So here’s something that’s been bothering me for a while. I read this article by s.e. smith: “Like it or Not, Western Yoga is a Textbook Example of Cultural Appropriation“. Coincidentally, the open letter “Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Race” also showed up in my news feed last week. Reading these two pieces in close proximity really got me thinking about something I don’t think about very often (and definitely not as often as I should): my identity as a white person and how it affects my perceptions.
The cultural appropriation article bothered me very much, because I love yoga and genuinely hadn’t considered this issue before. I looked up the term “cultural appropriation” and found that Wikipedia has a very nice and detailed article with lots of examples. My initial sense was that smith’s article is pretty biased and doesn’t tell the whole story; smith’s bio on xojane describes smith as an “agitator” and someone who likes to “rile people up while also informing them about ongoing issues in the world around them”, so I’m going to assume that was intentional. I certainly feel riled – and although it’s not a pleasant feeling, I have to grudgingly agree with smith that getting riled isn’t a bad thing and often is a good and necessary thing. Being riled made me ponder this issue a lot this week, which can only be good for myself and my yoga practice, but I wanted to spend some time thinking over the perspective that smith is putting forth, because I do think smith’s perspective is biased.
The first issue I wanted to investigate with myself was whether my own yoga practice is culturally appropriative (is that a term? it is now). Am I personally offending Hindus everywhere every time I roll out my mat? After thinking about the issue from a variety of angles, I decided for myself that no, my yoga practice in itself isn’t offensive. My asana practice isn’t only a part of my physical fitness routine, it’s a part of my spiritual practice, and I approach that spiritual practice as respectfully as I can. I completed my yoga teacher training at a studio where meditation, spirituality, and the ancient Hindu roots of yoga are emphasized; I’ve read several of the sacred books that discuss yoga and I plan to read more. I may not be as informed or educated about Hinduism as someone born to the faith, but I’m working on it.
Spirituality isn’t (or shouldn’t be) limited by the color of one’s skin or one’s country of origin. The religion I was raised in never really resonated for me, so I needed to reach farther to find the path that did. Should I be limited to only Christian spiritual practices because I have white skin? Are my spiritual practices fake or empty in some way because I wasn’t born to them? That seems unnecessarily restrictive. The Wikipedia article on cultural appropriation notes that elements borrowed from other cultures “can take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held”, and cites Native American traditional spiritual practice, among others, as an example. For myself, I do my homework and try to learn what yoga really means. That was part of why I undertook a yoga teacher training in the first place: to learn more about the spirituality underlying the physical practice, and to do so in a structured way. For smith to discount “everybody and their mother” for undertaking yoga teacher training is to discount a lot of honest, and earnest, searching, and a lot of people who genuinely want to learn the history and deeper meaning of their yoga practice.
Ultimately, unlike smith, I’ve decided that my personal use of yoga to improve my physical and emotional health and as a key part of my spiritual practice may be “cultural appropriation”, in the technical sense that I have appropriated these practices from another culture, but it isn’t cultural appropriation in the negative sense that smith means. I have never pretended to have all the answers, or to call myself a Hindu or an expert in Hinduism. When I have to call myself something, I call myself a Unitarian Universalist and I acknowledge my strong interest in Eastern religious practice. I think that’s an honest assessment and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I read, I research, I constantly try to improve my understanding. I learned what karma yoga means and I try to practice it. I’m doing my best.
However, yoga as it’s used and practiced in Western culture is not the same as yoga as it’s used and practiced by me personally, and I do agree with smith on a few points, which I’m going to have to discuss further in a separate post. Check back next week for more.
Side note: I fully recognize that this post itself may reinforce the depth of my cultural appropriation and entitlement to some readers. I read about a cultural issue and immediately looked at it from my own, privileged perspective, not the perspective of the minority; I did not consult with any actual live Hindus in the writing of this post; I am self-centered and I use the word “I” a lot. To which my response is: it’s a blog, it’s supposed to be self-centered; and smith didn’t mention consulting any actual Hindus in that article either. We are two white people writing about how white people feel about other cultures! I can’t go too far down this track or I want to punch myself, but I have to conclude that I am trying in good faith to explore and to understand, and that has to be good enough for now. Actual Hindus reading this, please know your opinion would be welcomed.