In November 2015, the topic of Yoga and cultural appropriation in the West come into high consciousness in Yoga classes across Canada as news spread that free Yoga classes at the University of Ottawa were cancelled due to ‘cultural issues’. At the Red Door Yoga studio earnest discussions arose in Teacher-Training courses. Clipped articles were also left with notes from students asking for my thoughts, at times with their opinions attached. This question of Yoga and cultural appropriation in the West has been very disconcerting for some, particularly those who deeply value Yoga as a practice and a path, but are now unsure that they are welcomed to it.
As a result of this rise in the collective ‘media-conscious’, I was asked recently by a teacher-in-training about my thoughts on “western culture appropriating yoga, which has deep religious and cultural roots in India.” At this point, I thought it might be helpful for me to share my answer: When Yoga is taught with a thorough understanding and focus upon its philosophical purpose (enlightenment, or the experience of one’s state of Union with all reality), there is no appropriation, no matter the culture from which you come.
Appropriation takes place when one takes the name of yoga while teaching without this understanding and focus. An excellent example of appropriation can be seen in the recent “Rage Yoga” classes. This is a great example of appropriation because the cultivation in this practice is that of the practitioners’ egos (“Ahamkara” or sense of individuality/separated self). This practice moves directly against the yamas and the niyamas outlined in yoga philosophy (non-violence, moderation, self-surrender, contentment, etc.), thereby leading to a stirred-up mind, not to union. There appears to be little to no understanding of yoga philosophy in this practice.
It should be understood therefore that appropriation of Yoga can occur not only in the West, but in the East as well. This is part of the reason that I teach as much Yoga philosophy as I do in the Red Door Yoga Teacher Training program and in my classes. It matters not that I am of East Indian descent or that I come from a lineage of traditionally practicing yogis, it matters only that when I practice and teach this path, I do it from a place that is deeply and consistently rooted in Yoga philosophy.