Can we use the yoga practice here in the west, meaning western, white culture in a way that respects the tradition, the deep meaning and roots of yoga? I guess cultural appropriation is inevitable in today’s world, it times of free and easy travel, free and instant exchange of information. There is so much variety in the world but at the same time not enough time to look deeper into the actual meaning of the symbol, gesture, word or custom. When we’re constantly encouraged to buy more, earn more we may not have time or energy to pause to understand the true meaning and context of what we do or use. But the beauty of the yoga practice is that we do exactly that, we pause and listen. And where do we start our yoga practice? With yamas and niyamas, giving us a guide on how to behave inwardly towards ourselves and outwardly in the world. It’s crucial to know yamas and niyamas, it’s a very concrete place to start to avoid bringing old patterns, beliefs and potentially bad habits onto the mat as much as possible. My yoga practice is teaching me to be humble, there is more and more that I experience and understand, but at the same time the more I learn the more I know how little I know, how much more there is in the tradition of yoga to learn. Constant learning and self-study is so, so important.
But hey…. we’re all on this journey, individually and collectively, so let’s be kind to ourselves and acknowledge that we’re probably all guilty of cultural appropriation whether it applies to yoga or any other aspect, after all we drink Italian coffees, Chinese teas, eat Japanese sushi etc, right? Mixing of cultures is inevitable and it’s beautiful.
I was born in eastern Europe in times of communism and now live in a free western European country. This experience gives a great perspective on nuances and differences between countries, cultures, languages. I’ve seen and experienced many misunderstandings over the years. But I love and deeply appreciate them, I love being exposed to differences as this allows me to understand, become more sensitive and eventually grow. If we look back at let’s say European history, cultures, languages, different customs have been mixing right from the beginning.
I’m very mindful of symbols that I’d use or wear while teaching or promoting yoga. I would do it with the best understanding I can have and only if the symbol or tool really resonates with me. Does it mean that wearing my Ganesh yoga top is a cultural appropriation? If it is offending any Ganesha devotee, I do apologise. But I studied and learned about Ganesha and when wearing it I’m aware of the meaning of this deity.
But there is another side to this. Would applying yoga to our lifestyles and problems, which may require modifications, adaptations, some changes, would it be a cultural appropriation? I feel it’s necessary to modify how we practice yoga in the west. We have different bodies, an average yoga practitioner in the west is 30yrs old woman. We have different lifestyles, an average yoga practitioner in the west is finding squatting a challenge. We sit at the desk a lot, having problems with spine, hips, knees, even wrists nowadays, problems with blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and so on. We definitely need to change the way we move on the mat. When yoga came to the west we took what was created just over 100 years ago by few Indian men for young Indian boys and incorporated it as a practice for western female bodies. And as a result of following fixed rules without deeper connection and understanding, women practising ashtanga yoga since 60s or 70s are having hip replacements now in their 70s and 80s. This is not what yoga is about, it’s misunderstanding of the essence of yoga. There is a term in Sanskrit: Anitya, meaning change, impermanence of everything, one of the basic laws of nature. Yoga has been, is and will be changing.
So coming back to the original question: how do we know we’re appropriating yoga? When we use the tools of yoga without studying and learning what they are, where they come from and how to apply them to our modern western busy lives.
This is a part of the conversation with @ola_dalek. Check her on Instagram for more.