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I keep reading disappointing articles about cultural appropriation and yoga, so I’m doing what my father always said to do: write the thing you want to read.
(Maya Angelou may have also said this, but louder and more famously.)
Cultural appropriation is where one culture ransacks another for their social goods—customs, arts, healing practices—without compensation or permission, then picks the best stuff as though the culture were simply a yard sale with a big “for free” sign.
This is icky, to put it lightly.
We’d have slightly different feelings about it if there was, say, a thumb war involved and the victor received some spoils, but it’s still really not okay, according to my (and possibly your) cultural values.
Stealing is usually, mostly, not okay.
Well, we all have differing ideas about this. It would be great if we could define stealing as taking something that doesn’t belong to you without permission or compensation, but we do it all the time. We steal music, we steal honey packets from Starbucks, we steal a few more minutes from someone who doesn’t want to give them. We’re okay with stealing if you have to feed your baby.
So we’re blurry on the subject, but it’s still generally wrong to take things.
Acculturation is what happens when you are immersed in a culture—you learn it, you earn it.
For instance, you were born somewhere that had cultural rules, unless you were raised by wolves. Your microculture was the family of origin, your neighbors, your schooling, or religious experience, and possibly media influences, like Sesame Street. If you grow up in the same place with the same people and no one comes or goes, you experience that culture.
Then, if you leave, or a group of people with a different culture comes in, you slowly acculturate. You learn how the other people do things and maybe take them on, or respect them, or take advantage of the fact that you observe different holy days and thank goodness there will be someone to till the fields on the daily.
This happens if you do a study abroad program where you go live in another country. You observe and experience the other culture—you may or may not like it, but you’re in it for a period of time. Once you’re home, you may find that you fold the napkins like your borrowed Italian grandmother did. Or that you stand your shoes on end as you did in Costa Rica. Or that you pray at a new altar, because God found you in those desperate quiet moments in some foreign desert.
Home no longer feels exactly like the place you were from, but is made of the places you have been.
(This does not happen at the Sandals Resort or because you sucked down Ayahuasca or took a selfie in front of the Taj Mahal. Stamps in your passport do not equate acculturation. Going to the other side of the proverbial tracks does.)
So, yoga. Is it cultural appropriation, or acculturation?
(Because it’s both.)
Or it could be either.
Here are some examples:
>> Getting a tattoo in a language you do not understand written in a script you cannot read because it is pretty.
>> Wearing ceremonial garb to a party, for pretty pictures on IG—or worse—for Halloween.
>> Changing your name to something that sounds cool in another language because it feels spiritual.
>> Decorating your house with religious iconography from religions you do not practice or understand.
>> Cherry-picking parts of stories, myths, or teachings to justify your behavior.
>> Collecting friends with different skin colors, cultures, or religious identities to “prove” how awesome you are because you have a black friend, a Hindu friend, and a First Nation’s friend.
>> Getting a tattoo that has important meaning for you, or reflecting on your choices and using the tattoo as an opportunity to have the conversation about cultural appropriation and acculturation when people ask about it.
>> Wearing ceremonial garb to the ceremony for which it was designed, and participating as you are invited to do so by the people who are ceremony-ing.
>> Receiving a name from a culture based on your participation in their culture for some period of time. Having reverence for the culture and using this name as an opportunity to bridge cultures rather than brag about how special you are. See: Yogarupa Rod Stryker.
>> Preparing a special space or altar in your home for your own personal use (not public display), including relevant icons from any culture, to remind you of those teachings as you sit in reverence in front of it.
>> Teaching the stories from any tradition that you fully understand in an effort to convey an important lesson. See: MC Yogi.
>> Learning about diverse religious practices and observances, perspectives, and customs so that you may better understand yourself, your friends, neighbors, or the world.
You, as a practitioner, as a teacher, as whoever you are now, know the differences and can ask yourself if the things you are doing are more like pillaging or more like ceremony and sacrament.
Rather than asking if your yoga teacher has dipped their toes in the Ganga, ask them how yoga has changed them. What meditation looks like.
How they define home.
America, the country I love in spite of all of her flaws, is a land of acculturation and appropriation.
“Bring me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” ~ Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”
(OMG—breathing is so yoga.)
We are both overexposed to culture and under-cultured. We have access to the aesthetics of everything, but are spiritually bereft. And stealing is kind of okay when you’re starving. (Yoga Sutras, 2.31.)
Do not concern yourself with the actions of others by pointing out all the ways you think they are stealing. If you are compelled to visit India, ask yourself why. If you are compelled to take a photograph, consider permission, compensation, and reverence as guideposts.
If you are spiritually hungry, do the work, and if you find you’ve stolen, pay for your crimes with restorative measures, not retribution or guilt.