I published an essay last week about why I’m quitting teaching yoga (tldr: white people should stop engaging in cultural appropriation), and all week I’ve been corresponding with people across a variety of mediums to discuss this in depth.
Below are some of the questions people have been asking me this week along with my answers. I’m not an expert on any of this, but I am invested in holding space to continue the conversation.
Might it be possible for it not to be appropriation for white people to practice/teach yoga? How could we do that?
Maybe, but it’s pretty unusual. I think it would require an ongoing relationship with Desi teachers, something most white people don’t have and wouldn’t know where to find if they went looking for it. It would also look like a continual contextualizing both of yoga’s roots, acknowledging that these practices come from a specific place and culture that we are not part of, and of our own position as white people in a white supremacist culture.
It might also look like an approach to teaching and practice that emphasizes the philosophy as much as the postures, and not mashing up New Age philosophy and pop psychology and still calling it yoga. Do you know anyone doing all of this?
Wait, but seriously, didn’t some of the old gurus WANT westerners to practice yoga? Doesn’t that make this cultural exchange and not appropriation?
I think the problem with that reasoning is that it decontextualizes those choices from the capitalist colonialist framework that they happened within. Which isn’t to say that the gurus weren’t aware of that context themselves, but that it’s mighty convenient for us to use that as an excuse without looking really deeply.
Google “Vivekananda world’s fair” if you want to learn about that context. Like, yoga literally came to the west at a *world’s fair* dedicated to *Christopher Columbus*. If that’s not colonialism, I don’t know what is.
That said, there are some living lineages (Iyengar, for instance) where the invitation for westerners to practice is clear and continual and the lineage of teachers is unbroken, ie, there are Indian teachers in the Iyengar family who are still actively extending this invitation to westerners. That doesn’t make it not problematic, but it does clean up the question of lineage a bit.
In what ways are Desi people harmed by white people teaching yoga?
Let me start by saying that I don’t need for anyone to justify their pain on this issue. If a Desi person says they’re harmed, I believe them, full stop. I’m no expert on Desi experiences and am speaking here from my own understanding and paraphrasing of what I’ve read/heard/been told. I welcome feedback from Desi people.
But for the sake of understanding, the way it’s been explained to me is that how we practice and teach yoga in the west isn’t really yoga at all, most of the time. It’s poses with a tiny bit of philosophy thrown in. And it’s painful to see the way this diluted practice is held up as though it’s the same thing as Yoga.
Add to that that many Desi people are excluded or tokenized (or both) when they try to practice at studios, which is extra painful because part of why yoga is marketable is because it is “exotic” to westerners. So we’re capitalizing off a diluted, exotified practice that Desi people can’t find a place to practice. And that’s harmful.
Another larger point is that when white people benefit off cultural practices that are not ours (as in when a white person makes money teaching yoga), it keeps the Desi people who they come from from being able to access the economic and cultural capital associated with those practices.
White people benefit both from the ways that yoga is “exotic” and from the ways we change/dilute yoga to make it more palatable for a white, western audience. Desi people benefit from neither of these.
Can I keep teaching yoga poses that I love if I just don’t call myself a yoga teacher?
If you’re ready to divest from yoga, I wonder what it would be like to experiment with just not using any yoga poses at all for awhile, just to see what that’s like. I think sometimes we like the idea of being able to use something more than we actually need to use it. Is the benefit you get from Down Dog worth a dubious moral position? I’m finally saying no.
It’s my perspective that white people would largely benefit from intentionally moving away from appropriated practices where ever possible and towards exploring our own lineages whenever we can. Stepping back from yoga poses entirely might make space for that. I have a sense that if we divest ourselves from our entitlement that there might be something far richer than getting to keep doing Down Dog on the other side of that.
Can I keep teaching yoga but support Desi groups to balance out the impact?
In terms of advocacy and support of Desi groups or individuals, yes, white yoga teachers should do that, but it’s sort of like carbon offsets and climate change. It’s a nice idea that doesn’t actually solve the core issue. And tbh, I’m more interested in moving the needle in a positive direction and not just neutralizing my negative impacts in order to feel better. I want to act as though there’s more at stake for me here. Because there is.
What about how much yoga has transformed me/my life/my students? Isn’t that worth anything?
Well yes, sort of. My white students have experienced profound transformation via the practice of yoga, but that's been at the expense of the people of color whose culture these practices come from. If what’s good for us is good at the expense of people of color, how good is that really? If what you’re doing is helpful to you and your white students only, how liberating can that be?
But I teach yoga to marginalized communities. Isn’t that important?
I think we have a tendency to conceive of liberation from a place that may inadvertently consider access to normative (rich, white, skinny, straight, etc) experiences as inherently desirable, when that isn’t necessarily true. For example, thinking that marriage equality is going to automatically make life better for LGBTQ people without actually considering the oppressive history of the institution of marriage.
Or thinking, oh, I want yoga to be accessible to low-income people or bigger bodied people or whoever, because it’s not right for only rich skinny people to have access to it (which is true!), but that’s presuming that yoga is something that we should be doing at all. I’m interested in liberation movements that center marginalized experiences. I truly believe that’s the only way out of this mess.
So do I have to just like, quit teaching yoga immediately?
If you’ve made the decision to quit teaching, you can untether from it at a rate that feels sustainable for you--find other things that help your mental health, find other ways to make money, etc.
We all suffer from the effects of living in these fucked up systems (capitalism, ableism, etc). If it takes a minute for you to divest from these systems, that’s okay! It took me the better part of a year to actually quit, from the moment I first decided I was going to. The way I announced things maybe made it look like it was a quick decision but it really wasn’t. Don’t make excuses, but also don’t martyr yourself.
What about meditation? Do I have to quit that too?
Meditation is super vast! A lot of what we know in the west is from Buddhist lineages but contemplative practice has origins all over the world, including in European Christianity.
So do I think it’s appropriation for white people to sit quietly together and breathe? No. Do I think it gets more complicated when we use tools and practices that come from other cultures? Yes. Does that mean we should never do it? I don’t know.
But honestly, my approach at this moment is to go as far away from these questions as possible and see what happens when I think wider and bigger than “Am I allowed to do this?”
What other body-based practices exist and will you ever teach them?
There are a ton of movement practices that aren’t cultural appropriation when white people practice them: ballet, pilates, water aerobics, etc. And yes, at some point in the future I may again teach movement classes. But until then, we can turn any practice into a practice of presence if that’s what we’re after! Biking, running, swimming, walking, stretching, etc can all be practices that get us connected to our bodies and breath.
Yoga helps me so much with feeling connected to my body/spirit/divinity. What should I do instead of that?
This is a question I’m suuuuuuper interested in. Some things I’m doing are learning about the ancestral traditions of my European lineages. What foods did they cook? What songs did they sing? What were their dances? Can you start to practice some of them, even if it feels dorky or awkward at first?
What organizations supporting Desi people can I give my money to?
SAALT is South Asian Americans Leading Together and they have a whole host of national programs. They’re at saalt.org
DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving) supports South Asian low-income youth and families in New York. Find them at drumnyc.org
What about non-Desi people of color who practice or teach yoga?
This is a complicated question because the history of yoga likely predates its origins in India. (Google Kemetic yoga.) And also it’s not really my priority to weigh in on what non-white people should do on this issue. Some POC teachers and practitioners I know are having this conversation, for sure, and it’s one I’m mostly choosing to listen to rather than crow about.
What about belly dancing/capoeira/karate/etc? Should white people quit those too?
I honestly don’t know a damn thing about belly dancing or its history or how we white people ended up practicing it so I can’t give a specifically-informed opinion. But if it has followed a similar trajectory as yoga (colonization, capitalism, etc) then yes, I would imagine that the same misgivings might apply. Even if you don’t come to the same conclusions, it seems a worthwhile conversation to at least initiate.
I’m really sad that I feel like I have to quit practicing/teaching yoga. Do my feelings matter?
Of course they do! I felt them too. For a moment, I was terribly angry at what I characterized as “the loss of yoga.” But my anger was misplaced. How can I be angry at having to give back what was never ours to begin with? If you feel mad that you have to give up yoga, consider how that’s tethered to your sense of entitlement.
What I’m really mad about it the pain my white ancestors have inflicted on myriad other peoples and cultures. I’m mad about how the effects of that are still playing out, generations later. I’m mad about how much my kin had to be dehumanized (had to dehumanize themselves in order to live with that, and how they passed that disconnection on to me.
Underneath that anger is sadness. What is mine to grieve is the cultural bereftness of whiteness, all the ways that my white ancestors’ cultural traditions got lost in the process of assimilation. I’m grieving every dance, every song, every medicine, every story, every bit of traditional knowledge that was lost in the long process of “becoming white.”
Why does it feel so hard to imagine quitting yoga?
We white people have had a failure of imagination. We have been so entitled to just have the practices of other people for so long that for most of us, we literally cannot imagine our lives without them. And that’s pretty fucking sad.
It’s so ingrained in our being, in who we are and how we navigate through the world, that when we think about giving up these appropriated practices, we simply fall apart. It is deeply challenging to imagine putting it down, because well then what else is there? And that is the question that I’m really interested in.
Truly, what else is there? And where does it come from, whatever it is? And how do we find it? And how do we practice it on our own? How do we practice it together? What does it look like to have communities that are built around practicing things that aren’t appropriated, that actually come from our own ancestors?
What might that look like? What might that feel like? What might be possible if we could envision a world beyond white entitlement?
I don’t know the answers, but I believe there is something, and that’s where I’m headed. In my writing, in my practices, in all my work. That’s where I think we gotta go if we wanna get free. I hope you’ll be there too.
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