In conversations about cultural appropriation in yoga, the most common way of dismissing the issue is by saying “yoga is for everyone”. Recently, it occurred to me that saying “yoga is for everyone” to avoid looking at the historical context of white people taking what they want from brown people is akin to saying “all lives matter” to avoid looking at systemic racism and the historical context of white violence against black people. Coming from within the spiritual community, both can also be described as examples of spiritual bypassing.
Spiritual bypassing, a term coined by author and psychotherapist John Welwood, is the “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” We can also understand it as favouring absolute truth over relative truth.
When Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki told his students: “Each of you is perfect the way you are…and you can use a little improvement”, he was making a distinction between absolute and relative truth. The absolute truth is that we are manifestations of divine spirit, and therefore perfect in every way. The relative truth is that we are embodied as fallible humans, and therefore would benefit from some refinement to lighten our burden of suffering and the burdens of those around us.
- If I excuse myself from doing important work in my relationships based on the belief that I’m a manifestation of divine spirit, that’s spiritual bypassing.
- If I excuse myself from doing the important work of reconciling the ways in which I, as a white woman, benefit from systemic racism and the degradation of black people based on the spiritual belief that we’re all one, that’s spiritual bypassing.
- And if I excuse myself from doing the important work of analyzing how my participation in yoga as a student and teacher is harmful to those for whom yoga is a cultural birthright based on the spiritual belief that yoga is for everyone, that’s spiritual bypassing.
This is difficult, daunting work. Where to start? There’s always only one place to start: right where we are.
For the past two years, I’ve been analyzing how my participation in yoga is harmful to those for whom yoga is a cultural birthright. I haven’t arrived at any perfect solutions, but I would like to share a few thoughts.
So far, it doesn’t feel like anyone is calling for me to stop being a student or teacher of yoga. So, if you, dear white reader, are feeling defensive because you’re afraid that acknowledging cultural appropriation means you’ll need to give up your beloved yoga, relax. We’re not there.
We are, however, being asked to hold two truths simultaneously: yoga is for everyone and the ways in which yoga has been disseminated in the west have resulted in real harm.
- Real harm occurs when we treat objects and images that have religious significance without respect, such as putting an image of Ganesha on a poster and then affixing that poster to the inside of a bathroom stall. (Also)
- Real harm occurs when we exoticize culturally meaningful symbols and use them in insensitive or inappropriate ways, such as a white person wearing a bindi at a yoga festival.
- Real harm occurs when we take yoga practices and strip them of their history and context, such as when Nadi Shodhana was rebranded by the American scientific community as “cardiac coherent breathing” (especially puzzling because Nadi Shodhana already has an English name, i.e., alternate nostril breathing).
- Real harm occurs when Desi people (“Desi” is a term used to describe a person of Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi descent) are not included or are under-represented in leadership positions in yoga communities. The yoga-registering body Yoga Alliance plays a gate-keeping role by favouring yoga teachers who were trained by yoga schools on their registry. This delegitimizes the indigenous knowledge of Desi teachers who have learned yoga through traditional means and makes it difficult for them to be recognized as leaders.
It occurs to me that there isn’t one single way to reduce the harm of cultural appropriation; rather, there are many small ways, and they all begin with discernment. It’s not enough to read a single article and adjust your practice accordingly. It’s about engaging in the conversation, acknowledging where we can do better, and actually doing better. How I reconcile these issues in my practice may look different from how someone else does, and that’s okay; the point is to engage.
If I can offer one piece of advice, it’s to listen to a range of voices, sit with what they have to say, and make the changes that feel authentic to you.
And don’t wait until you’ve got it perfect, that day won’t come. I’m hitting “publish” on this essay even though it’s far from perfect because I believe this conversation benefits more from my imperfect contribution than from my silence.
Don’t stop here. Read on, listen on. Here are a few places to start:
Yoga is Dead podcast: https://www.yogaisdeadpodcast.com
Susanna Barkataki: https://www.susannabarkataki.com/
Image © 2021 Erin Bidlake