incredible in depth, multifaceted, and ancient practice of yoga? Didn’t you learn the theology, history, spirituality, and people behind the practice? I’m surprised that was new information to you and that you think most teachers are teaching western yoga. While many studios, teachers, and training do unfortunately promote this; I’ve found that the majority of high quality trainings go over this with their trainees. Please let me know if I misunderstood or your thoughts 🙂 This doesn’t discount the other very valid points you brought up, just something I was confused by.

  3. I deeply believe in the philosophy of yoga. I believe the biggest misconception regarding yoga is that most people mistake asana as the whole of yoga. Yoga literally means union. In its deepest sense this is our individualized soul with divine consciousness, commonly referred to as enlightenment. This is the path that each of us are on which will take us thousands of lifetimes to achieve. Now with that being said, I think it’s important to honor India and the roots of the practice. But there is a reason that Swami Vivekananda, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, etc came to spread “yoga” to the West. And that is that at its core, yoga is inherent in our very nature no matter ethnicity, social status, or background. I think it’s great that yoga has become a household word. Is there some bad stuff that has come out of it from the corporate hijacking of asana practice and preying on insecurities? Absolutely. But as teachers I think we can do or best to bring these facts to light, even if it falls on deaf ears. I hope that you will continue to spread the message, as many people listen to what you have to say. And thank you for having the courage to speak up on a topic that needs be addressed. You are doing great work

  4. super long winded windy wordy way to get to admitting that somehow in all that westernized yoga training there’s no teaching of what yoga is really about . . . ? which is the only mis-appropriation happening here. it’s never been about just the physical asanas and exercises and any good yoga school should teach that right at the start. 101 for beginners really. and any understanding of the larger system and history of yoga should also clear up how yogic philosophy relates to social structures and change. sounds like a big guilt trip that i just spent time trying to decipher. bit of a head fuck and not much more.

    • Pretty much agree with what has been said here. Yoga is preparation for a spiritual journey. If you have not already I would suggest getting to grips with the Vedanta. All we can give is love. Love is the true essence of the true self (Atman).

    • Yes, poorly written, long-winded rubbish, eh? Pretty offensive, as well, in my view. All her uses of the word “white” this and “white” that. It’s more about all white people being guilty of colonialism (seemingly regardless of whether they come from England, Spain, Poland, or Romania, etc, lol) than it is about yoga. And, apparently she is unaware that EVERY cultural practice in use today, by ANY culture, came from a previous generation of that culture, or from another culture, and practices are ALWAYS adapted to suit the needs of the current culture or generation. But no, according to her we should give up on understanding foreign cultures, because that would be “stealing”, and we should focus only on OUR cultures. Ironically, focusing on only on our own, western cultural practices, would probably lead to neo-colonialsim and ethnocentrism once again, lol. Also interesting: I tried to post my own very critical reply, but it has been under moderation for 6 days…

    • I have to agree. While its always nice to see white people admitting their privilege, I felt like I was reading a self-indulgent pity piece on “how I appropriated a culture and then un-columbused myself”. And yes, I have to reiterate that it’s astounding to me that you didn’t know yoga was originally more than just an exercise regime… the amount of praise you will undoubtedly receive for this is almost depressing. You shouldn’t be praised for un-appropriating a culture. You shouldn’t be appropriating cultures in the first place.

  5. Post-colonial theory is of limited relevance in political science today because at the end of the day it has shown itself as a farfetched intellectual exercise disconnected from real-life issues. Funny thing to see it applied to yoga, though.
    Still, I think this article mistakes the basic premise. Yoga, which in its very essence cannot be claimed or owned by anyone, logically cannot be “stolen” or “appropriated”. Not even by privileged descendants of white supremacy settler racist colonists pirates.

  6. interesting. I think you bring up a lot of good points, but I guess I still don’t see the nature of yoga as being a finite good. I don’t see why the west practicing it and changing it damages it for eastern cultures. Certainly we can see the western practice influencing some yoga perceptions and practices in the east as well, but cultural interplay and growth has been going on since major trade routes were developed… There was never one unified ‘yoga’ practice in India to begin with, but a multitude of very different practices that the west entitled yoga. Why can’t we develop our own version of it? Perhaps we should call it something different– like spiritual aerobics…. “The solution to being spiritually lost is not to steal from others and then claim what we steal for ourselves…We can turn to our own cultural roots to discover practices that build spiritual sustenance.” I feel like America’s cultural roots are a melting pot, and an ever-changing Americanized mix of all cultures. If anything…. cultural appropriation and re-definition sort of is OUR culture. I suppose, we could write a critique of globalization or America in general though.

    • Are you effing kidding me? No, cultural appropriation is not apart of your culture. You white people have to accept that you are an occupying force and your cultural approrpiation does affect us negatively. I could dive deeper and explain how systematic racism andwhite priviledge play a part but i wont bother since clearly you (and other white folks angered by this article) havea prproblem with facing that and are so delusional as a result of your sense of entitlemen that I won’t even bother.

      • Just to clarify, yes cultural appropriation has technically become apart of your culture, since its been leeched from ours as well as others but what I meant to say is that it shouldnt. Your appropriation hurts us and white washes our culture. And because ours is also a culture of resistance it is something you can never be apart of. Remember you are on native land, my roots are deeply embedded here….7 generations, yours are not. I agrerwith the aauthor. Stop focusing on other cultures and try to find your own.

    • excellent point ataipale. This article has you believe that Yoga is something ‘whites’ stole from easterners to sell clothes and mats.

      I believe these thoughts are a reflection of the author’s personal experience.

    • Wow. Great post. I only just stumbled across your blog and I love the way in which you bring two of my greatest passions, yoga and social justice, together in your work. But this post has opened my eyes to a few home truths and I thank you for this.

  7. look- I’m a rich, entitled white girl who grew up Hari Krishna – have a bonafide initiated spiritual name…. (aka have lived a the real yoga!!!!)
    and yah, this article is pointless- most people are aware that western YOGA is NOT yoga, and simply practice it for the superficial health and vitality reasons……
    yes it should not be even called yoga in this corporate manifestation, but please, its still good for westerners to TRY and be introduced too! For some it actually does open the door to practicing a real spiritual tradition.
    This moonlitmoth girl needs to stop taking herself so seriously- as a entitled white chick- right?
    The general public is smarter than you think. People are all just trying to get by. Go study the truth what reincarnation REALLY entails….. then tell me if this blog is even slightly relevant… if “social justice” is relevant
    good for you- stop teaching yoga, yes, go back to instagram, by the sounds of this article you were a self absorbed sham. Not a thief though, I don;t give you that much credit….. sorry

    • I’m not sure being “a rich, entitled, white girl who grew up Hari Krishna” makes you an authority on “the real yoga”…

  8. Hallo and thank you for saying what you have said. You sound honest and brave and it made me happy to read your thoughts. I gave up doing Yoga myself, right after completing my teacher’s training because practicing started feeling wrong to me on many levels, let alone “teaching”! Years later, I see ever clearer that yoga doesn’t belong in the west at all. It can have benefits, yes, but in general it doesn’t seem to do our western spirituality any good. Quite the opposite. A very unpopular opinion, but it is too complex to explain in a few words.
    There are living western spiritual traditions, like the Rosicrucians or Anthroposophy not to look far, one doesn’t have to borrow, or steal 🙂
    But anyway, I just wanted to say I appreciate your article and thank you!

  9. Andi, I’d like to begin by commending your courage to speak your mind. Your intention is clear, for those who choose to truly listen….basically, silencing their egos long enough to understand how your journey and work has lead you to where you are at now.

    I’ve practiced yoga and meditation (Zen, Mindfulness, and Vipassana) for nearly 20 years, and have taught for the past two years, and something crucial to these practices is to be aware, to listen, to not react. Most of the replies to what you shared has been reactionary (besides some being simply defensive and insensitive), and they come from people who identified themselves as yoga practitioners. It’s not surprising, as we all have a long way to go in understanding what yoga or meditation mean.

    What is happening in the West is that White people do not want to be called out on their privilege. Our society is shaped and molded by White thought. The dominant group has worked hard, most times aggressively and violently, to insure that the White Way continues to be, not just in the USA, but around the world. (No need to talk about slavery and Native American genocide here.) White people have lost their identities long ago, and feel the need the fill the void with whatever they can obtain, including yoga. But where are the Indian yoga instructors? Or the Black or Latino or other Asian instructors? There are a few around, but the reality is that the yoga in the West is a White commodity, and White people will do whatever is necessary to keep it this way. As you can see, you’re fine if you don’t rock the boat, but once you do, all hell breaks loose. What does this mean? If we claim to be practitioners of yoga, then we’d see clearly the reality around us, the social injustices and inequality that stem from the dominant White group, and not be so quick to react. The attitude in the yoga community has the same potential to inflict pain and harm as any other community. As the yoga industry grows, it will inevitably become an institution, and just as with all institutions, they will do anything necessary to protect themselves.

    Now what would really deepen any yoga practitioner’s practice and could be a transformative experience (you already do this with your work) would be to devote just a small percentage of the time spent in studios, is to make an honest effort to learn about the history of racism that has plagued this country since its beginning. It may be uncomfortable, but it won’t be anything compared to what those affected by racism have endured.

    Enough ranting. I’m a writer too and could go on and on sharing thoughts, making observations, and engaging in conversations to help learn about others to build connections.

    Peace,
    D

  10. Just came across this article and I’m very glad that I have. There are so many things in which try to say but you put across much better than me. Thank you and thank goodness someone out there is writing about this.

  11. I think I’d better share my background before making a comment. I had a degree in South Asian studies from Berkeley, studied sanskrit and speak Hindi, and I’ve been authorized to teach the spiritual aspect of Yoga by two Indian Masters and live in India for 3 months each winter.

    I think we should be careful about applying our concepts of “Appropriation” to the Indian traditions, or even the feelings we understand about appropriations from the Native American religions. In all my connections with Indians in India or in the West, I have never encountered the least offense that the West is interested in, or teaching, Yoga. I have heard some opinions that Hatha Yoga doesn’t have depth of a spiritual path no matter what race is practicing it. I have also noticed that Indians might not have any objection to a westerner teaching Hatha Yoga or even acting as a Guru in the Indian tradition, but wouldn’t themselves considering learning from such a westerner. But they are consistently honored and proud that the West looks to Yoga and in fact, Hatha Yoga is experiencing a revival in India itself as a reaction to it’s popularity in the West.

    In our western religious paradigms, it matters a great deal what you believe and whether you are doing something “right” or not. We used to burn heretics and have a tradition that says if you don’t believe right, you’ll burn in hell. In India, everyone is eventually going to make it, and doing things wrong is an inevitable step in evolving into doing things right. Hatha Yoga is a gateway to Yogic spirituality and it is recognized that people will eventually come deeper into the path once they have set out for superficial reasons, even if it is to get a nicer butt or because it’s trendy.

  12. I Can’t Believe I Read the Whole Thing:

    1) You are saying that because something is from a foreign culture, it is unknowable to other cultures, therefore we shouldn’t try. This is defeatist and pathetic and self-loathing. That same logic would suggest that we don’t bother to learn other languages, to read translated poetry or prose, to travel, or to engage with others and seek to understand. And, ironically, the result of your defeatist, “we can’t know another culture” concept is likely that we would then go and make war on those same people. Your idea about sticking to “our own” historical background, and “our own” cultural lineage – because we can’t properly know another – will ironically lead to the very ethnocentric colonialism that you complain of. I think your view is disgusting and offensive. fore0gn=unknowable=don’t even try = focus on your own = appreciate your own ….my own is SUPERIOR!!!

    2) Just because something is westernized or Americanized doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, do it, and take whatever YOU feel is valuable from it. Let others find what value they can from it, and you in your own way. Live and let live.

    3)If yoga starts out as a fitness regime, and goes no further for someone, but still yields physical benefits, then SO WHAT?!!! Are you advocating people STOP doing something that is good for their health and wellness just because it is somehow inauthentic to the historical roots of the thing? Or because it is not “spiritual enough” in YOUR eyes? That’s irresponsible of you. How dare you!

    4) Have you not considered that some people might start out doing it the “fitness way” but end up finding a spiritual path in the process? Most people I know who do it quickly start to head down that path. But again, even if they don’t, it doesn’t matter. Your view is wrong wrong wrong wrong!

    5) Culture is ALWAYS “appropriated”. Other words, though, could be “shared”, “exchanged”, “adopted”, “adapted”, and so forth. Any look at history and archaeology will see this. “A” on the east borders “B” on the West, and on the west of “B” is “C”. A and B merge, through war or peacefully, and now “A” culture meets “C” culture… or they met earlier through trade via B, etc etc. ALL cultures adopt and adapt things they learn from other cultures. Do you think what we now call “India” and Pakistan was all ONE culture, and they had yoga, and nobody ever changed or refined yoga? That yoga was birthed, fully-formed, in a single flash of inspiration, with no changes made after that singular moment? Gods, your ideas are backwards and ridiculous! Let those who want to find the “original” and “authentic” and “historical” yoga do so if they wish. More power to them. But who are you to say that people cannot take an idea and run with it in whatever way they wish? It is the equivalent of someone finding cool music, sharing it with friends, but then getting upset when “everybody” starts liking it, and does not give credit to the first guy in their group who allegedly “discovered it”…just because he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to do so.

    6) Your constant use of the word “White” to refer to a supposed race of people is disgusting. We all use it, but I have never been so offended by the use of it as done here. White people this, and white people that. And then you talk about privilege. Yes, white privilege exists. But not equally to all “white” people. And what is “white”? Only a generation ago, in North America, Anglophones and Francaphones, Germans, Italians, Eastern Europeans, etc all were racist and prejudiced to each other. Italians were put in internment camps, in CANADA. Are Italians white? So what is “white”? Does a first generation Polish person have as much white privilege in Canada or America as someone whose family arrived 200 years ago? Read “Outliers”, by Malcolm Gladwell, and you will learn that we definitely DO carry our culture farther into the future than we truly know, but you ALSO learn that life can deal out advantages that look like disadvantages, and so forth. At any rate, THIS portion of the this critique is neither here nor there, but I have to say that I find your self loathing, white-hating and apologist philosophy disgusting. It’s harmful to all “races” [italicized because race is only a social construct, not a genetic reality]. Should a first generation Polish immigrant, with blonde hair and blue eyes, feel GUILTY about slavery…when his family had nothing to do with it (despite being “white” in your view), and even though his own ancestors may have been slaves too, at some time [the very word “slave” likely coming from the word “slav”, as slavs were enslaved for hundreds if not thousands of years]). Your whole worldview on race is backwards – as if a certain colour of people can or cannot do this or that, or are allowed to believe and practice this or that, based purely on the colour of their skin, or perhaps on what culture they were born into, rather than on what interests them.

    By the way, I am about as liberal as they come. I am for social justice, against capitalism [within reason], definitely against corporatism and corporate capitalism, anti-consumerism, and pro equality for both genders and all “races”. However, for the first time in a long time I feel that feeling that Conservative-minded people seem to get when liberals talk about saving the earth or social justice etc. Your views make me want to puke. As if because someone is white, they can’t do yoga, and it is wrong for them to do it because it ONLY belongs to the culture that supposedly created in a nano-second without future revision. Yuck! I’ve just been out-liberalled, and have a bad taste in my mouth.

  13. Thank you for sharing. I’m sure your 10+ years of Yoga practice played a role in your personal growth and development which has led you to this point of being able to ask the hard questions. When I first started Yoga and even when I first started teaching Yoga I was only interested in the physical benefits, but over time (years really) I started to notice the more subtle benefits. As my concentration and focused improved and as I became more self-aware I also became more interested in what Yoga was really about…. my practice deepened. Yoga has completely transformed me. It became and continues to be an integral part of my personal development. Some Yoga classes my seem shallow, but the practice meets people where they are at, and we all start somewhere.

  14. No need to beat yourself up …. first read this http://www.afbis.com/analysis/slave.htm and release the guilt around the whole slavery issue … then take a year out and go live in West Africa, and then in India and you wont feel like such a fake. When you are in India sign up for a course with the Bihar Yoga school and experience it ” in context” and absorb a system that honors all 8 limbs of Pantanjali’s system and it will lead you eventually to the understanding that Asana and Pranayama ( the only two limbs that get taught in the ” gym yoga ” of the West ) are merely to prepare the body to be able to sit without pain for long enough to observe your mind and get in touch with your Self. That’s what yoga is … getting in touch with yourself. And getting in touch with yourself is not exclusive to any culture … its something we all need to do Then you will be in a position to be of service to all people regardless of race creed culture etc… and you will find yourself able to look any black people who pull the white guilt card on you n the eye and help them get in touch with their inner self…cos as you know that one universal consciousness is the same consciousness that is working thro all the mind body mechanisms on the face of the planet and strong identification with the body, race ancestral roots etc etc is the major obstacle to waking up and finding out who you really are. That’s the real role of the yoga teacher to help people liberate themselves from all false identifications of mind and body !! That’s a very different stance from the gym yoga of the West with its narcissistic emphasis on competitive posing, profiling in leotards and the rest. Ironically that approach to Yoga actually strengthens identification with the ‘ I am the body ” idea. helping wake up and get in touch with themselves is not marketable in the way that gym yoga is with pics of sexy chicks in leotards sweating it out in poses. So if you wanna be a smart yoga teacher you can still teach a regular Asana class and as you get to know your students gradually unfold to them the deeper purpose of yoga and impact them with your realized presence.

  15. You are all full of it. Everyone is always full of it.

    To wit:

    If you are not Italian every time you boil past you are performing an act of cultural apropriation.

    If you love making tacos you are stealing from Mexicans. Besides, that’s why tacos in Virginia can never be the same as those found in Michoacan. Because by the time they arrive to Virginia, they have been adapted to suit the local culture.

    If you are south Asian, never eat hamburgers because you would be appropriating another culture’s practice.

    Culture is not something written in stone, rigid and unchanging. Culture is living, breathing “thing”. To expect any culture to not change, evolve or simply intertwine with another culture, especially in this day and age of Internet communication and easy global (physical) travel is to be awfully naive, or worse maliciously acting in deliberate and totally misdirected white guilt social justice tripping.

  16. Thank you for your though-provoking words. A few reflections: Many of us white allies (myself included) make the mistake of seeking recognition for choosing to be an “ally”/ anti-oppressive instead of just being an ally and living it. And it seems that’s the undercurrent of what you’re trying to do in this article.
    There are so many things one can do as a yoga teacher with the awareness and inner work you’ve cultivated, it just might not always be in a traditional studio. You have to be willing to go to the margins and teach in a school, a jail, a shelter, on the street, wherever, screw the studio! It’s a loss to the yoga world to have you step back from teaching. We need more social justice warriors offering yoga in anti-oppressive, conscious ways, and we need to find each other and be in solidarity with one another.

  17. Hey I appreciate your thoughtful post. You raise interesting points. I’ve contemplated quite a bit about similar things, and have arrived at some different views. I’d like to share a few and see what you think.

    Although I did do a yoga teacher’s training in 04/05, my primary interest has been around Buddhism and meditation.

    My parents (white people) studied Tibetan Buddhism in India and Nepal in the 70’s, before I was born. Here in Canada they chose to live close to a Tibetan community, so I grew up around a number of Tibetans and we would attend Tibetan events a few times a year.

    In my late teens I started reading a variety of eastern philosophy, including Tibetan Buddhism. I eventually decided I wanted to practice in a “right” way. I went looking for a teacher, and I wanted a legit Tibetan teacher, not some white guy. I wanted the real deal.

    I was lucky enough to find a real Tibetan teacher. He had been born in Tibet and lived and studied there before escaping to Nepal where he continued his studies. He was 25th generation Nygma… he was basically Buddhist royalty. His teacher was also a teacher to the Dalai Lama. I couldn’t really have found a more qualified teacher.

    He had only been living in the west for about a year when I met him. I decided he was more than qualified to teach me what I wanted to learn, and I took my Buddhist vows and he initiated me into the lineage.

    I attended every teaching and meditation and puja for almost a year. I practiced at home in the traditional Tibetan way. I did prostrations, visualizations, and said my prayers to Padmasambhava (aka Guru Rinpoche). I was involved in the Sangha (Buddhist community)

    But something didn’t feel right. There was something that all this practice wasn’t addressing. And there were problems arising in the community, and they weren’t being addressed responsibly.

    The problem was that Rinpoche — living his whole life in monasteries in the east — attempted to teach us as if we were living in a monastery in the east. And of course this was the only way he knew how.

    He didn’t understand the challenges of living a western lifestyle, and as a result he couldn’t speak to our needs. Yes he could give us all the help we might need with our tantric practices, but the problems that people needed help with weren’t being addressed — because they weren’t understood.

    The group fell apart and Rinpoche moved away. I was told by one of the other students that Rinpoche’s teacher once told him that trying to grow a Sangha in the west was like trying to grow a tree on a rock. The amount of time and dedication it takes to develop a traditional Buddhist practice isn’t congruent with our lifestyle. More so, it doesn’t address all the neurosis that we develop from growing up in our western culture.

    After this experience I found a school of Transpersonal therapy. The teacher there was a Gestalt Therapist but he originally wanted to be a Zen teacher. He had studied Zen for over 30 years, and had live in a remote area for a decade practicing Zen and not seeing anyone for weeks at a time.

    But after 30 years of committed Zen practice, he felt himself drawn to teaching Therapy instead. He was a bit confused at first, but realized that most of the people he was encountering needed Therapy more than they needed help with their meditation practice.

    In the last year I re-committed to my mediation practice and decided to explore things with fresh eyes. It has been over a decade since I first began to explore spiritual practice, and I’ve matured a lot since then.

    I went looking again for mediation teachers. I tried many groups and explored a lot of material in various traditions.

    The best meditation Teacher I found is a white guy. His name is Shinzen Young. He’s been studying about 50 years. He started studying Zen in Japan (he speaks Japanese) with living masters in his 20’s (and he’s 70 now). He also Studied Vipassana/Therevada with masters in Burma, as well as Goenka himself. He has done countless retreats in various traditions, many of which have been for months at a time. Shinzen Young has studies with the greatest living masters of our time, and has become one himself.

    I recently went to a Shinzen Young retreat. It was a week long in silence. This man who has spent half of his life in the East studying with the greatest teachers in their native languages. Shinzen speaks Japanese and Chinese fluently and even speaks Pali so he can study Buddhist teachings in their earliest recoded form.

    This man has the utmost respect for these traditions, but his retreat is almost completely void of any buddhist culture. There is a little statue of Bohidharma next to where he sits and teaches. There’s a big brass bowl he hits to start and end a sit. And for 30 mins in the morning we chant Om Mani Padme Hum. Aside from that, there is nothing else even remotely buddhist present. He teaches meditation, and uses simple english language to teach, but also references concepts from engineering. As after all, what we’re really trying to do it engineer an enlightened state.

    On his website he has this quote, that describes his attitude quite well:

    “My life’s passion lies in exploring what may arise from the cross-fertilization of the best of the East with the best of the West.”

    He has help conduct research with Harvard scientist and has helped Jon Kabatt-Zinn at the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

    What I’m trying to illustrate here is that within these beautiful traditions lies a technology to make our lives better. It’s technology that anyone can use. There is no ethnic or cultural requirement to employ these technologies.

    Now I hear your argument about cultural appropriation. I do think that these cultures that have been embodying these traditions are very beautiful and valuable, and it would be a shame if they were lost. But I’m a white guy and that’s not my job. I’m not here to help preserve the culture of others. I’m here to help develop and grow my own culture.

    If you look at Yoga or Buddhism historically, you’ll see there were many shifts and changes. Buddhism started with Hinayana, a very study focused approach. Then Mahayana was a natural rebellion against that. Mahayana said that we shouldn’t be inside studying all day, that we can embody the truths of Buddhism while also engaging and working the with world.

    And as Buddhism spread, it would adapt to different cultures. When it moved along the silk road into Asia, it adapted to the Confucian ideals that were present at the time. This is how Zen was born.

    Now we see Buddhism moving into the west, and it’s adapting to the western scientific approach. The Dalai Lama himself said that Buddhism must reconcile itself with science or it will not survive. This is why the Dalai Lama has been having so many dialogues with scientists.

    I see the same thing happening with Yoga. You admit that you didn’t really know what yoga was about — and yet you still managed to reap the benefits.

    Yoga was invented to help people. To help people in more ways than one. Different cultures have adapted things to reflect their values. Often that’s union with the divine.

    We can also adapt yoga to meet our values, whatever those might be. Stress reduction, healing, emotional processing… this is what yoga is for. Yes, the path of yoga is intended to transcend these things but it still addresses them. Do you really think that Patanjali would be mad if he knew people were doing yoga to ease their stress or boost their self confidence? Do you think the Dalai Lama is mad that people meditate with these same intentions?

    The reality is that we are living in a unique times with a unique set of challenges. Looking to our ancestors for help with spiritual development is only part of the solution. The reality is that our ancestors never faced the challenges that we’re facing today. We can draw on the wisdom and practices of the past, but we need to learn to apply them in a modern context. It’s a different ballgame these days, in fact I recently read a great article about that here:
    http://markmanson.net/attention

    Like I said earlier, I’ve been involved in various spiritual groups. Something that has come to bother me over time — just as you were bothered by something that resulted in this article — is a certain attitude that I often encounter.

    There is this attitude that I often come across in spiritual circles that holds the teachings and the teacher so high and sacred. They worship the teachings and teacher as if they were some flawless divinity, a true expression of god.

    What these people often miss — and what holds them back — is that WE are the ones that are sacred. All of us. Everything. Every person, plant, animal, drop of water… w’re surrounded by the sacred. To look at one person, one tradition, or one set of teachings as more sacred than ourselves — that is a wrong view. A self-limiting view.

    So then why do we do it? Because we want to believe in perfection. We know we aren’t perfect, but if this teacher was perfect, or this tradition was perfect — well if we had that perfection in our lives, that would be very comforting. That would offer us a lot of security. It would give us hope.

    But it doesn’t exist. It’s not reality. There is no perfect tradition, or perfect teacher. But this is actually quite liberating when we really see the truth of it. Because then we see that in fact everything is perfect. This is what the true sages are pointing to. To let go of our ideals and just accept things as they are.

    As a wise Buddhist once said: “Everything is already perfect, but things can always get better.”

    And I think it’s our job to work towards making things better. And I think that every yoga teacher — regardless of their intentions or ignorance — is already doing this.

    • I just wanted to clarify something, after reading the interview with Roopa Singh.

      I’m not trying to undermine the work she’s doing, I think what she’s doing is hugely important and much needed.

      I just don’t think that things *should* be done in any particular way. Meaning that if someone wants to study in a traditional way, that’s amazing and I’m not discounting the potential benefits.

      On the other hand, if someone wants to just attend one yoga class a week for the various benefits it provides, I don’t think they should be pressured or feel guilty that they aren’t honouring the tradition. Nor do I think the teachers should feel guilty or pressured to teach in a traditional manner.

      With so much change happening over the last few decades, most people feel a sense of lacking identity. Our culture has changed and continues to change very quickly.

      Yoga offers a practice to help find balance and peace in face of our chaotic and constantly shifting culture. And it’s relatively new. If it only came over in a very traditional way, there is no way it would have spread so widely and so quickly. It’s been adapted to work into our busy and chaotic lives.

      No, it’s not perfect, but it’s a great start. And more and more brilliant teachers are coming along and continuing to grow and deepen this new western tradition. It’s being re-infused with some of the wisdom that had been lost in the transplant.

      I think it’s important that everyone’s needs and intentions are honoured. Someone coming to relieve stress or find emotional balance is just as valid as someone wanting union with the divine. These two people are just at different places in their lives and need different things at these times. And if one thing is certain it’s that this will all change.

      The person who comes for stress relief today will be the same person who might honour the deepest aspects of the yogic path tomorrow. We’re all human and we all have the same essential needs. The beauty of yoga is that it can address such a wide range of needs.

      These yogic traditions come from cultures that were relatively homogeneous compared to today’s western culture. With the diversity that exists in our culture today it would be foolish to think that one path, one tradition, one practice, or one set of teachings could address the ever expanding diversity of lifestyles.

      The old traditions have been around for countless generations and have reached a beautiful and wise maturity. Trying to apply these traditional techniques to a new culture and lifestyle presents a whole new set of problems.

      I like to say that spirituality in the west is at it’s awkward adolescent phase. It’s very cliquey and we’re all searching for an identity. But the answer isn’t to go back to how our grandparents lived. The answer is to keep growing, keep experimenting, keep trying things out.

      There’s no way to skip with awkward learning phase. We all have to make mistakes and learn from them. It’s just part of growing up and maturing. And this is what we’re going through collectively, as a culture. We can learn a lot from our elders, but ultimately we need to rebel to a certain degree and find our own unique identity.

      That’s the really beauty of this world; it’s endless diversity. We will have those who will uphold the traditions, and we will have those who rebel and make mistakes and fail and succeed. This is all unavoidable. No use in fighting it. Instead let’s do it as best we can. Let’s embrace our diversity, our uniqueness, our originality. Let’s honour and respect all; honour those who uphold the traditions as well as those who break away from them.

      There is no right way. There is no set path. You make the path by walking it.

  18. Pingback: black lives matter, privileged white girl en yoga | n=1

  19. Your intentions are lost to your actual racist mindset. It would behoove you greatly to see past color, understand that information is universal, should be free to all and that all people come from immigrants bringing their knowledge with them. One world, one people; stop focusing on the divide and focus on the unification. Sure, painting wasn’t created in America by whites…every time I pick up a paintbrush I’m not doing it wrong or and I’m not raping other cultures. It’s natural for me. I think it would serve you well to test your DNA as I have. You will be humbled and grateful to see what you really are and you may realize too that you’re not a white woman, you’re an Earthling. (23andme.com) You do not need to be ashamed of your skin color. Nor your privilege unless you choose to not utilize your position for the greater good, imho.

  20. Thank you for writing this…and thank you more for the resources you provided so I can go read and learn from the culture we are appropriating from. I’m a white woman who received my yoga teaching certification, and as I was going through training, I was also learning more and more about racism and appropriation. By the time I was done with my training, I didn’t feel comfortable teaching yoga precisely because every time I talked about these issues, they were ignored by the larger, whiter, yoga community. Or worse, I was told I was just being negative and if I just shifted my thinking, these things would get better on their own, a statement that I think gets at just how much we in the western yoga world are missing the point of yoga’s spiritual teachings.

    Just when I was feeling crushed by the weight of this oppressive world, this article helped me to be re-inspired to keep fighting, to keep learning. Thanks for that.

  21. Things change. Rather than dismissing anything, why not educate people and let them make informed decisions? Blues, a corner stone in modern music, was popularised on a more global scale in the 60s by middle class whites in Britain. It wasn’t quite the same as 20s slaves meeting and socialising after a long day/night/week working, but it still made a connection with these people. They still got the benefits of doing something different, growing and expanding their minds and hearts. At least these people who “don’t know what yoga is” are doing something physical (something Americans don’t have a reputation for). Privelage? Race? I don’t understand how you’re oppressing anyone; we choose to do whatever we choose to do, within our means.

    Poorly written article, I didn’t even get what you were on about until about 4/5 of the way in and even then it doesn’t add up.

  22. I think your article is ridiculous and you should stop getting offended by every little thing and simply enjoy your life. Yoga is not appropriating. It is not offending people. Stop speaking on everyone else’s behalf and getting offended for other cultures that are not even your own. Culture is meant to be shared. It adapts. It changes. Like someone else mentioned on here, yoga does not have one distinct root. From its beginning it has been taught in different forms throughout different countries. But the second us white Americans attempt to appreciate it and allow it to continue its transformation, it’s appropriation? By your logic, you should be offended for the decades of transformation yoga has already endured. You should be offended that it is practiced throughout the world and not just be whiteys. It’s almost like people like you want segregation and for people to just stick to their own cultures. People can practice yoga without thinking of its political implications and its history and still benefit from it it just as much. It’s a personal practice. Go worry about real issues in the world. Black people are being attacked by police officers in places like Ferguson, and you’re worried about white people doing yoga? Calm down.

  23. Thank you for this. Such good guidelines. Do not let the people who leave exit your mind quietly. Find who your ancestors are, find what it means to live with the land, for the land, for her peoples, as her people.

  24. The goal of balancing the seven chakras is an idea known to originate from Hinduism; Thoth interestingly addresses the importance of balancing the seven, which is a similar practice known by the Hindus (The Seven Chakras 1). Yoga’s first appearance in history is found in the Indus Valley period, stamped onto the Proto-Siva seals, and later on to become a part of Buddhism, Hinduism, and other similar religions (Dhyansky 1). Now used for flexibility, yoga was once predominantly used to enhance spiritual connections and attain bliss through focusand breath. Kundalini Yoga stimulates a sort of astral projection once a person experiences a kundalini awakening. In an article written by Stuart Sovatsky, it mentions kundalini existed 5,000 years ago, when a seal was found from the Indus Valley period,where a figure is seen doing a yoga like pose (2). The concept of enlightenment has existed for many years across cultures, and all of them contain odd similarities like the mastering of leaving the physical body. Ravindra Kumar writes about using the kundalini awakening as a way of reaching “Higher Consciousness” (103). He believes through this process his anxieties have diminished about dying and he embraces the day it comes (103). He also recognizes that seven is the core number of the universe and religious beliefs, which causes one to wonder why and how (104). The concepts of having a non-physical body is continuously spoken of, as well as by masters and gods such as Krishna, Gautan, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Pythagoras, Confucius, and so on. (Kumar 102). The benefits of these feats create godly figures or ascended masters, who all demonstrate magical like abilities. Astral travel stimulates death and allows one to conquer fears and attain bliss. Many seek to find this bliss and so have caused a trend to arise in native ceremonies, meditation, and yoga – all of which are happening in Vancouver, a culturally rich city where you can find all sorts of people trying to obtain the knowledge and secrets of life.

    https://cat9554.wordpress.com/2014/01/16/the-influence-and-significance-of-astral-projection/

  25. I love everything that you wrote in this blog. As a white, male teacher, this stuff is pretty much all I think about (with the added weight of the gender biases and social/sexual barriers that exist between men and women). Colonization and appropriation are major parts of our past, present, and will be for our foreseeable future, without a doubt so I am right there with you on those subjects. The only part I disagree with is you not teaching yoga. You are exactly what western yoga needs. You see the colonizing, you are aware of the appropriation and awareness, in my opinion, is the most powerful weapon against apathetic following of the western fitness money-mania. I am lucky, in Atlanta, GA I have found studios to teach at that are open-minded and I can talk about the things that you bring up and the students listen and want to explore. The classes are tiny, but that’s just how it has to be if you want to find a way of gently exploring what is really going on. I make almost no money, my student roster is laughably small, and some of the things that I ask my students to explore is uncomfortable (especially as a man speaking to mostly women), but I won’t stop because this is where my heart wants to be. If you don’t want to teach yoga then I hope the best for you and that the things you explore find as many people as possible (I will definitely keep listening), but I think you should stay in it. The system can only be made aware from within and people like us are needed, I think. Just keep exploring, bring the words of the wise to as many ears as will listen, keep your eyes open and the truth will out. Thanks for the blog.

  26. I think that its a terrible terrible idea to say that a person can’t practice something because its not part of their own culture. I also think its a terrible mistake to say that unless we practice a tradition from another culture in the perfect, classic way then we should not do it at all, lest we offend the original practitioners. “Dont make tamales if youre not mexican, or if you dont do it perfectly!” “You cant use Betty Crocker recipes if you change any ingredients!” “No yoga for you if you dont follow its traditional spirituality!” “And for the love of god Tai Chi is a practice and philosophy for Chinese people – if you do it at all, you have to learn it in China!”

    Yoga is beautiful, no matter how you’re doing it. The way we often sell it, as a work-out routine, is a legitimate something to take issue with. But using the practice as it benefits you and as it fits in with your own conception of the universe can only be positive on the individual level. The next step is to teach the roots of yoga so we can be aware and respectful, but a person should practice in the best way for themselves to gain the benefits they are ready for. Its the only way forward, at least on an individual level.

    As a thought, Buddhism, to most westerners, is one thing. Belief in the Buddha. But Buddhism exists in many many forms, and every culture that accepts it takes the core tenants and practices Buddhism in a way that meshes with their own culture. What we have is a beautiful mosaic of Buddhism across Southeast Asia, Japan, Korea, and even America. We all kept it the same but made it our own as well.

    We need to build a world thats inclusive, respectful, conscious, aware and loving. Excluding people from these beautiful traditions because theyre doing it wrong has the undertone of supremicism, turned right back on us. We are all equal, unique, and beautiful, and we should be sharing whatever we have to give to make this world a better place.

  27. look for all the divisions that she creates or accentuates. European vs Indian, Western vs Eastern, White vs. People of Color. Is not the primary purpose of yoga unification? Unification of ourselves, mind body and spirit and unification of our selves with other souls. The Self capital S. – She is misguided.

    • Yeah I agree that the point of yoga itself seems to be ignored in this article. i.e to drop the false sense of separation created by the mind. When divisions of culture, religion, race, skin colour etc fall away we are all one and that deep sense of connection would be the remedy for literally all conflict. This article obviously doesn’t further that cause.

      • “We are all one” has the same hollow ring to it as “All Lives Matter.” You’re going to have to dig deeper for a richer sound. She has taken the blinders off to face the fact that Western yoga has a huge appropriation habit rooted in privilege. A realization that, in the end, will do more to set her/us free than ignoring it.

      • But the false sense of separation created by the mind you speak of has in turn created very real, material inequalities in the world along the lines of culture, religion, race, skin color, etc. Of course we are all One, beneath these constructs. Of course they are biological and spiritual fictions. But they are also social facts. They determine how resources and rights are distributed by our governments and institutions, which are for the most part, predicated on divisive, violent ideologies that are totally out of line with yogic principles. We can’t end racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, etc, and actually create a world that is in line with the underlying Oneness we know to be true by ignoring the manifestations of those violent ideologies. We need both spiritual work that brings us back into touch with our underlying Oneness, and activist work that addresses the real world inequalities that we are all complicit in, one way or the other.

    • I agree with you!. Though I wouldn’t say she’s misguided; perhaps, just still thinking this through. She is still lodged in western duality and seeking. I think this is a beginning for many who have industrialized yoga as an exercise ritual or a church substitute. She is, in fact, using head frames to think through this–another western move (academic frames of colonialism and appropriation)–if that gets her out of the western frame, good. But it can also extend self-victimization and “otherness” (just to stay academic) and therefore of privileging perspective that western egos exert. Good start,, but she needs to keep going…

      • This comment was in response to another comment that said that Yoga is about unity, not race. It appears to not have gone to the appropriate place and now looks like it is in support of the article. It’s not.

  28. Cultural appropriation and modification has been happening since the beginning of history. On balance it’s been a form of enrichment for the receiving culture, and generally does not harm the appropriated culture, and in many cases it has bounced back to the appropriated culture as an enrichment in itself.

    What has proven damaging– repeatedly in history and to this day–is insisting on purity of practice.

    That is certainly not to say that many Western practitioners have created a shallow and materialistic form of yoga practice, but I think yoga can handle it. There are some pretty materialistic forms of Buddhism in Asia and the West, but Buddhism is doing fine over all.

    I appreciate your point of view, though. I think you’re a little too worried about the appropriation, but that’s OK.

    By the way, the Fuck Yoga photo is very cool. It’s a copyrighted image though. I will assume you got permission from the photographer before posting it here without credit (to the photographer, not the platform on which he published it). A link back to his photo page would be appropriate, though.

    Here’s the link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jldphotography/6970028159/

    Photographer: Jose Luis

  29. If one takes this argument to the logical extreme (and looks at other cultures) one would have to conclude that Buddhism was “stolen and changed” by the Chinese, Tibetans, Koreans, Japanese, etc. None of their forms of Buddhism is like the Buddha’s. ..each was culturally adapted and in a sense merged with local practices.
    And of course few Christians are Semitic.
    Appropriations have been taking place for millenia.

  30. While your article brings up some good points about the way Western Yoga is presented, I have to disagree with your point concerning cultural appropriation. Although I am happy to see that you understand the deep, spiritual significance of yoga, I too am surprised that you could go through a yoga teacher certification program and not learn this! When I began taking yoga classes 12 years ago, my instructor (a white woman in Minneapolis) did a very good job explaining how hatha/vinyasa fit into the eight aspects of the way of life known as yoga, particularly that the purpose of the physical exercises was to enable you to spend long periods of time in meditation.

    For financial and other reasons, I have not participated in yoga classes for many years. I also do not read Yoga Journal nor do I have any interest in spending lots of money on yoga gear, so I’m really not in tune with that aspect of the industry. However, I am generally aware that yoga is passed off as a non-religious/non-spiritual exercise routine or as a stress-management technique. Generally, I think the more Westerners get any of the aforementioned, the better. However, I am less pleased with the commodification and exploitation of the practice that you highlighted in your article. More on capitalism later.

    Where I disagree is in your extended discussion of cultural appropriation. I believe that people should pursue whatever spiritual path speaks to them. Just because one does not come from South Asia does not mean he/she cannot learn yoga or any other spiritual practice. To my knowledge, South Asians do not have some special genetic advantages that make them superior yogis. Discipline and passion are the most important elements in successfully pursuing any human endeavor.

    I think maybe you are confusing cultural appropriation with cultural insensitivity. The notion that cultural ideas can be “stolen” is absurd when you realize that cultures are changing all the time. That is what humans do–we create culture. And how do we create culture?
    We take ideas from other people and adapt it for our own use! Just think–Americans used to live in log cabins. In the mid-19th century, we began building houses based on Ancient Greek ideas. Were Americans simply drawing from their own cultural roots? Of course not! America is a melting pot of people, cultures, and ideas. This is a good thing!

    Now, of corse, we live in a capitalist economy, and this has an enormous influence on how ideas are shaped and used. As a rule, I would say that Western capitalism (particularly the American variety) does not do a good job of selling deep insights into the human condition. Sure, you can buy books or attend workshops by luminaries such as Deepak Chopra and others–and this can truly be a doorway to a deeper life for many people. But at some point, we as individuals must take responsibility for our own lives and deliberately choose to pay attention to and integrate that which nourishes us. I have other ideas I could share here, but I think this post states what I needed to say.

  31. Is it possible that everything is as it should be ?
    There will always be the two sides. Light and dark
    Thank you for your wonderful insight.

  32. I have been lucky to have excellent teachers here in the pacific northwest, and have known since the beginning that yoga is about service, and self development, and that mainstream American yoga misses the mark in so many ways. I feel extremely privileged to have had the means to study yoga in depth, and my white privilege adds another layer to how I might interpret the teachings… Although yoga has for sure been heavily appropriated and overly commercialized in the west, I believe sharing yoga with everyone and seeing what happens is part of the goal of modern yoga. A big reason for the massive interest in yoga in the west is because of Indian yogis like Krishnamacharya, Iyengar, Jois, and TKV Desikachar actively teaching the tradition to people all over the world to maximize its benefit and reach. This lineage has given us a gift that we must constantly unpack, and find stable ground where tradition is honored and included, sharing benefits and resources is possible, and intersecting cultures can collaborate to be spiritually enriched. That’s what I hope can happen, anyway… And western yogis should in general practice yoga a lot more before starting to teach, dig deeply, reflect, and take breaks from teaching as needed. Some strategies to avoid co-opting or mis-appropriating yoga might be asking ourselves regularly: Do I really know and understand this information I am sharing? What is my source? Was it given to me with confidence, do I have permission, or did I borrow it without asking or taking the time to really engage with it? Am I being authentic? It’s a form of asteya. Thanks for the food for thought 🙂

  33. Dear /moonlitmoth

    I have read your entire blog above and initially I really Thot you were gg to share your experience on yoga and it’s culture ,benefit or even pros N cons

    However at the end of the entire blog all I see if some link to resources but they belong to someone else …. What about your own experience , claims and understanding ?

    It appears to me you’re a confused and hurtful person and seeking healings and meaning in life …. That’s why you continue to practice yoga as a means to your end . You may not agree with me entirely and that’s perfectly all right

    But I am really lost in what you’re trying to say at the end of the day . You are most welcome to comment and correct these thoughts too :). Merry Christmas !

  34. Yoga stems from the innate capacities of the human nervous system and mind. To turn inward and know the body for what the body is, thought for what thought is, and ultimately the self for what self is. Many of the esoteric practices of all religions share similarities with yoga practices and incorporate at least some of the 8 limbs of yoga, some practices are even exactly the same. The point is, it is so beyond culture its ridiculous. In fact indian yogis not only renounce their culture, they also renounce their own families, their names, everything. All to know, from the deepest experience, what it is like to live in freedom. Beyond the limited mental concepts of who we are, and who we are not. Those yogis that managed to attain that state shared their teachings freely because they felt a connection with all life and all men, they see everything as the self and devote their life in service of that.

    Some examples of Yogis who have taught traditional yoga to the west are
    Swami Vivikananda
    Paramahansa Yogananda
    Maharishi Mahesh
    Swami Satyananda

    These Yogis taught a full suit of yoga practices to the west and even started large schools that still run to disseminate yoga.

    Other teachers taught a more limited scope of practices that focused more on asana (postures). Like B.K.S Iyengar and Pattabi Jois, both of whom had the same teacher. Most of the Asana you see taught in studios now had a large if not direct influence from these two yoga teachers, and although only a small portion of the larger envelope of yoga practices, it still is yoga.

    Thats not saying I share some trepidation about the way yoga is currently taught, but to say practicing yoga is cultural appropriation to me seems to be completely missing the point of yoga and the individual masters (not culture) that went on a path of self discovery and then openly shared those practices to sincere devotees regardless of previous cultural affiliations.

    Thats an opinion. And Yoga has taught me that it can’t be proven as being true, so take it if it serves you.

    Om. Amen. Shalom.

  35. Pingback: 2014: the year in yoga

  36. very thankful for your words. You’ve expressed something that i’ve been feeling since i did my Yoga teacher training.
    I think you did a great job explaining why Yoga spaces feel unsafe for me. The spiritual hunger that you said white people have, is REAL. I can feel it and it’s very unsettling. Gabor Mate’s book title “In the realm of Hungry Ghost” came to mind.
    All of us have this spiritual hunger to some degree because most of us have been pulled away from the sources of spiritual nourishment. It’s really fucked up to see white people use their privilege to tap into one of these sources and then create an environment when they continue to shut everyone else out (this is mostly done unintentionally)
    Capitalism and Yoga don’t mix. It’s really as simple as that.

  37. what you’re saying here is touching on a lot of things me and my white female friends have been talking about recently. my question is, is there a place for reclaiming mindbody practices to which we do have a birthright (i.e. those of our ancestors). And if so, how do we go about learning about and practicing them? Especially when, as you so rightly point out, they have been stolen from us in the “transition to capitalism” and have been further forgotten by our recent ancestors as they became settlers.

  38. What white people don’t understand about deep, cultural practices is that you can’t go to Yoga college (yeah, I know, ashrams) and actually empathize with the people whose roots and identity are embedded in the teachings no matter how much they teach us. No white person can actually, truly empathize with indigenous people because we are the dominant culture and the system is in our favor and opresses them. We hate hearing it because it is disgusting, but we have to hear it, feel it, and change it.

  39. If yoga is a billion dollar industry, it should be pointed out that it is a billion dollar COTTAGE industry – with a huge variety of styles, no centralization, no hierarchy. It isn’t a monolith. There is a huge difference between studying with Eddie Stern and going to a health club for a “hot yoga” class. There are fraudulent and incompetent teachers (and they are all “certified” – whatever that means – like the Wizard of Oz handing out testimonials, medals, and diplomas) as well as thoughtful and brilliant teachers.
    I wouldn’t worry so much. While a Marxist critique of yoga is long due, it won’t make a difference in the scattershot “yoga industry”. Yoga Journal and folks shilling different “authentic” methods will continue to make a lot of noise and flog merch, while the real teachers will continue to practice in small groups, making little money, volunteering in prisons and schools, and not be burdened with angst over issues like gentrification effects of opening a yoga school in Bed-Sty.

  40. Many thanks for the wonderful write up….you are certainly a noble soul in a great journey….may u have a silence that sparks inspiration to millions each time interrupted. Love and compassion is our only reality…all else is noise!!

  41. Thank you. I appreciate you taking the time to write this. One note however-as someone who is teaching a class on the book Caliban and the Witch, called the Burning Times Never Ended-I’d love to see your link go to either AK Press or Autonomedia, rather than the Amazon capitalist monster!

    As an aside, I’m also teaching a class tomorrow about a process of inquiry to look at white settler colonizer privilege for herbalists, healers and rewilders. And I’m looking forward to sharing your piece with my class.

    Stay strong, and may your path be clear as you keep sharing your truth. All blessings, rain crowe

  42. I’m sorry your training didn’t include the whole of yoga, but I know from my training and practice that it’s not true for all training in the west. Then again my teacher is a male from India.

  43. Your opinion isn’t unique nor the first to go this direction. Seriously not a big deal- just let it go and move on. The west isn’t the east but you are dealing with culture here and know that some things are not changed over night nor do they stop changing. Sure people get in to yoga as an asana only but then they may want to learn more when they are ready. I don’t see how it’s realistic to assume the west can assimilate over night to an eastern philosophy, nor fully grasp it. Baby steps. Anyway I’m glad you are stopping the oil pipeline thing- maybe it will ease your pain of all the flights you took and the pollution it resulted in, unless you traveled North America by foot.

  44. I have had exposure and training in various schools of yoga since 1976, but I am not a yoga teacher, Also, I am not white. Lots of people I know are both.

    I share many of the observations and questions you ask in this essay. I do not use “decolonization” as a metaphor: as an American participant in colonization I spend my life in creative acts of asking permission and offering repair. One such act of repair is my decision that, if I should choose a teacher for yoga in the future, I will find a South Asian teacher.

    I am interested in how hard such a teacher is to find. I am even more interested in the conversations I cannot have with non-Desi yoginis who are offended that I would want to ask someone for permission to share in their culture and knowledge. When I gently probe the upset, it often reveals itself as fear of being told “No, this does not belong to you,” and fear of having to see the boundaries and rituals of respect they have neglected or abused. Understanding what decolonization demands can arouse shame and self-doubt. If we can stay present, it can also open doors to a new kind of authenticity.

    I am grateful for what your words add to the current global transformation of thinking about race, culture and imperialism. May you be well.

  45. Wow, thank you for posting this.
    I never thought I’d read something of this sort.
    I’ve noticed this about much of what I’m exposed to about yoga. I know it’s deeper. I’ve been trying to go on a deeper level and this post helped. Thank you.

  46. interesting connections the author makes, yoga, appropriation, white priviledge. I see these connections too. I don’t let them bother me too much, but certainly see them. they exist in the sweat lodges too. in the ayauscua ceremonies. in the dances of universal peace and kirtans. meditation groups. shamanism. i think what is missing is a deep appreciation for the cultures who are disappearing. its great that white people are finding themselves, their souls, and deeper truths in the traditions of people of color. what would be even greater and really astounding is if white folks started to use their newfound LOVE to love these same people, for who they are. I don’t see respect for the very people that white folks are appropropriating from. LOVE US, not just our food and our traditions. Its like buffy gets a tan at the salon, but won’t be caught dead with a brown person. I get what the author is saying. I find it sad that so many white folks are defensive about what she’s saying. But i love that so many are learning from our traditions. Until white folks can come to terms with genocide, slavery and continued racism, all the LOVE through asanas is shallow bullshit. I’m not angry, i just see it for what it is. WHOLEFOODS FAKERY. Organic, yes, healthy, yes, but rich and white only allowed, yes. Its a good article, brings forth some great discussions. We have a long way to go in this country. As native american/latino man I learn and observe from many cultures. Eastern, Western white, Native. Its a great big beautiful world. One common thread though is honoring the elders, the wise ones, the ancestors. I think that is so lacking in white america. Go see how they treat their aged ones. See how they treat black folks. Brown folks. Still a long way to go. That moutain top MLK talks about is a long way off, some false peaks. Peace yal. As the Kogi say, time to grow up little brother. Only way to to this is to reflect on who you are as a people. Hard to do this on the fine hand made leather sofa though. Get off it.

  47. You said what I’ve been thinking since I joined a Yoga studio for the first time…I haven’t gone in months and this really justifies why. Thank you. I almost sense a kindred spirit in the words you write. I am a Reiki Master and I too have worked with the Cree Nation people here in Alberta…you really said all I have been thinking

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s