I’ve read a number of articles recently regarding yoga and claims of cultural appropriation. As someone who is generally amenable to the idea of cultural sensitivity, I found the circumstances described in these articles to be very disheartening. At issue: a university yoga class was cancelled because the administration wanted to be sensitive to an Indian culture which has experienced oppression from Western influences. Hmm. Let me think about this…
Nope. Not buying it. Didn’t we just celebrate the first International Yoga Day, endorsed by the United Nations at the behest of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi? Isn’t modern asana-based yoga a combination of many cultural components (not just Indian), chosen by Indian practitioners as a way of creating a distinct form of yoga? And didn’t vinyassa yoga come to the West because its Indian creator wanted to spread his iteration of yoga?
Yes, yes, and yes.
As far as I can tell, yoga was never intended to be exclusively Indian. In fact, its spread was due in part to Indians seeking support in their quest to throw off British colonialism (yay independence!). If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, India should be feeling pretty good. In my limited experience, yoga has been practiced with the utmost respect for the culture from which it was born (asanas taught with their Sanskrit names is just one example). Like many cultural icons, yoga takes on the flavor of its context, and in the context of the United States, yoga takes on as many shapes as the people who practice it. This isn’t appropriation. It’s a way of saying “thank you for sharing.”
Sure, be sensitive about what you’re doing, but don’t limit opportunities for others because you fail to understand the culture you’re claiming to respect and protect. Dig a little deeper, university administrators. You’ll find that India has always been happy to share its yoga with you, your students, and the rest of the world.