Yoga has become a popular activity in western culture. I have been practicing yoga on-and-off for about 16 years and have recently started a learning project to try to learn more about yoga, improve my own yoga practice and discover if a regular yoga practice would increase my energy and well-being. You can read more about that here.
Over the past year or so I have begun to hear this question more frequently: Is yoga cultural appropriation? At first I was surprised by the question. But it soon began to make more sense.
So first, let’s look at what exactly is meant by cultural appropriation, also sometimes known as cultural misappropriation. Wikipedia defines it as “the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture”. Wikipedia explains cultural appropriation further; when elements of one culture (music, dance, spiritual ceremonies, modes of dress, speech and social behaviour) are adopted or “borrowed” by people of another culture. When asking whether a behavior is cultural appropriation those who study it consider the issue of colonialism; unequal relationships between indigenous peoples and the colonial power, or a marginalized group and a majority group. They also consider whether the marginalized group feels disrespected by the behavior. They ask whether these cultural elements are trivialized, used for fashion, or if they lose their original meaning.
Jaswir Dhillon claims that yoga is not cultural appropriation, but that yoga is for everyone, that it is beneficial for all and should be available to all. I learned that yoga means “union”. Dhillon is from India and has experienced colonialism firsthand. I strongly urge you to read his article, as he explains these views so much better than I can.
Photo source: Susanna Barkataki
Susanna Barkataki disagrees, and explains how to decolonize your yoga practice. She states that the million dollar industry of yoga in North America has taken it out of context. She explains that she is not saying that yoga is only for people from India, but that the true purpose must remain intact. Barkataki offers 5 ways to decolonize your yoga practice: 1. look within yourself, 2. explore, learn and cite correct cultural references, 3. ask ourselves, and other yoga teachers, the hard questions, 4. live, know, share and practice all 8 limbs of yoga, not just asana and 5. be humble and honor your own and other people’s journey.
Anupreet Sandhu Bharma explains that you must consider whether yoga is religion or not before you can understand if it is cultural appropriation. She tells us that Hinduism is difficult to compare to western religion. There is no word for religion in Sanscrit. The closest word that exists is Dharma, which can be understood as a righteous way of living. Yoga was intended as a way to meditate and be at one with your spirit. Bharma states that, “it is through the practice of Yoga, one can reach Brahm, the Supreme, Absolute Divinity, attain moksha (loosely translated as liberation from the cycle of births and deaths)….the eternal way of life”. Again I encourage you to read what Bharma has to say as it is truly insightful.
You can read more from S.E. Smith or Sarah Ratchford who agree that yoga is indeed cultural appropriation. Or you can check on some conversations on Quora about the topic. You can also learn about the Take Yoga Back movement.
After considering what these authors have to say here are my personal thoughts. I have learned a great deal from what each author had to say and I plan to continue to learn more about the true purpose of yoga. I will continue to be sensitive to the culture with which yoga orignated. My yoga practice is in my own home. I refuse to make it about capitalism and commercialization. It is entirely about connecting myself to my inner spirit. I also meditate and practice breath exercises. I am just a beginner. I have so much to learn. I will continue to honour the origins of yoga.
So do I believe that western yoga is cultural appropriation? I think it depends. Yes, sometimes, I believe it is. However, I believe it can be done in a manner that is not cultural appropriation. I plan to follow the advice of Susanna Barkataki as I continue my yoga practice.
What are your thoughts?