Wednesday, December 3, 2014

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


Photo credit: jllfitness from morguefile.com

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?