You Are Here: Exploring Yoga and the Impacts of Cultural Appropriation

You Are Here: Exploring Yoga and the Impacts of Cultural Appropriation


Yoga is not acrobatics, it’s not
aerobics, its not a work-out or a good stretch and it’s not a competition and it’s not a
comparison of ones being to anybody else or even to our own selves. Yoga is a process of coming into Yog and Sanskrit Yog means a union and its the union of the body, mind, and
spirit and the union of the individual being to
a whole being and tapping into this wholeness allows
us to tap into that deep wisdom that lies within ourselves
and expanded beyond ourselves. I want to acknowledge in doing this
work around cultural appropriation and Yoga that there’s been many many people before me and alongside me that are doing
this work and I am by no means the only person doing it. So often I think the question: how can
Yoga be taught? And I come back to this time where I was staying at an Ashram in India learning more about Yogic medicine and
this five thousand-year-old spiritual path, and it comes to me that Yoga cannot be taught, because
Yoga is a process that one must go through. And while I was at this Ashram this person who was a Swami (but of course didn’t tell
anybody he was) was just leading our course or program while we were
staying there and he affirmed many times over; he came in and said: I’m not a Yoga
teacher. You, none of you are Yoga teachers or
instructors . You cannot teach Yoga. So I think coming into the practice
whether a practitioner or someone who shares this path or medicine, we must be humble
enough to know that we don’t know as much as we think we
do and also that we have much to offer in just
being present with each other. Yoga has been turned into something
completely opposite of that in a North American and capitalist context, and that’s a
result of cultural appropriation. And so Yoga has been turned into
something that’s diluted of its original meaning. It’s
been turned into a plaything, it’s been turned into
entertainment, it’s been fetishized as something exotic or
something attainable something that can be held. And that’s
actually very counter to a Yogic philosophy, you know, to renounce possession or to look at how
we are attached to wordily things. So the context of Yoga that I’m speaking of, comes from South Asia and from India
and is a five thousand-year-old medicine and spiritual path. But we can see many similar practices
that are like Yoga that have existed around the world in
other places that have also been colonized. So in North and East Africa theres
Kemetic Yoga and we can see similar traditions here on Turtle Island – also known as North
America – and even in South America in Peru, for example, that echo similar philosophy and medicine systems that are like Yoga. There are many people around the world who have been trying to talk about cultural appropriation for centuries. Indigenous people and Black people,
especially here on Turtle Island, have had to deal with the bulk of
cultural appropriation and extraction from their cultures and have been doing
a lot of work to address this. So it’s not unique to
Yoga or South Asia that this is happening. Cultural appropriation is taking a symbol
or a cultural practice out of its original space or context, and then plunking it
down somewhere else and it becomes devoid of its original
meaning. And in the process the people who are doing the
extraction often are benefiting, whether through personal gain,
financial gain, or entertainment. On one hand
colonization and racism allow for a demonizing or criticizing of Hindu, Vedic, or Yogic practices.
But on the other hand it can be pedestaled and it can be considered magic and exotic, which is not an honouring of its
wholeness. When we fetishize something it becomes a very thin version or diluted version of what it actually is. The roots of cultural appropriation come from a five
hundred-year legacy of colonization, that has lent itself to racism, that pervasive in our society, and
capitalism: and out from there birthed cultural
appropriation. We have to also recognize that we’re all
living in a world after five-hundred years of colonization that continues as we are here today on Turtle Island,
and Indigenous peoples here have been working with settlers being here for that long as well. Folks from
European countries went around the world and took
over land through violent means. So through genocide, through murder, through rape, through forced conversion to Christianity often. And if not then
you loose your land, or your people, or be killed. The reaction to spiritual and cultural
practices where they were going, was that these
practices were savage, primitive, and a derogatory kind of
magic. They were destroyed and severed in
many ways – they were suppressed – and so to practice
these paths on spiritual journeys was
often risky or forbidden. This happened in the case of Hindu and
Vedic teachings and in South Asia along with Buddhist
and Jain and Sikh teachings and Islamic teachings as well. While there
was a suppression of these cultural and spiritual practices there was still resilience, and they
survived. In the mid-eighteen hundreds while the British Raj was in power in the
South Asian continent we can see that Yoga was starting to
be brought over to the west but it was under the rule of
colonizers and a white dominance. And they had already
told the people of India that their practices were savage and primitive.
And so it was through control that they
were able to take it out the way they wanted. It was like extracting a resource that they could sell as something exotic. And again a plaything or entertainment or new way
of looking at spirituality that was actually five thousand years
old. We can see how colonization has also led
to capitalism as an extraction resources from other
people or services from other people and that
other folks benefit from it and that everything becomes commodified
or sellable. In my play Yoga cannibal, the tagline was: “enlightenment, for a price”. And so the idea of everyone wanting a quick fix…and that’s
how yoga is sold now. When we look at how racism leads to cultural appropriation it ties directly back to colonization.
What’s pervasive in our society is that the colonized culture has turned into the dominant culture – which is a white
Eurocentric or Western-centric way of being. And so that has been decided
that that’s the standard and that is the norm, and everything else
is considered other to that, or in comparison to
this white norm. That includes spiritual practices and
cultural practices. When we look at spaces that are considered “Yoga spaces”
in North America there’s often an idea or image of who
belongs there. And through marketing, which is a result
that capitalism, we can see that white, skinny bodied, women, who are cis-gendered women, are are on the marketing campaigns or that
we might see on internet searches or magazines of who is supposed to be practicing Yoga. This also plays out in terms of people who are from South Asia or People
of Colour or Indigenous people and how they
have access to traditional spiritual paths or
medicines. So if there’s been a severing, that has
happened through colonization, and we’re asked to move towards a white norm, then there’s also an internal struggle in accessing our own medicines and our own
spiritual practices. When we see people in spaces who might wear a Tika or Bindi around the Ajna chakra, which is considered the chakra of wisdom,
third eye of wisdom, for me growing up or even now, if myself or my mother is to wear a Bindi, you know, we get treated a certain way on the street. We can get spat at, that
has happened to me. So to connect to the Ajna chakra comes with a lot of pain – to
overcome the racist behaviour that people have perpetrated towards us. Also when we see folks chanting Sanskrit or witnessing white people wearing
Indian clothing – they’re able to do all of that without
having to deal with the the repercussions of racist
behaviour and reactions. If I were to wear Indian clothing, or speak in Hindi or Sanskrit, I would be treated a certain way. So
there’s a privilege in being able to practice and wear certain clothing
without having to deal with the violence that comes with that if
you’re a Person of Colour. On a big macro level “who benefits”: we can
see corporations benefiting from Yogic medicine and practice by
turning it into something thats sellable. So there are Yoga
accessories, their Yoga mats, there are Yoga towels
there is Yoga clothing: there are whole fashion lines based on Yoga and are they really coming from a place that
is traditionally supportive of a Yogic practice? And if Yogic practice is not
necessarily about our exterior physical being, but has been turned into that,
then are we moving away from a Yogic practice? Small studios and spaces that share Yoga and individual
businesses also benefit financially by selling Yoga as a commodity that
can be bought – by spending way too much money often close to twenty,
twenty-five dollars to attend a class, or as I like to think of them, sessions. And also
in addition to this they end up being elevated as experts on Yoga in the world. There’ve been times where I
have shared Yoga in these spaces that are considered studio spaces – and
often I try not to unless there is very specific
events or occasions that feel right regarding my spiritual
practice and political way being in the world – and
on the occasions that I have taught in those spaces, I’ve gotten congratulations as if it was an accomplishments to be
practicing in these mainstream spaces. So the fact that I have been trying to
counter that, is not considered valuable as much as it is to work within a
framework that has public visibility, that is
attached to commerce and economics, and making money from it. We can also see this rippling into
people individually being considered experts in the field of Yoga or the industry of
Yoga. And so this can be really harmful in that people who are not from this
culture being the face what yoga is now. And again excluding people from feeling
welcome, or feeling like it’s been stolen from
from them, because the experts no longer look like them. At the same time we have
to be careful not to tokenize, so it’s not just always an Indian Brown person talking about it,
and there’s actual relationship building happening. We also as individuals benefit from a Yogic practice. People who do go further into the
study of Yoga beyond the physical form as its taught in Yoga studios here in North America, for the most part, people who go on
that path start to go on special journey
perhaps; or look at their own mind and body. These
teachings might change their relationships in the workplace in the
home with families with friends with
communities. So people are benefiting without giving a acknowledgment to
where the teachings come from or sometimes without even
acknowledging that the teachings aren’t new – that in
fact the are five thousand years old. So ultimately I really feel that this kind of Yogic practice, that is based on consumption, capitalism, this western industry model
of Yoga, doesn’t really benefit anybody in the
larger picture. It’s actually harmful to our beings, because it focuses on the physical body
without acknowledging the many paths or parts of the path involved in Yoga. And its a half knowledge. So with half knowledge you can hurt
yourself actually a lot more. And in addition to this, to practice with
the exclusion people who are Brown, Black, People of
Colour, Indigenous people, people with different physical abilities,
people who are not skinny, people who don’t fit into this gender
binary of man and woman, who often aren’t
included in these spaces actually becomes more harmful to people who are included, even in that
mainstream bubble. Because you’re then practicing in isolation
without an understanding of the world and the
inequalities and injustices that exist in the material world. Tannis Nielsen is an Indigenous artist and academic who is prolific and fun and brilliant. And she did a workshop with
myself and collective Im a part of called R3: Roots, Rhythm and Resistance, started by Amai Kuda, along with other thirteen members who do work around
decolonization through art and spirit practice. And so Tannis was helping us in a journey of looking at how colonization shows up within our practices as well. So it’s
important that we’re always doing the self-reflection work – which is just as much a part of the
Yogic path as doing physical asanas. The five steps of colonization that Tannis Nielsen broke down for us were: one denial, two destruction, three eradication, four surface accommodation, and five tokenism. So with the denial we can see that
there has been a denial of a Yogic practice and
where it comes from. So there’s not an acknowledgement of the five thousand-year history or the sages or scholars or yogis who have been practicing this from South Asia and India. There’s a
denial that it comes from a history and a lineage and often Yoga is seen as something new
age, when actually it’s really really old school. And this also ties into destruction – so
destruction of the traditional ways it was
practiced or shared or taught, if thats a model that people believe in as
well. A destruction also of the connection of the people who are from
the land where Yoga from a Vedic, Hindu, and Buddhist Jain and Sikh teachings come from. And that severing between people and
culture and spiritual practices is also form of destruction. And that also
ties into eradication as well. So erasing the history, erasing the violence that
was associated with taking. Eradication of people as well. So that people who have been
practicing for so long or who don’t fit into a white, skinny bodied, cis-gendered, like man/woman, framing, that they are erased from the picture, or people who carry knowledge as well. And then service accommodation and tokenism I think come into play where there might
often be one or two Indian folks that teach at a studio; or there might be someone who is
considered a cultural ambassador for certain corporations, that have brown
skin or black skin. This can be tokenism if there isn’t
in-depth relationship-building or an honouring of all the teachings and
work that this person has had to do in order to share Yoga in this time and
place. So given these five stages
colonization that Tannis Nielsen has put out, we can also
look at how that shows up in our own practice. And then, that also can help us realize
that perhaps in the Western world in this
context of a diluted, capitalist way of practicing Yoga it’s not actually preserving Yoga. It’s
not continuing a lineage Yoga. South Asian folks and Indian
folks don’t need other people to do the preserving for them. We have over centuries, and even with colonization and colonizers
suppression, survived and had resilience and allowed
for our medicine and spiritual traditions to continue and grow. So it’s not changing it to fit a
modern world. By doing so it harms our own beings and each others beings. While we cannot completely abolish cultural
appropriation, and while we live in a colonized
world, there are still ways and strategies that we can implement –
into our own practice, our own Yogic practices – to address cultural appropriation. So, these are strategies, not necessarily
solutions but here they are: Let’s start with humbleness
and humility. This is really important in a Yogic
practice in general but if we enter into our practice aware that
our egos want to flare up – they want to present and perform what it is
to be a Yogic practitioner – and we can return to a humbleness,
it allows us to go deeper into the practice, but also might create a space that’s
more welcoming for other people. So even if you do know something and your
experience allows you to know this something there’s a lot that you don’t know. So always entering into our practice and sharing of practice with humility and humbleness.
This also comes into acknowledging where the practices come from. You aren’t the person
who thought of them. Just because you read a book or studied for six months, two years, ten years, twenty
years, does not make you the expert, and you don’t necessarily…you
aren’t the only one who has done this. So just acknowledging the teachers who have
come your way and also who they learned from, and who
they learned from, which will ultimately bring you back to the Indian subcontinent. Acknowledgement
of the aspect of Yoga that you are sharing and the aspects of Yoga that you aren’t sharing, and perhaps the aspects of Yoga that you
don’t know about because our system has not given access to that. So if you’re
sharing a Yoga practice that is based on physical postures and asanas, acknowledge that that’s what you’re
doing and actually it is a whole system that goes far beyond just the physical practice. I think also
it’s important to recognize the space that one takes
and the impact it has on other people. So when I walk into a room I try to be
aware of who else is in the space and what power and privileges I might have
in addition to ways that I might be marginalized in
other ways. And also how my being can make other
people feel. So if you have a space that is
predominately… has white Yogis practicing, start to
think about why there aren’t more Folks the Color or
perhaps it is only skinny people, think about why there aren’t bigger bodies in a space, and again, why
there might be only one or two genders verses like the
spectrum of genders in the space. And try to recognize the impact that you as a being have on other people, and how you might
need to move over to make space for other people. This also ties into tokenizing, and to avoid that to
really building in depth relationships with Brown
people, Black people, People of Colour, Indigenous people, people of different
genders, people of different body shapes and sizes, and really avoiding having a symbolized person orr token. And this
can be done through real relationship building. Also starting
to acknowledge where sacred objects come from
in the space So perhaps there are scriptures around. Perhaps there are statues of Buddha, or Saraswati, or any kind a sacred object: crystals. Anything that might be used in healing
practices or spiritual practices. Acknowledge where they
come from. And if you don’t know then you don’t know, but you have to be
humble enough to address that you don’t know. And also if it is in a space
somebody in the space should be able to speak to its meaning and why it’s there. And last but not least: Sanskrit and using sacred text and languages. Sound can be really healing to be
brought into a Yogic practice, however when we are speaking Sanskrit we should let people know that: one, it’s
going to be said; and two, what it means. And also through pronunciation isn’t
great, know that you are altering the meaning of what you’re saying and actually could be more harmful and
painful for people who may have had severed knowledge to our traditional languages. And hearing a butchered version of Sanskrit actually can be counter to a Yogic practice and healing for all people in the space. So for folks who
are encountering this kinda discussion for
the first time and are interested in addressing cultural appropriation and
colonization in our practices, I thank you for listening to this video
and watching this video, and I also hope that you continue this
journey and really examine how you in your own
personal life and practice can use strategies to
counter cultural appropriation. It’s not easy it can often be
discomforting, it might be challenging but that’s a part
of the process that we all must go through to make our world more equitable and
allow for healing – not just for individual beings, but for ourselves as interconnected beings too. In the spirit of wanting to acknowledge where teachings come and the people who
have been doing this work, I would like to just give a moment to
thank all people who I know of, who have been
doing this work around sharing Yogic medicine holistic ways, as well as addressing
cultural appropriation whether the name it as such or not. Bibi Rahim; Hather Greeves; Sheila Batracharya; Sairupa Krishnamurti; Ann Marie Hood, who founded Brown Girls Yoga; Kim Katrin Crosby and Jamilah Malik; Six
Degrees Acupuncture; and folks I know in New York: Yashna Maya; Third Root Community Health Center; in Oakland: Socorro, who runs the POC Yoga space; also SAAPYA in New York, South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga, who have lots of resources and are sharing tonnes about cultural appropriation and race dynamics in Yoga; Decolonizing Yoga; as well as the Healing Justice Network that has grown our of the Allied Media Conference; and as well all the many many organizations
and communities and practitioners who are continuously
working hard to share Yogic medicine in holistic
ways and as well making healing more accessible I thank you so very much for all your
work.

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