Yoga Vita

Musings on Yoga, Life, and the Yoga Life

Cultural Appropriation in Action


I’d like to highly recommend the following commentary from Bhakti Collective to all: Yoga Journal’s Abstract Impression of Bhakti. Although the author Kaushtuba das doesn’t frame it as such, in my mind it speaks to the kind of cultural appropriation that the Western “yoga scene” is unfortunately saturated with. I’m not in any way claiming to be innocent of any inappropriate appropriation myself (it’s hard to stay “pure” in this globalized world), but I do think that as mostly-Western-born-usually-white-almost-always-economically-privileged yoga students we do need to be aware of our responsibility in this arena. It can be extremely hard to discern between healthy cultural exchange and selfish cultural appropriation, but I believe that with self-education and reflection, we can at least make a start. What we seem to lack at the moment, however, (in the yoga world at least) is any method of accountability to those whose cultures we are learning/taking from.

Cultural appropriation and yoga. It’s a juicy topic, one that I have a hard time wrapping my head around sometimes. . . but it’s really a collective issue more than a personal one, so. . . any thoughts out there?

PS: Apologies to K-das if I may be taking his writing out of context! I simply found the topic a poignant starting point for a dialog I’m interested in having. Thx.


12 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation in Action

  1. Racism? Really?

    Isn’t it just another form of cultural imposition to put a mid-90s, liberal arts-educated, post-colonial critique out there, assuming there is a oppressor relationship in play?

    I am definitely coming from where you are coming from, but the assumption that general cultural shallowness equals racism and that ideas have race-circumscribed “owners” seems pretty heavy.

    Globalization, yo. Not all bad. Not stoppable in any case.

    My POV is really similar to yours but I’ve backed down quite a bit… I hesitate to assume the appropriators have quite that much power or that Indians have some *essential* identity by virtue of birth that is being fundamentally violated. That’s a lot of theory, but I’d need to see what you’re talking about in practice. In actual relationships.

    (The difference between mid-90s post-colonial theory and late-90s post-colonial theory is that the latter got over the racial essentializing thing. Does that make sense? Nobody’s inherently in ownership of any particular culture, and culture isn’t in and of itself sacred and inviolable.)

  2. Mm, I don’t believe it is an imposition to suggest that the very privileged ought to bring some kind of vigilance and self-reflection to their own interactions when dealing with the broader world.

    Although certainly not all cultural exchange is appropriation, and not all appropriation is even necessarily racist, I tagged this post with “racism” because I do believe they are related in some way, esp. when cultural appropriation is used as a tool of the colonizer to diminish the colonized. And although I don’t at *all* think the individuals interviewed in the YJ article are running around trying to make life hard for folks in/from the global south, are they not (are *we* not) by the fact of being European-descended-light-skinned people (yes, I’m making a big assumption here) carrying around a colonial legacy and unexamined privilege, perpetuating racism? I’m not an academic so don’t have all the up-to-date terminology, but are we really calling it a “post” colonialist world? It seems to me that colonialism lives on, but under different names.

    To put theory aside and talk about practice, I guess I feel that those who are benefiting materially or spiritually from any tradition owe a debt of some kind to that tradition. When the tradition is that of our own ancestors and played out in our own land, this debt tends to be repaid naturally: I pray at this church—I tithe at this church, I become a “better person” because of my spiritual practice–I share this with those around me, I make a few thousand bucks from my awesome Ganesh carvings–I reinvest it in my community’s economy, and so on. But when the tradition we’re drawing from has its roots half way across the world, we need to be more purposeful in order to repay this debt. Otherwise we just end up making a bunch of Western yoga entrepreneurs rich via our capitalist system (which is one of the stages on which the new colonialism is played out) with out really giving anything back. What about asteya?

    I should at this point note that I’ve only very recently started thinking about this particular topic very seriously. I’m not trying to get up on a soapbox at all- – I’m just trying to figure stuff out so that I can find a way to live right in this world. And having just talked about the importance of giving back, I’m not really sure how I as an individual should give to the traditions I’ve benefited from. I really appreciate other opinions in this area.

    Thanks for engaging.

  3. Hey Cara,

    God, you’re so thoughtful and morally sensitive and sincere. I don’t want to discourage that in any way. You make me smile.

    In that context, ok if I continue to push on your argument a bit? The topic interests me too and I wish other yogis were reflective about this in the way that you suggest in your first paragraph. There’s a lot of weird identification with India going on in this subculture, and talk about the unfathomable peace and gratitude on the faces of the beggars in Mumbai, and it *can* get pretty escapist and just corny.

    “(are *we* not) by the fact of being European- descended- light- skinned people…carrying around a colonial legacy and unexamined privilege, perpetuating racism?”

    I would say not necessarily. Everything and everyone is connected, but I am not sure that you and I inherited all the trappings of the East India Trading Company by dint of skintone. If anything, our privilege in this relationship is anchored not in ethnicity or phenotype but in citizenship status. Something more historically recent (the nation state as we know it is less than a century old) and mutable (dark skinned people born in India can and do come into possession of the same economic-political privileges of US citizenship…. But white guilt (self-felt) is different from immediate, actual culpability for global inequalities.

    “I feel that those who are benefiting materially or spiritually from any tradition owe a debt of some kind to that tradition. … what about asteya?”

    This is why I brought up the question of essentialism. Who owns Ganesh, really? Who owns the ideas that go around the world?

    Inequality is a bad deal. But what’s a worse deal is outright poverty. Is the poverty of people in India less problematic when we consider that American cultural “property”–faked brandname clothing and soooo many records and DVDs–is being “stolen” by Indians? What about China’s humungus appropriation of American cultural artifacts? Is that something that should be restored to “us” because of our “heritage” or does all this essentializing of culture obscure the deeper moral feeling in your discomfort… a sense that we’re all connected. We owe each other nothing and we owe each other the world?

    Hope this isn’t too idealistic for you. Heh. Sleep well.

  4. …We owe each other nothing and we owe each other the world.

    Yes, both at the same time. That’s the way it makes sense to me.

    Other night I was sitting at a table with a bunch of French people who had traveled extensively in Latin America, who had lived in Ecuador and Peru, in one case. I could almost hear the relaxation-massage-music pan pipe come drifting in when the conversation turned to the ‘beauty and gratitude’ of the poor Indians. The dish he was served in the home of some locals, the eggs their hen had layed, full of love. I almost puked in my mouth. Owl’s Mumbai story reminded me of that. Anyway, my story’s not really relevant.

    What am I trying to say, here. I think it’s admirable that you want to give to the traditions you’ve benefitted from… but how do you do that? Here’s the way I think about it…ideas are an ether and they can’t be contained by the cultures that invented them. Good ones can go out into the world and benefit its people… bad ones will touch just as many. Some awful things and wrong ideas have been born out of the same culture that produced the yoga we love. I am so wary of tradition. It’s not the tradition I want to honor and respect… It’s a particular ideal contained in the particular method that resonates with me. We have to be careful with reverence. That’s just my opinion.

  5. I have to agree with you both that a good idea is a good idea and you can’t keep a good idea down. (Really, my daily life is full of “good ideas” borrowed from various corners of the planet- – hello, soba noodles, Lao textiles, ashtanga yoga, and Ravi Shankar!) And that tradition can be a little (or a lot) creepy depending on the context.

    But let’s say I’m a US-born sincere spiritual seeker. . . I’ve been trying to lead a spiritual life but my mind is full of delusions and anxieties, my back hurts and I have a constant headache. I want to break through all that and see the light or whatevs, so I go to India and find my guru. I spend a year with her practicing such-and-such kriyas, asanas, and mantras every day, and at the end of the year, wow!, my mind feels clear and calm, my back is fluid and free from pain, and I don’t have any more headaches. I’m so full of gratitude for my teacher and it’s all so beautiful and great. (It *is* so beautiful and great.)

    So naturally when I go back home, I want to share this amazing practice with as many people as I can- – it changed my life and made me a better person! So I make a series of books and videos, which become wildly popular in no small part because of my *sincere* enthusiasm for this amazing practice, and then I start touring around the U.S. teaching 200 dollar a day workshops, and the royalties are rolling in and so on and so forth and I suddenly find I’m “worth” a couple million dollars. Wow. I’m really blessed by Laksmi. I’m so full of gratitude for my guru, and for that grand amorphous concept we call “India” because my time there so changed my experience of life. I buy a big house and own a few studios and take long yoga retreats in the tropics a couple times a year. Life is good, right?

    But what’s happening here is that I’ve taken this great idea that belongs to no one (or belongs to India, or belongs to the Hindu tradition, or belongs to my guru, or belongs to the gods, or belongs to who/whatever, but certainly not me as an individual because ideas don’t belong to individuals) and I’ve used it to make me as an individual rich. Mind you, I’ve also helped to make a lot of American people’s lives better too. But the fact is I’ve grabbed something out of the global knowledge pool and profited from it in a big way. But in the meanwhile, the people back in that little town in India who indirectly and perhaps directly made this experience possible for me (the cab drivers, the farmers, the sadhus. . .) are living in one room huts and eating nothing but chappatis every day, same as ever. Is there no debt here? (I mean this question honestly.)

    Also, I don’t believe in “whiteness” as something inherent or essential that lies in the chromosomes or in any physical place, but rather in “Whiteness” that is a kind of in-crowd membership formed of privileged: citizenship, place of birth, skin tone, native tongue, physical mobility, and a number of other things. Makes the whole white thing a bit unclear, but I still think it’s a highly useful concept.

    So does an isolated Chinese farm girl (with no formal education, no English, no mobility and so on) buying a knock-off Tommy Hilfiger tee-shirt with the yuan she’s saved up have the same *impact* as a White starlet (with every material thing she could possibly need) wearing a sexy cheongsam to a cocktail party? I’m not sure that it does.

  6. Hey Cara. You’re funny about good ideas.

    A few more thoughts if you’re interested…

    Here’s why all this interests me: By arguing (if only implicitly) that culture is the “property” of certain people and that they are owed for others’ use of their patrimony, one actually legitimates the western idea of *intellectual property* by smuggling it inside the critique. This actually does more to impose western, capitalist values and practices than it does to undermine them: it is only after commodification that ideas can be bought and sold as things.

    Ideas aren’t commodities in India–or they weren’t until recently. You couldn’t own them–in fact, the more obscure the origins of some piece of culture, the more legitimacy it has. (The first place I read about this was an interesting book called _Classical Indian Metaphysics_, though the comparative philosophers at Philosophy East and West and the Monist have taught me something about this too.) Like how the ashtanga sequence is “ancient,” not a modern amalgam of calisthenics and pre-meditation stretching….

    Once intellectual property becomes legitimated from below with practices like symbolically paying poor suckers for what we’ve used, then it’s also ok that powerful people own ideas too. Like how the East India Company owned the salt-making process, or how Monsanto now owns the genetic code for seeds in the western Amazon.

    Talk about colonialism. It’s the powerful who really benefit from the idea of “intellectual property.” Again, token payments to the poor for “their” original–now capitalized–intellectual content just legitimate that schema. I AGREE with you that a Chinese girl buying knockoff Tommy is different from a starlet wearing cheongsam but… who owns what and who owes what here? I don’t see a clear line of property-ownership or a principle that makes one of these a victim and one an oppressor. In a way, they are both just participating in a global process of cultural diffusion.

    I like your example of the yoga teacher who needs to give back, but again, is this because she has oppressed or impoverished sadhus or the rickshaw drivers by capitalizing on inner peace? Does she need to “pay for” the intellectual property that she picked up there? How should she really ascribe original idea-ownership? Alternatively, maybe she should just give because she has more and they have less, and this is an accident of social structure… the same structure that allowed her to parlay old ideas into new practices far away. Maybe the compensation could be not in fee-for-idea so much as in renewed sincerity about the ideas and their context…in an effort to make the ties between her students and the culture of India even more substantive, respectful and real. I dunno. That would also be a kind of cultural appropriation, just at a deeper level.

    I come from a poor, rural area. When I was 18 I left and would never go back. I often think of that background as preventing me from accessing economic and cultural resources, but your example makes me realize how much I was given there–beautiful surroundings, basic education, local food, the values of simplicity and honesty (all cultural resources, pretty much). I’ve parlayed those resources into much more, here in urban America. Do I owe something to the people living back on the farm? I dunno. They don’t think so. They just want me to keep my crazy ideas in the city where they belong. 🙂

  7. LOL. I would say that since a rural US culture is your culture (at least partly anyway) and you inevitably have some kind of ties back home, you’re probably giving to rural US all you need to give already. Even if that means just keeping your crazy ideas in safely in the city. : )

    Sigh. This whole conversation has brought up a million different thoughts and topics for me (thanks!) and if I delved into them all now I would end up writing a book. . . so I’ll spare you! (Plus I suspect writing is not the ideal medium for this topic- – old-fashioned face-to-face conversation is so much more flexible.) But I do want a chance to reiterate my stance on cultural appropriation even if it means leaving out a ton of valuable nuances, exceptions, complexities, examples and so on.

    So: White people in the US have a collective history of taking and taking (land, life, children, customs, language. . .) from people of color (a) without asking and (b) without giving anything of value in return. I believe we need to honestly and openly examine that collective history, own up to it, get over guilt, and most importantly, listen to what people of color are saying about it. And then we need to take action to change the current direction of our collective history in a more positive way.

    Of course, have we, working and middle class white folks in the US, also been taken from without permission or recompense? Yes- – almost exclusively by the white upper class (who are of our same general cultural group but can seem to have hardly anything in common with us because of their distance from us in our cultural group’s hierarchy, if that makes any sense). But that’s a whole different dynamic and requires- – deserves- – its own conversation. (I would also suggest that the racial/ethnic/cultural convo needs to happen first for the class conversation to be honest, complete, and meaningful, but that’s just my unprovable opinion.)

    Thanks, Owl and Joy Suzanne, for all your thoughtfulness! I’d love to hear anything either of you (or anyone else) has to add, but I think I personally need to stop commenting here or my head might explode. : )

  8. I’m reading all of these well thought out, rational responses to the questions raised of Cultural Appropriation and Yoga in the U.S.

    Here are my observations, and a few more questions to ponder.
    At the end of this list, it’s my hope you will ask yourself which of these made you feel defensive or have the need to rationalize your spiritual practice?

    Here’s what I have found as a person who is white in the U.S.
    After i started exploring yoga and other indigenous spiritual practices in my late teens and early twenties, I decided to make friends with people from different cultures (people of color). The question that these friends asked me (and they are still dear friends) was-“why? why do you need to take on my spirituality and culture?”
    And then,”Why do you only take what you like from my culture, and leave the struggle of my people to me and my people?”
    And my question for all of you is:
    If our spiritual backgrounds (as white European descended) are so bad, what is this badness? What stops us from working with our own people and pasts to make change in our communities?

    I continually hear complaints from my friends and others in yoga and buddhist white communities about how the rest of white society and people of color don’t understand how right they are in their choices-how misunderstood are their intentions.

    Whether we are concious of it or not, our intentions are mired in the social injustices and histories that make our societies have such need for spiritual fulfillment.

    I suggest the biggest and most interesting challenge for those of us so drawn to yoga, buddhism and other indigenous practices-The biggest challenge is to look at ourselves, within our own context and that of our family histories. Addressing the Oppressor roles we have directly and indirectly been connected to, and working with our own white religeous communities to do the same-now that is a tough spiritual journey. Doing this without calling on another cultures spiritual practices is important. We don’t need to feel more at ease and more comfortable, we need to address the root of the stress-within our own largely christian heritages.

    This is possible, and pursuing it is a huge challenge, but also gives a big reframe to spirituality, and understanding how much of it is about our Human relations.

  9. Pingback: yoga and cultural appropriation « Oculus divinorum v.4

  10. I am so grateful to be reading this post. there is so little actual discussion about this in the world, and I have been struggling with many of these same thoughts about cultural appropriation and its role in American capitalism and systems of oppression and how my spiritual practice fits in to it all.

  11. I am replying to this discussion today because it is a subject that needs some ongoing inquiry. As a descendant from great great grandparents from India, I began my yoga journey in very different ways. I see in a variety of ways, schools and definitions that the core of yoga, the roots, traditions and practices are presented by the many, many schools and new world orders of “yoga” without a shred of reflection or respect for the roots of this practice. It IS about culture – Indian culture.
    The essence of Indian family, social and communal practices are in the ideas, beliefs and actions embedded in yoga. Yet, it is in the “west” where these core principles are used to shape thousands of individuals who assume positions as “leaders” of yoga culture.
    It is the most interesting and ironic experience to participate in yoga centres across North America..

  12. Pingback: appropriation « hear the sound of the guru

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