Navigating Cultural Appropriation and Yoga

At the ripe old age of 55, I have discovered TikTok.  Although I am rarely on the cutting edge of anything and am never an ‘early adopter’ of new social media, I feel right at home amongst the Native American TikTok, the LGBQT TikTok, the Bad Parents of TikTok, the Aunties of TikTok, the Crazy Grandmas of TikTok, etc. (you get the picture).  There is head space on this platform to move about – to learn and laugh.  Then, a fellow Yoga Teacher just had to give a speech about Namaste and using Sanskrit words in general.  He says…it’s disrespectful and culturally ‘inappropriate’ yet he will place his hands in prayer at the end of a practice and bow to his students.

Ugh. Can we step back a moment and take a breath?  What is cultural appropriation? 

The act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.

(Cambridge Dictionary)

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures.

(Wikipedia)

At first, I felt this was just another example of Yoga Snobs who want to somehow show their superiority in the practice-  ‘Oh…thee heathens of the West…here you go again…stealing Yoga and its language.’   

Yet, as I began to research many sources…I found much to consider (below are links for two opposing views from two respected sources):

In Yoga Class, The Meaning Of ‘Namaste’ Is Being Exaggerated : Code Switch : NPR

What Is The Meaning Of Namasté? (chopra.com)

Unfortunately, I found that the word has become watered-down, overused and yes, appropriated to ‘sell’ stuff. Sigh.

As the practice of Yoga expands and evolves, we are going to bump up against some uncomfortable truths and some will misunderstand Yoga.  Yes, some people still believe that Yoga is just a bunch of postures or poses.  Yes, some people still believe it is a religion.  With the doors of Yoga now open to ALL, how do we as Yoga teachers or everyday people who practice help others to join us? 

Once you begin the practice, you really can’t help but spread it around.  We really don’t know EXACTLY where the first Yoga was practiced.  However, there have been various forms of Yoga in all parts of the world for thousands of years.  Perhaps, the Native Americans of the West did not call their singing and dancing Yoga…but it is a form of Mantra chanting in a different language.

Perhaps, Tai Chi is not called Yoga..but the breath and movement are combined to create a meditative state.

Perhaps, Christians praying or singing hymns as a group do not call it Yoga but the folding of hands at your heart and quietly showing reverence or lifting voices together in a sacred place creates a calm mind and a kind heart.

(Please note..that the comparisons above are not meant to disrespect any religion or practice…I want to point out the universality of the idea of Yoga which is simply a state where the mind is calm)

When we are at our best…we are practicing Yoga.  How we arrive at the state of Yoga (a calm mind and open heart) can vary depending on our culture and personal experience.  The names or words are just ways to share the experience with others.

So, I do say ‘Namaste’. I say it to my fellow Yoga teachers and to my students.  In context, I use it when the recipient UNDERSTANDS what I am saying and I use it only when I really MEAN it.  I can see that it would be a bit ridiculous to say it to everyone I meet as they would not respect or truly ‘get’ what I mean.  I also use the Sanskrit words for the postures as I was taught that the language is full of sacred power when we pronounce them properly.  I practice the language sparingly and I study Yoga with humility.

We are at an important time in history where many humans are opening their minds to past wrongs as well as how modern people are unknowingly reinforcing outdated and harmful stereotypes.  Yes, cultural appropriation exists.  We can take a step back…and open our minds and hearts to what we call ‘compassionate self-observation’ in Yoga.  Here, we can see the whole story.

Now afraid to say Namaste,

Renee

Aspiring Yogi

Lover of Goats

No, I didn’t try to tell you the meaning of Namaste … but if you come to a Yoga class or two…the subject might come up 🙂

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