In honor of Election Day, here’s some spiritual/political news that I’ve been meaning to share for a while (for once it worked out perfectly that I forgot to share a link!): Moments of Spirituality Can Induce Liberal Attitudes. Researchers in Toronto found that people express more politically liberal feelings after practicing a spiritual exercise like meditation. Richard Schiffman also shares some interesting commentary on this study over at HuffPost. I find the results of the study interesting but, like Schiffman, I think more research needs to be done to draw any real conclusions. And, humorous blog post titles aside, I appreciate the researchers’ conclusion: that both right and left are necessary in society. Conservative viewpoints are important for setting common rules and boundaries and preserving valuable traditions, while those with liberal viewpoints focus on equality and social justice. Both sides are needed, and while I know which candidates will be getting my vote at the polls today, hopefully I’ll remember that when I hear the election results tomorrow.
On Cultural Appropriation, Part 2 July 25, 2013
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.
On Cultural Appropriation, Part 1 July 18, 2013
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.