This post is the second in a series addressing yoga, history, spirituality, and social justice.
In my last post on cultural appropriation, I set out to explore the questions that have so many white-bodied students of yogas balled up these days. I mean like a pill bug. I find myself wondering why more of us — cisgender, straight, white, women (and men) teaching yoga and leading teacher trainings — aren’t having this conversation publicly. Are we afraid that putting our voices out there is centering ourselves? (It may be.) Are we afraid that if we do speak we will say the wrong things — and even offend people? (We will.) Are we afraid we will have to acknowledge where we got it — and are still getting it — wrong despite our best efforts? (We are.)
As I write, the word “afraid” is right there, isn’t it? And the word “wrong.” And yet as students of yoga, we know when we hear fear knocking, it's the opportunity for an opening. So, right now, I commit to throwing open the windows and doors and letting the winds of Grace air some shit out — without making myself wrong. Instead, I acknowledge my ignorance and recommit myself to my mantra, “When I know better, I do better.” Are you with me? (I know you are, thank you.) And also I’m taking this road alone because after all, I did declare that “I intend to specifically hold myself accountable to unearth to what extent Namaspa and I sterilize or glamorize yoga.” I’m challenging myself to explore:
Is cultural appropriation happening in our community and in ourselves as individuals? If so, how?
How can we correct or rectify it?
How can we honor and not appropriate yoga?
But, where to begin? The history teacher in me says start by ‘defining your terms’ so I can speak to what is actually being asked of me.
In her book, Embrace Yoga’s Roots, DAIE educator Susanna Barkataki says, “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.”
She refines this by establishing “two criteria that must be satisfied for there to be cultural appropriation when borrowing or using another's culture”:
1. Cultural appropriation involves power and dominance.
2. It involves doing emotional and psychological harm.
Ok, got it. Using this as our premise, let’s unpack this one piece at a time.
First, concerning the criteria of ‘power and dominance,’ some context. In modern history, European nations used the ‘might makes right’ mindset to colonize and exploit people and places with less systemic power. They used their guns, germs, steel, power, privilege, and dominance to take over land and ravage resources and labor. Barkataki further explains, “Groups in positions of power colonize a set of ideas and practices — in other words, cultural riches. This sector deals with information. It produces, manipulates, distributes, and markets information products. It is taken and claimed by the dominant culture without credit to where it originated.”
Those are some serious verbs — the kind of verbs that turn peeps into pillbugs. But she doesn’t stop there. Barkataki also invites us to ask ourselves if we do these things “without credit to where it originated” and “without considering the source, origins, or people of that culture.” She’s not trying to make anyone wrong. She’s just asking us to be freagin’ answerable.
She does not give us a checklist we can conquer so we feel good about ourselves. (Well, actually she does, and it’s a resource, not a shortcut.) Instead, she explains, “It is important to understand that to truly combat cultural appropriation takes critical thinking. You'll need to consider some questions and ask yourself about cultural appropriation, rather than look to an outside authority to determine answers for you. No one of us can speak for all of us. There is no final rule book.” I respect that Barkataki removes herself as the authority on the subject and instead offers us the yogic practice of svadhyaya — internal inspection — and puts the responsibility on us to consider a really simple question. How do we (and the actions we take) contribute to either Unity or Separation?
She is asking us to first notice and then hold ourselves accountable for the actions taken — directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally — AND then leaves us to explore and implement different actions we can take to honor and embrace yoga’s roots. The Bhagavad Gita teaches us that yoga is sacred action taken while renouncing the results. So we must do the things — have the public and private conversations, sit with ourselves in spacious, compassionate contemplation — then do our sacred duty around how and why we practice yoga.
So I ask myself, do Namaspa or I do this? Do I/we — as the dominant culture — take, claim, produce, manipulate, distribute, and market information products without credit to where it originated, without considering the source, origins, or people of that culture?
Short answer. Yes. I do all these verbs. I do all these actions. I do all these things.
I have taken (gotten, helped myself to, consumed, accepted, adopted, used, stolen) yoga. I have claimed (asserted, declared, and demanded my right to) yoga. I have produced (generated, created, effected, and demonstrated) yoga on a public stage. I have manipulated (molded, maneuvered, handled physically, and changed) it to suit my desires. I have distributed (assigned, dispersed, scattered, shared) and marketed (advertised, displayed, and offered) yoga for sale as an information product.
And I just gotta get flat with that.
YES, I do all those things. AND now I must ask: Do I do it “without credit to where it originated, without considering the source, origins, or people of that culture?”
…AND it’s called, “Cite your freagin’ sources, people!” I have unleashed this Kraken on many a history student for failing to do so. And that’s what Barkataki is challenging us to do.
When I cite my sources, I acknowledge and honor what came before me. I point to the shoulders upon whom I stand and say, “I see you, hear you, thank you, and respectfully carry forward… (fill in the blank).” It enables me to embrace my roots and leaves a trail for others to follow back in time and space to place.
So, again, do Namaspa or I do this? Do we — as the dominant culture — take, claim, produce, manipulate, distribute, and market information products without credit to where it originated, without considering the source, origins, or people of that culture?
Some questions are worth asking twice.
YES, I have taken (gotten, helped myself to, consumed, accepted, adopted, and used) yoga, AND I/we also work hard to understand and teach the history of yoga “not from the viewpoint of the executioners” (Howard Zinn, 1982) but from the perspective of the colonized people of India and Africa. I have traced and acknowledged my yogic, spiritual, and academic lineages and made it a requirement of my yoga teachers in training to do the same. I’ve recently begun to integrate Spiritual Lineage Acknowledgments into my yoga classes.
YES, I have gotten, consumed, and helped myself to big ol’ cereal-bowl-sized servings of this practice, AND I’m/we’re committed to it as a whole system — in the form of asana, meditation, inquiry, pranayama, pratyahara, service, study, and devotion to God. I/we do not treat yoga as only a physical workout. We consider it a spiritual practice with physical elements and do not judge those who use asana strictly as exercise. And for me/us, it is holy work so we treat it as such.
YES, I have accepted and adopted yogic principles, AND I/we use them as cornerstones upon which I/we build my/our entire personal and professional life. I/we have not picked them apart and just snacked on the tasty bits. All of Namaspa’s personal and professional relationships are anchored in the Yamas and Niyamas through our Credo. When any problems arise within the business, we go right back to our credo and the yogic principles it contains. Additionally, Namaspa does not sponsor or participate in events that use alcohol or recreational drugs alongside yoga practice.
YES, I have claimed yoga (asserted, declared, and demanded my right to it). Perhaps you might think this is my privilege talking, and perhaps it is... AND yet, I do not believe I own it. I do believe yoga is a gift to all humankind from the Divine AND is thus a basic human right that should not be denied to anyone.
YES, I have produced (generated, created, and demonstrated) yoga on a public stage in my studios, distributed (assigned, dispersed, scattered, shared), marketed (advertised, displayed, and offered yoga for sale), AND used our platforms to be a stand for issues that elevate conversations — and hopefully realities — related to inclusivity, diversity, equity, and unity. I/we have tried to be responsible in how we leverage the privilege we have in pursuit of social justice. We have made the yoga we produce accessible to all body types and economic circumstances with our class styles, online options, Fresh Start and Ambassador Programs, and free classes and teacher training scholarships for BIPOC and financial hardship through the Namaspa Foundation.
AND, I’m just gonna say it.
YES, I make money selling yoga classes and teacher trainings — AND, I believe I have a right to do so. I will not make myself wrong for this, and I will not shame myself. I do not believe that is what Susanna Barkataki and other educator-activists are asking us to do. I think they are asking us — (literally) for the Love of God — share yoga AND please do so responsibly.
So, YES, I have manipulated (molded, maneuvered, handled physically, and changed) yoga to suit my desires, AND I/we do so mindfully and intentionally. Namaspa and I are committed to staying connected to and honoring our lineages, AND since yoga means to yoke, connect, and unite, we believe we must integrate our own lived experiences into the yoga we practice and teach.
As we study yoga and use it as a filter through which to view and guide our lives, how can we not braid our own interpretations of the wisdom traditions into the long plaits of this very personal practice? Yogic wisdom is not ours, rather it comes through the ages to us. Yoga meets us where we are — in time and space. It helps us navigate the world we live in right now and is ever-evolving. The way each of us perceives yoga in our body, mind, and heart influences and alters it. For me personally, I think this is what is meant by the adage, “There are many paths to God.” For some, yoga is the traditional path and actions detailed in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. For others, yoga lives in long walks in nature. For still others, it manifests in crocheting a blanket for a beloved. Yoga is an intimate practice, and we play with the clay of it until it acquires a form known only to me and God. I work with it — as it works on me — AND therefore we are both changed.
Namaspa Yoga Community, as a Baptiste Yoga Affiliate Studio, is primarily inspired by the framework of yoga manipulated (molded, maneuvered, handled physically, and changed to suit the desires) by Baron Baptiste. Baron grew up with a fitness background. In 1952, his parents Walt and Magana Baptiste opened the first health center in San Francisco. As a boy, Baron met the Maharishi, and as a young man, he studied at Paramahansa Yogananda’s ashram in California. At 19, he learned from B.K.S. Iyengar and then later from Bikram Choudhury. In his 2001 book, Journey into Power, Baron says:
I was putting all this into a flow practice that was more athletic than the styles I've been taught, and it was catching on in a huge way. I had become ‘the yoga teacher to the stars’ and achieved a certain level of celebrity. From the outside it looked as if I had it all, but inside myself I knew there had to be more. All the success wasn't filling the void, and the mechanics of yoga just weren't cutting it for me anymore. There was a big piece missing, but I simply didn't know where to look.
I was filled with the advice and teaching of gurus and books, but I had no idea what I really thought or felt. I'd spent my entire life up to that point looking outward, seeking inner peace like it was a goal, never truly daring to come face-to-face with the truth that was within me. I have been looking toward mastery of the practices and paths of others instead of paying respect and honoring what was already within me.
As a teacher, I started seeing that we don't have to take dogma so seriously. When we start to take it too seriously, outer mastery becomes the goal... Spiritual Masters often teach that tradition is holy, and that we must follow it to the letter if we are to be enlightened. Do it their way or it won't work. But how can that be? If we tune out the inner voice of wisdom in favor of what someone else is telling us, how can we ever really be in our own power?
This focus on intuition rather than tradition hit a nerve with many of my students and formed the core philosophy of what was later to become Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga.
What Baron did was take the ancient wisdom traditions — as he understood them — and framed them in a way that helped Western practitioners understand them. He organized it in a way that met folx where they were — to create unity. Although many students might only understand Baptiste Yoga to be asana, the Practices and Techniques of Baptiste Yoga include asana, meditation, and inquiry (svadhyaya). As he continues to learn and grow as a human, Baron is constantly adapting the way he presents his interpretation of this practice. The methodology he organized is an outstanding framework for both students as practitioners and teaching teachers to teach — which is why Namaspa uses it as the baseline for our teacher trainings. AND yet, as Baron said, we are not constrained by it as dogma. As a studio community and as individuals leading trainings, Suzie and I trust ourselves to be guided by our own knowledge and intuition to create our own unique contribution to the world.
But when can/do we take this manipulation too far? Specifically, where does the glamorization or sterilization show up in our yoga spaces? Barkataki says, “Glamorization involves taking cultural symbols, signs, art, and iconography out of context and using them for your own purposes to telegraph spirituality and wisdom (Deshpande, 2019).” She continues, “Often the use of the symbols or iconography is, at best, out of place, and at worst, disrespectful of the source culture.” For example, I had placed a statue of the young buddha on the side table in our bathroom in the Bend studio. After a caring teacher reached out to me and said basically, “Yo, B, ya might wanna reconsider having buddha in the loo — it could be considered disrespectful,” I moved him to the altar at the front of the studio where he deserves to be.
Another awareness is around the use of Sanskrit. We teach our yoga teachers in training the Sanskrit pose names and encourage them to use them in class. We also explain that many students don’t know the Sanskrit for the poses and advise them to also use the English alongside the Sanskrit to educate and clear any confusion. Barkataki asks us to “build a relationship, get to know them (Sanskrit languages and practice), and if possible, use them in ways that don’t tokenize, objectify, or cause harm.”
Back in Namaspa’s early days, we used “A Real Kick in the Asana” on stickers and such as a pithy way to express the physicalness of the practice. More recently, I had “Yoga Kicks Asana” screened on the back of our hoodies. Given what I now understand, I would rethink those decisions. Also, this year and last, I put “OM Grown” on the front of our YTT tanks, and I meant it — literally. I believe our teachers are sourced from Source, and the training we lead is inspired by the God of My/Our Understanding. So while “OM Grown” is also pithy, for me it is true, so I stand by that decision. AND please feel free to disagree with me.
Lastly, Barkataki states:
Sterilization of yoga happens when the cultural meaning, history, and practices are stripped away. This happens when we, for example, create Sanskrit-free no-OM zones. We justify it by saying that the dogma needs to be removed to make yoga more accessible. This is problematic because it assumes the practice was never accessible in the first place and that it is somehow backwards and uncivilized and must be made safe for white normative consumption. This sterilization is not just benign. It is serving a larger white-supremacist agenda of making the practice less “foreign” and palatable for the dominant white culture.
YES, this can be a sticky one. We have discussed this a lot because we teach yoga in schools through the Namaspa Foundation. AND our larger Central Oregon community boasts a variety of opinions on matters of religion and politics. AND as a studio, we are committed to inclusivity and accessibility as part of our core values. If some peeps need to hear a different word assigned to the same thing, then in this case, we are willing to make a language move. We were not willing to let perceptions get in the way of us offering these life skills to children. So, in elementary schools, we decided to call what we do Mindful Movement — because that is what it is. We focus on body awareness and breathwork and include the tenets of the Yamas and Niyamas using terms like kindness, honesty, and self-love.
So, where does all this leave us? I fully agree with Barkataki that while we may never be able to completely eradicate appropriation, we can learn more, do better, and do less harm.
So what does citing your sources look like for you, my fellow students of yoga and studio owners? What practices are you putting into place to honor and not appropriate yoga? Let’s be brave and share what we are learning and how we are acting to courageously deepen our yoga practice!
Join Namaspa Yoga Community in January 2022 to further explore Susanna Barkataki’s book Embrace Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice.