This week, I had the honor of being interviewed by Susanna Barkataki for Season 2 of her Honor (Don’t Appropriate) Yoga Summit. Season 1 featured voices of POC yoga teachers around the country discussing the topics of cultural appropriation and inclusion in yoga. Season 2 is featuring more South Asian voices and I am thrilled to be included amongst a glorious lineup, which includes Tejal Patel and Jesal Parikh of the amazing Yoga is Dead podcast. If you haven’t checked out Yoga is Dead, stop what you are doing! It’s a must listen!
Suddenly, it feels like cultural appropriation and inclusion have become buzzwords in the yoga world. Thanks to teachers like Susanna Barkataki who are creating space for voices that are otherwise ignored or met with indignance through her online summit, people are starting to hear what we for so long grew hoarse trying to say.
Right at the end of the interview we touched briefly on the question of whether POC (people of color) can appropriate each other’s cultures. This is a question that has been coming up a lot for me. Earlier this month, I had the privilege and honor of speaking and leading a practice at the Indigenous Peoples Power Project (IP3) retreat at Woodbine Ecology Center, a gathering of indigenous activists from all over the Americas. One of the participants in my session was a yoga teacher and asked me how I felt about people like her teaching yoga.
So I have been thinking about this question a lot lately. Can POC appropriate each other’s cultures? Yes, I think we definitely can. Obviously if I think even Indians can appropriate yoga (see last post) then I think POC can also appropriate each other’s cultures.
Does that mean that only Indians should teach yoga? No, definitely not.
As Susanna and I were doing our closing meditation after the interview was over (of course!) a perfect example sprung to mind. Since it was too late to share there, I thought I will share it here.
The example that came to my mind was hip hop. Hip hop is an art form that grew out of urban Black American culture and has since spread around the world and is performed by people of all backgrounds. Hip hop has given voice to so many people around the world who ordinarily wouldn’t have a voice. It has given people around the world a medium through which to speak about their stories, their conditions, their struggles, and their victories. Is hip hop appropriated? For sure. But what makes something appropriation? I can’t imagine that Black people would feel offended by Indian hip hop artists using hip hop to speak about caste/tribal oppression in India.
But you also find Indian “hip hop” musicians who make videos featuring cars and women and essentially mimic a commodified, bastardized version of hip hop.
One of these makes the spirit soar and the other one makes the spirit cringe a little. Both might be enjoyable in some way. Everyone knows we can definitely enjoy the products of capitalism (guilty pleasures). We might even feel a little bit seen by the products of capitalism…that’s not the issue. Which one of these feels like cultural appropration?
Hip hop and yoga are forms that at their essential core are about truth and liberation. We can appropriate each other’s cultures if we are approaching each other’s cultures through the filter of whiteness/capitalism/colonialism. If we are promoting a version of another’s culture or practice that is not true to its liberatory essence but one that is re-imagined, re-purposed, and re-packaged by those in power, then yes, we can be guilty of cultural appropriation. Even still, it is more forgivable because we are all subject to the overarching colonial superstructure. Often our access to each other and each other’s cultures (sometimes even our own) is only through the lens of whiteness. It’s very true that even many Indians in modern times are accessing yoga through the medium of the Western Yoga industry. But the important questions to ask are who hold the puppet strings? Who has the control? And also what is our own context with the colonial hierarchy? If Indian yoga practitioners want to call out Black American yoga teachers for cultural appropriation, are we willing to discuss the anti-blackness that exists in our culture and that shows up even in yoga?
Just being a non-South Asian person teaching or practicing yoga alone doesn’t make it cultural appropriation. Yoga is a spiritual medicine. It is consistently popular the world over, not just because it is a fad but because it works. The deep understanding of the human design that yoga offers is universally effective and universally intuited. As a person of South Asian descent, I would never begrudge anyone of any background the profound healing that yoga practice can bring. If anything, the fact that yoga is so profoundly and universally beneficial is a point of pride, just as is, I would imagine, the way hip hop has served as a medium to illuminate the issues of oppressed peoples around the world. (But of course, I don’t mean to speak for anyone and if I am wrong, then I welcome correction). Of course this ideally must always be done with acknowledgement and gratitude towards the culture of origin whether it is yoga or whether it is hiphop or any other cultural wisdom.
Is your yoga practice about liberation? Is it about the spiritual practice of sacred connection? Or is it about instagram likes, yoga fashion, or the latest yoga fad or gimmick? Is it about what brings is closer to each other through Universal Connection or is it about aggrandizement of the ego? Is it about the Divine or is it about the almighty Dollar?