Yoga classes at a college in Canada were canceled this week over concerns that Western yoga is culturally insensitive and that practicing yoga in the west is part of a colonialist tradition. For many, this is the first time they are hearing this argument. But for those of us who have been practicing for years, these arguments are nothing new.
Everyone who practices yoga knows that it originated in India. According to the American Yoga Association, no one knows the exact origin, but the practice is believed to be at least 5,000 years old. From its website:
“In ancient times, the desire for greater personal freedom, health and long life, and heightened self-understanding gave birth to this system of physical and mental exercise which has since spread throughout the world. The word Yoga means “to join or yoke together,” and it brings the body and mind together into one harmonious experience.”
So there you have it. Certainly no yoga practitioner in Canada or the U.S. or Europe can claim to have invented yoga. We cannot claim to own it. As a yoga teacher in training, who is the daughter of a yoga teacher, the practice is a huge part of my life. But I also know we do not own it.
That said, it is a part of me. It has been incredibly healing and meaningful to me. So to hear things like this story out of Canada is very disheartening. The class, which was mostly designed to be inclusive to students with disabilities, was discontinued because of cultural concerns, according to an email the teacher (Jennifer Scharf) forwarded to the media.
“I think that our centre agreed … that while yoga is a really great idea, accessible and great for students, that there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice…I have heard from a couple students and volunteers that feel uncomfortable with how we are doing yoga while we claim to be inclusive at the same time.”
Wow. It’s not new. Many people do take issue with the way yoga is practiced in the U.S. Look no further than Instagram, and you will see dozens of photos of beautiful blond women with ripped abs, wearing bikinis and stretching their bodies into positions that look impossible from the outside. It’s a billion-dollar industry, with the expensive mats and $150 yoga pants to prove it. The discomfort makes sense.
The truth is, yoga isn’t about looking good in our Lulus. It’s not about flattening the abs or keeping the butt high and tight. It is, at its heart, a spiritual practice. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t allowed to look good doing it. It gets a little tiresome to hear the term “cultural appropriation” tied to a practice that has more than 100 forms and practitioners all over the world. Who is to say the “correct” way to do it? Sure, we yogis have our own opinions. But that is the beauty of yoga. Every body is different. Everyone looks different in every pose. And every mind comes to the mat in a different way.
So who is right?
This might be one of those things that doesn’t have a simple answer. Cultural appropriation — when a majority culture takes something from an oppressed culture, commodifies it and claims it as their own — is a real thing. It happens all the time in beauty, art and music. But yoga is different. With so many variations and kinds of yoga to practice, one could really say it has evolved since its unconfirmed origins. In addition, part of the principle of yoga is this idea of letting go of ownership. Every pose evolves; every mind evolves through being present in any given moment.
If yoga brings joy and peace to people, how can that be wrong? It has benefits that reach far outside the culture from which it came. If an inclusive yoga class is wrong, then who wants to be “right”? What does “right” even mean anymore?