Soapbox Issues

White people and yoga

Earlier this week, I read an article on Daily life titled ‘Why white people need to stop saying namaste‘. The author, “a Hindi speaking Hindu girl from Mumbai” who “migrated to Australia in the 1990s”, argues that yoga being practised in the western world and here in Australia is white-centric and is a form of cultural appropriation with yoga teachers here not understanding the Hindu roots of the practice.

Susan Scaffidi, a law professor and author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and authenticity in American Law, defines cultural appropriation as

Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artefacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.

The definition highlights ‘without permission’ but originally, yoga was taken to the west by Indian yogis themselves. It wasn’t forcibly taken or copied. Sure, yoga has changed over the years in the west and I am not a fan of that necessarily but I still don’t think it’s something to cry on about.

The author’s main argument is that yoga is practised without understanding Hindu roots. When I went to school in India in the 1990s {the same time the author migrated to Australia}, we had yoga once or twice a week until grade 9. And you know what? We were never taught the Hindu underpinnings of yoga. We were taught the different asanas and had to practice those but there was nothing about religion or spirituality embedded in that. We were taught by brown people of Hindu backgrounds themselves.

Similarly, when I was in college, I attended yoga at a local yoga centre where the emphasis was on exercise and weight loss. Not on religion, spirituality or even meditation back then. Sure, it didn’t work for me as a form of weight loss as a 17 year old but that’s a different story. My mother used to swear by yoga for her weight loss when she was younger. Once again, there was never any teachings around its Hindu roots.

You were taught tree poses and bird poses, you learnt the sun salutations and the wheelbarrow pose. But at no point were we ever taught about its Hindu roots. So why then, do we need to kick up a stink about it when the west practises it?

I will admit I have only been to yoga twice in Australia {although I’m looking into a proper class}. One was pretty shit where it was about stretches and not the original yoga with asanas. The other though, with cats around, was the proper yoga. Run by a white woman with the rest of the class being white too {Except for the cats}. But you know what? I didn’t notice my brownness standing out by any means. All I noticed was how tough some of the asanas were and realising I could hurt in parts of body I didn’t know existed.

As for the author getting upset of the use of ‘Namaste‘ by white people, all I can do is shake my head. I have never ever used Namaste while greeting people in India and neither have any of my friends or their families. We would only hear that in Bollywood movies and on soap operas. Perhaps because the author left in the 90s, she is unaware that Mumbai is in fact, a melting pot. English — or Hinglish — is much more common and people do respond to ‘Hello’. It might be different in northern India but I can’t really comment on that.

On the one hand, we want a world that is accepting. We want a world that is less prejudiced. So why can’t we be accepting about engaging in practices from different cultures in a respectful way? If a white person wants to wear a sari, so be it. If they want to wear a bindi, that should be fine. I get how some things can be offensive like wearing a native-American headdress as part of a fancy dress. But I don’t get how a white person putting mehendi on their hands is classified the same.

I wish we could look past the colour of our skin, look past the religions we were born into, look past the cultures we were born into and realise that in the end, we are all human beings. We all feel sad, happy, angry, worried, ashamed, amused, hurt and pain.

We all live our lives. And one day, we will all die.

In the mean time, can we just practice yoga or dance hip-hop if it floats our boat, say namaste if we want to or just ‘G’day mate‘ without wondering who we will offend next?

What do you think of white people doing yoga or saying namaste? 

Are we going too far with cultural appropriation?

Do share! 

Until next time,

SANCH_sig1

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  • Vanessa
    7 April 2016 at 6:09 am

    Interesting points Sanch. Avoiding cultural appropriate at all costs could be seen as a form of Othering.
    It’s funny what you aren’t taught from within an institution too. I spent 9 years at Catholic schools (despite not being from a religious family) & I know jack shit about the religion because they didn’t actually ever teach you anything about it. My husband says similar about the religion he was raised in.
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  • Vanessa
    7 April 2016 at 6:09 am

    Interesting points Sanch. Avoiding cultural appropriate at all costs could be seen as a form of Othering.
    It’s funny what you aren’t taught from within an institution too. I spent 9 years at Catholic schools (despite not being from a religious family) & I know jack shit about the religion because they didn’t actually ever teach you anything about it. My husband says similar about the religion he was raised in.
    Vanessa recently posted…Homebrand vs Select BrandMy Profile

  • Amy @ Handbagmafia
    7 April 2016 at 7:26 am

    I read that too and I went away confused. I have practiced yoga off and on since I was a teen. Been to classes and used instructional videos. I’ve never said namaste but I have worn bindis and henna (because one if my besties in school was Indian and introduced me to them). I try to be mindful of cultural appropriation (though I’m still learning) and thought I had the basics nailed but that article made me second guess. It had never occurred to me that my doing yoga would offend someone culturally.
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    • Sanch @ Living my Imperfect Life
      7 April 2016 at 8:26 am

      I honestly don’t think the author of the article used cultural appropriation in the right sense. Radhika’s comment after yours is very enlightening as she practises yoga here in Aus and is of Indian background herself. Please continue wearing bindis and henna and definitely do yoga! The funny thing is, I’m not a fan of bindis or henna myself ?

  • Amy @ Handbagmafia
    7 April 2016 at 7:26 am

    I read that too and I went away confused. I have practiced yoga off and on since I was a teen. Been to classes and used instructional videos. I’ve never said namaste but I have worn bindis and henna (because one if my besties in school was Indian and introduced me to them). I try to be mindful of cultural appropriation (though I’m still learning) and thought I had the basics nailed but that article made me second guess. It had never occurred to me that my doing yoga would offend someone culturally.
    Amy @ Handbagmafia recently posted…Feminism & Frosting: The Bake Sale BacklashMy Profile

    • Sanch @ Living my Imperfect Life
      7 April 2016 at 8:26 am

      I honestly don’t think the author of the article used cultural appropriation in the right sense. Radhika’s comment after yours is very enlightening as she practises yoga here in Aus and is of Indian background herself. Please continue wearing bindis and henna and definitely do yoga! The funny thing is, I’m not a fan of bindis or henna myself ?

  • Radhika @ Fulltime Nomad
    7 April 2016 at 8:18 am

    I read it too and it annoyed me a little bit. I believe more people need to open up to yoga and silly articles like that only scare people away. Yoga is not just a “woo-woo” hippie practice. It’s not just spiritual, it’s not just physical. It’s an all-encompassing lifestyle that can be incredibly beneficial for a person’s well-being in more than one way.

    Like you, I did yoga when I was growing up in India but there was definitely no focus on the religious and spiritual roots of it. And that was a good thing. I’ve been doing yoga in Australia, regularly since 2007 and I have never once thought about the colour of my teachers’ skin. It has not been of any relevance. Yoga has its roots in Hinduism, yes, but I think the beauty of yoga is that it is free of religious connotations and is a big part of why I enjoy it. There is a certain amount of pretentiousness and cultural appropriation that surrounds yoga culture but, I think for the most part, yogis mean no harm and just want to practice a way of life that is physically and mentally uplifting.

    Yoga comes from India but thousands of years later, it definitely doesn’t belong to India alone any more. To me, that is a beautiful thing and Indians need to stop being so possessive about it. Like cultures, like food, like language, yoga too has evolved from its roots but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing. In many ways, yoga is appreciated more in Western societies than it is in India and only recently, due to its widespread adoption in the West, are many Indians rethinking their attitude to yoga. I say this based on people I know, and friends in India who thought I was weird for doing yoga and now have taken it up themselves.

    I think yoga teachers should be conscious of cultural appropriation especially as it can be such a fine line between yoga and Hinduism sometimes. But, I think it’s very silly for that author of that article to say all Western yoga is culturally offensive to Indians. As someone of Indian heritage, I for one, am not offended.

    P.S. Sanch, if you’d like to start doing yoga at home, I highly recommend Erin Motz (Bad Yogi). She’s real and authentic and has a 30 day challenge which I love! You can find her on YouTube.

    P.P.S Sorry about the rant. Opinions like the author’s really annoy me. If more people are doing yoga, it can only be a good thing. Let’s not scare people from doing yoga by telling them you’re offending Indians! *eye roll*
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    • Sanch @ Living my Imperfect Life
      7 April 2016 at 8:24 am

      I knew you would be a voice of reason!!! Thanks for the wonderful comment especially being someone who practises yoga regularly. Thanks also for the recommendation. I need to get back my fitness and health so will take that on.

  • Radhika @ Fulltime Nomad
    7 April 2016 at 8:18 am

    I read it too and it annoyed me a little bit. I believe more people need to open up to yoga and silly articles like that only scare people away. Yoga is not just a “woo-woo” hippie practice. It’s not just spiritual, it’s not just physical. It’s an all-encompassing lifestyle that can be incredibly beneficial for a person’s well-being in more than one way.

    Like you, I did yoga when I was growing up in India but there was definitely no focus on the religious and spiritual roots of it. And that was a good thing. I’ve been doing yoga in Australia, regularly since 2007 and I have never once thought about the colour of my teachers’ skin. It has not been of any relevance. Yoga has its roots in Hinduism, yes, but I think the beauty of yoga is that it is free of religious connotations and is a big part of why I enjoy it. There is a certain amount of pretentiousness and cultural appropriation that surrounds yoga culture but, I think for the most part, yogis mean no harm and just want to practice a way of life that is physically and mentally uplifting.

    Yoga comes from India but thousands of years later, it definitely doesn’t belong to India alone any more. To me, that is a beautiful thing and Indians need to stop being so possessive about it. Like cultures, like food, like language, yoga too has evolved from its roots but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing. In many ways, yoga is appreciated more in Western societies than it is in India and only recently, due to its widespread adoption in the West, are many Indians rethinking their attitude to yoga. I say this based on people I know, and friends in India who thought I was weird for doing yoga and now have taken it up themselves.

    I think yoga teachers should be conscious of cultural appropriation especially as it can be such a fine line between yoga and Hinduism sometimes. But, I think it’s very silly for that author of that article to say all Western yoga is culturally offensive to Indians. As someone of Indian heritage, I for one, am not offended.

    P.S. Sanch, if you’d like to start doing yoga at home, I highly recommend Erin Motz (Bad Yogi). She’s real and authentic and has a 30 day challenge which I love! You can find her on YouTube.

    P.P.S Sorry about the rant. Opinions like the author’s really annoy me. If more people are doing yoga, it can only be a good thing. Let’s not scare people from doing yoga by telling them you’re offending Indians! *eye roll*
    Radhika @ Fulltime Nomad recently posted…How to Prepare your Freelance Business for Location IndependenceMy Profile

    • Sanch @ Living my Imperfect Life
      7 April 2016 at 8:24 am

      I knew you would be a voice of reason!!! Thanks for the wonderful comment especially being someone who practises yoga regularly. Thanks also for the recommendation. I need to get back my fitness and health so will take that on.

  • Beat About the Book
    7 April 2016 at 12:20 pm

    I agree that anyone can do a namaste or take up yoga but yoga does have its roots in Hindu spirituality. It struck me only when I rejoined classes recently. When we do a suryanamaskar for instance we are worshipping the sun, right? That’s part of Hindu religion. That said, the exercise bit can be dissociated from the spiritual aspect but that’s only part of yoga as I see it. As for the namaste – it remains a common greeting across scores of Indian cities and towns, though the Hellos and Hi are equally common now. I’d be happy and a little proud too if someone from another Nationality took it up. I’d most definitely not resent it. It remains a part of my culture and nobody can take that away from me.
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  • Beat About the Book
    7 April 2016 at 12:20 pm

    I agree that anyone can do a namaste or take up yoga but yoga does have its roots in Hindu spirituality. It struck me only when I rejoined classes recently. When we do a suryanamaskar for instance we are worshipping the sun, right? That’s part of Hindu religion. That said, the exercise bit can be dissociated from the spiritual aspect but that’s only part of yoga as I see it. As for the namaste – it remains a common greeting across scores of Indian cities and towns, though the Hellos and Hi are equally common now. I’d be happy and a little proud too if someone from another Nationality took it up. I’d most definitely not resent it. It remains a part of my culture and nobody can take that away from me.
    Beat About the Book recently posted…This is how I was kindledMy Profile

  • Lata Sunil
    7 April 2016 at 2:26 pm

    Sanch, I so agree with your points. Why shouldn’t someone say Namaste or not say Namaste? As you pointed out, I have never said Namaste in my life nor do my relatives or anyone. And if I want to say it, why should I know the purpose and scientific and mythological story of namaste. This just looks like a means to gain publicity.

  • Lata Sunil
    7 April 2016 at 2:26 pm

    Sanch, I so agree with your points. Why shouldn’t someone say Namaste or not say Namaste? As you pointed out, I have never said Namaste in my life nor do my relatives or anyone. And if I want to say it, why should I know the purpose and scientific and mythological story of namaste. This just looks like a means to gain publicity.

  • Vasantha Vivek
    7 April 2016 at 4:51 pm

    Sanch, well conceived and written [post !!! I also go with you that Yoga is nowhere speaking about Hinduism or Hindus. But we at Tamilnadu still insisting our kids to greet our friends and relatives by saying Namasakar. My Guru, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev insists Namaskar is the simplest form of Yoga. Thanks for sharing this post !!!
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  • Vasantha Vivek
    7 April 2016 at 4:51 pm

    Sanch, well conceived and written [post !!! I also go with you that Yoga is nowhere speaking about Hinduism or Hindus. But we at Tamilnadu still insisting our kids to greet our friends and relatives by saying Namasakar. My Guru, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev insists Namaskar is the simplest form of Yoga. Thanks for sharing this post !!!
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  • Maliny Mohan
    7 April 2016 at 10:34 pm

    If anything, I feel proud if they take up our traditions with high regard, though I am against modernisation of yoga, that takes away its essence from it. Yoga I believe is complete only if it is commenced with ‘om’, but other than that I don’t think severe religious connotations are included when we are taught the practice. ‘Namaste’ will go down in history as linked to India and I don’t know why any one would have a problem with that.
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  • Maliny Mohan
    7 April 2016 at 10:34 pm

    If anything, I feel proud if they take up our traditions with high regard, though I am against modernisation of yoga, that takes away its essence from it. Yoga I believe is complete only if it is commenced with ‘om’, but other than that I don’t think severe religious connotations are included when we are taught the practice. ‘Namaste’ will go down in history as linked to India and I don’t know why any one would have a problem with that.
    Maliny Mohan recently posted…Peep Into The Past – Short FictionMy Profile

  • Sreesha
    8 April 2016 at 4:21 am

    We had yoga in school as well, and we weren’t told about its religious roots or anything either. It was asanas and breathing exercises for us. Of late, there are different kinds of yoga being advertised, some with strange names that I’m sure have nothing to do with religion either – such as steam yoga or power yoga. I may be wrong but they don’t at all sound like practices with religious roots to me!
    I’ve been hearing a lot about cultural appropriation lately, and yes, I get the bit about mocking something sacred. But I don’t see the point in getting offended over a bindi. Guess it’s the time for people to take a topic and go overboard just cos they can!

  • Sreesha
    8 April 2016 at 4:21 am

    We had yoga in school as well, and we weren’t told about its religious roots or anything either. It was asanas and breathing exercises for us. Of late, there are different kinds of yoga being advertised, some with strange names that I’m sure have nothing to do with religion either – such as steam yoga or power yoga. I may be wrong but they don’t at all sound like practices with religious roots to me!
    I’ve been hearing a lot about cultural appropriation lately, and yes, I get the bit about mocking something sacred. But I don’t see the point in getting offended over a bindi. Guess it’s the time for people to take a topic and go overboard just cos they can!

  • Min@WriteoftheMiddle
    8 April 2016 at 9:51 am

    Very interesting Sanch! I know that as a teen I used to do yoga sometimes as a ‘sport’ option. NEVER was any spirituality or hindu background mentioned. It was all about exercise and flexibility. Fast forward to today though and I know a few people who have done Yoga Teacher Training (white people) and their training is full of and very much focussed on the hindu origins and interlaced meanings and purposes in relation to yoga. I did a 6 week beginner yoga course a while back (gee I really must get back to it) and they passed on LOTS of information on the hindu origins, the meanings behind the names and poses, the spirituality side, the benefits, lots of stuff. And we always said Namaste at the end of the class. I love learning all the background and spirituality behind yoga. I love learning about other cultures. I love learning new stuff full stop! It never occurred to me that doing yoga as a white person could offend someone culturally. The things people get offended by these days! 😉

  • Min@WriteoftheMiddle
    8 April 2016 at 9:51 am

    Very interesting Sanch! I know that as a teen I used to do yoga sometimes as a ‘sport’ option. NEVER was any spirituality or hindu background mentioned. It was all about exercise and flexibility. Fast forward to today though and I know a few people who have done Yoga Teacher Training (white people) and their training is full of and very much focussed on the hindu origins and interlaced meanings and purposes in relation to yoga. I did a 6 week beginner yoga course a while back (gee I really must get back to it) and they passed on LOTS of information on the hindu origins, the meanings behind the names and poses, the spirituality side, the benefits, lots of stuff. And we always said Namaste at the end of the class. I love learning all the background and spirituality behind yoga. I love learning about other cultures. I love learning new stuff full stop! It never occurred to me that doing yoga as a white person could offend someone culturally. The things people get offended by these days! 😉

  • Denyse Whelan Blogs
    8 April 2016 at 2:55 pm

    I read that too and wondered if it was to grab a headline. I have done yoga over the years and never consistently. I had a lesson in 2015 when I first arrived on the Central Coast and felt so out of place fitness wise I didnt go back. It was the ‘wrong’ group for me but they wanted me to come! I like my walking in nature, my meditation and I do give thanks to nature and the greater good out there. Denyse
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  • Denyse Whelan Blogs
    8 April 2016 at 2:55 pm

    I read that too and wondered if it was to grab a headline. I have done yoga over the years and never consistently. I had a lesson in 2015 when I first arrived on the Central Coast and felt so out of place fitness wise I didnt go back. It was the ‘wrong’ group for me but they wanted me to come! I like my walking in nature, my meditation and I do give thanks to nature and the greater good out there. Denyse
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  • Natalie @ Our Parallel Connection
    8 April 2016 at 6:08 pm

    I have done yoga many times in the past and currently looking for a class to do with my 2 teenage girls. If Namaste is used as part of the process to get us centred, then so be it. Some people jus have too much time to complain. This is a nice thing in the world.
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  • Natalie @ Our Parallel Connection
    8 April 2016 at 6:08 pm

    I have done yoga many times in the past and currently looking for a class to do with my 2 teenage girls. If Namaste is used as part of the process to get us centred, then so be it. Some people jus have too much time to complain. This is a nice thing in the world.
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  • Parul
    10 April 2016 at 3:50 am

    I use Namaste with elders and it cos from the place i come from. But if an elder would prefer hello, I can switch to that.
    Coming over topYoga class, we start with a Namaste and I like it. Not from a Hindu standpoint but an Indian greeting. Yoga may have Hindu roots but it is a form of understanding your body. It is not just about those oms and chants but what it brings to the mind. Yoga should be seen beyond culture or religion. It’s an art.
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  • Parul
    10 April 2016 at 3:50 am

    I use Namaste with elders and it cos from the place i come from. But if an elder would prefer hello, I can switch to that.
    Coming over topYoga class, we start with a Namaste and I like it. Not from a Hindu standpoint but an Indian greeting. Yoga may have Hindu roots but it is a form of understanding your body. It is not just about those oms and chants but what it brings to the mind. Yoga should be seen beyond culture or religion. It’s an art.
    Parul recently posted…G for Girls Not Brides #AtoZChallengeMy Profile

  • Rajlakshmi
    10 April 2016 at 10:21 pm

    I haven’t read this article yet, I have read comments before where many Indian blame the west for ‘stealing’ yoga… whatever that means. I have said Namaste and in fact was greeted with Namaste by people of different nationalities, because that’s the first Hindi word they learn. What can ever be wrong with that!! I know an Aussie Yoga Teacher who probably has read more Bhagavad Gita than I have because she is fascinated by Krishna.
    I agree, when I learnt yoga at school, there definitely was no spiritual or religious aspect to it. It was purely a physical exercise to be fit. And I agree what Parul has said that Yoga is about understanding your body, opening your heart and realising your strength and weakness … sometimes I feel it’s like you are developing your personality too.
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