With conversations about racism and systemic oppression at the forefront of our society today, it’s more important than ever to practice and teach yoga without disrespecting ancient yoga philosophy.
That’s why I talked to Susanna Barkataki, an Indian yoga practitioner in the Shankaracharya tradition and author of “Embrace Yoga’s Roots,” for a discussion about cultural appropriation and diversity within the yoga community.
Here are some of the highlights of our conversation:
The definition of cultural appropriation is:
“The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the practices, customs, or aesthetics of one social or ethnic group by members of another (typically dominant) community or society.”
By its very definition, cultural appropriation points at issues of systemic inequity and gets to the heart of the power imbalance in our culture (and within the yoga community).
If I came to your house and took something of yours that didn’t belong to me, and I didn’t ask you first, and then I benefited from taking that item and never paid you back, that wouldn’t be okay. That’s exactly how cultural appropriation works.
Taking something from a culture that is not one’s own inherently involves dynamics of power and privilege, and it causes harm to the source culture.
When I started doing yoga 25 years ago, there was a real emphasis on the roots of yogic philosophy and on spirituality.
A conversative estimate is that yoga has been practiced by brown people in South Asia for 2,500 years. But as yoga gained widespread popularity in the white population in the West in the late nineties and early two thousands, there was a big shift. South Asian people were virtually erased from the center of sharing this knowledge. I rarely saw Indian teachers, and there was very little acknowledgement of yoga’s roots.
These days, yoga is most often sold to affluent Westerners by other affluent Westerners. Indians are only marginally represented in our multibillion-dollar wellbeing industry. That kind of cultural appropriation continually centers white people’s experiences and ignores the larger legacies of racism, systemic oppression, and colonial imperialism.
But as white yoga teachers and wellness practitioners, there are things we can do to take more responsibility and learn more about the roots of yoga.
“It’s the way we transmit yoga, and who we bring into our communities, and who we uplift. It’s about the books we’re reading and the people we’re quoting. All of that is influencing future generations, and how yoga gets passed on. People sometimes feel like they don’t have much power – but every single one of us has so much power in what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
1. Engage with the work of unpacking internalized bias.
If you’re in a position of privilege, explore the history of systemic racism and oppression in our country, and learn about how the Indian yogic traditions have been swallowed up by our mainstream practices in the Western world.
Read books or take classes that help you understand your own white privilege. Explore the concept of internalized racism, and start to identify where your own behaviors might be influenced by that racism.
This work isn’t a “do it once and then you’re done” kind of thing – it will be a lifelong process of learning and growing. You won’t “get it” overnight, but you can take the first step from wherever you are right now.
2. Connect with Indian traditions.
Additionally, develop an understanding and a relationship with Indian culture to see the reverence with which people engage the practices of yoga, like the mantra. There are lots of books like you can read by Southasian authors that can teach you about the roots of yogic practices in Southeast Asia. If you go to visit India (after COVID restrictions have been lifted), visit a temple and try to talk to teachers and practitioners there.
3. Pause, watch, and listen.
If there are situations where you wonder, “Is this cultural appropriation?” take a moment to pause. Trust that gut feeling, and go and look for more information. Google it, talk to someone, or find another way to learn more.
Consider alternatives to your actions or words. When in doubt, listen more than you speak. Ask questions when you’re feeling unsure.
4. Recognize that this work is messy.
Conversations about cultural appropriation and systemic racism are not always comfortable. Frequently, they’re not.
Try not to get defensive if a person of color tries to talk to you about your behavior and how it has harmed them. Many times, our need to defend our ego immediately makes us want to say, “But I’m not like that!” or “I’m not racist!” if someone points out a transgression.
But that defensiveness shuts down curiosity and learning. More importantly, or centers our experience as white people, instead of giving space to the person of color who is trying to communicate with us and express how we’ve hurt them.
5. Seek out diverse voices.
Learn from diverse teachers, take classes from a variety of people, and read more books from Indian and other teachers of color. When you’re running workshops, pay attention to the diversity of the teachers and speakers you are bringing in for your students.
If you run online programs, look at your required reading lists. Is there a wide variety of voices represented there? What are you doing to help your students understand the roots of yoga?
I highly recommend exploring more of Susanna Barkataki’s work if you want to learn more. She once said:
“Harm can also be caused when people aren’t aware of the culture and traditions from which yoga comes, and unintentionally disrespect cultural elements of yoga.”
By staying open, being willing to learn, and waking up to the harm of cultural appropriation, you can lessen the harm we inflict on the world while honoring other people’s experiences and the historical foundations of yoga’s ancient traditions.
To learn more, check out: