What is cultural appropriation, how does it differ from cultural appreciation, and why is it such a big conversation in the yoga world? Cliona Elliott explains
Every week I listen to Rachel Brathen’s podcast, From the Heart: Conversations with Yoga Girl. The discussions are inspired by current themes or events and they are always so honest and interesting, but one particular episode with guest speaker Susanna Barkataki was really eye-opening. Susanna is a teacher, yoga culture advocate and the author of the original article, “How to Decolonize your Yoga Practice”. Susanna was invited to talk on the show because Rachel Brathen, famously known as Yoga Girl, had been placed in the spotlight of a huge social media debate surrounding the cultural appropriation of yoga. Yoga Girl started as an Instagram account and in just a few years, it has grown into a global brand with over 2 million followers. With classes, retreats, teacher trainings, workshops, charities and a website with free online resources and interactive content, Yoga Girl has become far more than Rachel ever imagined. She ensures that good intention and being of service to others is at the core of everything Yoga Girl is, and through each platform she aspires to create a worldwide community where people can connect and heal. When Rachel was accused of culturally appropriating and capitalising from an ancient spiritual practice, it threw her into a sea of doubt and made her question herself, her intentions and everything she has ever created. So, what exactly is cultural appropriation, how does it differ from cultural appreciation, and why is it such a big conversation in the yoga world?
In its simplest sense, cultural appropriation is like cherry picking bits and pieces from a culture without really understanding or respecting it. It’s “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the practices, customs, or aesthetics of one social or ethnic group by members of another (typically dominant) community or society.” The most obvious and painstaking example is Blackface. I imagine most people will agree that under no circumstance is it ok to dress up or mimic someone else’s race or ethnicity, but unfortunately it still happens. Cultural appropriation operates within the power disparities created by years of colonial and racial oppression, and those who are in a more powerful and privileged position can borrow and normalise something from another culture, while the group they took it from are marginalised or excluded. On the flip side, cultural appreciation is when elements of a culture are used respectfully and with full acknowledgement of their origin.
When it comes to yoga, a practice that millions of Western people have benefited deeply from, how do we ensure that we engage with it respectfully and benefit without exploitation? Yoga originated in India and has been practiced for thousands of years. During the British colonization of India, Indian people were sometimes violently persecuted for not converting to Christianity or for promoting yogic teachings. Fast forward one hundred years and the situation is very different, with the global yoga industry now worth over $80 billion. It’s not surprising why yoga has become so popular - it has an extensive list of health benefits, allows people to decompress from the chaos of everyday life and provides people with the space and tools to explore spirituality in a non-religious context.
The real meaning of yoga is to 'yoke' or 'unite'. It’s essentially any complete practice or path which can be used to unite the mind, body and spirit. The paths of yoga include karma or action, devotion, self-study or self-enquiry and self-discipline, but regardless of their differences, they all share the same fundamental goal. For an inherently spiritual practice which requires only the body, the breath and intention, the western appropriation of yoga means it is often portrayed as a fitness activity that is exclusive to specific body type. Although western yoga is largely dominated by asana (the physical yoga postures), that’s not to say that yoga asana shouldn’t be practiced by people who have no interest in spirituality or by people who simply want to improve their physical health. Health and happiness are what all humans strive for, and yoga asana provides huge benefits in this respect. What’s doing the harm is the vacuum packed commercialisation of yoga, e.g. the expensive yoga attire that somehow transforms your practice, the sanskrit puns printed on t-shirts and the images used by mainstream media which make people feel like they can’t ‘do yoga’. Then there’s the new wave of 'beer yoga', 'metal yoga' and 'mimosas and mantras', and while this may sound like a good laugh, it’s completely disrespectful, offensive and should never have been associated with yoga in the first place.
As a non-Indian person exploring this subject, it has made me feel slightly uncomfortable and has also made me realise that there have been several occasions where I have appropriated yoga and other cultural practices, e.g. wearing a bindi. While I may have seen nothing wrong with putting a sparkly gem in between my eyebrows at festivals simply because it’s pretty, Hindu people who wear bindis as a religious practice may have questioned why I, a non-Hindu white woman, was wearing one purely for fun. Does this mean that non-Indian people are appropriating yoga if they attend a yoga class or meditate? I don’t think so. After all, yoga was brought to the west by Indian people so that the knowledge and teachings could be shared with all - to establish unity and connection not only within ourselves but with each other.
Conversations surrounding cultural appropriation are sensitive, uncomfortable and often divide a room with opinions. It can be easy to shrug it off and blame people for being too sensitive, but all feelings are valid and exist for a reason. Yoga is for everyone, but it should be approached with integrity, intention and with the acknowledgement and respect for the land and people it came from. This means knowing what sacred objects and symbols signify and how to use them; it means having knowledge of what mantras mean before chanting them; it means supporting teachers and communities who honour the roots of yoga and not supporting profit-driven corporations. Some of the most beneficial things we can practice are being open, asking questions whenever possible and aiming to deepen our understanding of something even if we disagree. The best part is that they don’t even require a yoga mat.