Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Yoga and cultural appropriation?


The aim of yoga is to obtain a broader and clearer perspective on the boundless nature of experience instead of being stuck in a limited material world. Yoga can be seen as a practice designed to achieve sustainable happiness through the realization of this true boundless nature (Feuerstein, 2008, 2011).

Why is this then the domain of any one culture? It is universal like prayer or chanting. The argument can be made that the practice has been commodified. However, yoga is not about postures or breathing – even a court in California recognised this when it said the founder of Bikram yoga had no copyright over his sequence of asanas.

In the truest sense yoga is not an end in itself. It may be the means to an end in a journey that is very personal. There is no guarantee of nirvana from a perfect pose and therefore no one holds the key to enlightenment through yoga.

The idea of property and ownership is rooted in the Western concept of individuality which runs contrary to the spirit of yoga which talks about the oneness of all in spirit. It must be accessible to all and yet it can be possessed by none. Yoga is about letting go and not holding on.

So when you bring in concepts like cultural appropriation, oppression and hierarchy you presuppose that the West can claim it, modify it and promote it as something that it discovered and which the East was not capable of doing on its own. That may make sense for those who do not practice yoga and who measure “success” and “visibility” in Western terms of profit making. However, success in the true yogic sense is the true opposite of that; it is to become egoless and to identify less with the material aspects of the world.

I believe the objection is more with the commodification of yoga (although in this instance with the University of Ottawa, it was a free class provided by a volunteer). However, yoga works and heals. So with anything that works you are going to have people exploiting it for a profitable purpose. But given yoga is a state of being and not of doing or becoming can it really be manipulated for gain by Western society? Well if it can, that’s not yoga any more. That’s just a bunch of exercises that deliver a temporary state of wellness but do nothing for our state of being.

To look at this issue another way, the result of treating the practice of yoga in the West as cultural appropriation would be completely absurd. Would this mean that only Indians can do yoga? Or that only some Indians can do it. Would we become prescriptive about what we can and cannot do? If we do then that too is not yoga anymore?