Cultural Appropriation and Yoga

A flyer posted on a electric pole reads invites passers-by to call to share their thoughts on cultural appropriation.

by Laura Engelman, MSW Intern and School-Year Facilitator

At the end of November, Building Bridges will host a yoga event to raise awareness of our programming and to start a conversation with the larger community around issues of cultural appropriation, accessibility and inclusion.

Admittedly, my first thoughts around cultural appropriation and yoga were defensive — “But yoga has benefits that everyone should be able to enjoy, it’s an individual practice, I try to honor where yoga came from when I practice.” How powerful resistance can be as a force working against seeing the truth, challenging our views and thoughts, and sitting with discomfort.

After reading and listening to some wise individuals speak on the topic, namely Jessamyn Stanley and nisha ahuja, one point got straight to the heart of it: if you’re practicing yoga and you’re not from a South Asian culture, you are engaging in cultural appropriation. Plain and simple. And imperialism and colonialism are the reasons that you feel comfortable doing that.

What is Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is taking a practice or symbol out of its original context and using it for a purpose that does not reflect its original meaning. The person or group that is doing the extracting often uses it for entertainment reasons, or benefits personally or financially. Yoga is, then, a perfect example of cultural appropriation. In the US, the practice has been taken out of its original context and turned into a commodity that can be attained, bought, and used for entertainment. In 2016, yoga was sold in the US for a profit of $16 billion through classes, trainings, apparel and yoga accessories.

What Can I Do?

So what’s the solution? Should anyone who is not originally of the yogic tradition of South Asia immediately stop practicing yoga? No. Jessamyn Stanley, nisha ahuja and Susanna Barkataki have some words of wisdom for those of us who still want to practice. Those that stood out to me are:

Own your privilege. Yes, imperialism and colonialism — and therefore, violence and oppression — are the reasons Westerners feel comfortable appropriating this cultural practice. Don’t ignore that. Be authentic, name it, and center that conversation in your practice and in conversation with others.

Be humble. Understand that no matter how much you think you know, there is a lot that you don’t know about the culture and tradition of yoga.

Acknowledge where the practices and sacred objects comes from.  Give credit to the tradition from which yoga comes and honor that you are borrowing from it.

Be aware of your impact on spaces. What impact do your identities, experiences, words and actions have on those around you and on the spaces in which you practice yoga?

To learn more, is a good place to start.

Join Us for Practice and Conversation!

Building Bridges will host Reimagine Yoga With Insight on Tuesday, Nov. 28 at Colorado Center for the Blind from 6-7:30pm. Join us to continue the conversation about yoga, cultural appropriation, accessibility and inclusion.

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