October 18, 2012

My Practice: Yoga & Cultural Appropriation. ~ Andrea MacDonald

Source: via Daniel Alonso on Pinterest

It was not easy for me to write this piece.

I’ve struggled with how best to articulate my thoughts on this complex subject. In the end, I’ve written something of a meditation. This is my attempt to ask the tough questions, to put myself in a position to be implicated, to admit my complicity and to challenge others to do the same.

To start, I am a white settler in a colonial country. Lots of people whose families came to Canada generations ago don’t think of themselves as settlers—“I was born here,” we say. I think that it’s important for me to acknowledge my family’s lineage and how that shapes my privilege in the place I call home. My family came here after losing land in their home countries of Scotland and the Ukraine. They were displaced and sought to build new lives in Canada.

What is often forgotten in my family narrative is that their new lives were built on stolen native land. The reality is that theft and displacement made it possible for my family to farm and build lucrative careers in Canada. Because of this I am now in arguably one of the most privileged positions in the world. I’m a white, middle class, Canadian citizen living in Vancouver.

Canadians find it convenient to believe that colonization is a thing of the past. We build museum displays and tourist attractions to celebrate our industrious past and the majestic lives of indigenous people. We conveniently leave out the physical and cultural genocide that made this country what it is today. In keeping with our propensity to turn a blind eye to our wrong doing, we choose to ignore that colonial inquisition is not still ongoing today. You only need to look at the current conditions on reserves; the list of missing women from Vancouver’s Downtown East Side and the myriad of pipelines set to snake through indigenous territories in British Columbia, to see that Canada is a nation which was built and operates on racism, violence and theft.

So what does this have to do with yoga? In the most basic sense, I teach and practice on un-ceded indigenous territories. This means treaties were never signed between the Coast Salish people and the Canadian state, so the land title was never officially relinquished (and even if it had been, treaties are linked to lots of sneaky, backhanded manipulation on the part of the government). Considering that I am a settler on un-ceded land I think it is my responsibility to think through the implications of my teaching yoga. Particularly since yoga is a spiritual practice that originated from a culture and place whose current geopolitical borders didn’t even exist before British colonization and partition.

So what does cultural appropriation have to do with all this? First off, cultural appropriation happens when the dominant (usually white) culture adopts aspects of a minority group’s culture, usually to the detriment of the minority group. Cultural appropriation allows the dominant group to believe they are charitable or sensitive toward the minority group, displaying a “genuine interest” in their culture, even while they are taking advantage of and oppressing them. Perhaps now you can see why, as a white settler and a yoga teacher, I should be concerned about this?

In the yoga world, cultural appropriation can be as simple as a white woman wearing a bindi on their forehead or as complicated as us learning, practicing and teaching yoga in the first place. In the west (a problematic, geographically inaccurate term) most of the yoga we’re exposed to is asana—the physical postures done in preparation for meditation. Though, it’s not uncommon for westerners to skip the meditation part. As a result of this focus on the physical aspects of the practice, mainstream yoga has become a commodified and often hypersexualized fitness regimen, rather than a complex, life-long spiritual practice. Focusing simply on asana makes our practice shallow and neglects the richness of the broader yogic tradition.

Yoga has become so popular in the west that it is even used in marketing to denote certain products as healthy, holistic or “good for you.” The people in the ads don’t even need to be doing yoga, they can simply hold a mat to demonstrate their fitness, health and belonging to the yoga community. The mat has become iconic. An object that was never used in the original practice has come to represent yoga. This, my friends, is but one small example of cultural appropriation of yoga in the west.

Yoga was brought here as a gift. People from the east wanted to share this practice with us. It is a good thing, I think, for us to practice yoga. It can even be argued that yoga’s popularity is a demonstration of our society’s longing for connection, stillness and spiritual fulfillment. That being said, I think it is our responsibility to offer a practice that holds reverence for the lineage, history and culture it arose from. Let us teach in a way that honors the complexity of yoga, in all its expressions and various paths. Let us get off our mats and see yoga as a practice in our lives, not just in studios and gyms. Critically, let us resist the commodification and cultural appropriation of the spiritual tradition to which we owe so much, so that we might pass it on to others, in the integrity with which it was brought to us.

Andrea MacDonald spent several years as an organizer and volunteer coordinator in the non-profit world before becoming a yoga teacher. She worked on many issues from oil-tankers to affordable housing. She brings a passion for social justice and community building to her teaching and strives to make her classes safe, accessible and empowering. Her teaching utilizes a consent based-approach and encourage students to discover authentic embodiment by honouring their desires, needs and boundaries. Her writing has been published on Elephant Journal and in UBC’s Ignite Journal. You can read her pieces and see her updated teaching schedule and anti-oppression policy at wwww.moonlitmoth.wordpress.com.

Editor: James Carpenter

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John B. Nov 29, 2015 12:49am

The intriguing title, "Yoga and Cultural Appropriation," promised something the article did not deliver. Naming the appropriations of *westerners* is appropriate. To conflate un-ceded lands and western yoga, then to let them hang there is odd. We appropriate land and culture. And?
Many of us are looking for solutions that do not have answers. I guess I was hoping for a glimmer of an answer here. I walk away from this article with a promising title, confirmed that I am a selfish fucker, like most of us. My appropriation of repetitive chants, mind & body techniques, and healing modalities pursued to assuage my *western* life only compounds the recognition that I live in a society with an unhealthy, if not fatal, culture.
This is how I'm contributing to the conversation. I imagine my frustration looks like criticism. I couldn't leave it unsaid.

Deepti Srivastava Aug 5, 2015 3:45pm

Thank you for working with this in a Conscious Way and writing this article. Much needed. And great starting point of dialogue/undoing the colonizing of yoga. Awareness mindfulness and consideration. I have been on the other end of naming it to get either nothing, defense or being problematic to bring it up… Even though reclamation work is also justice oriented and decolonizing work addressing this issue is to restore balance and respect the people of the land too and culture – Equality Balance and yes More than just asana and the standardizing of the mat brought on now by thousands of Yoga studios that could also truly be closer to a gym as well as the training and requirements ro teach … It’s become its own thing and a commodity, though maybe opening a gateway … It’s also excluding culture, people, tradition, lineage … And became an industry that’s not exactly respectful but exploitative… more focus on the material and marketing. The other day Macy’s had an add with #namaste for a whole get up … package if you buy this you’ll practice. There’s a great video I saw recently called “Yoga and Appropriation” … thank you for writing and being mindful to bring it into discussion.

Pankaj Seth Oct 20, 2012 9:05am

Andrea, your words are noble and wise. Prof. Heinrich Zimmer in "Philosophies of India", I think gave a useful prescription…


Excerpt from Philosophies of India by Heinrich Zimmer ~ Ed. Joseph Campbell ~ Princeton Bollingen Series XXVI, 1951

"We of the Occident are about to arrive at a crossroads that was reached by the thinkers of India some seven hundred years before Christ. This is the real reason why we become both vexed and stimulated, uneasy yet interested, when confronted with the concepts and images of Oriental wisdom. This crossing is one to which the people of all civilizations come in the typical course of the development of their capacity and requirement for religious experience, and India’s teachings force us to realize what its problems are. But we cannot take over the Indian solutions. We must enter the new period our own way and solve its questions for ourselves…"

Rest @ http://www.deepyoga.ca/dial_up/pages/meeting_of_e

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