Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Is "Western" Yoga Cultural Appropriation? A Few Notes on the Confounding, Conflicting Efforts to Decolonize Yoga

Photo credit: jllfitness from

Back in 2012, when I finished my yoga teacher training, I had already been practicing asana and meditation (the two most recognizable limbs of the yogic 8 fold path) for over a decade. Unlike many of those in my training class, yoga was a normalized part of my life. Something that had already sunk in enough to change me and also provoke a lot of questioning.

Several of my teacher training classmates went on to become regular asana teachers, some even before the completed their certificate. I, on the other hand, have gone on a different path, teaching meditation and a handful of asana classes, all the while living with a sense that I want to - need to - learn more, practice more, to truly shape what I have to offer.

In addition, there's the "Yoga Industrial Complex": this world of commodified, mostly asana practice that brings in piles of money while offering yoga as mild to moderate self improvement, as opposed to a path of liberation. Over the years, my opinion on all this has evolved to the point where I'm fine with offering elements of yoga to folks to improve physical and mental health, but still desiring to undermine the capitalist mentality that drives so much of what's offered as yoga, how it's offered, and by what motivations.

A dharma friend of mine sent me this blog post yesterday, which opens up yet another can of worms. Cultural appropriation. Decolonization. The history of yoga under colonialism.

This is contentious territory, no matter how you slice it. Millions of folks in the U.S. teach and practice something called yoga these days. Lots of white people in this group, but significant numbers of people of color as well. And that's just here. Yoga asana practice in particular has spread across the globe in the past century, to the point where even if "purists" wanted to stop it, they probably couldn't.

And yet, the battles over both what is yoga and who can (or can't) rightfully claim it wage on. I've waded in on these from time to time, but often find myself at a loss in both places. Trying to pin down what constitutes "yoga" - even if we focus solely on the various forms of yogic spiritual traditions - is a messy affair. The debates about ownership and cultural appropriation are muddy at best, and often riddled with contradictions. The Hindu American Foundation's Take Back Yoga campaign, for example, is driven by upper caste Hindu-Americans who seek to frame yoga as universally "owned" by Indian Hinduism, all the while sweeping under the rug the elitist roots of the practice and the caste oppression that kept the majority of folks in India (regardless of religious background) from practicing yoga until very recently. In addition, HAF's position papers are filled with quotations from modern Indian yoga teachers who spent the majority of their careers deliberately teaching "Westerners." The fact that so many 19th, 20th, and 21st century Indian yoga teachers have dedicated at least part of their lives offering teachings to people from North America, Europe, and elsewhere muddies the water significantly on the cultural appropriation arguments. Which doesn't mean it's not worth considering, but it isn't the same discussion as, for example, when white Americans take a weekend workshop on indigenous shamanism and then claim to be shamans.

As such, when I came to this section in the original blog post I cited, I found myself feeling mixed. The author, a white yoga teacher from Vancouver, writes

No matter what happens in the future I know that what I have learned from yoga will always be with me. Being able to feel my body, ground into connection with the earth, introduce breath to places that are tight and hiding, sit through pain and discomfort without immediately reacting – all of these things are lessons that I attribute to my having had practiced yoga for the last ten years of my life. All that said, I can’t take part in yoga the way we share it in the west anymore. It took me along time to admit this to myself and make the necessary changes this realization entails, but what I know in my heart, my mind and my gut is that what we are doing in western yoga is an entitled, willfully ignorant act of theft.

The truth is, I feel, that we are appropriating and destroying the practice that we rely on and love so much.

On the one hand, I think she's hitting on the problematic nature of much of what constitutes "yoga" practice in the U.S. and elsewhere. That gut sense that something is profoundly "wrong" about it all is something I have sat with for a good decade now.

At the same time, chalking it up to solely, or mostly, about cultural appropriation by white folks doesn't really fly for me.

In an article responding to a wave of online commentary about the HAF campaign, Prachi Pantakar raises several issues that create a much more complex picture.

Among them is the origins of modern asana practice, which she argues is a blend of Euro-American body practices and teachings from the Yoga Sutras (and elsewhere I would add).

In addition, there's this:

It should not be assumed that all the Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or Sikh communities embrace brahmanical forms of yoga as part of their culture. Representing South Asia as the birthplace of a mythical homogeneous culture is a crusade of the chauvinistic upper-caste Hindus. We need to consciously learn about and highlight the rich, diverse cultures, histories, customs, and spiritual practices of the vast majority of people in South Asia, especially the Dalit and Adivasi communities who are continuing to struggle to keep their cultures alive. What we need is a constant challenge to the caste-privileged attempt to define Hindu, Indian, or South Asian culture as monolithic and theirs.

Pantakar points out that SAAPYA, the group that the Vancouver yoga teacher cites as one of her influences, is offering a message that appears to be very progressive, but also needs to be unpacked.

Much of SAAPYA’s discourse uses the language of social justice and decolonization, though there seems to be a reluctance to distinguish themselves from HAF and its broader ideology.

Just to add another layer of complexity, Roopa Singh, a founder of SAAPYA, rejects Pantakar's portrayal of the organization in a rebuttal piece that also supports many of her other points.

Singh writes:

SAAPYA is not pro-violence, pro-Hindutva, in fact, it’s not a platform super interested in reclaiming yoga for desis who are Hindu. It’s about fighting segregation and the post-colonial whitewashing of yoga through amplifying voices from across the South Asian diaspora in the west. Press has chosen to describe this effort as a take back and such, but those aren’t my ways of describing it.

In reading through other material on the SAAPYA website, it strikes that they are collectively exploring what it means to decolonize yoga. Which is so, so needed.

I didn't get the sense that, for example, they're message is one of telling white people to stop teaching or practicing yoga. Or that yoga is the "property of Hindus." Or some other simplistic message.

Another reason why I didn't buy into the Vancouver author's stated reason for quitting teaching. In fact, I think her last paragraph points more to the truth of the matter.

I’m going to leave you with a note of painful honesty, because I don’t want to let this go unsaid. This is a community that I have often felt pretty alienated and isolated from. I know I’m not the only yoga teacher out there who cares about social justice and I know that it is not often our intention to stifle these conversations, but the truth is, we do. We often focus more on our latest instagram post of our favourite new pose, than we do on the impact of our actions on the world. I have seen some of the wisest, most thoughtful and inspiring teachers I know leave the yoga world, because their ideas were not well received, because they didn’t want to teach huge vinyasa classes or for very little money – or because they realized that this practice is just not right for them. I would encourage you to not let the people who leave exit your mind quietly. Why are we losing so many teachers and role models who want to challenge systems of oppression? Why do they feel silenced in the yoga community? And beyond that, take note of who isn’t here. Who doesn’t show up to class? Really dig deep and ask yourself why. These questions do not have easy answers.

All of this resonates with me. In fact, it really does a good job of summing up many of the reasons why I haven't joined my fellow teacher training classmates in the ranks of studio yoga asana teachers. My original purpose in taking the teacher training in the first place was to be able to sharpen my skills so that I could bring them out of the mainstream. To my former ESL students and others in the recent immigrant communities for example. That isolation she speaks of was only heightened during my teacher training program, leading me to question the whole notion of yoga studios and their cultures. Over two years later, after a year and a half of teaching meditation in a yoga studio, not much has changed in that regard. We've had three meditation teachers try to establish classes in the time I have taught there, and I'm the only one left. And my class draws tiny numbers compared to the asana only classes. Much more could be said about studios, even ones like the one I teach at which do a good job of offering yoga as a spiritual practice in a longstanding tradition, but I'll save that for another post.

I'd be interested in hearing from others on all this. What does it mean to "decolonize" yoga? What do you think of arguments like those being put forth by HAF? What do you think of the white yoga teacher's reasons for quitting?


Mike Carter said...

In my area there are definitely Yoga studios teaching Yoga as a path to liberation - regardless of the sign hanging on the door.

They don't charge megabucks or sell stuff, they provide all the equipment. They only allow adepts to each. With my Zen hat on I see zero ambiguity in what they are doing and I just cannot sneak into one of these studios as a beginner.

There are others who are just doing 'exercise yoga' stripped of all it's depth and richness.

I'm relaxed about it all. The people who want and need the real thing can find it - it smells different.

In my town it's much MUCH easier to find a realized Yogi than it is a realized Zen Master.

Most people don't want the real thing, they want to wrap themsleves in the blanket of Yoga but carry on as normal. Just like in Zen really.

The people who want the real thing will find it. After a decade in this world I'm more confident that those who really want it will find it and those who dont will avoid it. These western studios satisfy a need for those who don't want the real thing but think they do or don't care. For those people the exercises still have benefits, just not as much.

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting and thought provoking subject. One that I myself have pondered for over 20 years.... What to do? What to do????...Recently I viewed a short video of Dharma Mittra and he was speaking on the virtues of a yoga teacher. He stated a few things and then said that a yoga teacher should not be teaching for business... This I find confusing,simply because he has a pretty expensive studio in New York and seems to be doing quite a bit of business. At the same time , I also feel that he is as close to a highly trained "real" yogi as it gets...So, I think of the first 2 limbs of the path. What is it that I am clinging to ? What is it that I am having adversion to? What is it that I am not surrendering to? These I think are the real questions...are we simply trying to control the evolution of the path to these modern times? Do we think that we are omnipotent and know the Great Plan for this path and the future of consciousness that we feel should be the way this should go?...these are all difficult questions. And I certainly do not have the answer to any of them, perhaps , except for one. This is the study of surrender. Difficult! for all other problems rise from the lack of this... as to the politics of yoga. Surrender....for I think that there is a divine plan that none of us have any clue to the outcome, but 'My" gut tells me it will be a pleasant surprise! Trust your own path. Study hard. And surrender.... May this reply find you well. Namaste' tracy

Nathan said...

".are we simply trying to control the evolution of the path to these modern times?"

In many ways, I see the efforts to call out the social/political dimensions of yoga as an evolution. An attempt to bring things back into a more holistic understanding and practice, while at the same broadening the membership far beyond those who historically practiced.

Nathan said...

I'll add that no doubt, the evolution of yoga is a pretty strange animal, one that I often find confusing as well. I don't know what's coming next either, nor even how to fully respond to a lot of the issues I brought up.

Anonymous said...

Dearest Nathan, With a bit o free time I read some of your other posts.. There seems to be a lot of fear involved with the issues. I am getting older now...luckily! And now , with the years of incubation some of these oh so confusing teachings have, I think, begun to make some sense.. One in particular rings now so true..."To Live In The World But Not Of It"....difficult. Most paths agree that living amoungst the homemakers or the people is the Hardest of the paths to liberation. Why is this so??? Perhaps it is the constant reminder of the suffering all around us. Perhaps it is our own control issues that we can fix things. Perhaps it is the constant fear involved in any disruption that comes along with living amoungst groups of people.. Of course these are difficult times. but I think it has always been difficult times. Our nostalgic ideas of any of the saints history is just that. Nostalgic... There were wars raging, in justice, rape, hunger, torture, and so many other woes and nasty beheadings!! it the spread of information that has killed the hermit, now that we have the internet. ??... try to imagine what it was like when only your fellow seekers arrived every 4 months to tell you some news. Other then that there must have been a lot of Clear space . Inside your mind and outside your mind...but this no longer exists.. or does it? If I try to ignore the ramblings of my mind in meditation, why not ignore the ramblings in the outer world also? Is this a cop-out? I don't know? maybe the modern hermit?? One that lives in the world but not of it....Take care in America. .Blessings. blessings. blessings. namaste'Tracy

Nathan said...

"why not ignore the ramblings in the outer world also? Is this a cop-out? I don't know? maybe the modern hermit?? One that lives in the world but not of it....Take care in America. .Blessings. blessings. blessings. namaste'Tracy"

Seems like a cop out to me. Unless you choose to fully embrace being a hermit. They are still around. Hermit monks. I can respect that. Totally stepping out of the entire works. Perhaps if I return in another life, this is where I'll land.

That's one way to understand the teachings, but not the only. The majority of the spiritual teachers we hear about from the past were in some kind of community, dealing with people and their issues. Communities tied to a larger society in some manner or another.

Agreed that there has always been awful stuff going on, and that living in the world has always been difficult. I'm not painting the past in romantic colors. I will admit that I live with some fear and anger about the state of things today. It surprises me when I meet people who don't have some of this. Because in my experience, lacking fear and anger about the troubling condition of things isn't coming from an awakened place. It's mostly just being privileged enough to not have to face much of any of it.

I still need to burn through some of attachments and patterns that limit my expression in the world. However, I see that leading to more engagement in the world, not less. One can compassionately act in the world, and not be ruled by it's constant turbulence. That's the bodhisattva story in a single sentence - as I see it anyway.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan, I've only known one real hermit in my life and that was my great aunt who had no spiritual affiliations at all. She only went to town about every 13 years and grew all her own food etc... She was amazing and could tell you all sorts of things about nature just by the colour of the trees on the mountains or whether or not the wasps built their nests in the ground or in the trees for example...she had an amazing calmness and always told me "not to worry" about any concern that I talked to her about...I grew up poor and have had no advantage except perhaps on which part of the planet I was born. I am not judging you. It's an interesting subject that we are talking about. I live amoungst the people. I am a homemaker. I was an activist for many, many years. When asked why I no longer do the work that I used to do, it is very complicated and very hard to explain....When my great aunt passed away at the age of 92 it changed my life...It didn't matter that she had lived her life with out tv or media and didn't have a clue what was going on in the human world. Nothing changed. The world went on. Humans kept killing each other....The only thing that changed was me... as I picked the last rassberries in her ancient patch... fed her chickens that were her old friends and probably wondered where she had gone, I could only think about how she had been so peaceful and kind...It doesn't really matter. I do not know the divine plan. I do not know if God exists. I don't know if God doesn't exist. I can only trust myself. try to follow the words that make some sense to me and the only one that does is..TO LIve In THe WorlD, BUT NOT Of iT...This doesn't mean I don't try to help. It doesn't mean that I don't show compassion. It means that I don't get caught up in it. That I trust that everything will turn out alright because I don't know the 'master' plan. That's all. Not to complicated. I don't like anything more than anything else. It's all good...It will just be fine and it is right now in this moment as I type to you. There across the mountains and rivers so far away from me. And in this kindred of the moment it's all as it should be and I send you blessings...from one hermit to another, surrounded by the divine madness...Namaste' Tracy

Nathan said...

"It means that I don't get caught up in it."

I think this is what Buddha and so many others were speaking to. Learning to not get caught up in it, hooked by it, taken over by it all.

For me, I see this being able to be manifested in many ways. I have actually known a few people who were/are pretty "socially engaged" on various issues, but have such a wide open view that they, too, have that calmness - ease - it sounded like your great aunt had. And that sense that things will work out fine somehow, someday, combined with being able to embrace what's going on right now.

You have to figure that there wouldn't have been a need for something like Buddha's teachings, or that of the old yogis if folks weren't constantly getting caught up on things. And that goes for many of the folks who were living on the edges of society, with lots of non-interaction and "quiet time." Instead of obsessing over social issues or how to get their next meal, they obsessed over becoming "pure," "transcending reality," and other spiritual pursuits. Anything can become an object to get caught up on ... and anything can become a gate of liberation in some form or another.

Anonymous said...

Have a wonderful Holiday Season Nathan. Peace and blessings Tracy

n. yeti said...

Becoming a hermit is to swap one condition for another -- it is a dualistic framework of mind that sees this as leading to a more excellent condition when in fact it is the same. Just as swapping the condition of being a non-activist to being an activist, again one stumbles over the divisions of mind, trying to bargain with reality or beg, borrow, steal or buy our way into spiritual growth with petitions, marches or exhortations to do good. Bodhi does not discriminate because it is both no place and everywhere, with nothing lacking, having no marks of any kind. Nothing stained passes the gate. There are no conditions which apply and this is not possible to understand with logic or discourse. The hermits and sages who attained noble wisdom did so by renouncing; the Buddha also taught us to renounce. What does this mean? It means dropping all conditions whatsoever.

Anonymous said...

I love these types of discussions... for just by the act of discussing, is to take a stand.. to cling .. to grasp... to practise aversion... It's simply wonderful to try and break any thread even if it is only made of air... It gives me hope that discourse is still alive and well in the world...Much peace ,love and joy to all. Namaste' Tracy

n. yeti said...

Good observation, Tracy!! Nathan is a rare gem. I am glad He and I disagree at times because otherwise there would be nothing to discuss, and then I would feel sad because the way is hard without good and wise friends.

Anonymous said...

I love how you say the "way is hard".... I have studied in India off and on for years. One of the first things that I began to say was ...This is hard!...My teacher would scold me with a frown and say " This is not HARD! This is Challenging!!!!".... so, I pass this on to you n.yeti... It helped me and I'm hoping that it helps you to... The path is long, and there will come a time when you will wish you have never started but it's impossible to go back. So's to the CHALLENGE!!! May this find you well....namaste' Tracy...Happy Holidays!!!

Anonymous said...

I'm bothered by the idea that Roopa Singh, born and educated in the USA, feels that her background qualifies her to criticize Prachi Patankar who grew up in India. She's a very smart woman and she has the university degrees to prove it. But they are all from American universities and she's a product of the American educational system. Has she even visited India? Having Indian parents is not the same as being immersed 24/7 in the culture, the language and daily life of India. As Prachi pointed out, Roopa has really only been exposed to the specific viewpoint of her parents and not the vast array of castes, languages, religions, political and ethnic groups in India.

Nathan said...

"As Prachi pointed out, Roopa has really only been exposed to the specific viewpoint of her parents and not the vast array of castes, languages, religions, political and ethnic groups in India."

It strikes me that there needs to be more listening and willingness to learn (and perhaps collaborate) on both sides. They both have important things to offer on this issue.