Last week, I posted my initial response to s.e. smith’s article “Like it or Not, Western Yoga is a Textbook Example of Cultural Appropriation“. I limited my initial response to a discussion of my own practice of yoga for physical and spiritual health; in attacking the appropriation of yoga by Western culture, smith’s article felt like a personal attack as well, whether it was intended that way or not, since my yoga practice is such a big part of my life and is woven into many different areas of my life. In processing what smith had to say, I had to think through how it affected me personally first. Today, I’d like to consider the larger issues that smith brings up.
I think smith is largely objecting to the commodification of yoga in Western culture, and there I think smith has a point. However, if you look at the history of yoga in the US, it was brought here not by people who wanted to sell it, but by people who believed in it and wanted to share its message. Religions, and religious practices, have a tendency to grow beyond the people who originate them. When Christianity started spreading to the Greek and Roman population a few decades after Jesus’s death, the original Jewish Christians really had to think about the meaning of their faith, but considering that Jesus said “spread the good news,” the spread of Christianity was unavoidable, and considering how he made an example of himself by having all kinds of people over to dinner, you can assume he would have wanted all those converts to be welcomed. Buddhism spread from its roots in India eastward into China, and while I’m not well informed on the subject, I’m sure Indian Buddhists, Chinese Buddhists, and zen Buddhists in Japan all have some different religious practices within the same religious tradition. And it’s not as though Hinduism has tried to stay separate and apart. For example, in the late 1800s, Swami Vivekanda traveled the world and preached his message, making a huge impression at the Parliament of Religions in 1893 and really bringing Hinduism onto the scene as a major world religion (which it already was, of course, but his work brought recognition and interest from outside India). After Vivekananda, a number of teachers and yogis strove to promote yoga in the US, most of whom set out to do the work from an altruistic perspective. It could be argued that the spread of yoga as a practice beyond its Hindu roots was perfectly natural given that that’s what religions do, and given that Hindu yogis and swamis either traveled to deliver the message themselves or were happy to participate by preaching to those who wanted to bring it.
Over time, however, yoga has become a product to be sold. The majority of those in the yoga community would agree with smith that that’s not a positive thing. Yoga was never meant to be big business by those who wanted to share it in the first place; there’s a difference between people using the popularity of yoga to make a quick buck and people who’ve made yoga their life’s work. In India, the ancient yogis or wandering sages (sadhus) depended on charity for their livelihood: common people knew that if you didn’t provide for the sages, then they couldn’t live the lives of study and meditation that they were being called to live – they couldn’t search for wisdom, and therefore wouldn’t be able to share and teach that wisdom. It was understood that charity and hospitality towards the holy men was required. In modern times, yoga and spiritual guidance don’t require wandering the countryside barefoot, but they don’t pay for themselves either. People like my teachers N and J at EEY aren’t making tons of money on their business; I’m sure they’re happy to be paying their bills, but they didn’t get into yoga with dollar signs in their eyes. They teach yoga because they feel called to do it.
smith looks at the commercialization of yoga from one large-scale perspective, without taking into account all the individuals that make up the whole. So many books and products and classes exist for the yoga market, so many people wanting to make money, but there are also so many well-meaning people genuinely trying to do good work, who believe in the power of yoga to help others, even if just for the physical benefits. I don’t think you can talk about one without the other. But even recognizing the fact that yoga didn’t originate in the US for commercial gain and isn’t being used that way by many who “sell” it, what we need to address is what should be done about it. smith makes us all feel guilty about buying a new mat or getting a class pass at our favorite studio, but what alternative does smith offer?
I can understand why smith, after some soul searching, decided to abandon a personal yoga practice. But I don’t think it’s viable to give up every good thing that comes from a non-European heritage, or to assume that the presence of those things in Western culture must be classified as “cultural appropriation” in a negative way. After all, the USA is a melting pot: people from many cultures came here in the hopes of building a better life, bringing all their history and traditions with them. If Indian Americans are practicing yoga traditions here, then they are American traditions, and if we say they are not American traditions then I think we’re devaluing those people and their experiences. They, like all other Americans, are part of this country.
In some of the comments on smith’s article, people were making statements to the effect of, “Oh no, yoga is a form of cultural appropriation? Do I have to give up Chinese food too?” Which is ridiculous: sweet ‘n’ sour chicken does not equal a spiritual practice. But those commenters do have a point. Yoga, like Chinese food, is here to stay in Western culture. It’s not everything it could or should be, but it’s here. You can give it up, like smith did, the same way you’d give up wearing fur or eating factory-farmed beef: as a form of protest. Personally, though, I don’t think it’s in the same category. If you attend a yoga class, even a really Westernized aerobic power yoga class, you’re not participating in violence being done to a living creature in the same way you would by eating a steak or wearing a fur coat. The comparison just isn’t the same.
If we try to practice ahimsa, or nonviolence, then we abhor not just physical violence but all violence, so we have to ask whether we are engaging in some sort of violence by appropriating the spiritual practice of another cultural group when we attend that yoga class. Does my practice of yoga represent a form of violence if no member of the injured group knows about it, or would care or feel injured if they did know? Here’s another question: does the act of two men getting married somehow injure my heterosexual marriage? Or, more to the point, does my engaging in heterosexual marriage, or choosing not to do so, have any effect whatsoever on homosexual people who aren’t permitted to marry? smith strikes me as the sort of person who would abstain from a desired legal heterosexual marriage in protest until all gay people can get married too, but in the end, that protest would only help the movement for the 30 seconds it was a headline, or not at all. Ultimately that sort of protest would only hurt the protester.
In my opinion, since yoga is here to stay in the US and isn’t going anywhere, it would make a more powerful statement to practice yoga in the way you would like to see it practiced. Teach yoga in the way it should be taught. Show people what yoga really means by your example, and continue to seek, learn, and expand your knowledge about the history and true meaning of not just the physical asanas but the deeper spiritual practice. Instead of opting out of something wonderful just based on principle, be a part of the community and a voice for change.