I wanted to address cultural appropriation and honouring the traditions of yoga. This is a subject that is complicated and complex and there are a multitude of different opinions and thoughts out there but if you're coming to my classes I feel it's important for you to know how I feel about these subjects and how I try to address them.
The history of yoga is complex and there are many different theories on its origins and transmission but one thing is for sure: the way we offer yoga here in the West for the most part does not look anything like yoga as it was originally intended. I've given this is a lot of thought and I like to bring these ideas to the way I teach. This is why attending to philosophical ideas, whether explicitly rooted in the yogic tradition or implicitly so, has always been a cornerstone of my teaching style.
I believe that just because something is old that doesn’t necessarily mean it is true nor deserves unexamined respect. I also believe it's important to respect and honour the origins of a practice whilst welcoming a natural evolution and transformation as the practice grows and encounters different perspectives, ideas, cultures and generations.
I also feel fairly strongly, especially as a women's yoga teacher in the main, that honouring the origins of a practice doesn’t necessitate following a guru, leader or particular lineage. Many of us have been harmed at the hands of abuse of power and the guru/leader/lineage approach has been shown time and time again to put women at the risk of this happening. Over the past few years the main traditions have been systematically coming under fire for the abuses taking place either by the men heading up the lineage themselves or those following them.
Women’s yoga is a model that invites an intentional shift from the guru model to that of women being guided to listen to the voice of their own inner guides and teachers. This is a practice that helps us to take back our power. It offers a method of respecting a tradition with an open mind whilst staying vigilant to doctrines transmitted without question by engaging critical thought.
‘Well Woman Yoga offers ways to allow a profound sense of deeply rooted blood wisdom to fill your heart and live life fully and free. When this living connection with blood wisdom is accessed, then there is a sense of rightness, and a trust in the clarity and understanding that flows through the heart. From this experience comes a quiet but truly secure confidence, a total trust that the heart’s wisdom is founded on the deep inner knowing of blood wisdom, evident in the rhythms of a woman’s body through her life. The rhythms of the body and the blood wisdom are one and the same: they are in union. In this state of yoga or union, no mediator is needed – no lineage, no tradition, and no outer teacher can come close to the deep sense of wisdom and understanding that flows through a woman who is absolutely and profoundly connected with her own intuitive understanding of what is best for her. Well Woman Yoga is not about following the teaching of a particular tradition, text or lineage. It is about accessing the route back to the original intuitive wisdom that resides within the womb energies and is experienced within the heart as the ‘inner teacher’ who guides us to live in freedom’
~ Uma Dinsmore-Tuli
And then of course there is the argument that by making the practice accessible to those who may be afraid of or turned off by aspects of it - for example an atheist, agnostic or deeply religious person who is concerned that some of the spiritual aspects conflicting with their belief system - we share the practice with more people. And so often, though of course not always, when people discover yoga as a physical practice, it soon becomes much more. This was certainly the case for me and many others I speak to. For example Headspace strips some of the key aspects away from a Buddhist practice and in some ways makes it a lesser practice but we can't deny the huge benefit that it has had on so many and the ripple effect through society. To me it feels important to share these practices with respect to the wisdom traditions that underpin them because we then in turn respect the people originating from and connected to these traditions.
I also feel there are ways to honour the traditions and origins of the practice without abandoning who you are, your integrity or what you believe in.
There are parts of being a white yoga teacher than I don't feel comfortable with and I use that discomfort for investigation. I want to be as close to cultural appreciation and as far from cultural appropriation as I can but that doesn't mean I'm always going to get it right. I don't have the answers but I Iove hearing thoughts from those who are deeply immersed in this subject, so I'm going to go on to share the words of one such person below.
'Now, when so much of what the Western world sees as true yoga is beautifully achieved physical postures, (accomplished, photographed and displayed by popular yoga magazines, journals and sites) executed by mostly young, white, stylish-yoga-apparel clad women and men, yoga is going through a second colonization. This colonization is the misrepresentation of yoga’s intention, its many limbs, and its aims.
Yoga is not now, nor has it ever been, a practice aimed at physical mastery for its own sake. Nor is it a practice aimed at “stress-reduction” so we can function as better producers and consumers in a capitalist society.
Yoga was originally intended to prepare the body as a foundation for unity with the spirit. The limb of asana aims at strengthening the body. Asana, along with dhyana or meditation, aim to harmonize body with breath in order to attain deeper and deeper states of meditative awareness or samadhi. The purpose of this kind of meditative awareness is to experience, practice, and live oneness of mind, body and soul with the divine. This kind of freedom is called samadhi or liberation.It is ironic that practice meant to free us has becoming so confining.
The current state of yoga in the United States and elsewhere in the Western world highlights the power imbalance that remains between those who have access to wealth, an audience and privilege in contrast to those who have been historically marginalized.' ~ Susanna Barkataki
I also think it's important to remember that people of Indian origin who feel connected to the yogic traditions are individuals with individual and sometimes opposing thoughts and ideas. And of course yoga is also melting pot of traditions and cultures so people of Indian origin aren't the only people who may have thoughts on this.
For example I have had people of Indian origin come to my classes for years and tell me they really respect hearing Sanskrit words and then I also have people of Indian origin come to my classes who share with me how complicated it is because Sanskrit was a language of scholars and can be seen to be a troubling reminder of the caste system. I have listened to Susanna Barkataki's views on not closing class with 'namaste' and then had a student of mine who is a yoga teacher of Indian origin share that she likes to both and and close her practice with this practice and told me to 'share what is in your heart'. When it comes to the use of 'Namaste' (a formal greeting) I have been told to include it is to appropriate and to exclude it is to appropriate and confirmation bias means I can find articles, people and information that back up either side of this discussion so Asmita's approach feels right to me, listen to your gut, apply some critical thinking, get educated but ultimately share what's in your heart.
So the place I have come to for now (I'm always listening, learning and changing) is that to a certain degree this job in it's Western form is an appropriation and we shouldn't really pick and choose what we do and don't include but many of us are so with how much respect can we do that. To appreciate a practice we have to credit it. And also I feel that if we can comfortably, with an educated, informed and open minded approach explain why it is we do or do not choose to teach in a certain way and when somebody challenges that take the time to listen, contemplate, readjust and realign then we're doing our best by this practice.
When I first started teaching I did things because I'd been told to without investigation and as I grow and develop as a teacher I'm learning to be more investigative, open, critically minded and changeable. And most importantly to know in my heart that this practice has changed my life BECAUSE it is so steeped in wisdom and BECAUSE it has transformed my life off the mat. So as long as I'm sharing those aspects with those coming to my classes, not just doing some fun asana then I feel in my heart that I am congruently, respectfully and with integrity sharing this beautiful, ancient and powerful practice.
This subject is much bigger than these words and there is so much more to discuss such as really we shouldn't even be profiting from yoga so that in and of itself is a dichotomy.
I am always open to hearing from those who originate from these traditions to discover how I can be doing more to honour this practice. So please do get in touch and let me know! I'd love to hear from you.
Photo credit: @ellieindyablack 2019