(Image description: Amazon product: bathroom mats featuring Hindu God, Ganesha)
“Cultural appropriation takes place when members of a majority group adopt cultural elements of a minority group in an exploitative, disrespectful, or stereotypical way.” - Britannica
Why is this appropriation problematic?:
Appropriation is a form of colonialism where powerful oppressors harmed indigenous cultures
When culture is taken out of context and changed it becomes harmful to the minority group
Centuries of violent colonization from a variety of groups has led to the destruction and persecution of Hindus, Yogis and the loss of indigenous wisdom. In fact, at one time, during British occupation, yoga and ayurveda were banned practices in India.
These days, elements of yoga Hinduism and ayurveda are used outside of their original context by groups who have historically oppressed those they are taking from. The dominant culture that takes often lacks the cultural context to understand, use and respect the elements of culture. Sometimes to:
Monetize or profit from a culture
Re-define a new fashion or accessory
Partake in something exotic
Cultural items, symbols, deities, language can become exoticized and or exploited by the dominant group
When iconography is taken out of its cultural context or the religious or cultural belief it is divorced from its context and makes it kitsch, it cheapens it and is deeply disrespectful to the people who wish to preserve their traditions.
(Image description: lululemon underwear using “namaste” play on words)
When those with power and privilege help themselves to another culture’s object for play or profit without any of the oppression, or racism or pain that the source culture experienced. This is further oppression.
So how do those outside South Asian cultures avoid cultural appropriation in yoga?
Marginalized folks often speak about the harm and impact in their communities. Don’t argue, reject or oppose or become defensive. This is called fragility. Don't be a devil's advocate. Listen deeply. Hear the pain that’s being shared even if it is uncomfortable for you. There is only growth through discomfort. Tapas - is the yoga of being unconservative and uncomfortable and pushing beyond norms.
LEARN ABOUT STRUCTURES OF OPPRESSION
Read books, take courses from wisdom-holders. Study the systems and become educated on why this is a problem as well as to learn how to dismantle these systems. Speak up, uplift and center folks who hold marginalized identities. “We aren’t free until we are all free.”
STAY STUDENT - ORIENTED
It becomes very difficult to appropriate if you desire to be a forever-student of these traditions. Immerse yourself, even if you are a teacher. Study appropriately, for a long time with one teacher if you can. Study the way the tradition was meant to be shared. Be wary of teachers who are changing and devaluing the systems and traditions. Dishonor the traditions = dishonoring the people.
CHECK YOURSELF & THE DESIRE TO “TAKE”
“Yoga can be whatever I want it to be” is a common and problematic sentence. Branding and finding a niche can lead to harm. Anuloma Viloma is now called “cardiac coherence breathing” Meditation is changed to “mindfulness”. Yoga is “stretching” .
If you are not South Asian, you are visiting a tradition, not owning it. So come to it with that reverence and respect. Keep yourself in the space of a visitor or a guest. Learn, deepen, teach, but do it from the perspective of a visitor. Check your desire to take, change, rebrand or start your own yoga movements. There’s nothing new to be learned in yoga - it’s all there already there.
Questions to ask oneself:
Are my choices and actions respectful?
What is the intention behind my actions?
Why am I borrowing this? Is it genuine interest or a calling or does it look trendy?
Am I aware of the history, culture and meaning behind this symbol / ceremony / deity / belief
Are the objects made by someone from the source culture, was the artist given permission for it to be sold?
What will be the impact if I partake in this culture?
How would the source culture react to my offering of this culture? Would they object to the usage?
We are not a monolith - refrain from finding one South Asian / Indian who will support your viewpoint to validate your opinion
Can I teach and practice yoga?
Be in the mindset of a student always. Find your truth and root into your knowing space - deep within. Access your inner wisdom through sadhana.
Teachers - grow in confidence by practicing what you preach. Be responsible for what you share and support it from experience. Teach what you know through your own practices. Be a steward of the tradition by deepening in it yourself. Connect with your ishtha devata and offer all your efforts to the divine. Be bold and lead.