Simply practicing basic yoga is not likely to make you the target of accusations of cultural appropriation. However,some aspects of the spiritual practices surrounding yoga may cross the line into cultural appropriation if done insensitively.
In the West, the term “yoga” is often only considered to be a routine of poses and stretches aimed to better health and wellbeing – but in reality, it is so much more.
Yoga is a way of thinking, speaking, and living which is deeply ingrained in Indian and South Asian culture and heritage.
While most people who do yoga won’t act in a way to offend anyone and are simply working to improve themselves physically and mentally, it’s worth having a look at some of the fads and trends that might make you the target of accusations of appropriation.
When is Yoga Cultural Appropriation?
Yoga can be considered cultural appropriation when the symbols, scripts, music, and practices are misappropriated.
There are several ways in which you may be appropriating yoga.
- Yoga Fads:Some kinds of yoga fad, such as goat yoga or beer yoga, may be considered offensive to people who practice yoga as a spiritual practive.
- Misuse of the word ‘Yogi’:Most people use the word “yogi” to describe anyone who does yoga. But in Hinduism, the word “yogi” is used to describe someone who lives by a range of ethical precepts of Hinduism. This includes renouncing personal possessions, having no societal or personal ties, and giving up physical pleasures. This is not the lady who teaches you how to lose weight with hot yoga.
- Dismissively saying ‘namaste’:“Namaste” should be used when bowing to a priest, idol, or someone physically or spiritually older than you, rather than a phrase which is thrown around because it sounds authentic.There are many variations of this word such as “namaskara” and “namaskaram”, so if you use it then be sure to use it correctly.
- If you are using sacred symbols and deities wrongly:If you use spiritual symbolism simply as decor which is placed on the ground, without any sort of altar, and in an ordinary part of the home, then this may be cultural appropriation. For example, you should not point the soles of your feet towards an idol. In regards to falsely-used imagery, you will often see this in the form of Aum (“Om”) and on some mandalas.
- If you listen to music during yoga:Traditionally, yoga classes in India don’t have music due to the fact that it is a distraction. The goal of yoga is to take us deep inside ourselves, with the breath working as an anchor. Adding music will only take away from this and cause confusion and frustration.As such, if you’re listening to some Justin Bieber whilst doing yoga, you should probably transition away from it.
- If you purchase yoga products from non-authentic sources: If you are one of the millions who purchase items of clothing which have sacred Sanskrit terms printed across pants, thongs, and bras, then you may be accused of appropriating yoga.
Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Appreciation
There are many things that you can do to appreciate, rather than appropriate yoga. These include:
- Remove any of the above points from your practice
- Educate yourself on the history of yoga
- Take classes with South Asian and Indian spiritual teachers who can deepen your knowledge about yoga
- Learn from studio owners and teachers about cultural appropriation and how to avoid it
Generally, doing yoga won’t get you accusations of cultural appropriation. But, interestingly, there is a lot that goes into yoga besides stretching and muscle toning exercises. There is a whole surrounding spiritual practice that needs to be respected.
With many brands profiting from the term “yoga”, misinformation in yoga classes, fad yoga trends, and a lack of education in regards to words such as “yogi” and “namaste”, it has become a practice which could be accused of ignoring the origin culture.
However, there are many ways where you can appreciate yoga rather than appropriate it, leading to a more understanding and better fulfilled practice.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.