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Yoga & cultural appropriation

Updated: Jun 2, 2021

I'm so pleased to share this amazing article written by Raeeka Yassaie. I met Raeeka on Instagram and was inspired but what she had to say about many things, including capitalism, white supremacy and cultural appropriation. She agreed to write a piece on the appropriation of yoga and I am so grateful she did. I hope you find it as eye-opening as I did...


 

Raeeka Yassaie is a social justice writer and yoga teacher. She doesn't

have all the answers, but she likes asking the questions. She dreams of

a world in which we are all compassionate, loving, and free. Follow her

on instagram @raeekayassaie to read her writing and find out more about

practicing yoga with her.


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“I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible” is cultural appropriation at

work. It’s so deep that even people who don’t know anything about yoga,

assume that yoga requires flexibility, when in reality it’s only

requirement is the ability to breathe.




Yoga, the Sanskrit word meaning to yoke/union, is not about flexibility.

It’s not about instagrammable shots of poses that are unobtainable for

most bodies. An obsessive focus on the body’s capabilities is not yoga.

That comes from the perfectionism of white supremacy, and has gained

roots in modern yoga via colonialism.


Yoga has been cultural appropriated in the West as a form of exercise,

while the mantras and Sanskrit words which honour the practice are often

left out. This is done to supposedly make yoga more ‘accessible’, which

is really just a way of centring whiteness in a practice that originates

from a non-white culture. Yoga is already accessible, and ironically the

white supremacy driving colonisation leads to inaccessible yoga. Just

search #yoga on instagram and count how many yoga poses are demonstrated

that most bodies cannot easily do.


“Yoga became - and remains - a practice which allows western

practitioners to experience the idea of another culture while focusing

on the self” - Shreena Gandhi and Lillie Wolff


Yoga originates from the subcontinent of India (as well as parts of Asia

and Africa), and was suppressed during the time of colonialism in India.

Northern yogi’s actively fought against colonialism, and this resulted

in them being banned from travelling or practicing. Eventually, yoga was

exported to the West, diluted by the values of white supremacist,

perfectionism, Eurocentric beauty standards and the total separate of

the physical aspects of the practice from the rest.


Yoga as it was intended, has asana (poses) as just one of the 8 limbs of

yoga. Asana is not even listed as the first step on the path to

practice. The first are the yamas ,which are ethical codes of conduct

that embody yoga - the first of which is ahimsa, non-harming. So while

the West is obsessed with getting into pretzel shapes, the real practice

of yoga is being missed. It’s a practice of self-inquiry, that takes us

from learning the art of non-harming, along the 8 fold path, to our

personal and collective liberation. It’s actually a practice of daily

social justice. Of collective and personal freedom.


How the cultural appropriation of yoga has affected me as a teacher:


I personally trained as a teacher, initially in the kundalini yoga

tradition, which is somewhat intertwined with sikhism. I notice quite

quickly that the kundalini yoga community is largely white. Music and

mantra is a huge part of the practice - but it’s white kundalini mantra

artists that are the most well known and famous for chanting sacred Sikh

mantras. Mantra artists of colour are invisible in the scene.


Kundalini yoga practitioners often wear turbans as a part of their

practice (I don’t). This is a form of cultural appropriattion because

many do not have a personal relationship with a gurdwara (Sikh temple)

and do not stand with Sikhs on anti-racism issues or in the recent

farmers protests in India. White kundalini yoga practitioners can take

their turbans off and completely disassociate from the marginalisation

that comes from wearing a turban as a part of your identity. That’s

cultural appropriation and privilege in action: taking from a culture

what we enjoy, without standing by it where it is marginalised.


Even as a teacher myself, I have had to learn how to decolonize my yoga

practice. Thankfully I have always naturally viewed asana (poses) as

just a part of the piece, not the main focus. I have started introducing

lineage acknowledgments at the beginning of my classes to express

gratitude for where the practice comes from, and to make a point of

stating that it is for our self-actualisation and collective liberation…

not for our own individual personal stress relief or flexibility

(although those can be happy byproducts).


I realised that (despite being brown myself!) I had largely trained with

white teachers and wasn’t paying reparations for the fact that I was

benefiting from a practice that was heavily suppressed by colonialism

and then whitewashed and taken to the West for profit. I now continue to

teach but donate 50% of whatever I have at the left of the month to

charitable causes in India, as a form of reparations and work to uplift

teachers for whom yoga is a part of their heritage and culture. I am

currently consciously taking my 300 hour training (this follows a 200

hour qualification to provide an overall 500 hour qualification) with a

team of South Asian teachers and teachers of colour, where the focus is

yoga as social justice.


 

So what now?


Well, that’s the joyful and wonderful part of this terrible story. If

you are a practitioner, teacher or yoga-curious person… you’ve got this

wonderful invitation to embrace yoga’s roots NOW.


Yoga is not within my cultural heritage (I am Iranian), although I have

adopted it as a lifelong practice on and off the mat. While I very much

invite you to practice with me if you found this article helpful and you

think you’d like my style, I always focus on uplifting South Asian

teachers whose cultural heritage it actually is. Deepen your learning

with or if you’re a non-practitioner, dip a curious toe into the

instagram profiles of: @susannabarkataki, @kallie_rebel_yogatribe,

@tejalyoga, @yogawalla nirja_yoga @mxpujasingh,… and once you start down

that beautiful route you’ll find so many others on your journey.


You can continue on your journey to learn about how deep the cultural

appropriation goes so that you can confidently ally and call out when

you see things like ‘namastay in bed…’ on a set of pillows on Etsy or

Hindu deities on yoga leggings - it’s not funny, and it’s not cute. It’s

disrespectful and it’s cultural appropriation. Wherever you are with

your yoga journey - whether you’re just curious, or a practitioner - I

hope your interactions with yoga can be ones which embrace and honour

yoga’s roots.



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