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Is Western Yoga Cultural Appropriation? Yes, but That Doesn’t Mean White People Can’t Practice It

We spoke to yogis of color about the University of Ottawa's decision to cancel free yoga classes.

Remaining mindful of the cultural roots of yoga is an important step for people who aren't a part of that culture or history. Photo via Flickr user Eli Christman

Concerns abound regarding cultural appropriation in the yoga scene, and those debates can become especially heated on university campuses. But according to some yoga teachers and practitioners of color, that doesn't mean Westerners should simply stop engaging in the practice.

Last week, it was reported that a weekly free yoga class at the University of Ottawa's Centre for Students with Disabilities was canceled for the remainder of the semester due to cultural sensitivity issues. The woman teaching the class suggested changing its name to "mindful stretching," but that idea was scrapped too, apparently because of a lack of a suitable French translation. One would think one had unwittingly stumbled upon an Onion article, but no, this is real life

It's hard to deny that there's something about a bleached-out yummy mummy storming her spandex-clad ass full-speed into a yoga studio, Starbucks travel mug in tow, that just completely slaughters the idea of love and unity. But Western yoga is here to stay, and so I caught up with some people who are better able to weigh in on what constitutes overly harmful appropriation in yoga, and what might be done to mitigate it.

Julia Gibran is a Toronto yoga teacher of Indian descent. When I asked her whether she felt much of Western yoga can be boiled down to cultural appropriation, she said, "Of course it is." But Western yogis, she says, can reduce the harm of their behavior by being aware of the roots of the practice, and by giving credit where credit is due.

Her first yoga teacher was her grandfather, but he never taught her a posture. They read the Bhagavad Gita together. She learned about Hindu tradition, cultural history, and the deities and their symbolism, rather than skipping right to Bakasana.

"In the West in general, we focus on one limb of yoga, and that is asana. It's become a very physical practice. But there are ways to acknowledge the roots [of the practice]. People can put a little focus on meditation, or bring in breath work," she says.

"Things shift and change, and the study of asana does help the Western population in terms of anxiety and stress, so it's been such a gift. But something I have struggled with is I feel very lucky to be of West Indian descent teaching yoga in Toronto. I do consider myself, oddly enough, to be a minority."

She says teachers concerned about appropriation might work to create safe spaces where conversations about appropriation can happen, where people can feel that they'll be heard even if others get upset as they challenge their beliefs. That's how barriers are broken down and true conversations are had, even if those conversations are uncomfortable.

The cost of Western yoga classes can be prohibitive, and Gibran points out that as a result, many low- to middle-income people can't afford to attend. That includes some Indian women who are new to the West and are then shut out of traditions belonging rightfully to them. This doesn't mean white teachers need to quit their jobs, though some have for some of these very reasons. But it does mean, she explains, that they should have think about how best to bridge that gap.

"We need to ask ourselves, 'Why is that? How can I be really respectful and say, "This is a different culture's science, so how has that been taken and shifted and grown?"' It's about creating forums where people discuss anti-oppression and appropriation," she says.

Photo via Flickr user Rafael Montilla

Western yoga classes may rise and fall to the sound of an om, and Sanskrit words may be used throughout. But nonetheless, Western yoga is glamorized, often represented in mainstream culture by thin, white, able-bodied women. Teachers can create safer spaces by acknowledging this, and by listening to those who don't fit that description.

Sometimes when Gibran takes an asana training, for example, a lot of the historical oral tradition that she's learned from her family is left out. It's important for Western teachers, she says, to acknowledge their audience. People leading teacher trainings, she suggests, might consider that there could be someone in the class who has a more in-depth background on the spiritual side, and then open up the floor and ask if anyone has any wisdom they'd like to share.

Teachers, she says, can also verbally acknowledge their gratitude for the ancient traditions that inform their practice while teaching a class.

Another Toronto yoga teacher I spoke with, who also identifies as a woman of color and grew up learning yoga from her family, shares some similar thoughts to what Gibran has to say. She also grew up reading the Bhagavad Gita. She went to a Sunday school that involved doing sun salutations. She didn't want to be named because, as she says, she's already vocal enough about issues in the Toronto yoga community.

"People are becoming more sensitive to themselves and to each other because of yoga," she says, "but the moment people make yoga into a competition, they've lost the point."

"Yoga is about how you treat people, and how people treat you. Our whole life is the practice, not just when you enter the room you're suddenly a saint. And that's what it has become."

She says it's a matter of people taking the time to recognize the roots of the practice, and that it comes from a spiritual place. Sometimes white teachers will mispronounce Sanskrit words—at that point, she says, it's clear they're just confused about what it is they're supposed to be talking about. And then, she says, you have people who are strict about practicing only Bikram or only Ashtanga, and those people can also become extremists who miss key aspects of the practice, such as kindness and mindfulness.

"People walk into the studio, being loud as fuck and clanking their shit around. But it's about getting there, doing the class, and leaving the space. It's about how you treat people while you're there, about how you're looking at people."

She also stresses that it's a tough conversation to have—some people get upset when religion is brought into discussions about yoga, and some get upset when it isn't. Other than suggesting that the roots of the practice are observed, it can be tough to arrive at a "right" answer.

My friend Irem identifies as a woman of South Asian heritage, and she gets uncomfortable watching appropriative behaviors in the community, too. She first started practicing in a Western context, and while she isn't looking to get prescriptive, she says for her, yoga is more about practicing self-awareness and being aware of all elements of the practice.

"Being a person of color, specifically a brown woman, I want to pay respect to the religion. Most people, I find, are practicing with the intention of more than physicality, and that to me is a good start. But if you are looking for just a good workout, why choose yoga and not the gym?"

She says she doesn't think a class should be canceled out of fear of appropriation, especially given all we can learn from practicing yoga. That said, though, she has concerns that "we don't acknowledge the greater reason for why yoga was created and why it is practiced. In the end it is much more than an imitation of postures."

I reached out to Roméo Ahimakin, the acting president of the student federation at the University of Ottawa, with some specific questions about what will happen next, and he forwarded me a statement on the whole debacle. He stressed that the class is simply being put on hold until winter semester, and that it's expected to be reinstated once it's been reviewed.

In the meantime, people wanting to do yoga will just have to go shell out for it at the studio down the street, across from the Starbucks.

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