Yoga as Cultural Appropriation?

Traditions inherited from other cultures add depth to our lives. What happens when that borrowing becomes offensive?

Last week, The University of Ottawa canceled a free yoga class for disabled students, citing “cultural genocide and Western supremacy.” Jennifer Scharf, who had taught the class for five years, told The Washington Post that though she was upset, she ultimately had to accept it. Despite her argument that there was nothing spiritual or religious about the class she offered to more than 60 students, the Centre for Students With Disabilities argued that the minority culture from which yoga was born experienced oppression and cultural genocide during the era of British colonialism.

A representative from the Centre notified Scharf via email that some students and faculty members were uncomfortable about how yoga was being practiced in the program, and were uneasy over the cultural implications. Scharf suggested they try removing the word yoga entirely and call it, “just stretching for mental health,” since it had a track record for being beneficial for the disabled students there.

The representative seemed open to the idea, but the decision to terminate the class remained final, with a possibility to reconvene in the new year. However, Sharf learned that there were in fact no direct complaints about the class, and that the choice to cancel the class was in effort to make school programs more inclusive.

Like the U.S., Canada is a multicultural nation—one that prides itself on its inclusivity. While this decision might seem perplexing—if you were on the Internet at all when the story broke, you’re aware that people were downright angry—it’s worth noting that not everyone is pleased with the Westernization of yoga.

There are some Hindus who are upset with how yoga has been appropriated by the West. The Hindu American Foundation mobilized the Take Back Yoga campaign in 2008, to educate people about yoga’s traditional Hindu roots. That same year, the HAF wrote a letter to Yoga Journal, taking offense to their continued description of the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita as “ancient yogic texts,” rather than identifying them as Hinduism.

Cultural appropriation is often viewed as theft. As Akil Houston, an assistant professor of Cultural and Media Studies at Ohio University, explained to Refinery29, “It is the use of another culture or cultural symbols to support or justify one’s need for self-expression or sense of freedom.”

So, if I identify as a yogi, because the practice has had a tremendous positive impact on my mental, physical, and spiritual well-being over the years; and I meditate, participate in the occasional Kirtan, and enjoy ringing my Tibetan singing bowl, have I committed cultural appropriation?

As many as 20 million Americans practice yoga—are they continuing to diminish the significance of Hindu culture by not giving anything back in return? If Western thought is that yoga truly is for everyone, how do we respectfully borrow from Indian culture and adapt the wisdom of what we identify as a universal practice, without offending anyone?

We asked Rina Jakubowicz, a half-Cuban yoga teacher from Miami, whether she thought the West had culturally appropriated yoga, based on the decision in Ottawa. “People will always be offended by something that questions their reality and truths,” she said. “This will happen in any culture, any religion, any situation.”

If Western thought is that yoga truly is for everyone, how do we respectfully borrow from Indian culture and adapt the wisdom of what we identify as a universal practice, without offending anyone?

The question is not whether cultural appropriation is always wrong, but rather, whether or not the borrowing is appreciative and based on an understanding of that culture.

“Not everyone will embrace yoga in its natural, traditional roots,” Jakubowicz added, “and thus, yoga has been modified for different cultures and societal norms.”

Traditions inherited from other cultures add vibrancy to life. But we must bear in mind that regardless of our immersions and adaptations, we are still visitors to other cultures the same way that we are a guest in someone else’s home.

Know the history behind the asanas. We don’t necessarily need to be fluent in Sanskrit or live on an ashram to be respectful of Hinduism, but we do need to acknowledge the roots of the practice. Jakubowicz said that if everyone took more time to understand the teachings of yoga before passing judgment, there might be more tolerance and acceptance overall. For instance, understanding that the essence of yoga is to achieve oneness with the divine and to honor the divine that exists within all living beings, is a fine place to start.

In response to the news in Ottawa, renowned yoga teacher Elena Brower said that as the world becomes more familiar with the spiritual mind-body connections that transcend religion, misunderstandings like these will one day be a thing of the past. “Our work is to continue practicing and learning; supporting our students, teaching well-informed classes, and fostering respect for all belief systems, even when we don’t agree,” she said in an email. “This too, shall pass.”

Yoga is much more than overpriced stretch pants and boutique fitness. The Westernization of yoga has done and will continue to do so much good for the world—for humanity. If anything, yoga has made us more inclusive. We practice to be happier, healthier and more compassionate sentient beings—the least we can do in return is practice gratitude to the culture from which it stemmed.

AndreaRiceNewHeadshotAndrea Rice is the Practice and Community Editor for Wanderlust Media. She is also a writer and yoga teacher. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Yoga Journal, mindbodygreen, and a variety of online magazines. Her teaching style is a blend of her love for music and intuitive movement, with emphasis on core strength. You can find her regular classes at shambhala yoga & dance center in Brooklyn, and often as a guest teacher for Deep House Yoga. Connect with Andrea on Instagram and Twitter