Cultural Appropriation and Yoga

I went to a talk last night by Nisha Ahuja at Kula Yoga about cultural appropriation and yoga. It was a really helpful evening for making us more aware of the continuing effects of colonization, how this manifests in some of the ways we approach yoga in the West, and how to minimize this appropriation.

Firstly, I thought it was really helpful to name the forces of colonialism: denial, destruction, eradication, surface accommodation and tokenism. In yoga this may manifest as the denial of the rich heritage of yoga, or even the denial of its origins in South Asia. Destruction and eradication began during the colonial regimes that disallowed and suppressed the practice of the wisdom tradition and other linguistic and cultural aspects. If we teach yoga asana without mentioning or giving some access to students of the rich, plethora of yoga practices, giving some context to the heritage of yoga, we continue with this eradication. Surface accommodation and tokenism may manifest when we have spiritual objects or mantras that we don’t explain or treat as trinkets during class, thus paying lip service to yoga’s rich heritage without sincerity or real knowledge. This also gets into the area of access, and diversity in the yoga spaces in the mainstream.

I admired Nisha’s bravery when at the beginning of the talk she explained how growing up hearing a bindhi and tilak referred to as a ‘Paki dot’ creates a painful separation, or making it painful to think about connecting to the Third Eye. This and the knowledge of how yoga and Ayurveda were suppressed during the colonial regimes in India may also make the mainstream, decontextualized yoga fad also painful and may distance South Asian people from wanting to participate in yoga classes or studios that don’t full represent them. This creates a continuing disparity in who has access to yoga (even in a diminished form). One participant mentioned that in a way this caused her to search out authentic offerings of the wisdom tradition, which made me think of the many very authentic, holistic and non-commercial yoga missions, such as Chinmaya Mission, Ananda Marga, Shri Chinmoy et cetera. I am often surprised how little awareness there is of such longstanding organizations in the mainstream. But this talk gave a different insight into that successful mechanism of commodification of a highly diminished yoga. I hope I have represented this piece of the talk. I am recounting what I heard and understood. It was live streamed, so I will post where/if it becomes available online.

Nisha asked us to write out what we thought cultural appropriation was, and who benefitted. The group put out words such as decontextualized, exploitative, gratuitous, entitlement. There was difference of opinion on who benefits. In a very real sense, no one benefits from failing to acknowledge the rich heritage of the Indian wisdom traditions, or of the burying of huge aspects of it in the popular consciousness. I do believe there are derivative benefits to the popularization of yoga. They are diverse, but that still doesn’t mean we should not continue to work towards de-colonization. One participant mentioned that even though people were getting access often to highly diminished forms of yoga that did not acknowledge yoga’s roots, the glimmer of it may cause them to search further. The issues here are with exploitative commodification (gross overcharging for yoga teachings, attempts to make proprietary measures over sequences or things like medicinal use of turmeric!), and often the mainstream lack of understanding of the history of discomfort with Hinduism in relation to Abrahmanic religions. I won’t go into this here as I’ve written previously on this, but lack of understanding of this and the colonial legacy obfuscates the real negative effects and perpetuate anti-Indian stances and gross generalizations about Indian history within the yoga community.

One thing I mentioned in the evening was that ironically the yoga boom in the West and the success of the yoga industry have had an echo in India. This is not un-problematic, as it partly due to the legacy of colonial power disparity and internalized racism (feeling lesser than the colonizers). As yoga became popularized in the West, it created more interest in yoga in South Asia. Also, business people have propagated the ‘yoga for health’ model creating TV-gurus like Baba Ramdev, giving millions of South Asians access to teachings on pranayama for example, to which they previously had little access. Although it is not un-problematic, it does tie into the cultural revival of aspects of the wisdom tradition in India.

At the end of the evening Nisha offered a list of things to reflect on and commit to decolonizing yoga, and I’d like to say that some of these were already important to me. The discussion re-enforced and gave texture to the reasons.

– humility

– acknowledging where something comes from and at the limits of what aspect you are sharing

– acknowledging the sacred objects in the space and explaining what they are (if you don’t know, that is problematic and you should consider how it may be tokenism

– acknowledging mantras, their meaning and why we do them and where they come from

– acknowledging the privilege we have in access to this teaching when some don’t have access or have historically been denied access due to colonization

– cultivate relationships with people who are related to the heritage tradition

I am grateful to have had such a skillful facilitator of this meaningful and important discussion. Thank you Nisha Ahuja.

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Being More Fully Present by Acknowledging the Past

Within the practice of yoga and mindfulness, we often stress not dwelling on the past, or being present. This is an incredible practice, as anyone can experience, when they let the thoughts of regret, or what if, and take a few moments to savour the crisp, fresh breeze, or the sun on the land, or whatever they are experiencing in that micro-moment. But/And, do we sometimes use the practice of yoga to avoid the past, and therefore fail to learn the lesson? My last post was about seeing through drama in order to learn from it, as opposed to avoiding it. Here, we’re looking at a similar balancing act: how to learn from the past without being obsessed by it.

Firstly, I think it is helpful to understand different aspects of the broader Indian wisdom tradition. While in Classical Yoga there is more of an emphasis on stilling the thoughts, including thoughts of memory, rather than exploring them, and a paring down of identity, in other areas of the tradition, we see family, calling and connection to the land etc. as grounding and stabilizing. I think the Bhagavad Gita, which is a vastly integrative text of various wisdom schools within the broader tradition, explores these different kernels of wisdom and how they apply depending on who we are and where we’re at on our journey, and what we’re looking for or need. This may depend on stage of life, stage of development in consciousness, family situation, Ayurvedic dosha or affliction. Further, letting go of attachment (read clinging) to family, social identity, and geo or cultural sentiment is different from having an aversion to it. Our sense of who we are and where we’re from can be grounding and stabilizing if we are also able to understand that this is just one aspect of the self, and we are aware of how it may affect our choices and decisions. Aversion to the past, however, or disallowing the grounding effects of heritage and community are even more likely to create obscurity rather than clarity. Sometimes I think it is important here to note the context of teachings and texts. Classical Yoga teachings were intended for people who were from an incredibly long, stable socio-cultural tradition. The lesson was to cultivate the ability to see outside of that. In our modern society, we tend to be dislocated from family and the sense of heritage culture and tradition, we are often distanced from nature as urban dwellers, and due to many moves throughout life, change of jobs, and communities, there is even further dislocation from our histories within communities we have been a part of. This is why, I believe, along with Patanjali’s amazing teachings about clarity of mind and emotional peace, most of us are drawn to the teachings of Ayurveda and Vedic ritual. We are seeking balance between Patanjali’s radical discontinuity with the past and with socialization as a method for clarity, and the grounding and healing practices of Ayurveda and other Vedic practices.

So, memory, awareness of what we’ve come through as a person, these are very important things on our journey. When we first come to the path of yoga, we might be tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater – make radical changes, and departures from people, places, ways of living, and even thoughts or memories of who we’ve been. It is important to acknowledge this as part of our desire for clarity and peace, but also to see the aspect of aversion in it. Aversion of guilt maybe, or of taking responsibility for slow and integrated change within the context of community. It can be easy to make change when we step away, on retreat for example, but then the challenge is to support and nurture that within the context of a community that impacts us and that we also play a role in. To hit the nail right on the head, our tendency to want retreat and discontinuity plays right into our individualistic and ungrounded social context. In the long term it cannot be sustained, or it fails to produce a sense of wholeness or integration within a larger social context. There is a lovely recorded talk of Shobhan Faulds talking at Kripalu about the history of the Kripalu lineage, and the purpose and process of utopian communities. He concludes that a commune, or a utopian community is a stage in a process at the conclusion of which, the community then attempts to integrate what they have learned with the surrounding society. They do not seek to continue to be a micro-community in isolation, and if they do, dissolution ultimately comes. We can look at this with individuals also. Retreat and soaking in a yoga community is a beneficial stage in which we remove ourselves from our context in order to learn and grow, and hopefully gain insight into blind spots that were covered by a given context. Staying in perpetual retreat mode for one thing simply harbours different blind spots (though we may not realize this), and does not allow us the integration of past and present, yoga community and wider society.

As I mentioned above with blind spots, in our yoga practice it is important, as with any healing journey, to have a multi-pronged approach. Holistic yoga, if we take advantage of all of its diverse practices, is just that, a multi-pronged approach. Mantra is great for shifting obsessive thinking. Asana is great for revitalization and detoxification. Pranayama is great for importing prana, and detoxification and clarifying thinking. Visualization and energy work are great for connection to the Vast. Karma Yoga integrates the practice with work in society. Bhakti Yoga roots us in Divine connection. Jnana Yoga is the work of rooting out patterns, erroneous judgements and diminished thinking. Understanding this, I come back to this concept of acknowledging the past. Recently, though journaling and creative writing, I recognized again how powerful this type of exploratory practice is. One takes a symbol or story that seems to continue to come up, and indulge and unpack the symbol or the story through flowing creative writing. If this is done over a month period, for example, though it may seem like dwelling on the past, this practice, if balanced with other practices after each session to keep one present and to integrate what comes up, can really reveal blind spots or aspects of our past that continue to clandestinely influence our thinking and our beliefs about ourselves today. We can categorize this as a type of Jnana Yoga perhaps. If we are always doing practices to replace troubling or patterned thoughts, we may not be allowing for a key insight to rise up, before proceeding with an integrative process. Journaling about recurring symbols from dreams is a similar type of practice.

To sum up, as always, I’ll give credence to the idea of yoga as a path of balance in which being fully alive in the present requires that we’ve also taken time to heal, acknowledge and integrate the past.

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