Disclosure: The lens from which I am writing this piece is that of a white person native to the United States. The audience which I am primarily prompting with the following suggestions consists of all people who are not of South Asian descent — yogic culture ultimately belongs to the latter group.
Additionally, the items discussed in this piece in no way comprise an exhaustive list; I am certainly not suggesting that adhering to the following makes a perfect yoga practitioner, nor does it necessarily absolve anyone from harm perpetuated through cultural appropriation. This work is deep and expansive, and I encourage everyone reading this piece to do their own research into these themes to further equip themselves to be gracious and honorable stewards of yoga.
We hear it all the time: yoga is for everybody. While this is true in theory — yoga as union of the body, mind, and spirit is certainly not a practice reserved only for certain groups — if we are to try to be earnest practitioners of yoga, it’s essential that we work to engage in the practice in a way that appreciates and doesn’t appropriate. Consider the five action steps below for your own practice:
- Familiarize yourself with yoga’s history. Despite the overwhelmingly whitewashed messages the “yoga industry” conveys via advertisements and marketing, white people aren’t the only people who practice yoga, and white people are certainly not the reason yoga is practiced by so many people around the world today. Surprise! If we are to honor the essence of yoga, we must start with it’s history (hint: it’s thousands of years old!), committing ourselves to honoring its roots both as students and teachers, and practicing gratitude for the yogis who are the reasons yoga became accessible to the western world in the first place.
- Honor the Sanskrit names of practice elements. Yoga cannot simply be extracted from the cultural context it was born from. Sanskrit is the language of yoga, and speaking it is an integral part of spiritual practice. For millennia, the syllables themselves have been honored for the way they reverberate through the speaker, reflecting the divine design of the universe at large (“Om” is a well-cited example of this principle). One of the most accessible ways to use Sanskrit in a practice setting is to know, say, and teach (if applicable) the Sanskrit names of asanas.
- Know that asana is just one part of the practice. Practicing yoga with cultural appreciation should include acknowledgement and embodiment of the fact that the system comprises much more than physical postures. We are selling ourselves and the depth of the practice itself short if we only behave like yogis while on our mats. The study of all of yoga’s eight limbs (including the yamas and niyamas, or ethical considerations on how to treat ourselves and others) can help equip us to truly honor the practice of yoga in its fullness.
- Consider issues of appropriation and access. In your own community, reflect on who frequents yoga spaces. Who seems to be included? Which identities aren’t present or seem to be excluded? Consider whether a studio’s classes are financially accessible to community members. Yoga does not belong to western folk, yet we often act as gatekeepers of the practice here, barring those who have essentially gifted their culture to us from participating in something that it is their birthright, and undoubtedly barring other groups from the practice as well. Research the implications of such exclusivity, and then get curious about how you want to move from there. Pay-what you-can and donation class options are good places to start in the way of studio/teacher offerings. As a student, you might get curious about what your local practice spaces are doing to approach this issue.
- Practice self inquiry. At its core, yoga is about connection — union. Engaging in svadhyaya, or self-study, allows a practitioner to realize union within the self, and ultimately, between the self and everything in existence. Knowing this connection is the foundation from which we propel ourselves into this work.
Written with love and curiosity by Lauren Daeger