I'm A Yoga Teacher. What I Wish People Knew About Cultural Appropriation vs. Appreciation

May 31, 2022

If you’ve ever been to a yoga class, you’ve probably walked into a very neatly organized room with Buddhas and ohm symbols on the walls, pretty, color-coordinated yoga mats, incense, and matching cushions and blocks. You find your spot with your water bottle when a smiley instructor walks in wearing her expensive and trendy yoga wear and welcomes you with a “Namaste.” Calming music plays in the background as your teacher starts the class.

This is how all my yoga experiences seemed to unfold in Europe. Very different from what you would experience in a yoga class in India. I fell in love with yoga more than about six years ago but it didn’t occur to me until I went to India, to learn more about it, how white-washed and Westernized it became. I kept wondering why is it so important to wear Lululemon in a yoga class when in India, men practice in a single loin cloth and seem to do really well with it. I never went to a yoga class in India where they played music in the background. But in Western classes it seems mandatory to play Hindu music in the background where (probably) white people are chanting names of Hindu gods and goddesses or various Sanskrit terms that have nothing to do with each other. Some teachers don’t even bother to learn the Sanskrit names of the postures or even give them new names because they can’t remember the modern name either.

Recently I attended the class of a fellow yoga teacher, which left me with very mixed feelings. I felt great after performing the poses and the meditation was relaxing, but just the way how exploitative her teaching was left me angry and decide never to come back again.

As a yoga teacher, I find it very important that teachers have their own practice every day and not only do yoga when teaching. The two are very different. When you practice yoga, your attention should be focused inwards. When you teach yoga, your attention should be on your students. So it is impossible to have your own practice while leading a class. My personal practice is a very traditional style called ashtanga vinyasa yoga, and because I’m not a really flexible person I like to attend the classes of other ashtanga teachers to deepen my own practice and advance in my poses. This is how I ended up in this particular yoga class.

The fact that someone was teaching me a white-washed form of an otherwise very traditional yoga style, without giving any credit to Hinduism, but still using music that chanted the names of a religion’s gods and goddesses, all while mispronouncing Sanskrit words, made me furious. The problem wasn’t that the instructor was white (so am I). It was that she was appropriating ancient Indian philosophies without even acknowledging it.

This appropriation seems to be everywhere in the yoga world. Take, for example, goat yoga where people practice asanas while baby goats are jumping on and around them. While animal therapy is very beneficial, you can’t take an ancient tradition and add some animals to it, and call it a new form of yoga. And don’t even let me start on “wine yoga.”

The sad truth is that most people who view themselves as “spiritual” do not know and/or acknowledge where these practices and philosophies really originate from. Most of the New Age spirituality is just repackaged ancient philosophy. Yoga, meditation, manifestation, astrology, past lives, karma, etc. can all be traced back to the ancient texts of India that includes the Vedas, Upanishads, Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, and more.

It’s important to learn the origins of the practices that we love so much and practice daily. Educate yourself and others on the true origins of yoga, meditation, and astrology. If you truly believe that yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are beneficial to your mind, body, and soul, then respect it.

There is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. Cultural appropriation is the act of taking elements from a culture that isn’t your own, in other words picking and choosing what part of the culture you wish to participate in. This can turn ugly and it often derails meanings of the element that people decided to reduce to a ‘fashion statement.’ Cultural appropriation is wearing a sari just because you do yoga or wearing a hijab just for fun or wearing Native American headdresses to festivals.

Appreciating is when you actually spend the time to understand the culture. You might have visited the country and learned the cultural meaning behind the items you wear. You know the history, and sometimes you do it out of respect. So if you travel to Pakistan you wear a hijab out of respect for the other women or cover your shoulders in temples when you’re in India.

Appreciating other cultures can deepen our understanding of others and enrich our own lives. But we must do it mindfully and for the right reasons—and not to use someone else’s heritage as an aesthetic.

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Photo: Rawan Yasser via Unsplash

Imola is a Hatha and Ashtanga yoga teacher, tree planter and writer and editor of Raised by the Wolf, an online magazine for Wild Women, with a passion for exploring and life outdoors. Originally from Hungary but currently planting trees and rewilding the enchanting forests of France. Hop over to RBTW magazine, and blog and follow her on Instagram @yogiraisedbythewolf


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