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Power, Privilege, and Poses: A White-Bodied Exploration of Cultural Appropriation in Yoga

This post is the first in a series addressing yoga, history, spirituality, and social justice.

In the Years of our Lord 1990 and 1991, I sat in Mr. David Cope’s Honors World Cultures class with about 25 other bright-eyed seniors. Next to art, it was my favorite class—and I wasn’t alone. To my knowledge, five or six of us would go on to be history teachers in some capacity. That's the kind of container he created—the kind that left us curious with more questions than answers. That's the kind of experience we had—the kind that inspires a whole lifetime. Thank you, Mr. David Cope. You are a branch in my lineage, and I gratefully speak your name in acknowledgment of that.


Mr. Cope gave us two “Rules of History” through which we examined the entire course. The first rule was “Land is power.” In other words, those who hold and control the resources make the rules and usually win. Years later, as a history teacher myself looking out into an increasingly connected world, I updated this rule to “Information is power.” And years later still, as a yoga teacher looking out into an increasingly disconnected world, I have the opportunity to wrestle with this rule yet again in another context. And context does matter.


Over the last year and a half, white bodies are finally waking up to the fact that we are privilege embodied. The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement have shaken us awake to our obliviousness, and many white bodies are now educating themselves about the systemic white supremacist caste system that has existed in the United States since its first founding of the Jamestown colony in 1607.


At Namaspa, Resmaa Menakem’s book My Grandmother’s Hands gave us the term ‘white bodies’ to refer to “the reality that we are bodies born of bodies, bodies feeding bodies, bodies having sex with other bodies, bodies seeking a shoulder to lean or cry on… Bodies matter, which is why anything related to them arouses emotions” (Frans De Waal, Our Inner Ape). And right now, white bodies from all professions are reading books such as Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy, Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist, and Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, to mention just a few. White bodies that would have never again looked at history after “coach” taught the mandated version in high school or college are slowly realizing that “the past is not dead, it has not even passed” — because it lives in our bodies. Increasingly, we white bodies are owning that we have an individual and collective responsibility to acknowledge and right the wrongs of the past because we have both directly and indirectly benefited from that corrupted system.


As a historian, this heartens me because I believe “with great power comes great responsibility” — including understanding where that power came from. As a human, this humbles me because I believe “when we know better, we do better.”


In modern history, this system began, in large part, as 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. They claimed anything they deemed had value to them and would give them more power. This pillaging included the theft of cultural mores and traditions—an act often known by its more sterilized term “cultural appropriation.”


As a cisgender, white, woman, historian teaching yoga and leading teacher trainings, this term—cultural appropriation—and its related topics and realities are of great concern to me because I consider myself a person of integrity. Brené Brown says, “Integrity is choosing courage over comfort. It’s choosing what’s right over what’s fun, fast, or easy; and it’s practicing your values, not just professing them.”


Therefore, I believe if I am to personally practice and professionally make my living from yoga, it is my responsibility to sit in the cornucopia of tough fucking questions that demand deep self-inquiry, or svadhyaya, and to truly listen to the hard-to-hear fucking answers. I have to—and I want to—because it’s the next right thing to do. I also believe it is my responsibility to challenge the teachers I teach to be in the same inquiry. So to that end, I present the opinions of Debra Merskin, Kerry Truell, and Bruce Morris, three participants in the Namaspa DARE U Advanced Yoga Teacher Training Program in the following responses.


Writing this now, I/we acknowledge I/we carry with me/us a plethora of biases that limit access to Truth. I/we know I/we have blindspots. I/We know that I/we do not know and cannot know the Truth. I/We also know this could and will get messy, and I/we am/are going to screw up, and I/we hope when I/we do, someone reaches out and says so.


So here goes. From the top.

What is cultural appropriation?


“Cultural appropriation is the taking, marketing, and exotification of cultural practices from historically oppressed populations. The problem is incredibly complex and involves two extremes: The first is the sterilization of yoga by removing evidence of its Eastern roots so that it doesn’t “offend” Westerner practitioners. The opposite extreme is the glamorization of yoga and India through commercialism, such as Om tattoos, T-shirts sporting Hindu deities or Sanskrit scriptures that are often conflated with yoga, or the choosing of Indian names.” —Susanna Barkataki, Author, Embracing Yoga’s Roots


Bruce Morris: Understanding the meaning of ‘appropriate’ as a verb here is important. Merriam-Webster offers three definitions, including “to take or make use of without authority or right.” Every definition includes a form of taking. By the way, taking or using without authority or right is another way to say ‘stealing.’ The tie to colonialism, exploitation of people, land, and resources, as well as caste and racism, helps me further understand the concept of appropriating traditional practices including yoga, indigenous spiritual practices like chanting and Día de los Muertos, and something as simple as dressing up as a person from another culture for Halloween.


Debra Merskin: Cultural appropriation expands the general definition of ‘appropriation’ (as in art and business) which is “taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.” ‘Cultural’ relates more to the ethics of use and imitation of practices, languages, and lifeways that are important to a particular culture/tradition.


Colonialism, as an expression of power, takes elements of other cultures “without regard to history, context, appropriateness” and uses them in ways that distort or lose original significance and context. This is often disrespectful and offensive to the culture of origin, apart from legal definitions. So exoticizing hairstyles, dressing “up” as someone else, or using regalia as costume are examples of common racist practice (and can also be classist and/or sexist). Often mocking, certainly stereotyping, and frequently used by a group that has privilege and, thus, can take on and off an identity, unlike members of the group portrayed.


Kerry Truell: It is appropriation when there is little consideration or regard for understanding the importance and origin or history of these traditions and practices.

Why do we have a responsibility to address it?


Debra: I’d first change the question to ‘Do we have a responsibility to address it?’ And then it’s important to define who ‘we’ is; no matter what group one comes from, I believe each of us has a responsibility to all beings—humans and animals—to honor experiences, histories, and cultures. Those with unearned privilege (i.e. being born white, male in American society) have to work particularly hard to understand that their experience is not the only experience of life, to work on becoming empathetic, not simply sympathetic. If we honestly believe in what we say, that we, as yoga teachers and students, are committed to a better world for ALL, it means deep listening and considering that much of what we know/believe was taught to us—and by leaning into the experiences of others, we can truly be in relationship with each other. But yes, absolutely, in the yoga world, who is using what words, images, language, etc. how and why and for what purpose are all significant if, in fact, we do actually walk the talk of ethics and inclusion.


Bruce: We need to address cultural appropriation to avoid or repair material, emotional, mental, psychological, or social harm caused to the people from whom elements of culture were taken. Repair is also critical to truly and fully ensure that people from all cultures feel, and actually are, included equally in all aspects of US society. We cannot credibly practice or teach wholeness, gratitude, and union while wrongfully taking from other cultures.


Kerry: We have a responsibility due to the Western oppression and colonization that occurred in South Asia. Marginalized groups were stripped of their identities, and this erasure can’t be unseen. We can rectify this by bringing yoga to other marginalized groups who may also find a deep connection between their indigenous practices and those inspired by the earliest students of yoga. We have a responsibility to continue to recognize oppression and the issues of cultural appropriation and honor those who prevailed with immense resilience to preserve the sacred practice of yoga. We also have a responsibility to our own integrity.

How is cultural appropriation different from cultural appreciation?


Debra: Appreciation sounds a lot like appropriation. A difference, I think, with appreciating is that it is done, in a sense, from afar (not geographically necessarily but in attitude). One can appreciate the foodways, lifeways, language, etc. of another group without attempting to become a member of that group; usually, it’s with little lived experience in that group and a sort of cherry-picking out of context what one wants.


Kerry: Cultural appropriation, unlike cultural appreciation, consists of power and harm. The difference lies in your intent for participating or partaking in another’s culture. With cultural appreciation, one might really invest in understanding a different group’s cultural experiences and traditions. Susanna Barkataki describes this as getting to know another’s culture from the “inside out.” Cultural appreciation can look like using your own voice to lift up another culture—one that may not be often heard in dominant culture.


Bruce: Cultural appreciation is engaging with elements of other cultures in ways that acknowledge and respect those cultures. Appreciation is enjoying other cultures without harm and with support. For example, purchasing goods from sources that directly and fully benefit people from the culture who created the items. Appreciation involves learning about other cultures and taking steps to lift up or give back to the culture involved.


One of the articles talks about attitudes of awe, reverence, gratitude, and humility toward yoga. These are values I know our community has and practices, but do we talk about them enough? We appreciate by diving in and deeply learning and internalizing the traditions of yoga and sharing our reverence with our students, each other, and community.


I find the distinction difficult because I wonder whether acts such as acknowledgment and support are enough to avoid appropriation. I do believe materially giving back and supporting other cultures are important, but to what extent and how can we do this in the case of yoga?

What does cultural appropriation look like generally?


Debra: See above.


Kerry: It generally looks like a branded “western” yoga product that erases any roots in India and the sacred spirituality of the practice is completely unseen. It can also look like marketing symbols and Sanskrit words to fit with current social trends. This can be over the top and done without an interest in learning deeper the origin, intent, or meaning behind the symbols and words.


Bruce: It looks like using elements of other cultures to advance a person’s or institution’s own interests without permission, compensation, or at the very least, proper acknowledgment and respect (whatever that may mean in the circumstances). Interests advanced are not limited to economic gain. Personal satisfaction, such as attention from others, reputation as more enlightened or wise, or the appearance of inclusiveness, also qualifies as gaining something of value by appropriating another culture.


An example outside of the yoga and wellness community would be white people going to Mexico, finding local recipes, and coming back to America to open restaurants that serve them.


I mentioned certain white rock and blues musicians who were respectful in acknowledging the Black blues roots of their music and even encouraged people to buy the blues records and tickets. It is also true that blues, jazz, and rock and roll—all created by Black musicians—were appropriated by white culture, especially jazz (Dave Brubeck) and rock (Elvis Presley). Though many Black musicians of Motown were well-compensated, many more were exploited while white producers and record companies appropriated massive profits from all of the Black performers.

What does or could it look like in the yoga and wellness community?


Debra: For a non-Indian (Asian Indian), non-Hindu person to appropriate dress, mannerisms, sacred objects without permission or without full understanding is appropriation, particularly when done for commercial gain (Bikram “copyrighting poses,” selling merchandise with sacred symbols, even “selling” oneself as a teacher if using other cultures to do so).


Bruce: One example given in the articles includes wiping yoga and other practices of their cultural origins. In yoga, that can look like ignoring the spiritual and meditative foundations of the practice and referring only to the physical exercise aspects to avoid offending Westerners. I found this to be true in a certain very hot practice I did years ago. I have also seen this with acupuncturists focusing exclusively on the direct physical aspects of their practice.


It can also look like a performative, out-of-context use of the appropriated culture to appear respectful and reparative. I laughed and cringed at the example of a spiritual symbol in the toilet, but others can apply as well, such as figurines on shelves, again when out of context and performative.


Finally, perhaps the major definition of appropriation is the use of elements from other cultures without authentically crediting, respecting, acknowledging, and/or providing compensation to the culture and history of the practices being offered. This use of other cultures could be viewed as a form of plagiarism, passing off practices developed by other cultures, often for millennia, as one’s own work.


Kerry: [Please note Kerry’s interpretation of this question. Rather than hearing what appropriation looks like, she answered what it looks like when a community addresses cultural appropriation.] Invite the “awe” and inspiration from yoga’s roots without trying to control it or make it yours. I love the example Barkataki uses of the wild, raging river. Stand by and admire yoga with humility, knowing that its power will move beyond you and your time. At Namaspa, it looks like recognizing and honoring those who may have been omitted or left out of historical accounts. It also looks like invited conversations around cultural appropriation and teacher lineage and suggesting books or classes that will assist in helping teachers find a deeper knowledge and understanding of yogic wisdom.

Is this happening in our community and in ourselves as individuals? If so, how? What does it look or sound like? How could it show up? How can we correct or rectify it? How can we honor not appropriate yoga?


I will explore these questions directly in my next post so that I may give it the time and attention it deserves. I intend to specifically hold myself accountable and unearth to what extent Namaspa and I sterilize or glamorize yoga.


In the meantime, my fellow humans and yogis, I invite you, I DARE U, to reflect on this for yourself, too. As Brené reminds us, this will take a deep courage born only of vulnerability. It will require us to be both brave and afraid at the same time—and to embrace the suck. So let’s “check our armor and weapons at the arena door so we can enter every tough conversation and difficult rumble completely empty-handed.” As the empty rice bowl.

If you would like to read the same sources and go through the same exercise as Kerry, Bruce, Debra, and the other yoga teachers in the DARE U program, please click here.

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