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Singing Mantra – Continuing the Inquiry into Cultural Appropriation and Yoga by Emma Dines

Last December I recorded five songs that I sing for students at the end of my classes, while they rest in savasana, a final resting pose. We have been releasing the songs periodically throughout the last year on our blog. You can listen to and download all of them on Soundcloud. This last song is actually a mantra, called the Gayatri Mantra. It is one of the oldest Vedic chants, and this version that I sing is a shortened version of the original.

It is interesting and a bit uncomfortable that I am releasing this song now, after posting a reflection about cultural appropriation and yoga in December. In that post, I wrote, When I first began teaching yoga six years ago, I was excited about the philosophical content I was learning and eagerly shared my interpretations/understanding of Tantra with my yoga students. I taught my students to sing mantras, and told them stories of Hindu deities. Now, looking back on that, I feel embarrassed. I would describe my early teaching as uninformed cultural misappropriation. Whatever cultural aspects of yoga I was sharing, they had been taught to me by white teachers, some of whom were scholars, but nevertheless, I was taking aspects of Hindu religious culture and teaching them as if they were mine.”

I also wrote, “Cultural appropriation in the case of yoga in North America is complex. There are aspects of yoga in the West that may be disrespectful and appropriative, and there are aspects of yoga in the West that can be deeply healing and thoughtful, and could be considered an aspect of cultural exchange, appreciation and evolution.”

_IRW1123 copyConsidering cultural appropriation in relation to yoga is an active inquiry for me. I like to think of it as an active and ongoing inquiry rather than a set of rules that I need to abide by, or “get right”. Here are some questions that I am currently contemplating as I consider things such as singing mantras in my classes, or leading the study of the philosophical and historical roots of yoga for the trainees in our Yoga Teacher Training program.

  • Where did I learn about this practice? From whom? What was their relationship to the culture that this practice came from?
  • What is my own personal experience of this practice? How does it interact with/inform my own worldview? What value has it added to my life? How has it impacted me?
  • Who has access to this practice? What voices have I not heard or sought out in regards to the history of this practice? What impacts might exist that I might not be aware of?

The answers to these questions are constantly changing, and I am choosing not to include answers here, because I don’t want to appear to be justifying or proving my position. I don’t want to approach the issue of cultural appropriation as something to “get right”, but more as something that I can keep increasing my sensitivity and awareness to, as I try to keep enlarging my circle of understanding.

One thing that I feel strongly about is recognizing and acknowledging the historical roots of yoga, rather than divorcing the current instantiation of yoga from its philosophical and cultural background. That is one of the reasons that I choose to share the Gayatri mantra at the end of my classes. It is a small gesture, and I wonder if it is problematic, if I don’t offer more context for why I’m singing it, or what it is. It is something that I am still mulling over and wondering about.

I am open to comments, suggestions and discussion about this. Feel free to post in the comments below.

2012-11-02-09-09-42 copyEmma Dines is the creative director of Queen Street Yoga. She loves writing, visiting thrift stores and going for walks in the woods. She also loves cartwheeling, sewing and making her own kimchi.

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