Recently, I read an article in Yoga Journal magazine titled “What’s the Difference Between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Appreciation?”
It set me thinking deeply about the concept of cultural appropriation.
The same topic had been brought up when a food truck in Portland, OR, was forced to close down after its owner-chefs were accused of cultural appropriation. At the time I had found the idea that two entrepreneurs who appreciated Mexican cuisine and, if successful, would end up popularizing it, faintly troubling.
With that incident on my mind, when I read the article on yoga, I decided to do a deep-dive into the concept of “cultural appropriation” in general, and its application to yoga in particular.
Wikipedia defines cultural appropriation as “the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures.”
It would hardly be controversial if “using other cultures’ cultural and religious traditions, fashion, symbols, language, and music” occurs in a disrespectful manner, or when it takes place without proper attribution (that is, where it can reasonably be considered theft or plagiarism). For example, I would deem the use of images of Ganesha on toilet seat covers as an instance of gross cultural appropriation, even insult. In the context of yoga, a similar case could be made if the practitioners claimed to have come up with the science and the poses entirely on their own.
It is interesting to note that the Wikipedia entry concedes that what is considered “cultural appropriation” is “often unavoidable when multiple cultures come together…” So, clearly there are situations in which “cultural appropriation” may be a result as logical as the intermingling of two streams of water.
Does the writer in the article on yoga put forth a compelling argument?
She describes a meeting to “discuss how to bring yoga and mindfulness practices to university campuses as wellness initiatives.”
One of the administrators said, “We’ll need to create a set of guidelines to ensure absolutely no Eastern symbols, bells, or words are used in yoga classes. We can’t make anyone uncomfortable or offend them by suggesting spirituality.”
Even while the writer concedes:
I don’t believe that Indian words or symbols are required for people to benefit from yoga… she is peeved that … this leader, who was in favor of creating an inclusive yoga experience “for all,” wanted to remove any sign of the land where the practice originated.
So, the gripe is that someone sought to delink the accessories from the main or primary practice, essentially treating yoga as just a modality of physical exercise with some secular (non-religious) meditation thrown in.
I submit that this is not a problem. If some people want to take one aspect of yoga but not others because those aspects are seen as challenging (Sanskrit words) or conflicting (concepts of God and Spirit are anathema to atheists), it is not a rejection of or disrespect towards Hinduism or towards the land where yoga began. Neither is it theft in the sense of taking something without attribution. By now, yoga has become mainstream enough in Western culture that there is no doubt about its genesis and provenance.
Also, to the extent that there is a benefit to the use of Hindu “symbols, words, and bells,” if the planners are willing to forego those benefits — either because of ignorance or cultural insularity — it is their problem and their loss.
If I were in the meeting, I might have tried to educate the attendees about this, but that would have been as far as I would have gone. It is not on me to “save” them. Nor is it on me personally to defend the dignity and integrity of yoga. If anything, yoga has done very well without my help (tongue-in-cheek). The success of magazines like “Yoga Journal” and popular retreat centers like Kripalu is proof of that. Additionally, I recently came across a Meetup group called “Yoga in Christ!”
Secondly, the writer of the Yoga Journal article claims that yoga was “perceived as threatening, ridiculed, and banned among its own people in its own land under British colonization, beginning in the 1700s and lasting until the mid-1900s.” Given that this happened many decades ago (India has been free of British rule for over seventy years already!), I don’t think there is any reason today to feel bruised by these long-ago events.
Since researching nineteenth century India is a pet project of mine, I delved into the topic of suppression of yoga in India. I found that it is a complex history. According to an article published in Elephant Journal, yoga — specifically Hatha yoga — was rejected by British and Brahmins alike, because they were “not fond of the more violent, ash-covered ascetics. Hatha yoga, a product of the Tantra period, was viewed as a source and symbol of India’s degeneracy.” Finally, it is hard to imagine that the British power structure — focused on trade and resource extraction, rather than on establishing religious supremacy — would have deigned to suppress yoga.
Thirdly, the writer complains that yoga is “often marketed by affluent Westerners to affluent Westerners.” I don’t see anything wrong with that. However, the irony (or do I mean hypocrisy?) is inescapable. The writer’s lament has been published in Yoga Journal – the #1 yoga magazine in the US, which is, get this — supported by ads that sell expensive products to wealthy consumers. Plus, the magazine has twenty-eight international editions, including ones in China, Turkey, and Thailand. So, it is hardly a Western construct that is engaged in willful attempts by Westerners to disrespect Indian (Hindu) heritage.
Finally, the writer observes:
Or when the young CEO of a new yoga organization asks me where she can get her 300-hour yoga certification done the fastest, missing that yoga is a lifelong process of balanced living.
I don’t see in this anything of concern on the “cultural appropriation” dimension. The young CEO may well be misguided in her quest to get her certification as quickly as possible. But, this may have more to do with other life priorities and time constraints. Or, it may be that she will rethink her impatience over the course of her yoga training.
In many ways, I suggest that the writer is seeing cultural appropriation where none exists and none is intended. All in all, far from feeling diminished or insulted, I am inclined to celebrate the fact that millions of people all over the world find in yoga something of great value. An ancient science provides an antidote to the most vexing physical as well as mental challenges of the present day!
A final word on the concept of “cultural appropriation.” The Wikipedia entry mentions that cultures with minority status are seen as victims of this practice. Of course, the word “minority” is used in the sense not just of numerical status, but also in terms of power status. By this definition, women are a minority despite being slightly more in number than men in most populations. This is because they generally wield less power than men. Also, by this definition, my wearing jeans or speaking and writing in English (and maybe even using the language as in Hinglish, Spanglish, or Singlish) are not instances of cultural appropriation because the culture that is being appropriated is not a minority one.
In both dimensions — numerical and power — I am disinclined to see yoga as an artifact of a minority culture. India has come into its own, as have Indians in India and Indian expats in various corners of the world. India has a brand that is generally (granted, with some exceptions) extremely positive. I would even go so far as to say that it tends towards “soft power.”
All of us have individually and collectively helped to generate this soft power. The CEOs of Google and Microsoft, films like Dangal, Taare Zameen Par, and Monsoon Wedding, and last but not least, each and every one of us of Indian origin who fits in well in the various multicultural societies that we call home (whether within India or outside it) are all proof of that soul power that has turned into soft power.
So, isn’t it time we started acting as adults with agency rather than as peeved teenagers?
Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer. Her writing has been published in the New York Times, and on Slate.com, Alternet.org, Khabar.com, TheHindu.com, and IndiaCurrents.com. Her biography of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor, will be published in November 2019. Nandini is a co-founder of Story Artisan Press.