Cultural Appropriation in Yoga: The Dos and Don’ts

yoga in india
Photo by yogicphotos

Recently a yoga class at University of Ottawa in Canada was canceled due to concerns regarding cultural appropriation. For the past seven years, a free yoga class has been offered to students, but this year there were concerns of how its practices are being taken from other cultures. In our hyper-sensitive culture, it is hard not to step on toes every time you walk. Even so, there are plenty examples of people abusing other people’s cultures and beliefs. However, the case of the Ottawa class is less an example of cultural appropriation and more an example of misunderstanding and misusing the term.

Cultural appropriation is broadly defined as the adoption of one culture’s elements by members of another culture. Sounds friendly enough, but cultural appropriation becomes a problem when a member of one culture uses a symbol of another (often marginalized) culture in an offensive or hurtful way.

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I hang out in Downward-Facing Dog, chant Om, and drink Yogi Tea without apology. Does this make me culturally insensitive? I don’t think so, but it can be easy to cross the line when it comes to morals, ethics and respecting other’s cultural beliefs. To keep myself from crossing the cultural appropriation line I follow these six simple dos and don’ts:

Do keep practicing yoga

Yoga means a lot of things to a lot of different people. For some it is a way to stretch and strengthen the body. For others it is a means for clarifying and focusing the mind. For others it is a spiritual practice of connecting to divinity. In India, yoga is part of a complex understanding of spirituality and is practiced differently by those who choose to practice. One school of thought in India is focused on the four ashramas of yoga, which defines four levels of practice for the different types of yogis that exist. In contrast, the yoga found in America is predominantly asana-based, occasionally including breathing and meditation techniques. The asana practice we know today does not have years of religious history as many have come to believe, but actually came from European physical fitness practices. Find the yoga that speaks to you, and practice it in a way that feels right.

Don’t pray to Shiva (unless you mean it)

Be conscientious of the spiritual significance yoga has acquired for many people. If you worship Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha, or any other divinity, feel free to call their name in any way you want whenever you want; that is your business. However, if you are practicing yoga as a secular practice, you might want to hold your tongue and consider why you are chanting Om Shiva Om in the first place. It is a bit like doing a Muslim prayer because it looks fun. I am a big proponent of honoring other’s beliefs and exploring different spiritualities. But curiosity and questioning is different than practicing a religion you don’t believe in. You wouldn’t take communion if you didn’t believe in God—it would feel offensive to those who find deep spiritual meaning in the practice—so don’t chant to gods you do not believe in either.

Do wear whatever you are comfortable in

People might have personal issues with super-tight yoga pants, but there is nothing offensive about spandex. If you are comfortable wearing tight yoga clothes, go for it. If baggy, loose clothing is more your style, be my guest! No one tells you what to run in or do pilates in, so why would they tell you what to wear to yoga? Again, the practice of yoga is not inherently spiritual. Yoga is a tool that has been used by millions of people in millions of ways. Use it in the way that speaks to you and wear the clothing that makes you comfortable.

Don’t wear Ganesha socks

Graphic clothing gets a little complicated when it comes to yoga. Is it offensive to wear a t-shirt with the Om sign on it? Where do we draw the line? There is no absolute answer, but I will say it is always a good idea to play it safe. However, there are a few things we can easily point to as a no-no. One example is Ganesha socks. Ganesha is a Hindu god that is believed to help people remove obstacles and overcome challenges. In Hindu beliefs feet are seen as the most impure part of the body. They are generally considered dirty and tainted. Wearing Ganesha socks would be a bit like using Jesus toilet paper. I know idolatry can be a confusing subject, but in general, not putting pictures of divinity on your feet is a step in the right direction.

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Do enjoy the modern versions of yoga we have available today

Vinyasa yoga, yin yoga, hot yoga, acro yoga, aerial yoga, and snowga are just a few of the unique yoga styles you can practice. There are endless ways to enjoy yoga, and none of them are right or wrong. They are just yoga. Find the practice that works for you and enjoy it. As long as you follow these dos and don’ts you will be safe in regards to cultural appropriation no matter how you move on your mat. 

Don’t forget about yoga’s rich and unique history   

While yoga has a long and complex history of development, change and evolution, it is still important to recognize, appreciate and honor it’s vast history as well as its cultural context in India. Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture PracticeDavid Gordon White’s Sinister Yogis and The “Yoga Sutra of Patanjali”: A Biography are fantastic reads about the complex history of yoga. “Yoga” is a term that has been used differently throughout history and it has been shaped by Indian, British, and American cultural influences. Thus, yoga cannot be defined by one person, one culture, or one race.

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