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Why Western Yoga practice IS NOT cultural appropriation

The other day I was reading an article in the Huffington Post that defended that westerners should stop practicing yoga and everyone should stick to their own race when it comes to the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the art we appreciate and the life we live if we want a better world free from racism and colonialist violence.  And in spite of all the things that I think are wrong with the yoga industry (and there are things seriously wrong), this just doesn’t make any sense to me and I will explain why.

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Personally, in a globalized world as our own, the concept of “cultural appropriation” has been increasingly difficult for me to grasp. To say that westerners have been stealing others cultures’ rituals, beliefs, traditions forgetting all the things the West has given to the world is not totally fair. And we must not forget also that westerners are now a mixture of people from all origins, religions, cultures, and beliefs.

I am not a historian but I believe that what most people now call “cultural appropriation” (or as I see it, “cultural exchange”) has been happening since the dawn of man. Whenever two groups intersected, they inevitably took with them what they have learned from the other group and inserted it into their own behavior if they considered it to be advantageous or beneficial to their lives. There was a time when there were only small groups and tribes in the world, with their very own behaviors and beliefs who exchanged information every time they encounter one another. Sometimes peacefully and sometimes in a less friendly way. So, this is not new nor something that only westerners do.

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But first of all, it is important to define what today is considered “cultural appropriation”.

According to Oxford Reference, cultural appropriation is “a term used to describe the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another. It is in general used to describe Western appropriations of non‐Western or non‐white forms and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance. (…) The term emerged during the last twenty years of the 20th century as part of the vocabulary of the post‐colonial critique of Western expansionism.

Second of all, it is important to define “racism”.

Oxford Dictionaries states that racism is “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

Is Western Yoga practice cultural appropriation and racism?

Since Yoga was born in India, one can think that westerners are taking over another cultures’ spiritual practice. I understand this chain of thought…I just don’t agree with it.

The Ministry of External Affairs of India states that Yoga is “essentially a spiritual discipline based on an extremely subtle science, which focuses on bringing harmony between mind and body. (…) The word ‘Yoga’ is derived from the Sanskrit root ‘Yuj’, meaning ‘to join’ or ‘to yoke’ or ‘to unite’.

It also states that “Yoga does not adhere to any particular religion, belief system or community; it has always been approached as a technology for inner wellbeing. Anyone who practices yoga with involvement can reap its benefits, irrespective of one’s faith, ethnicity or culture.

One can think that the Ministry of External Affairs of India has economic interests and is betraying the Indian culture by saying that yoga is for everyone so that international Yoga Tourism continues to increase in the country but inherent within the basic teachings of yoga (which means union), is that yoga is for all!

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Why I think yoga is for me, for you and for everyone

Crossing information, sharing information, and adopting customs and beliefs from other cultures was something that has always happened. What is wrong, I think, is to insert in our way of life certain customs from other groups of society, and to pass on the message that they were our creation. But this hardly happens with Yoga.

No one in the world believes that Yoga was born in the West. Many might not know the philosophy of yoga. Many might not know that yoga is a way of life. Many might not know that yoga is more than a group of exercises related to strength and flexibility. But everyone knows that Yoga was born in India.

Yoga is much more than the asanas we do on a mat. Should I really accept that being truthful, believing in a non-violent life, respecting myself and the others, being more patient, pursuing inner peace should be exclusive to a culture? That if I want to live this way I am being offensive to someone else or in some way being disrespectful to a certain group of people? Am I not, instead, recognizing that the group in question as found a way of living that I value, with which I resonate and that I want to bring into my own life?

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So the question of “cultural appropriation” is something that I can hardly understand when it comes to yoga. I think it is important to take measures to prevent the desecration of yoga practice but to say that westerners should stop practicing yoga makes no sense at all. And to say that everyone should “stick to their own race, culture and beliefs” so we have a less racist world…common? Isn’t this the most racist thought ever?!

But most importantly I think we forget that we are all humans and all the same but we continue to fight to maintain these invisible borders and beliefs instead of just living and sharing and evolving together. There is no Western Yoga or Eastern Yoga. There is Yoga. And it is for all! And I thank the creators of this practice for sharing it with the world because they have given me the opportunity to learn about this way of life.

So, not only Yoga was a creation meant to be a gift to all mankind but also when practiced by westerners they are not appropriating anything because westerners are not selling Yoga as their own creation. They are only incorporating into their lives a new way of living and trying to find inner peace. Which is something all human beings deserve and should pursue.

In my opinion, Humanity would gain a lot more if we left off the discussions about cultural appropriation, spent less energy protecting what we consider to be ours and only ours, spent less time clinging to the grudges of the past and instead devoted ourselves to sharing with each other what is worth sharing so that together we can be better people and build a better world in spite of our origins. Because in the end our origin is the planet Earth and we are all brothers and sisters.

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