Yoga Journal

HONORING THE ROOTS OF YOGA

From self-realization centers and asana apps to T-shirts featuring Ganesh or puns on namaste, the Western world is full of yoga consumerism. We have a lot to gain from this ancient practice, but we also risk losing sight of, and appropriating, the culture and tradition yoga comes from. Here, five teachers, researchers, scholars, and activists weigh in on modern yoga and how we might practice and teach with more integrity and respect. The answers—and even the questions—aren’t always straightforward or easy, but as Honor (Don’t Appropriate) Yoga Summit creator Susanna Barkataki advises, lean in: “As you read the stories that follow, you may experience many emotions. You’ll hear various powerful perspectives from folks with Indian heritage and the impacts these issues have on their lives, families, culture, practice, pasts, and futures. Read these stories with an open heart and mind. Your yoga practice has prepared you for this by teaching you how to hold tension, breathe, and then break through. As you read, pay attention to your breath, body, and heart.” Then keep reading for suggestions on how we can address these issues together.

THE QUESTIONS TO ASK, THE KNOWLEDGE WE NEED

A first-generation Indian-American yoga and mindfulness researcher and teacher reflects on what feels misrepresented and appropriative to her in modern yoga.

When I began contributing to yoga research five years ago, I was invited to a meeting to discuss how to bring yoga and mindfulness practices to university campuses as wellness initiatives. Thirteen out of 15 American administrators and researchers at the conference table happened to be white, the only exceptions being me and another Indian-American woman. The person in charge had thoughtfully invited both of us; though newer to research, we were experienced in yoga teachings because of our South Asian culture and decade-long practices. Entering the room was both moving and intimidating. On one hand, I was honored to share my cultural and personal understandings of yoga. On the other hand, I was one of only two nonwhite people in a group gathering to talk about a practice that originated in India.

Conscious of my identity, I used yogic principles to set aside my conditioned fears and preconceptions and opened my mind to discussing yoga—the practice of self-realization that has transformed my life.

I soon found myself in respectful conversation with everyone at the table: Yoga and mindfulness-based practices can provide what we call “healing” in Eastern tradition, and what we call psychological and physiological “benefits” in Western research. Although we used different words, we were saying similar things.

Until the middle of the meeting.

One of the administrators said, “We’ll need to create a set of guidelines to ensure absolutely no Eastern symbols, bells, or words are used in yoga classes. We can’t make anyone uncomfortable or offend them by suggesting spirituality.”

I don’t believe that Indian words or symbols are required for people to benefit from yoga, but this

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