How Can We Acknowledge Cultural Appropriation in Yoga?

In acknowledging the various cultural objects and practices that are part of QSY, we are hoping to begin to address elements that may be alienating for some people in accessing our space, or start a discussion with those who might not have considered this topic before. We welcome feedback and critique about our efforts.

At Queen Street Yoga, we are actively working to make our space more inclusive, more accessible, and anti-oppressive. As part of this work, we would like to acknowledge the cultural objects and practices that are present in our studio. Cultural appropriation is a reality in our world; cultures constantly borrow (or take) designs, images, clothing, and practices from one another. However, when a dominant culture, such as North America, does this to less politically, economically or socially powerful culture such as India, and those aspects are used outside of their original cultural context, this can have the effect of reducing or commodifying those aspects of culture in ways that can be disrespectful.

Here are some questions that we try to keep in mind as we consider the presence of cultural objects and practices at QSY. We invite you to try them on for yourself as well.

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Reflections on Yoga, Social Justice and Inclusion

This guest post is by Christine Witmer Lang, a long-time yoga and meditation practitioner, a member of QSY’s 2015-2016 Yoga Teacher Training program.

Reflections on Yoga, Social Justice, and Inclusion

Before I began Yoga Teacher Training, I admit I spent very little time thinking about the broader social and cultural aspects of yoga. Like many things that come into our lives, I came to yoga aware only of what this practice could do for me. I enjoyed the challenge of the physical movement through poses, the integration of breath, and the continual invitation to be aware of how my body felt as it moved through a sequence.  Yoga gave me a sense of embodiment and calm, which over time permeated into other parts of my life.  Through yoga, I believed I had found a home.  Yoga made my life better, my body stronger, and my mind clearer.  It felt as though yoga had been made for my body and temperament – as if yoga had been made for me.

Through discussion on yoga teacher training weekends, through readings, videos, and workshops, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that yoga has a history and cultural complexity that extends far beyond our North American understanding of its practice. The very practice through which I learned embodiment has been cut off from its roots, and has suffered a disembodiment of its own. Continue reading

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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.” Continue reading

Cultural Appropriation & Yoga

Queen Street Yoga was approached by local newspaper The Community Edition to write something about cultural appropriation and yoga, after this Ottawa Sun news article went viral. There is a lot more to the Ottawa Sun story than was originally reported, and we highly recommend reading our colleague Matthew Remski’s take on it, in which he details how the story was mis-reported, and the way in which popular media mostly shut down and derided the idea of cultural appropriation in yoga. At Queen Street Yoga we think awareness of cultural appropriation in yoga is very important, and in the following piece that Emma wrote for The Community Edition, she shares some thoughts and reflections on how her teaching has changed in the last few years, as she has learned more about the reality of cultural appropriation. Emma wants to acknowledge SAAPYA (South-Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America) and other colleagues in the yoga community for helping her better understand the issues and impacts of cultural appropriation and yoga.

reaching up yoga class imageIn the last several years, Queen Street Yoga has been looking more deeply into questions of privilege, oppression and cultural (mis)appropriation, and how they show up in the teaching of yoga, and in the experience of yoga studios. We have been examining how yoga was taught to us by mostly white, cis-gendered teachers, and thinking carefully about what it means to be North-American born practitioners of a tradition that has its origins in India. I define cultural (mis)appropriation as instances when members of a dominant culture take elements of a minority culture and use them outside of their original cultural context, often times reducing or commodifying those cultural aspects to “exotic” and meaningless fashion or activities. Cultural appropriation is a complex subject, and people often get defensive when it is mentioned. Recently an article was published in the Ottawa Sun about a yoga class at the University of Ottawa that was purportedly cancelled due to fears that it could be considered cultural appropriation. The Ottawa Sun later printed a retraction and reported that the class was cancelled due to low attendance, but that did not stop the viral media-storm in which many white columnists and writers derided the whole idea that yoga could be considered cultural (mis)appropriation.

Thinking about the issue of cultural appropriation in the last few years has changed the way that I teach yoga and create studio programming, as the Creative Director of the studio, and as the Co-Director of our Teacher Training Program. My teaching has changed a great deal from when I first began. Continue reading