I went to a talk last night about cultural appropriation and yoga by Nisha Ahuja at Kula Yoga in Toronto. It was a really helpful evening for making us more aware of the continuing effects of colonization, how they manifest 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.

At the beginning of the talk, Nisha explained how growing up hearing a bindhi and tilak referred to as a ‘Paki dot’ created a painful separation, making it difficult 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, illustrate why mainstream, decontextualized yoga may distance South Asian people from participating in yoga classes or studios that don’t full represent them. Decontextualized yoga 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. This made me think of the many very authentic, holistic and non-commercial yoga missions, such as Chinmaya Mission, Self-realization Fellowship, 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 the 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.

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. I do believe there are derivative benefits to the popularization of yoga. They are many, 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 something deeper may cause people to search further. The issues here are with exploitative commodification (gross overcharging for yoga teachings, attempts to make proprietary measures over sequences or properties like medicinal use of turmeric!). Another main concern is the prevalent lack of understanding of the history of yoga and the longstanding misrepresentation of Hinduism in relation to Abrahmanic religions. I won’t go into this here as I’ve written previously on this, but lack of understanding and the colonial legacy encourage the separation of yoga from its cultural context, 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. Although TV-gurus like Baba Ramdev have given millions of South Asians access to teachings on pranayama, for example, this is not un-problematic. As yoga became popularized in the West, it created more interest in yoga in South Asia, but also a propagation of the ‘yoga for health’ model.

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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