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Cultural Appropriation Of Yoga Is Toxic Masculinity

Cultural appropriation is a process by which practices, customs and rituals are adopted from one social group and used by another social group, mostly dominant, in unacknowledged and inappropriate ways.

Why I quit yoga as a South Asian woman” – by Huma Qureshi, 27th Aug 2019 – is a simple and heart-felt article that made so much sense to me as a South Indian Hindu practising Yoga Therapist and woman. Qureshi talks about her first hand experience with cultural appropriation and how important conversations around inclusivity, and meaningful practice and application of Yoga were “shut down” at a place she went to in London. I am writing here because I see this issue of appropriation as toxic masculinity, and we will do well in digging deeper into our inherent feminism through understanding this matter.

Cultural appropriation is rampant, especially in the domain of Yoga, and happens unwittingly most times. Most times everyone means well. But with the best of intentions and all the Namastes and the Om shanthi’s, we are actually going horrendously wrong in the practice and application of ‘Yoga’. Let’s break this down.

What is cultural appropriation? Huma Qureshi depicts this in simple terms through her experience – “But this is how cultural appropriation begins: a necklace bearing a sacred symbol here, a Buddha statue for sale in John Lewis for 34.99 there…. After a session reciting Sanskrit words, I remarked that I felt fake doing it. It felt wrong to me , I said, to use Sanskrit in order to sound authentic…… Another scoffed, told me there was no room for political correctness in yoga…. I am not Hindu. I am not even Indian. I’m Muslim and of Pakistani heritage but the more I learnt about yoga, the more I realised just how white-washed it is (here)…… I realised that I if I could feel this way, then how might an Indian person with a tangible connection to yoga through faith, culture or heritage feel?”

So, cultural appropriation is a process by which practices, customs and rituals are adopted from one social group and used by another social group, mostly dominant, in unacknowledged and inappropriate ways. This is happening across the world to many traditional practices from marginalised societies and so-called third world countries. Practices, customs and rituals naturally evolve out of a system of thought and values. They are connected and interrelated with many others aspects of how, where and why the system of thought originated in the first place, and how it is evolving. This involves the geography, history, politics, sociology and so on of a particular system of thought. A simple and fundamental example would be how “yoga practice” has come to mean an active physical practice to keep one’s body supple, lean and so on. Physical health and well-being is of course necessary and significant. However, looking at yoga practice in its context, one will understand that the term yoga encompasses a much larger spiritual enquiry and way of understanding oneself and the world.  In this journey, asanas and pranayama may be used as tools for working with the physical body and breath. To learn and teach with this understanding would be very different from looking at yoga as merely flow classes or Yin sessions. They of course have their meaning, as they did for Huma Qureshi, but placing it in its rightful context and understanding the whole picture also lends itself to ethical and sustainable practice.  As the primary yoga text, Patanjali’s Yoga sutras, would tell you.  In my experience, I have seen such ethical practice only nourishing the practitioner and giving back multiple fold.

For me, it is this question of ethics that is inherently present in Huma’s article, wherein she ends with a “troubling” statement, “They say you take from yoga what you need. I wonder how much of it might be left when we’re done with it.” As a yoga practitioner and therapist from India, immersed in this culture and faith as she points out, and having an osmotic understanding and practice of yoga, I don’t give myself the choice of quitting yoga. I also believe that in writing about her experience Huma has upheld her integrity and ethics. I thank her from the bottom of my heart.

(Refer this excellent article on cultural appropriation to understand more – https://everydayfeminism.com/2016/05/yoga-cultural-appropriation/)

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About the Author

priya nagesh

Yoga Therapist, Energy-based healing (including Reiki) practitioner, and Poet living in Tiruvannamalai. As in Aug 2019, I have an almost 8-year-old daughter going on 68, a four-legged son, and only one read more...

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