Social Justice & the Yoga World: the Third Unwelcoming Behavior of Yogis. {Part 3 of 3}

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If you’re white, and you want to be part of the social justice movement, it can be difficult to figure out where you fit in.

What is our place? Where are our opportunities? The answer is in allyship.

Our role is to give voice to social progress. We can put forth the same ideas and goals as people of color, but for us, it will not be met with “You’re just playing the race card,” “He/she is just another angry black man/woman,” or “Speak English.” We can leverage our skin color for progress, and a fantastic place to start is right here in our yoga community.

Post number one of this series addressed being unwelcoming to people of color through the “look” of our community, and post number two tied economics to the unwelcoming message. The final installment is time to take a hard look at the yogi’s role with cultural appropriation.

Unwelcoming Behavior 3: what we steal.

When members of a dominant culture (white) adopt elements of a minority culture (people of color) it is called cultural appropriation. It is not “admiring” nor “honoring” the minority culture, since a distinguishing feature is that the minority culture has experienced systematic oppression from the dominant culture. Historically, Indians experienced colonialism by the Portuguese and British for hundreds of years, ending with Indian independence in 1947.

Yoga in the western world is largely a byproduct of colonialism—and the Beatles, God bless ’em. That begs the question, “Couldn’t practicing yoga be considered cultural appropriation in and of itself?” Absolutely. We created a multibillion dollar industry that trendifies an Indian tradition while largely excluding people of color. What, then, do we do about it?

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to erase yoga from mainstream America. Despite obvious appropriations, there is immeasurable benefit in the practice, with potential to create profound change. White allies can continue to practice but in a way that is mindful of people of color.

The most obvious cultural appropriations come from the Hindu religion and iconography. We instructors often link our classes to an explicitly Hindu theme, yet I’ve never met a Hindu yoga instructor in the United States. Then we ink up our bodies with Hindu gods: a massive Ganesh occupying an entire back with Shiva and Vishnu crawling up opposite legs. Maybe even double om symbols creatively placed around our nippular regions. And man, the malas. Like the Catholic rosary, the mala is meant for prayer, not jewelry. (Madonna is the only person who can get away with wearing a rosary, but I’m not Madonna, and I’m guessing you’re not either.)

Everyday people in India don’t wear them. Sadhus and others in religious orders might, but people on the street just don’t. If they do, it’s often considered a sort of fake spirituality. So, by wearing them here, we simultaneously project fake spirituality, cultural appropriation, and lack of knowledge of Indian culture. Not exactly a trifecta of enlightenment.

All of those actions are more understandable if we’ve studied abroad in India, completed teacher training there, traveled Hindu regions extensively, or were an Eastern Religions major. Though, more often than not, those actions seem to be another version of the expensive yoga ensembles: a way to say “I’m in this club.” Which, the Cultural Appropriation Club?

This all makes me wonder, and maybe you too, should I even be teaching yoga as a white person? That’s a fair question. It’s one of my biggest struggles in yoga, and I don’t have an answer. Until that answer comes, I do know this:

If we’re serious about yoga being a practice focused on our bodies and minds, then everything else has no place: no place for grown men and women in $100 and more yoga pant cliques, no place for financially benefiting off people of color while excluding them and skyrocketing whites to fame, and no place for appropriation.

There will always be those who aren’t on board with the social justice fight for one reason or another. That is their right, and it can be tempting to join. After all, inaction and/or silence is by far the easiest path for those of us who are white. But if we are committed to living a practice of social justice, we have to let go of the desire to convince those who aren’t on board (yet), and instead start building community and momentum with passionate individuals who care about creating positive change. As we work for progress together, let’s keep this word in mind: forward.

Simple ideas to practice, not perform, social justice values as yogis:

>> Research and rock your own culture, your own history. It’s a better way to showcase individual style anyway!
>> Use a mala for its intended purpose: prayer, not fashion.
>> Educate yourself on the history of colonization in India.
>> Ask people of color their thoughts on cultural appropriation, where they see it, and how it makes them feel.

Simple ideas to practice, not perform, social justice values as studio owners:

>> Enforce a dress code with your employees that rejects cultural appropriation.
>> Don’t sell boutique items that reflect cultural appropriation.
>> If you sell malas, include a card that explains both its intended use and its unintended effect if improperly used.
>> Hire Indians to provide staff training on Sanskrit use and pronunciation.
>> Provide incentives for staff to train in India and/or hiring bonuses for those who have trained there.

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Read parts one and two of Social Justice & the Yoga World. 

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