Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Yoga Article Raises Issue of Cultural Appropriation

Intro By Liz Goodwin. Story by Paul Vitello.

Last weekend, I stumbled across an interesting article in the New York Times, Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga's Soul. Paul Vitello discusses certain Hindu groups' claims that the spread of yoga in non-Hindu communities forgets the very foundation of the practice, soul. The Indian-American led debate, he says, is meant to bring Westerners to awareness about the forgotten faith that underlies every yoga style. Responses from Western yoga instructors abound, defending the sanctity of yoga as an age old practice dating back far before yoga as a Hindu practice. Data backs this up, says Vitello, but yoga instructors like Debbie Desmond puts it simply: "nobody owns yoga." Other elements of the issue raised by Hindus are the consumption of yoga as a a growing, even multi-billion dollar business now, and the way this undermines the tradition.

Missing in this piece is any explicit mention of cultural appropriation as a trend in the Western world. From language to music to ideas and different every day acts of exploitation, there is a history of Whites and Westerners taking from communities of color, non-Western traditions, taking and consuming elements that Westerners will benefit from, in some way or another, without any real connection to, engagement with, or complete respect of, that community or history or culture. Whether it be the use of meditation in therapeutic practice, by White therapists, or the participation in yoga by White, Western instructors in White-owned studios for the economic and emotional use of this privileged community, not to mention the class based needed to access these type of courses or this kind of therapy. Whatever way it plays out, as the taking from White Westerners of Eastern philosophy, healing approaches, food or art or taking credit for ideas that are not our own, this element is absent in the article.

This truly is a complicated question and one that deserves serious consideration by healers and specifically White healers, as we integrate varying ideas and practices. The answer, I would like to propose, is not as simple as avoiding all non-Western practices. For, even our language, the very words and sayings and thoughts and ideas, as Whites in the US, at least, have been stolen, reworked, taken, and used, without awareness of their roots. I suggest instead a thoughtful, real engagement in this issue, and this particular form of systemic oppression, one that is age old and new, all at once. Here are some questions to consider: In what ways are we practicing cultural appropriation versus sharing with, in a respectful way, different ways of thinking, feeling, and experiencing? In other words, I specifically wonder, for White, largely middle class, Western healers, what do you know about the cultural and community roots of what we use for healing? How connected are we to the very communities these theories and practices originate in? How does an awareness of this impact the work and make us safer, more available, to clients of Western and non Wester descent? When does lack of awareness of this dynamic negatively impact therapy for clients, with this privilege or without it, on either end of this dynamic? What would it look like to interrogate this with other healers [challenge other healers to think about the role of appropriation in their own work] and how would these conversations look? What can be done in and outside of the actual healing process? These questions, I leave us with, to examine and discuss.

Take a look at the article. And, as always, share your thoughts here on the blog.


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