Yoga and Cultural Appropriation — Am I Guilty?

by Nov 3, 2023

Yoga and Cultural Appropriation

A little while ago a good friend was telling me that he’d been listening to a pod cast in which they were discussing yoga and cultural appropriation. He felt that they were basically accusing most New Zealand yoga studios of cultural appropriation. It seems like I’ve heard the phrase “yoga and cultural appropriation” a bit this year. I’ve read a few articles about this recently. There’s one in “The Guardian” here, and another in “Stuff” here.

Of course, this got me paranoid that I’m guilty of yoga and cultural appropriation. Then I ask myself what actually is it? Here’s what I got when I asked ChatGPI to define cultural appropriation in less than 40 words:

“Cultural appropriation is the inappropriate adoption or use of elements from another culture, often by a more dominant group, without understanding or respect for its significance, perpetuating stereotypes or disrespecting origins.”

Here is a definition from the “Stuff” article I have linked to above:

“Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington lecturer in religious studies Dr Sara Rahmani defines cultural appropriation as the process of taking certain elements of a culture and modifying them according to the expectations and demands of another culture.”

The term yoga and cultural appropriation is generally viewed in a negative light. I have owned, run and taught at Te Aro Astanga Yoga since Jan. 2000 – 23 years. I also have Māori heritage and get a bit edgy if I think I see the cultural appropriation of my own heritage, particularly for commercial reasons. But I also delight in seeing my culture celebrated and in attending Te Reo lessons where the majority of ākonga/learners are non-Māori and many were born outside of NZ.

In the articles above and I’m sure in the podcast my friend was listening to it is acknowledged that not all Yoga studios are guilty of yoga and cultural appropriation, so what is and what isn’t? Is cultural appropriation always a negative thing or are there situations where it should be celebrated? I mean, I have no Indian heritage, so there is no doubt that for me to be teaching Yoga can be seen as yoga and cultural appropriation. What should I do?

If you are going to say that you should not teach Yoga unless you have Indian heritage then some very, very good teachers are going to have to stop. Of course that is not going to happen and shouldn’t because I think that it really comes down to the individual teacher, regardless of heritage, and to how they present the ancient practice of Yoga. I am not going to stop teaching and here’s what I tell myself in defence of that.

When I first travelled to Mysore in Sth India to study Yoga with Sri K Pattabhi Jois in 1994 it never occurred to me that I would become a yoga teacher. However I was soon assisting Peter Sanson in his small classes in Gisborne and in 1999 I received my Guru’s blessing to teach and I have been teaching ever since. Guruji instilled in me a never ending curiosity for exploring what Yoga is, beyond the āsana that I practice and teach, as well as a love of Indian culture in particular as it relates to the Yoga practice. I continue to travel to India when I can in order to learn more.

Guruji often said “Yoga is for everybody”, but he also stressed the importance of parampara or lineage in the passing on of the practice. I believe it is this understanding of, and respect for the lineage that makes the difference between Yoga and cultural appropriation and the teaching of Yoga appropriately.

There is no doubt that Yoga in the West has morphed into this weird and wonderful thing. It has also become huge business and I get the feeling that once money becomes the main impulse behind what you are doing things can get a bit warped. If you throw ego into that mix and with it no regard to tradition or to parampara you quickly move away from anything that resembles the ancient practice of Yoga. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It’s for each person to decide for themselves what is yoga and cultural appropriation and what isn’t.

It seems to be an inevitable evolution and from my point of view it’s not something I spend energy being bothered by. It would perhaps be a different story if I was from Indian heritage. Then maybe it would upset me. There are a multitude of not very yogic practices being sold as Yoga and you can label all of them as Yoga and cultural misappropriation. Whether they are beneficial or not and whether you are comfortable with how they are culturally expressed is up to you.

Meantime, I will continue to teach and continue to do so with respect to the knowledge that my Guru gave to me. I will make mistakes and what I do will always be influenced by my own culture. My intention is to teach according to the tradition as it was passed to me. Hopefully that is apparent to anyone who comes to Te Aro Astanga Yoga.

Yoga and Cultural Appropriation

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  1. Brenda cheyne

    You bring yoga to our lives as a gift and always with respect from where it comes.

    I feel we are very fortunate that the Indian teachers want to share this practice.

    I recieved so much benefit from my beginners practice in many ways,
    My tuppence worth.

  2. Karl M

    Thanks for sharing your journey of your learnings from your time spent with your Guru and the authenticity in which you teach yoga and its learnings.
    As you say it is important to respect the culture from where these ancient disciplines have been derived, through the practice and the teaching and the lineage in the passing on of the practice.
    I am both humble and appreciative to be able to learn and practice Astanga from you and the Guru’s before you.