Unpacking and Unlearning: Appropriating Yoga (and a Bunch of Other Stuff, Too)

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This is going to be a very simplified post of a heavy topic I’ve been struggling with. This issue has been on my mind for quite some time, but after beginning a globalization and literature class, it is even closer to the forefront of my mind.

I will discuss the appropriation of yoga in western culture (that I have subscribed to). IT’S ABOUT TO GET HEAVY, GUYS.

First of all, I was a latecomer to the concept of cultural appropriation. I discovered it in my last year of high school (hey there, 2012!) and have since grappled with it over and over. The line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange still puzzles me, and I am NO expert, so please, just do your research and learn about it for yourselves.

Before I was 17 or so, cultural appropriation wasn’t really on my radar. I didn’t take time to acknowledge my own internalized and subconscious racism, and really only started to understand the discourse when I fell into a tumblr wormhole about the appropriation and fetishization of the racial slur (to some), “gypsy.” I found it so confusing that something that carried such a positive connotation in MY world (hippie offspring here) could be something seen as dangerous or offensive to others. There was a huge disconnect between my tee shirt from Bluenotes that said “gypsy soul” in cute lettering, my family in the UK who warned against the gypsies, and the people I followed on tumblr who found the word incredibly offensive and diminishing. Add the TLC show “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” into the mix and I didn’t know WHAT to think.

Soon after, conversations began happening about traditional Native Headdresses adorning white hipster girls at music festivals, white dudes with dreadlocks, and people dressing as Geishas for Halloween. I think the kids these days call it “waking up.”

**I would like to note that I have been THE poster girl for cultural appropriation at different times in my life; flashback to 2009. I had blonde dreadlocks and a crush on Jack Kerouac. I meticulously read “Some of the Dharma,” and “Dharma Bums.” I was obsessed with George Harrison’s time in India and Kurt Cobain’s ideas on reincarnation (my motto was, “If you’re a shitty person you will come back as a fly and eat poop.”). I had a book called something like “How to get TOTALLY Enlightened,” albeit I mostly read the section on Tantric sex because Catholic school didn’t give me a whole lot of info on sex. I dreamed of a VW van and Buddhism and drew “om” symbols on my notes. I even tried to heat up a needle, dip it in ink, and stick and poke an “om” onto my foot (it was the only place I could reasonably reach and hold steady). I began practicing yoga and SURPRISE it didn’t lead me to total enlightenment. Somehow, stealing from other cultures didn’t save my tortured teenage soul.

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I even have a tiny Sanskrit tattoo of culturally inappropriate shame on my ribs from a summer in Quebec at 17.

(Why is appropriating Buddhism bad? It’s not your religion or your culture- using a spiritual or religious belief to make yourself look cool ALWAYS fails. Why are dreadlocks culturally appropriative? White people appropriating black hairstyles is SOAKING in privilege. The same hairstyles that prevent POC from getting jobs, promote racial stereotyping, and are seen by white people as inferior give white people the “I’m so edgy look at me” card. Why is the “om” symbol appropriative? Again, not your religion, not your culture, you don’t look cool.)

The blonde dreadlocks lasted less than a year. The red dreadlocks lasted about two months, but the cultural appropriation of dreads will probably last longer than I’m alive.

While the dreadlocks were cut off early on and I learned about cultural appropriation in fashion, it took until the last month to reconsider my yoga practice in terms of cultural appropriation. My friend and I are working on a project/ paper where we break down the capitalist, westernized model of yoga that we’ve grown up with and look to it through a postcolonial lens.

Needless to say, I am a SUPER GUILTY of being a cultural appropriative white girl. So, if I don’t get offended by a friend asking why I have a dream-catcher on my wall and asking me to rethink that, or by someone calling out my history of dreadlocks, awkward family collection of random religious symbols, or my Sanskrit tattoo, you shouldn’t either. We are allowed to make mistakes as humans and we are allowed to hold our own opinions on appropriation. What we are NOT allowed to do, is shut ourselves off from critique, refuse to grow as people, or stick our head in the sand when someone points out our shit to us. (Oh, and wear blatantly racist Halloween costumes under the guise of “humor.”)

Instead of defending my right to have a Sanskrit tattoo by saying something like “well, my boyfriend is Indian so its okay” (ps. ITS NOT), or defending westernized yoga by saying shit like “yoga is whatever you want it to be, ‘om’ just means peace and ‘namaste’ is just a nice greeting,” (ALSO NOT OKAY), I read about the cultural implications of these activities. I am at peace with the fact that I got a racist tattoo at 17, and will probably get it covered up eventually (until then, I’m just happy its hidden). I can look back on my dreadlocks and see how my privilege blinded me from seeing their appropriation. I still practice yoga and hope that I can continue to do so, but I come to it with a better understanding of its Hindu and Jainist roots. I acknowledge the colonial history of western capitalist yoga, and the lack of diversity in the classes I’ve taken. I am critical of white yoga teachers and yoga teacher training, and try to find studios that don’t market a “yoga booty.” It’s a start, but it’s not enough.

Honestly, I am unwilling to completely surrender my practice. I don’t know if not saying namaste at the end of class, or simply trying to spread awareness of history and less appropriative approaches to the practice is enough. For almost 10 years, yoga has helped me to manage my anxiety and to connect with and love my body.  I’m afraid to lose the practice that grounds me as much as I am concerned about being another blonde girl in yoga pants with a mandala tattoo and a thermos of green tea.

Manal (hey girl hey) and I talk about this every day. How can we benefit personally from yoga without diminishing a cultural practice or appropriating it? Where does cultural exchange end and appropriation begin? Why am I so reluctant to get rid of the Buddha statues on my dresser? What can I do to be better? Who are you when so much of your life is built on things taken from other cultures? Where do we go from here?

I don’t have any answers, and I don’t know if I ever will. Globalization has, in a way, made cultural appropriation easier and therefore made it seem okay. I may have completely different thoughts on this topic tomorrow, or next week, or next year. For now, though. I’m just going to read as much as possible and see where that takes me.

Resources on Decolonizing Yoga and Yoga Appropriation

 

 

 

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