Cultural Appropriation in Yoga and the importance for teachers in Western societies to look at it

Dr. Anna Schmidt-Oehm, Germany and Spain in May 2021

RESEARCH PAPER MIAMI LIFE CENTER ASHTANGA TRAINING 2021 Definition: What is Cultural Appropriation? Cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from minority cultures. Cultural appropriation differs from acculturation, assimilation, or equal cultural exchange in that this appropriation is a form of colonialism. When cultural elements are copied from a minority culture by members of a dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context the practice is often received negatively.

Cultural Appropriation in Yoga or the “Pizza effect” The term "pizza effect" was coined by the Austrian-born Hindu monk and professor of Anthropology at Syracuse University, Agehananda Bharati in 1970 based on his understanding of the history of pizza which made it’s way from Italy to the US from where it was reimported later to Italy and the rest of the world to become the most popular dish in the world. In religious studies and sociology, the pizza effect is the phenomenon of elements of a nation or people's culture being transformed or at least more fully embraced elsewhere, then re- imported to their culture of origin. Related phrases include "hermeneutical feedback loop", "re- enculturation", and "self-orientalization". The popularity of postural Yoga in India, several

gurus, and some other Indian systems and teachings following their popularity in the West is one example for this. The exalted status of the Bhagavad Gita in Hinduism, where, although it was always highly regarded, it gained its current prominence only following Western attempts to identify a single canonical "Hindu Bible" is another.

Yoga in the West Yoga is an ancient spiritual practice of self-realization that originated in India, but, in addition to Indian devotional practices such as sacred dance, it was perceived as threatening, ridiculed, and banned among its own people in its own land under British colonization, beginning in the 1700s and lasting until the mid-1900s. Today, Yoga is often marketed by affluent Westerners to affluent Westerners—and Indians, ironically, are marginally represented, if at all. While this multibillion-dollar industry is offering much-needed well-being to Western practitioners, it’s re-inflicting the same violation on India and Indians: invisibility and misrepresentation. In recent years, conversation has begun around the “cultural appropriation” of Yoga. The problem is complex and involves two extremes: The first is the sterilization of Yoga by removing evidence of its Eastern roots so that it doesn’t “offend” Westerner practitioners. One example here are advertisement for “Om free yoga studios” or “Sanskrit free classes”. The opposite extreme is the glamorization of Yoga and India through commercialism, such as Om tattoos, T-shirts sporting Hindu deities or Sanskrit scriptures that are often conflated with Yoga, or the choosing of Indian names. Many teachers ask the questions “What is the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation?” and “How can I still practice Yoga without being offensive?”

According to Rumya S. Putcha, PhD, a scholar of postcolonial, critical race, and gender studies, we’re still asking the wrong questions. “The terminology ‘cultural appropriation,’ in and of itself, is a way of diluting the fact that we’re talking about racism and European colonialism,” she says. “It undermines what is happening as only ‘culturally inappropriate’ so as not to disrupt mass Yoga marketing, leading us to ask surface-level questions like ‘I don’t want to be culturally inappropriate, so how can I show cultural appreciation appropriately?’ It’s not about appreciation versus appropriation. It’s about understanding the role of power and the legacies of imperialism.”

Yoga, capitalism and colonization 2.0 Today the Western world often sees Yoga as beautifully achieved physical postures. Accomplished, photographed and displayed by popular Yoga magazines and apps. Executed by mostly young, white, physically adorable, stylish-Yoga-apparel wearing women and men. While this mainly happens for capitalistic reasons this could also be seen as the second colonization of Yoga. This colonization is the misrepresentation of Yoga’s intention, its many limbs, and its aims. The current state of Yoga in the United States, Europe and in the rest of the Western world highlights the power imbalance that remains between those who have access to wealth, an audience and privilege in contrast to those who have been historically marginalized. Shreena Gandhi, PhD, a religious studies professor at Michigan State University, and Lillie Wolff, an advocate with Crossroads Antiracism, emphasized in their 2017 article “Yoga and the Roots of Cultural Appropriation” that the goal of these conversations should not be for white practitioners to stop practicing Yoga, but rather for them “to please take a moment to look outside of yourself and understand how the history of Yoga practice in the United States is intimately linked to larger forces”—such as colonization, oppression, and the fact that a devotional practice that was free of cost for thousands of years is now being marketed and sold.


Propositions how to decolonize our Yoga practice: 1. SVADHYAYA Svadhyaya, in terms of self study and inquiry. Truly learn the full honest, integrity of an authentic Yoga practice by the YAMAS and NIYAMAS. Svadhyaya in terms of studying the scriptures and learn and connect with the complexity, culture and history from which this tradition comes.

2. Ask ourselves, and other Yoga teachers, the hard questions We each have our unique story and gifts to share as do all the practitioners we teach or learn from. Lets ask ourselves “For whom is Yoga accessible today and how might that be a legacy of past injustices that we have the opportunity to address through our teaching practice and our lives?”

3. Live, know, share and practice all limbs of Yoga We can also decolonize Yoga by studying the depth of practice beyond the postures. In addition to asana we need to understand, practice and teach all eight limbs of Yoga.

4. Be humble and honor your own and other people’s journey When we humbly and respectfully consider Yoga’s history, context, many branches and practices we give ourselves a chance achieving Yoga’s aim of unity.

Personal conclusion I’m a practitioner of Yoga for over twenty years now and I must admit that I haven’t asked myself if I’m appropriating the practice or not over a long period of time. Just because I wasn’t aware of the conflict. Within the last five years and through a lot of input and reading and lectures like in our training I educated myself and evolved a consciousness for this problem. I

believe that the majority of Western teachers and students don’t know about this topic and don’t have any sensibility for it yet. I believe my role (and for all people who have now learned about this) for the future is to share this with my students. We as a modern Yoga community have to underline the history, origin and aims of Yoga and I highly recommend to talk about colonization, imperialism and the influence of capitalism. Not to make people feel bad but to broaden their understanding and to build bridges. Only if we acknowledge the past we can live better together in the future. Especially from the perspective of a German Yogini with the history of my country this makes so much sense to me and now has become a personal purpose for my ongoing Yoga journey as teacher, studio owner and teacher trainer. I want to thank you Kino and Tim from the bottom of my heart for making this happen and bringing all those topics to the surface.

References and resources: Articles:

  • Yoga and the Roots of Cultural Appropriation, 2017, By Shreena Gandhi and Lillie Wolff

  • Yogajournal: What’s the Difference Between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Appreciation? May 2019, By Rina Deshpande Books:

  • Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World, 2020, By Layla Saad

  • The Story of Yoga: From Ancient India to the Modern West, 2020, By Alistair Shearer

  • Religion and Popular Culture in Dialogue, Chapter sixteen "Yoga in Popular Culture Controversies and Conflicts", 2019, By Shreena Niketa Gandhi,

  • Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, 2009, By Edwin F. Bryant

  • The Bhagavad Gita, 2009, By Winthrop Sargeant

  • White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue ... and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation, 2019, By Lauren Michele Jackson Lectures of the Miami Life Center Ashtanga Training 2021 with guest teachers such as: Shreena Ghandi, Shanna Small, Wambui Njuguna, Jivana Heyman, Edwin Bryant, Chase Bossart, Anne Hurley, Kino MacGregor and Tim Feldmann, Wikipedia: Cultural Appropriation and related articles


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