Yoga and cultural appropriation

It’s almost impossible to cope in our narcissistic, capitalist, violent and fragmented society without something to help. For an ever-increasing number of people, that thing is yoga. And that’s great. Yoga is a wonderful thing to do – it helps with anxiety, stress, poor posture, flexibility, joint health and muscle tone, which in turn can help support your immune, digestive and even endocrine systems, as well as improve your patience, sleep and mood. But yoga also has a long, dark history of cultural appropriation and class exclusion. No one is saying that westerners should stop doing yoga (although they certainly could) because of this, especially if it already forms a part of our self-care routine. However, it is extremely important that we are educated about it, and that we take steps to ensure that our yoga is inclusive and respectful.

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If you practice yoga, you have almost certainly engaged in cultural appropriation of some kind. This video is the ideal starting point for learning about cultural appropriation in yoga, as well as this article on Everyday Feminism. It’s pretty much a certainty that all western yoga students have done something disrespectful, ignorant or arrogant at some point. It’s frustrating to hear, of course, whether because you feel guilty or because it’s inconvenient for you to acknowledge it, but either way, lets move on to some practical ways for you to be a better yoga practitioner!

Call it what it is. It’s difficult to know exactly what to do when you realise just how deep the issues of colonialism, religious oppression and cultural appropriation go. If I’m not spiritual, but yoga is, should I just say to people that I’m going to a ‘meditative stretching’ class? Of course I shouldn’t. The stretches are yogic stretches and if I call it ‘lying on my back in the dark’ instead of savasana, I’m erasing the fact that it was invented in India thousands of years ago. Learn about the ever-developing history of yoga, and keep in mind that yoga is founded on religious teachings. There is nothing wrong with learning lessons from different religions. But there is a lot wrong with benefitting from something and not knowing about, or giving credit to, the culture that created it. And if you are only engaging in the physical aspects, perhaps you could consider clarifying that when talking to your teachers, to give them the choice about if, and how to engage with you.

Two things growin outchea…. Aloe… and the yoga booty #SquatsNotShots Photo cred: @glorychildproductions

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Step away from the skinny white rich people. Western yoga is notorious for classism, racism and fat-shaming, and really doesn’t do well when it comes to inclusivity and acceptance. The fact that the most popular yoga instructors on instagram and youtube are white, skinny and able-bodied is sickeningly reflective of our society, and it needs to change, because that is not what yoga is about. Please stop following that tidal wave of brand-endorsed whiteness, or at least cut down. Instead, why not follow some of my faves: @biggalyoga@yogaplegic@nolatrees,  @daughteroftheuniverse, @mynameisjessamyn, @curvygirlmeetsyoga@justferd. It’s so important to show diverse bodies participating in yoga, because everyone deserves to benefit from it, and how will people know that yoga is for them if no one like them does it?

Join, or support, a more physically and financially inclusive yoga group. The relationship between yoga and money is complex, and an unfortunate by product of capitalism. But there are some things you can do. Practise yoga somewhere that makes an effort to be actively inclusive. People on low incomes, children with learning difficulties and pregnant women are almost certainly in need of the healing properties of yoga more than you, so support a group that supports them (unless you belong to one of those groups, in which case, here are some places you can go!) My suggestions are all based in London because I’m only one woman, but do your own research and I’m sure you’ll find one where you live too! Yogarise in Peckham do pay-what-you-can donation classes (so if you can’t afford Yoga you can donate a little, if you can afford yoga you can donate more). Donate to Special Yoga which is just about the most amazing idea I’ve ever seen. The West London Buddhist Centre does low cost and community classes. There’s pay-what-you-can yoga at the DIY Space for London where you can pay more so other people can pay a little, and St Margaret’s House in Bethnal Green does the same thing. Triyoga offers discounts to seniors, jobseekers and students, so if you are one you could sign up with the discount, and if you aren’t, sign up anyway so they can continue offering the discount to those that need it! And the Iyengar Yoga Institute is an incredible charity that offers free classes to pregnant women and kids, as well as being extraordinarily knowledgeable about the practise.

You're already stronger than you know, and it's not just about what it looks like. Photo by @mixtapedonthate

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Don’t perpetuate the show-off culture so prevalent in westernised yoga. Yoga is not a trend, it’s not cool and it’s not a sport. It is a culturally significant, physically challenging, deeply spiritual practice that should be approached responsibly and sombrely. Make sure that your attitude towards yoga is in line with the intentions of yoga. You aren’t better than someone else because you have expensive yoga pants, or because you pulled off a headstand on your first try. Be nice to everyone in your class, take steps to ensure you don’t make anyone feel embarrassed or self-conscious. In the UK for example, black women practicing yoga can often feel like outsiders. That’s not fair, or in line with the intentions of yoga. Obviously you shouldn’t be going up to women in your class saying ‘hey, you’re welcome here!’ but you could at least be nice to them and ensure that no one is being actively excluded.

Buy ethical or inexpensive yoga clothes/mats. You don’t actually need special yoga stuff (again, that’s not really in line with yogic intentions). But if you don’t have anything that can comfortably accommodate a warrior pose sequence, or the Lululemon yoga pants that you got when you didn’t know any better have sprouted an unfixable hole (hi, that would be me), then you need to get something from somewhere. It’s extremely difficult to find ethically made (or any, actually) yoga pants for less than £45, and most are £60-£70. This isn’t right, and if you’re financially unable to buy adapted yoga pants you shouldn’t feel like you can’t take part – all you need is a stretchy pair of leggings that you feel comfortable in, and a top that doesn’t ride up or fall down. You don’t need a £62 bra, £18 thong, £52 yoga mat or a £138 cardigan (yes, I just went on the Lululemon website to find all those…feel free to browse for a great lesson in white privilege…they sell a ‘namastay put’ thong. Seriously?) As for mats, well you don’t actually need one, but again the most ethical are the most expensive. If you can afford to spend £50 on a jute mat, get one, but if not, please don’t feel guilty about buying a £6.50 plastic one.

Yoga is not perfect, and neither is anyone who has been, or is, is involved in it. That’s kind of the point. No one is perfect and we’re always learning. You are benefitting from yoga, so you must take it seriously, treat it with respect and approach it with humility. Avoid explicitly capitalist behaviour like buying expensive clothes, or paying loads for classes in studios that only benefit themselves. There is a fantastic website called Decolonizing Yoga that you should definitely visit if you want to continue learning to be a better western yoga practitioner.

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Let’s reform Valentine’s Day

With a capitalist society like ours it is very difficult to maintain the line between what is important to us, and what marketing departments want us to think is important. This is how Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day etc, have become vile spectacles of consumerism. I do not think it is possible, or wise to get rid of deeply entrenched cultural traditions that don’t actually do anyone any harm (you can’t exactly make buying a red heart-shaped cushion illegal, or organise a protest against Easter eggs, can you). What I think we can do though, is change them for the better.

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These consumer-driven festivities obviously didn’t start out that way. The first iterations of many festivals were Celtic celebrations of seasons changing. They were rooted in the environment, focused on celebrating life and the world. When Christians invaded Celtic lands the religions were combined, creating the festivals we celebrate today like Christmas and Easter. During the industrial revolution, these religious festivals morphed again to encompass the concept of ‘wanting stuff’. And with the subsequent invention of marketing, they developed again thanks to this new method of ‘making you want stuff’. And here we are. As for Valentine’s Day, it began as a feast celebrating a Saint, and then morphed (I think because of his martyrdom?) into a celebration of love, and then into the plastic-wrapped red-rose travesty we endure today.

I find it deeply upsetting to think about the way our society revolves around wanting and getting stuff. It’s bleakly shallow, meaningless and unsustainable. However, I’m also very lucky. I was raised by people who find mindless consumerism revolting, and in our house we wouldn’t really celebrate any festival apart from Christmas (which I think my parents realised they couldn’t ignore without making me a total weirdo at school). However they taught me that it was about sharing a day with your favourite people – having a relaxed, cosy time with people you genuinely like. Gifts were always thoughtful and nothing was bought ‘for the sake of it’. As a result, I don’t have a super negative attitude towards Christmas. I see Christmas as a time to spend with my loved ones, show them how much I care with thoughtful gifts, and eat good food that we all helped to cook. Christmas is never going to go away, and it is therefore better to reform it into something sustainable and meaningful than just to try and avoid it all together – because that way lies bitterness, anger and loneliness.

This has also made me more open to other festivals. Valentine’s Day is one in particular. Consumerism has made it into a fucking horrible celebration. Red hearts everywhere, shitty force-grown roses shipped in from somewhere that definitely doesn’t have ethical labour laws. Novelty chocolate flavours. The horrendous cis-heteronormativity of it all. All manner of gendered shite. I completely understand why people get so bitter about the whole thing – I think these things are utterly revolting. It should be noted that if you only hate Valentine’s Day because you’re single and not because of all that shit I just mentioned, you need to get a grip. I was single for 25 years and I never had a problem with people in relationships celebrating their love, don’t be so selfish.

ANYWAY. I guess maybe I could have cut out those 700 words and just got straight to the point, but the Philosophy student in me will never be able to make an argument without fully explaining it, so well done if you got this far. It’s time to rethink our approach to celebrating our love. What is Valentine’s Day about? Here are five ways you can help make Valentine’s Day something we can be proud to celebrate:

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Here are the gifts my partner and I got each other this year. We were both so excited about what we’d bought the other that we ended up giving them as soon as they arrived, which is actually what inspired this post! Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay available here (non-Amazon link), the Choose Love Help Refugees t-shirt available here

Do something with your friends if you’re all single. You love your friends, right? Lesley Knope it up and do something together! Get each other gifts! Have fun!

If you’re if you’re the only one who isn’t single (I’ve been there) then spend the day fucking the bejeezus out of yourself. Masturbation is an act of self-love, reclaim the it for yourself and make V-Day 100% about you. Or alternatively, have a bubble bath, put on your favourite film and ENJOY an evening alone. You shouldn’t feel obligated to go to some cringe singles event, or find someone on Tinder to spend the night with because the idea of being ‘alone on Valentines’ freaks you out. Own it. Your relationship status is not a measure of your worth as a human being.

Don’t buy the tacky shit from the shops. Get your partner something that will be meaningful for them, and them alone. Even better if you can make it something that will do good – a charity donation or a purchase from a charitable organisation, ethical chocolate, you get the idea. Brands are watching you, and if you demonstrate that you are 100% uninterested in their nonsense, they will stop making it. Trust me, I work in the consumer goods sector, I haven’t just seen it done, I’ve done it. Don’t click on the ‘Gifts for Her’ links – we notice.

If your partner loves flowers, go for it. But DO NOT get them those shit supermarket red roses. They are unethical, unsustainable and unimaginative. Get them a plant, or find their favourite blooms. The most important part? If you’re buying a bunch of flowers, always get them from an independent, small florist like Rebel Rebel.

Talk about it!! Tell people what you’re doing for Valentine’s. You can inspire others to make more positive decisions about the way they spend the day without tearing down their own choices or writing a 1k word blog post about it (sorry). All you really need to do is plant the seed in people’s minds and for many, it will grow into and idea for their own wonderful way of expressing love and affection.