A profound way to deepen your understanding of Yogic culture, history, and practices is through education. Our programs will provide you with confidence in the foundation of your knowledge and practice that will allow you to share in authenticity the guidance of this profound spiritual path☝
The topic of cultural appropriation has sparked many conversations in various domains, and the world of yoga is no exception. Yoga is an ancient path of self-inquiry and spiritual practice that has gained remarkable popularity in the West over the last 50 years alone. There’s no doubt that the sharing of this revered path has had significant effects on the health and wellness industry in the last 10 years alone. However, it can also be argued that in an effort toward accessibility, many of the traditional aspects of Yoga have either become lost or watered down for the modern secular society. What was once a dedicated spiritual path that inspired a lifetime of discipline followed by the few has in some cases been overtaken by the spiritual materialism of intense poses, cutest outfits, and Instagram posts.
As yoga practitioners and teachers, it is our responsibility to consider whether we are appropriating or appreciating the ancient lineage of yoga through our teachings, practices, and sharing. In this article, we will first outline the cultural roots of yoga, what cultural appropriation is, and where it can be seen in the modern world of yoga. Ultimately, we aim to explore how we as a collective can always
hold a place of cultural appreciation.
Yoga is a comprehensive system for spiritual and physical well-being. It is an intricately woven philosophy of Indian society, and practice which extends far beyond physical postures (asanas). The 8 limbs of yoga encompass the Yamas (ethical practices), Niyamas (personal practices), Asana (physical embodiment/ postures), Pranayama (breath awareness), and stages of meditation; Prathyahara (withdrawal of senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (de-concentration), which guide a practitioner towards Samadhi - self-realization.
Traditionally the path of Yoga was outlined from studied master to student through strict observance and practice. The study of yoga is to experience union and serious devotees would live and study with a Guru who guided their inner journey over the years. The teacher’s task was to act as a guide along this pathway of true self-inquiry to facilitate an experience union of body, mind, and spirit. Once students had sat in observance of the self and nature for many seasons they then began to share their teachings of yoga.
This is called the Gurukula system, while it still exists in the modern world many yogic practitioners have taken more of a ‘fast-tracked root’ to understanding this ancient way of being. In some cases, this modern embrace of yoga has seen a dilution of the inner journey of yoga and has rather established a culture of spiritual materialism where yoga has become about the ‘coolest’ postures, ‘cutest’ outfits, and passing fads.
The path of Yoga is to realize union and remove oneself from attachment to ego, in many of the modern yoga spaces a ‘yoga’ practice has become a means of bolstering or inflating the ego and creating division. This ethos has also led to a misappropriation of yogic practices and philosophies where teachings are shared without proper observance or reverence for their traditional teachings. In this way, we begin to see cultural appropriation in yoga.
Cultural appropriation is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one society by members of another, typically more dominant culture. In short, when one culture takes from another. We see many cases of this in the modern world where the customs of a minority or disadvantaged culture are adopted by the more privileged without respect to their context or origins.
Cultural appropriation is sadly nothing new and there are countless examples throughout history that evidence cultural appropriation. From the wearing of Native American Headdresses, the adoption of African hairstyles, the fashionization of the bindi, kimonos being worn as robes or Halloween costumes, commercialization of religious holidays such as the Day of the Dead, easter, and Christmas.
In the context of Yoga, cultural appropriation can be seen in the use of images or symbols, scripts, practices, fashion, art, music, etc. It's important to note that cultural appropriation is a nuanced and sensitive topic. Any examples given here are provided to highlight potential instances, but each case should be considered within its specific context and with an understanding of the intentions and impact behind the adoption of one culture by another.
Asana (postures) are just one step of the path of yoga, however, in much of Western culture yoga is seen as a purely physical practice. We see yoga marketed as a means of weight loss, a route to build flexibility, or merely reduced to a fitness regime with achieving a certain physical shape as the main goal. In many modern spaces in this way, the spiritual and philosophical teachings of yoga have been bypassed.
Sanskrit is an ancient vibrational language with a deeply rooted practice in tradition, the use of mantra and Sanskrit terminology in modern yoga practices is often taken outside of their original context, used superficially, or removed entirely. The same can be said for mudras (hand gestures) and iconography. Yoga has a rich tapestry of history that involves many different aspects of practice, in the modern world there can be a pick ‘n’ mix approach where aspects are shared without a full understanding of their traditional or proper application.
Yoga attire has become commodified by the rich Western consumer society, yoga has become about stylish studios, matching outfits, the newest mat, and the coolest accessories. And while in some cases this can simply be seen as an echo of our modern society, in many cases considerable weight is put on how yoga looks. A prime example of this cultural appropriation has been the adoption of mala beads as fashion accessories; mala beads are a traditional tool of meditation yet now we see them commonly worn as necklaces without proper respect for their cultural significance.
When yoga practices are taught without proper knowledge and respect for their origins, or when the teachings are distorted or diluted to fit a particular cultural narrative, it can be seen as cultural appropriation. This includes modifying traditional practices without proper understanding or misrepresenting yoga as a product of a different culture.
At School Yoga Institute we feel deep gratitude and reverence for the teachers who came before us, and for those embarking down the
path of yoga, it is interesting to take a glance back at the thousands of years of history that has brought yoga into modernity.
When we are truly following the yogic path as a practitioner there truly is no place for cultural appropriation, the appropriating of another culture without true understanding feeds Avidya - false knowledge the fuel of delusion in the modern world. In this way, it is not only harmful to the culture from which it is taken (Asteya) but also to those whom you are sharing it with and ultimately to yourself. The appropriation of another culture feeds into the layer of delusion or Maya in the modern world.
It’s worth noting that not all cultural appropriation is done so knowingly, and cultural appreciation and exchange are entirely possible in every instance. Our role as yoga practitioners and teachers is to respectfully engage with and educate ourselves about the different cultural practices we resonate with and choose to share. We must also work to recognize where cultural appropriation is happening and actively work against it in an informed way. Cultural appreciation is when someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture to broaden their perspective and connect with others cross-culturally. The key distinction between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation lies in whether there is an understanding, respect, and acknowledgment of the culture from which the practice originates, or if it is being commodified, diluted, or misrepresented for personal gain.
A profound way to deepen your understanding of Yogic culture, history, and practices is through educating yourself through a Yoga Teacher Training. Our programs offer an immersive experience of self-study and practice which will provide you with confidence in the foundation of your knowledge and practice that will allow you to share in authenticity the guidance of this profound spiritual path.
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