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understanding cultural appropriation

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

Yoga, meditation and other somatic practices have long been part of indigenous communities' ways of healing and spirituality. If we're going to practice them in a Western context, we can work on appreciation rather than appropriation.

One of the challenges that we face in the contemporary wellness/healing/spiritual world is how to share, honor and celebrate the indigenous roots of the practices we love, without engaging in cultural appropriation.

The practice of yoga feels especially problematic. The long history of yoga has as many twists and turns as the story of India herself. However, what we call “yoga” today in the western world bears little resemblance to the original practices. It might be more accurate to call it, as Matthew Remski does, “modern postural yoga (MPY)” in order to differentiate it from its spiritual origins.

First, we should acknowledge that even a very physical practice of “modern postural yoga” can still be transformational, and a spiritual practice. When I started yoga, it was simply a form of exercise for me. I was lucky enough to find teachers and spaces who honored yoga’s roots, so that I learned to practice meditation and ethical behavior as part of the experience. Over time, yoga became something that was more about what I was doing off of the mat than on it; the physical postures (asana) were secondary. I now spend more time each week in meditation than I do practicing yoga postures.

But attempts to inject spirituality into a physical practice, while well-intentioned, can also run the risk of causing harm through cultural appropriation. Remember, intention is not the same as impact. We can have wonderful, loving intentions, and still accidentally cause harm. This doesn’t mean that we’re bad people– it just means that we didn’t know, and once we learn, we can make better choices. If you’re someone (like me) who has made some of the cultural appropriation missteps in this article, remember that this is just part of the learning experience.

So, what is cultural appropriation? Susanna Barkataki says it best:

“Cultural appropriation is when someone uses someone else’s culture, including practices, symbols, rituals, fashion, or other elements from a target or ‘minority’ culture, without considering the source, origins or people of that culture.

They may be using another culture for various reasons such as:

* to make a profit

* to ‘make a new trend’

* to look cool or be fashionable

* to be a cultural tourist or explore the ‘exotic’

* or for some other self-serving purpose without respecting or caring for the original culture or context.

Cultural appropriation happens when a dominant group adopts, benefits from, shares and even exploits the customs, practices, ideas, social and spiritual knowledge of another, usually target or subordinate, society or people.

Cultural appropriation clearly harms the source culture in a variety of ways

1. Material harm

2. Disrespect or disregard to the values, practices, social, religious or cultural norms

Often that harm can span social institutions and political, economic, social, spiritual, cultural worlds.”

According to Barkataki, cultural appropriation always involves a power imbalance and harm. One example might be for a white person to wear a pair of yoga leggings with a Hindu deity printed on them. While this person may have good intentions– perhaps they know a little bit about the deity and like what it stands for– it may feel offensive to someone else to see their sacred images used in this way. That’s the harm piece of the equation. The power imbalance is that the white person is “allowed” to wear an image of a deity, while still being seen as white and part of the “norm,” the dominant culture. A brown-skinned person practicing their religion is more likely to be seen as “other–” different, or even dangerous.

Avoiding cultural appropriation means re-thinking how we approach our practice. It is a process of continual re-learning and questioning how we can honor both the history of the practice and, at the same time, uplift, support and create reparations for the folks whose ancestors created the practice– but never saw material benefit. In many cases, what we call “yoga” in the West has become a practice that is almost exclusively white. And in the case of shamanic healing or other indigenous practices, many Indigenous People, living under the impact of systematic oppression, can’t even afford to attend a weekend workshop on the modalities that are traditional to their ancestors.

So how can we engage in cultural appreciation, rather than cultural appropriation?

  • Get curious. Be willing to engage in inquiry and study in order to decide whether something is cultural appropriation or appreciation. Read and follow Susanna Barkataki, listen to the Yoga Is Dead podcast, check out Decolonizing Yoga.

  • Be aware of the indigenous roots and wisdom of the practices you are sharing. Teachers, explore the lineage and histories; share with your students/clients.Learn and cite correct cultural references. Students, ask for more information, or seek out teachers who share it.

  • Dehomogenize the practice. Teachers might offer scholarships or sliding scale pricing to BIPOC students, especially for teacher training programs. Studios and workshop organizers, seek out teachers of color and center their teaching.

  • Be respectful of symbols and iconography. As Barkataki says, “Make sure, if we are using images of deities or regalia such as statues, malas or bindis, that we know where they came from, what they mean, how to relate to them respectfully and have a sincere intention at heart.”

  • Understand that Sanskrit is a critical part of the history of yoga and respect it as such. Consider how you are using “Namaste.” This is a sacred word that has been commercialized. “Namaslay,” or “Namastay right here” can feel like slander or trivialization of a word that has spiritual resonance.

  • As a non-Indigenous Person, using the words “tribe” or “spirit animal” is problematic. We’re co-opting a culture without taking on the burden of centuries of oppression and marginalization by colonizing culture.

Understand that this sort of self-inquiry can be challenging and even confusing at times. There are often questions (for me) that defy easy answers. Can I call what I’m teaching yoga? Should a white woman be teaching yoga at all? As the conversation continues to evolve, we can remember that yoga’s ethical law of ahimsa tells us to do no harm. Asking ourselves, again and again, how we can do the least harm as we try to engage in healing practices, is a good start to understanding how to avoid cultural appropriation.

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