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  • Diana Thielen

A group discussion:Yoga & Cultural Appropriation

Group Discussion at Axis Syllabus & Yoga Workshop with Diana Thielen, Ponderosa, 25 August 2016

How do we approach Yoga in view of the issue of ‘cultural appropriation’? To what extent is it problematic when a teacher refer to Asanas, Sanskrit chants or hindu symbols? Is it necessary to refer to ‘Yoga’ at all when working with movements commonly captured under that label? These were the questions we found important to address during the workshop.

Critiques of the ‘cultural appropriation’ of Yoga have been developed by a number of people, and they relate to wider decolonial and anti-racist politics. Among the references brought up at the workshop are the websites by Sri Louise and as well as the writings of Amara Miller and authors contributing to the ‘Race and Yoga Conference’ or ‘everday feminism’ to just mention a few. The term ‘cultural appropriation’ in the current discussion means the use of practices from formerly colonized parts of the world in Western contexts, in ways that neglect the histories of these practices. Critics of cultural appropriation point out in particular that it is often Western corporations as well as white practitioners that benefit from these practices, while marginalised people ­– including those from the very contexts where these very practices originate from ­– experience exoticisation and racism, or cannot afford to participate.

Our discussion started from the question of whether a teacher working with Asanas should refer to Yoga at all. The problems with this, it was pointed out, include the fact that the Asanas are only a very small part of what traditional Yoga is about. Insofar as our understanding goes, the Asanas currently practiced in Hatha Yoga have been invented only around a hundred years ago ­– and in a colonial context. Moreover, traditional Yoga is practiced with a Guru.

But isn’t social life all about taking up practices and doing something else with them? And what are the ‘origins’ of Yoga anyways, hasn’t ‘traditional’ Yoga itself been very diverse? So if we acknowledge that diversity, maybe there arise other kinds of entry points into Yoga practice?

The following points we discussed could summarize some of the concerns arising in response, including contradictions and further uncertainties. Beyond our workshop discussion, you could understand the following comments as a dialogue or as questions to start and nourish your very own discourse (and stay tuned for the response of Sri Louise later in this post):

– Well, but isn’t such a decontextualized use of practices (the Asana practice) already a very colonial gesture?

– This certainly can be a form of exercising power. On the other hand, there are also subversive forms of appropriating cultural practices, for instance artists in postcolonial contexts combining western with indigenous ideas and aesthetics.

– OK, but this is not really cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation refers to members of a dominant group using the culture of oppressed groups to their own advantage.

– Well, there are also cases where a postcolonial avant-garde struggle against the dominance of the former colonisers and are simultaneously part of a social elite in their own societies, contributing for instance to the marginalisation of formerly enslaved populations. So the relations can be quite intricate, and the line between ‘cultural appropriation’ and ‘subversive appropriation’ is not always clear. (This example was fleshed out regarding the Brazilian modernist movement.)

– With Yoga, it is still problematic, because in the German or US- context, there are many studios where it is mostly white middle-class people attending classes, which could easily cost around 14-18 € per session.

– So, one would need to offer classes in other kinds of contexts to make them more inclusive. ­

– Hmm, it might not be that easy, because people already have certain associations with what ‘Yoga’ means and who it is mostly for, so just changing location and advertising it might not do the job.

– It is still important to have people teaching Yoga progressively, so to change the way it is practiced from within. If all critical teachers just leave the field, this will be much worse.

– Maybe for some people leaving the field is the right choice, and for others, or in another situation, it is not.

But perhaps ‘cultural appropriation’ is best understood as a power dynamic, which a Yoga practice cannot easily be reduced to. It is also important to interrogate ‘Western’ practices, because there is a danger of thinking, when one just leaves the field of non-Western practices and limits one’s engagement to Western culture, one is on the safe side. But actually, there is no such thing as a safe cultural site without power relations.

Working with the Axis Syllabus, for instance, involves the risk of uncritically relying on scientific traditions, that have a long and violent history of normalisation – for instance in relation to dis_ability, ‘race’, sexuality or gender.

What could we take out of this discussion and the questions arising?

What about starting out from the understanding that (social) situations (such as common research, studying, teaching and practicing, social rituals and behaviours) are complex? Already the concept of ‘western’ versus ‘eastern’ carries along power dynamics and underestimates the multidimensional institutionalisation.

Let’s also start with the assumption that working with the human body always needs to include a critical and alternative investigation of the supposed naturalness of bodies – whether we are dealing with ‘Western’ or ‘Non-Western’ practices.

Understanding and reflecting on our own perspective, our own position(s) within the field of participation would be another reference point we can integrate in the discourse.

That all could go well along with the ideas of theorist, performance artist, author Grada Kilomba[1], who encourages the creation of emancipatory spaces and to listen to alternative knowledge to change the manifestation of power and knowledge: To look at something, we've never looked at. To listen to someone, who we have never been listening to. To give space to knowledges and perspectives we never gave room for.

That all might hopefully stimulate our discourse and further research, without giving a final answer…

Following comments are by Sri Louise

"thank you for including me in this discussion and for letting me peer into your ocnversation via the notes...

my first question is, was there anyone there was that indian or hindu? if not, i think this needs to be highlighed...other poc do not ellivate the lack of hindu/jain/buddhists indian representation in these conversations, it allows whites to maintain considerable control of the conversation, especially around notions of history.

there is a history of hatha yoga that predates krishnamacharya. there are extant texts that predate him by hundreds of years and temple carvings and excavated relics that predate him by him thousands. the history that is told about asana is a very limited history and so far has been told by white, male academics...

stylisticly, we can talk about modern influences, but it is eroneous to say that asanas were developed a hundred years ago...

even in the hatha yoga pradipika, which was written in the 1400's, many asanas that we do today, in fact all that are mentioned, are also given physiological responses/effects/benefits. in chapter one verse 32 pascimottanasana is mentioned and described as kindling gastric fire, the jathara agni is central in ayurveda to mitigating disease.

there are countless ways that we have taken asana out of context and relegated them simply to the level of the sthula sarira, the phsyical body. jathara agni belongs to the suksma sarira, the subtle body, so does the breath. there is also the karana sarira, the causal body.

there isn't a yogic text that doesn't include samadhi or some synonym used to refer to it. when we say yoga is diverse, what do we mean by that? in what ways is it diverse? it's an interesting way to co-opt the cultural appropriation peice, to say, oh what we are doing is just another diverse expression, of what has always been done.

i would be deeply suspect of any western who professes such a thing, diversity in asana/yoga. what does the western world view understand about samadhi? meaning, how does a western expression of asana become relevant ontologically? if there is an ontological relevance, than i would call it yoga. if there is no ontological liberation, you cannot have moksa, yoga is for moksa. this is deeply cultural and is embedded in the cultural psyche of indians through the four purusarthas. the diversity, or pluralism that the indian sub continent has always enjoyed, is with reference to moksa. the sad darshanas and the nastikas like buddhism and jainism posit different notions of means and end, but the end in view is moksa.

to leave it as an open ended question is to not appreciate how deliberate indian schools of thought are."



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