We know by now that there is a Western capitalist industry around yoga. Given that yoga was banned in India under British colonial rule, it makes sense for folks in other Western colonial contexts (e.g. Canada and the US) to be concerned with how one culture can both ban and profit from another culture’s wisdom. The question as to how we do yoga is an important one for racially privileged people living in white dominated spaces. As a white person who credits yoga as both saving and sustaining my life, I have to ask myself when am I in a position to add to cultural exploitation or reinforce the expertise of those within it.
I’ve been having discussions about whether or not its appropriate or appropriative for me to call my practice yoga and also what the implications are of having a blog titled The Chronic Yogi. I haven’t updated The Chronic Yogi blog for a year. In part because we spent most of 2017 in an extended series of acute housing crises and also because I’ve been preoccupied with this question and its implications for the blog. Does it position me as an expert in a cultural context to which I am an outsider (and a member of a population that is doing much exploitation of said culture)? A year later, I don’t have many answers but have some guidelines for myself.
- Honour the tradition. I have decided to continue to describe my practice as yoga. Part of this decision is that the practice is deeply spiritual for me. It is not just asana (poses). The breath work, meditation, attention to lovingkindness, service, unconditional love, and focus on accepting process rather than an end goal influences much more of my life than the time spent on the mat. It changes how I breathe, approach my college teaching (more on this in an upcoming post), and grow food (oh yes, there will be a whole series on gardening). To stop calling it yoga, for me, would be to not honour the culture and the wisdom that my learning is based in. I wholeheartedly respect people’s processes that have led them to different conclusions in efforts to exercise sensitivity.
- Study yogic philosophy. I have been reading more and watching more documentaries about the history of yoga, its branches, and its teachings which has taken me many layers deeper into my own practice. I also have been learning more about the oppression and following capitalist exploitation perpetuated from Western cultures and this helps me to be able to analyze what is happening at different events or studios that I could be in a position to engage with.
- Look at who profits. When I might sign up for a yoga site or (on the rare occasions that I can go to classes) get a studio pass, who am I supporting? Am I learning from a Western tradition that does not have deeper ties to the culture the practice is from? Am a supporting a corporate venture that profits more people in the settler colonial context (e.g. white folks in Canada and the US) or does it support the populations who chose to share their traditions? (As a side-note, I have zero profit from the blog.)
- Share as a learner and not an expert. I began this blog with the intention of sharing what I was learning as I was living a life where both illness and yoga loomed large. Living with Lyme was illuminating much about systems of capitalist exploitation of health and bodies, ableism, relationships, love, and intrinsic worth. Folks with Lyme disease are often desperate for reliable information in the face of silencing politics and much mis-education. I wanted to have ways to share this learning and advocacy that would not send me into spirals of either anger or despair. Focusing on the life sustaining role of yoga as a through line on my reflection and engagement with all of these things, allows me to write about hard topics without losing a centre of love and care as the primary reason for doing the blog (and maybe anything else). It is not my goal to teach yoga or position myself as an expert on the tradition. The line between sharing and teaching may blur at times and will most definitely require ongoing reflection.
I will be continuing to write as The Chronic Yogi with a clarified commitment to examining how I take up the tradition of yoga to support and not exploit its culture in my life, practice, and blog. I welcome dialogue with other folks who believe issues of cultural appropriation are important and take respectful work and reflection. How do you navigate the complicated terrain if you are coming from a place of privilege? What does respectful engagement look like to you if you are witnessing folks practice a tradition as outsiders, if you are an insider? Thank you for reading and thinking about this with me.