5 ways you can practice yoga, minus the cultural appropriation

We love yoga. It makes us more flexible, inside and out. It makes us calmer, stronger, and more focused. There is a form of yoga for every body, of every size, age, and ability. There are so many reasons to try yoga and if Instagram is any indication, more people are trying it every day, all over the world. And that’s good, says Michigan State University professor Shreena Gandhi in an article co-written with activist Lillie Wolff of Crossroads Antiracism. That might surprise you if your social media newsfeeds are anything like mine.

News of Gandhi and Wolff’s article made the rounds on social media recently. The initial headlines warned of a professor who claimed that yoga promotes white supremacy, and the headlines that followed acted as responses, with people explaining why their practice is not racist.

Twitter was Twitter, of course.

Naturally, few commenters seem to have read the actual article. In it, Gandhi and Wolff explain the history of yoga in Colonial India and how the practice was brought to the rest of the world, particularly to America. The article describes the materialism that resulted from the loss of ethnic ties for white immigrants who moved to America and lost touch with their own ancestral heritage.

"People are grasping for something to belong and connect to outside of the empty and shallow societal anchors of materialism and consumerism, which do not nourish or empower people in any sort of meaningful or sustainable way," Gandhi and Wolff write. "People are searching for these things without even understanding why there is a void in the first place. Few white people make the connection between their attraction to yoga and the cultural loss their ancestors and relatives experienced when they bought into white dominant culture in order to access resources."

They explain that many white American yoga practitioners do not study the Hindu traditions and historical roots of the discipline. This means they not only miss out on the spiritual benefits of the practice but also perpetuate an idea of yoga that leads to cultural appropriation — that is, the taking over of another culture’s traditions without regard for their lived experience.

But Gandhi and Wolff describe several ways that we, as non-Indian practitioners, can practice yoga in a way that is respectful of its heritage.

1 Be aware of yoga’s history — and the danger of cultural appropriation.

“More yoga teachers and studio owners need to create space for conversations about cultural appropriation and cultural accountability,” write Gandhi and Wolff. If your studio doesn’t do that already, ask them to start. Maybe you can suggest a discussion group, or invite a speaker to come and talk about the topic. At the very least, do your own research so you will know more about the roots of yoga as well as the culture — both historical and contemporary — of India.

2Remember to be grateful for the opportunity to practice.

“Humility, respect, and reverence go a long way,” write Gandhi and Wolff. I am a recently-certified yoga teacher. As an Indigenous person (Mvskokxe). I am very aware of cultural appropriation because it happens to our culture as well. For that reason, I remind my students at the end of each class to take a moment to be grateful to the people of India who were willing to share yoga with the rest of the world. It is a small gesture, but it is important. If your class doesn’t do something similar, you can always incorporate it into your individual practice.

3Make sure yoga is accessible to everyone.

"The cost of Western yoga classes can be prohibitive for low to middle-income people," write Gandhi and Wolff. "This often includes People of Color, including recent immigrants, such as Indian women to whom this practice rightfully belongs. The result of this reality is that Western yoga is often represented and marketed in mainstream culture by thin, white, upper middle-class, cisgender, able-bodied women."

Public yoga practitioners like Jessamyn Stanley are showing the world that this discipline is for every body, but yoga class is still out of reach for many people in rural or low-income areas. In our small Louisiana town, several yoga teachers run no-cost/donation-only classes to benefit our local art gallery. If you teach, consider volunteering some of your time on behalf of people who may not otherwise be able to afford yoga.

4Remember that yoga is not competitive.

Yoga is never competitive or judgmental, as a good yoga instructor will remind you. Each person is on their own journey, and where you are is where you need to be when it comes to a yoga pose. That attitude should extend to our relationships with other people learning yoga as well.

“Many people compete for the attention, time, and praise of their teachers, who are often treated as celebrities; and many teachers (and practitioners) strive to promote their style or brand of yoga as the best or most superior form of yoga,” write Gandhi and Wolff. “All of this conspires to create a culture of elitism and is antithetical to the true roots of yoga, which are all about yoking the mind, body, and spirit in order to remember our innate oneness and connection with universal consciousness.”

5Be mindful of your clothing and decorations.

Gandhi and Wolff didn’t mention clothing and decorations, but it’s always good to remember to pay attention to them. Instagram is full of well-meaning but disrespectful people wearing India-inspired clothing, sometimes depicting Hindu gods and goddesses or sacred symbols. Don’t be one of them. Know the meaning of any symbol or picture you incorporate into your practice, and try to buy these items from businesses that benefit the people whose culture they promote.

When you see that headline or tweet about yoga and white supremacy, don’t get defensive or think you must stop practicing yoga. Learn what you need to know, and then keep learning. Go to yoga class with a humble attitude, and be grateful that you’re able to share in a practice that has done so much good for so many.

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