This subject is a can of worms and each of those worms is walking their own tight rope.
Cultural appropriation or cultural misappropriation is the same thing.
Basically, it is the adoption of one or more elements of a culture by members of another culture.
We do it all the time.
So when is it okay? And when do the worms fall off that tightrope?
Cultural appropriation is not so great when there is a power dynamic at play, where members of a dominant culture cherry-pick particular elements of from a culture that has been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.
So, say you really like Chinese food, but never want to set foot in China? Probably not so great.
Or you wear a sari to a fancy dress party, but you are not interested in understanding the life experience of the people of India; you just borrow an eye-catching number for a night of fun. Bow-wow, maybe also not so great? What if that night of fun is an Indian wedding that is actually four saris and four nights of fun?
What if you “do yoga” thrice a week, put your latest activewear outfit on, walk into a studio, roll out your carefully selected rubber rectangle bend, stretch, sweat, then go home. Without the philosophical studies, history, and appreciation of a life in yoga? Is just doing asana (yoga postures) that is not engaging all eight limbs living a yogic life? Is this cultural appropriation? Have you just cherry-picked what you like about an ancient Indian practice then disregarded the rest?
What if you are an Indian person in India in your kitchen making pasta in curry sauce(yes, it’s a thing!)? Tandoori pizza, anyone? These are grey overcast skies and muddy waters, indeed, my friends.
Questions: Who owns a culture? Where and why did that culture originate? I mean really originate? What influenced that culture? Who polices any cultural infringements?
Forget the worm analogy; cultural appropriation is now a centipede trying to walk that tightrope in 100 other people’s shoes.
We have cross-cultural mashups everywhere we look. These have been gifted to us by risk-taking explorers, adventurous yet weary travellers, immigrants, and refugees who have had to flee their countries in the hope of establishing new lives somewhere safer, the sharing of culture, customs, and even recipes from mother-in-law’s of our interracial marriages.
The internet has made it super easy for us to access postpay and appropriate things we think are cool without even a second thought as to its history or origin. Some of these things have been absconded with under duress, so just maybe we need to take a look at how and why this has happened.
Cultural boundaries are fluid and shifting—culture is no one person’s to preserve and it is always evolving. Culture is what we make of it, and I believe there can be an authentic cultural exchange, harmony, and understanding. I think it starts with your intention.
If we could get to a point where different cultures maintained the same level of respect and understanding without trivialising each or the other’s history of its culture and customs, cultural appropriation might not be an issue at all.
Unfortunately, that is not the world we live in.
Right now, we live in a world that asks us to pick a side—this camp or that camp—not leaving us any room for questions, evolution, or learning. What if we are to learn something new, change our position, then want to switch camps? Nah ah.
Where is the line drawn? Do we want to create a global culture of separation compounded by fear, making us small, withdrawn, and unable to ask questions or share our thoughts?
The other day, a friend of mine was blocked from an Instagram page as he commented on a post—not negatively; he was just opening a door for discussion; he was asking for more information. The door was shut, he was blocked—no discussion was had, me thinkeee this not be cool. But, was the account owner too scared to enter the discussion? Honestly, I totally get that they may well have been. The fierce, fast whip of words on social media can be painful and exhausting.
I did a little experiment on my Instagram where I posted a picture of me in India next to a carved image of Hanuman. I was holding the same pose as Hanuman was in the carving. It’s a joy-filled capture. Hanuman is representative of unconditional love and that’s exactly how I felt at that moment. Ninety percent of people who participated in the poll came back with a positive yes. It is cultural appropriation.
I wondered if they knew the back story—my history, my personal relationship with India, the sentiment of the capture, the before as well as after events when it was taken—would they feel the same way?
It made me upset, to be honest, but I kept coming back to the thought—what was my intention? What was our connection and exchange?
What I was interested in was the number of people who judged that picture without hesitation. As mentioned, Hanuman’s message is one of unconditional love. By not asking any questions or wanting to learn more makes me think that the unconditional love story was lost in their judgments. For me, this is part of a yogic life—compassion, understanding, sharing, learning, and letting go of judgment. I still love this capture, as I am sure the half a dozen Indian people who asked me to take the exact same photo of them do too.
The issue that we are facing here is that there is no grey area to open discussions which will create space for learning, growing, understanding, and acceptance. The very things that break down the barriers to cultural appropriation—understanding alongside compassion are not being given the light of day.
How can you know who is culturally appropriating what without context? I am not at all trying to diminish anyone’s (cultural appropriation) experiences here. I am creating space so we can ask the questions and share information for the betterment of our experiences.
Understanding nuances, context, or someone else’s perspective, and then having the ability to have what may well be challenging conversations to clear a path for cultural exchange is one of the answers.
Dogmatic behaviour, social media bullying, blocking, judgment, and placing such demands on others to behave in the same way simply undermines the whole of everything—these are core contributors to the problem.
You call out, judge, and belittle people on the internet and a big shame wave rolls on in. That’s a conversation killer for sure.
Where then does that leave all of us in “the west” that has indeed rolled out a rubber rectangle to practice the art, science, and hopefully, eventually the spirituality of yoga?
It comes back to your intention.
Like many yogis in the west, I used to “go to the yoga class” because that’s what I thought yoga was; aka that was my truth then. As I started to peel back the layers of what was going on in my physical body, the spiritual side of the practice began to reveal itself—this was a truth upgrade and I hungered for more.
Eventually, understanding that all of this was leading me to a meditation practice that is the entire reason that we practice asanas. This became my new truth. As a sharer of practice, I have made it my mission to learn every day meaning getting daily truth adjustments, and I do my absolute best to embody the eight limbs of yoga.
This is not a wrong way to learn; however you get there is perfectly fine—it’s your journey to go on. I could go on a giant detour into the origins of yoga—if you do want to know more, please drop a comment below and I will hold space for our discussion and learning.
So, who owns yoga?
There are people in India who don’t live a life in yoga; there are people who embody life in yoga and share the practice of Qi Gong, an ancient Chinese practice quite similar to yoga. For that matter, what about Kemetic “yoga,” the Ancient Egyptian practice? The existence of these different cultures holding space for such similar practices that have evolved in their own way over time lends to the factoid that we are all connected.
Perhaps there was an ancient school of yoga that none of us know about, or maybe three elders (I am just giving human-form imagery here) were meditating together, then went their separate ways with whatever was working for them in their practice. Fast forward to their personal yogi adventures—they start handing down their systems as they shared knowledge and experience through China, Egypt, and India, evolving their own systems languages and signature moves along the way.
Does it matter how we get to the practice? Are we all not seeking the same outcome?
Yoga in Sanskrit means to yoke or join, or in a more literal translation, it means union. However, you might find that union—which could be of the self and the higher self—could also be your finger and your big toe if you are practicing hatha yoga, the yoga of force, and spend your life gripping your toe to attain spiritual perfection to ultimately reach Samadhi—union with the divine or oneness.
Ultimately, it’s what brings you balance, peace, happiness, love, joy, connection, appreciation of the experience of others, wholeness, and eventually oneness. If we all found personal peace, would not world peace be attainable?
Your truth is your truth in that moment until you learn or unlearn something thing that creates your new truth.
Whichever way the door is opened to your spiritual practice is fine by me. Keep learning, keep digging deeper, leave that door wide open for learning, understanding, and exchanging information. Be supportive of others, ask questions, release judgment. If you are unsure, just keep some space for the evolution of your truth and the truth those around you.
Come back to your intention.
So when I get addressed as “dear white yoga teacher” in emails or social media messaging and then given a serve about how someone else perceives my exploration of life in yoga, quite frankly, that gross generalisation offends me.
PS: Sorry, I forgot to mention my Indian heritage. Yes, me, the blonde girl in the snap.