Yoga controversies seem so rampant you’d think Kanye was behind them. Or at least Kim. The latest brush with trouble comes from Ottawa, Canada on the subject of cultural appropriation – a hot (and quite necessary) topic as of late. If you’re just tuning in, the controversy involves a free University of Ottawa yoga class getting shut down at the school’s Centre for Students with Disabilities over concerns it was perpetuating “cultural appropriation.”
The Ottawa Sun first reported on the news:
The centre goes on to say, “Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced,” and which cultures those practices “are being taken from.”
The centre official argues since many of those cultures “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy … we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga.”
And it has since caught on like wildfire with major news outlets picking up the story along with online yogis bickering about it on the internets. But that’s not surprising. It’s a frustrating topic if not mostly because it’s such a complicated one. When we talk about cultural appropriation this typically pertains to the borrowing of another culture’s symbols and customs and adopting them without any regard (or respect) for their origins. But this also has to do with power, because the culture being pillaged is defined as a marginalized minority, while the the borrowers are the dominant majority.
Back then, Indians saw getting Westerners interested in yoga as a way of undermining British colonialism. Britain’s colonial administrators tended to be contemptuous of Indian religion; indeed, they treated the purported backwardness of Indian thought and culture as justification for their continued rule. Indian nationalists believed, rightly, that if they could popularize their spiritual practices in the West, they would win support for independence.
Thus nationalists sent the Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda as a sort of missionary to America, where he introduced yoga philosophy in the 1890s. “By preaching the profound secrets of the Vedanta religion in the Western world, we shall attract the sympathy and regard of these mighty nations, maintaining for ever the position of their teacher in spiritual matters, and they will remain our teachers in all material concerns,” Vivekananda wrote to a journalist friend.
Swami Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga, published in 1896, became a best-seller and had a lasting impact on American culture. One small example: Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, heard Vivekananda speak in Chicago and was deeply moved; Baum’s biographer Evan I. Schwartz argues that the quests of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion are allegories for the four yogic paths that Vivekananda elaborated.
What we know as modern yoga is just as much a hot topic as how/if/why we’re appropriating it. Today, we see yoga seeping into everything from Kevin Smith’s new movie, to Christina Aguilera’s new album, to car advertising, to the Super Bowl, to the Emmys, and lots of other examples of YogaPop(culture). There are millions of people practicing yoga in the West and that only seems to keep increasing due to the (mostly good) press it’s been receiving (about improving overall health, not just celebriyogi endorsements).
Not that all of this is wrong, but if people are getting attacked for Hindu goddess tattoos, and Urban Outfitters is offending people with their Ganesh socks and yoga pants, this is not something we hope will be ignored by the yoga practicing population, or used for culture-bashing fuel or self-righteous crusading. This goes for the entire world. (See: International Yoga Day controversy.)
“People are just looking for a reason to be offended by anything they can find,” said Jennifer Scharf, the teacher of the Ottawa class told the Ottawa Sun. ”There’s a real divide between reasonable people and those people just looking to jump on a bandwagon. And unfortunately, it ends up with good people getting punished for doing good things,” she said.
Though we feel bad for the people missing out on the yoga class in Ottawa, the positive side we see to this controversy is the ongoing conversation, because in talking about it maybe we will actually reach a better collective understanding. It’s not productive to continue on in a yoga vacuum or isolated bubble, especially if that bubble is already absorbing other culturally-distinct bubbles. We can look to the historians and scholars for guidance on origins and historical facts, but on a more personal level, we can also use this opportunity to ask ourselves if the decisions and statements we’re making are appropriate or appropriating. There’s a big mirror being held up right now…what do we see?
- Am I Misappropriating Yoga?
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- #WhitePeopleDoingYoga Takes a Critical Look at the Irony of Western Yoga Commercialization