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.

A Feminist Engagement

A quick note: In this blog post I will talk about how my partner and I got engaged. This is in no way intended to criticise any one else’s proposal – ESPECIALLY LGBTQ+ couples who have had to fight for their right to just to have access to the traditional, patriarchal symbolism of marriage and engagement. The story is in essence heteronormative because we are a middle class cis man and woman, but the actual message is intended to be highly inclusive. I am not going to compromise when sharing my opinions on engagement traditions, because if I can’t share them here, where can I? But I don’t mean for you to feel hurt or judged if these formed part of your (or your dream) proposal. I believe that we have a responsibility as feminists to challenge the way things are done. It’s not a personal attack on you or your relationship, I know that there are many factors to take into account when considering how to get engaged and married, and I respect your right to choose your own path. Just as I don’t know your backstory, you do not know ours. 

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A year and a half ago, walking down Tottenham Court Road at the weekend, my partner James and I were talking about the future. We’d spoken about it many, many times before, about love, marriage, relationships, children. But this time, the conversation bent a little and we drew ourselves into a discussion about when. We stopped outside Boots, with half of London pushing past us unnoticed, and hesitantly, emotionally landed on 2017 as the year we wanted to get married. A consensual agreement, whatever form it takes, is essential to any feminist engagement. Springing a marriage proposal on someone out of nowhere has been widely misrepresented as romantic because of the misogynistic, heteronormative assumption that women are always ready to get married. These surprise proposals can range anywhere from a bit misguided to emotionally manipulative, and there’s just no need for it.

Over the next few months we frequently discussed the idea of a ‘proposal’, and whether or not we wanted it to be a part of our love story. James asked me about rings, saying he didn’t want to get me a diamond because not only are they horrifically unethical, their value came purely from a marketing campaign by De Beers in the early 20th Century (and also, as a geologist he has serious opinions about rocks). But I was adamant that I didn’t want a ring, and his response was relief. We both think that ethically sourced wedding rings are a beautiful way to symbolise your dedication to your partner. But engagement rings are yet another example of imbalanced, gendered expectations between women and men. ‘Marking’ a woman as yours when you have no such mark yourself. ‘Buying’ her. I’m not saying I think they’re inherently bad, especially since it’s becoming more mainstream for non-heteronormative couples to have them too, but for us it just seemed like pointless consumerism. There was absolutely no way that one of us was wearing an engagement ring while the other wasn’t, but we also didn’t see the appeal in both of us wearing one.

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However, the idea of proposing just seemed so lovely. A declaration of love, a statement of intent and a memory that we could share. Plus, neither of us had cried over the sheer weight of our feelings for each other since we first said ‘I love you’, and it’s nice to do that occasionally. We were immediately in mutual agreement that I would be the one to do it. Much of this was from a desire to challenge the status quo of course – engagements have a very sexist history, there’s no denying it. But also, I am bisexual, so until I met James I never knew who I’d end up with. I never really imagined being proposed to, but often thought about myself doing it, because that’s just who I am – it’s the kind of gesture I live for.

If you’re wondering how James, ‘as a man’ felt about the subject – he simply didn’t. As a feminist the idea of anything being a ‘threat to his masculinity’ is laughable to him. I’m not sure what else to say on the subject, other than by him being strong enough to free himself from oppressive, fragile ideas about how to ‘be a man’, he was able to experience the joy and excitement that comes with the person he loves making a grandly romantic gesture of love towards him.

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So with that decided, the task fell to me to decide how and when I was going to do it.  I had a vague idea in mind but it didn’t fully form until we decided to go on holiday to Paris. James’ birthday fell in the week we planned to go away and I thought to myself that it would be the perfect opportunity to ask him. But Paris didn’t seem like a particularly personal choice, so I suggested we spend a few days there and then travel south to explore the Calanques National Park on his birthday (a beautiful national pack on the coast near Marseille that consists of incredible rocky cliffs leading into little beaches, the perfect holiday spot for a geologist). He enthusiastically agreed to this, because one of our favourite things to do as a couple is hike. I think it must have been pretty obvious what I was planning at this point, and he tells me he was pretty sure after I suggested a ‘birthday hike through a beautiful outcrop of rocky cliffs’, haha.

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Location decided, my plan for how to actually go about it came to me almost immediately. We briefly discussed the idea of gifts like watches and bracelets instead of a ring, but we were both totally disinterested and a bit uncomfortable with the whole ‘here is a gift, will you marry me’ thing. We definitely felt like there was something missing from the whole thing, and I realised that it was the idea that our love should benefit only us. I decided to spend the money I would have spent on a ring on charity donations. I worked out that if I were to save up to buy a ring in my current financial situation, I could afford to spend £500 on it (another thing that we really need to stop doing? Selling the idea that a proposal has to be extravagant. Not everyone has disposable income and people shouldn’t feel the need to empty their bank account for love) so I set that as my donation budget, and that’s when the full idea came to me:

I chose five charities that reminded me of something I love about James. They were things that are external to our relationship, aspects of his personality that I deeply admire but have nothing to do with me. I donated £100 to each charity, and asked them if they would be able to send me a ‘thank you’ letter (all but one said they do this anyway so I wasn’t putting them out, the other emailed it to me so I printed it and put it in an envelope). On the back of each of the envelopes, I wrote the reason why I’d donated to that particular charity.

5 reasons2.jpgThe charities chose were WaterAid, Women’s Aid, Woman Kind, Amnesty International and Mind.

After spending a magical few days in Paris, we travelled down on the TGV to Marseilles, and the next day was his birthday. I packed us a picnic in our backpack, hid the five letters in different places in there and put a note on the top saying ‘five reasons’. I wouldn’t let him go in the backpack until we had hiked to our picnic spot – one of the hundreds of secluded beaches dotted along the Calanques coastline.

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After we had settled on the beautiful stony beach, I told James he could finally look in the backpack. He drew each letter out and read the notes on the backs (I told him not to open them until he found them all) and was completely confused, but touched by whatever I was doing. After he had found them all and had opened a couple, I took his hands and said that these charities all worked on areas that are related to things I admire about who he is as a person, and then started telling him all of the things I love about the way he is with me. The way I love how safe he makes me feel, how patient he is with me, how he makes me laugh so much and how he is so open, so kind, so affectionate. Obviously we were both crying at this point, and through my tears I managed to say ‘I want to marry you’, to which he responded ‘Of course’ and kissed me. Then we both realised I hadn’t actually said what I meant to say, so I pulled away and said ‘Will you marry me’ to which he again responded ‘Of course’, and we kissed. So yeah, I messed that part up lmao.

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We cried a bit more as he read all the letters. We had our lunch (brie and tomatoes on still-warm bread from the patisserie next to our AirBnB), and splashed in the freezing water for a bit. It was absolutely perfect, and I was so happy and proud that I was able to make my partner feel so loved and wanted.

Everything about our proposal was intensely unique to both of us, but at the same time it also helped other people. Me being the one to do it ended up being the least important part. Our proposal’s unique, personal nature, combined with a concerted effort to help make other people’s lives better is what made it feminist. And we will always be proud of that. I hope that weddings and engagements don’t go away, because they are a wonderful way to express dedication and love. But they are steeped in years of oppression, negativity, consumerism and selfishness. I’m absolutely not saying people should do what we did and I’m definitely not saying that I created the perfect proposal. Rather, I just want to share this and use it to communicate the idea that we all need to work hard emotionally, creatively and intelligently to make these gestures as beautiful and inclusive as they have the potential to be.

Thinx: Period Underwear

Update, March 2017 **I am very disappointed to inform you that I not longer advocate buying Thinx underwear. It is unacceptable that they treat their employees and models the way that they do. There are plenty of other period pants out there and I will be trying them in due course. Please do not buy from this brand. **

Two months ago, I discovered my holy grail. Not skincare, not hair care, not make-up. My holy grail? Five pairs of period underwear that make me feel sexy, comfortable and confident. These pant(ie)s have changed the way I feel about my period, and I honestly believe they are the best investment I could ever have made for myself.

Also…I would never in a million years have expected to be posting a picture of me in my underwear on this blog, but that just goes to show how amazing Thinx underwear make me feel. Read on to find out why!

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I’ve always been very forward about periods – I don’t find them disgusting and have never felt embarrassed by them. When I started my dad was the first person I told, and he reacted with pride. I cannot express how important that was, his joyously positive response to something that women are shamed for and silenced about. It taught me not to accept men’s immaturity in the face of a bleeding vagina, and to question phrases like ‘oh my god don’t make period jokes that’s disgusting’. I think this is one of the reasons I’m so annoyed by the lack of options when it comes to sanitary products, and allow myself to loathe both pads and tampons.

For a long time, I used a Mooncup, which I loved. However I’ve had an IUD for a year and was told by both my doctors and the Mooncup team that using a cup in conjunction with an IUD is a bit squiffy – so the cup went back into its box, and I went back to using pads. I never use tampons because my flow isn’t heavy enough and it’s like lighting a match EVERY SINGLE TIME I take one out… but after a while I got sick of pads, especially since discovering that the only brand I actually liked now puts perfume in all their products (really, Always?) So I started looking for an alternative.

And that’s when I discovered Thinx. Made of four ingenious layers of absorbant, antimicrobial, leak-resistant and moisture-wicking fabrics as well as an incredible design that just fits PERFECTLY, Thinx underwear come in six styles that can hold up to TWO tampons worth of blood! The level of absorbency varies depending on the style. As you can imagine, the hiphugger holds a lot more than the thong, so you can choose your pants based on your own flow. I bought five pairs of hiphuggers because I decided to use them without anything else, and I thought the style looked really comfy. Thinx recommend that you use them with tampons or a cup, but also stress that you know your own flow, and if you think it’s light enough to go it alone, that’s up to you.

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I went with the large size, which is bigger than I would usually buy in the UK (I’m a 12, sometimes even a 10) but about right for American undies – genuinely I think they make them differently as I’ve bought medium size underwear in Peru, New York and Toronto and they’ve ALL been to small! Anyway, large fits PERFECTLY. Despite being thicker than normal underwear, it doesn’t feel like you’re sitting in a knicker-sized sanitary pad. It does feel different, but not uncomfortable, or even noticeable after a few minutes.

It’s amazing to just be able to get up in the morning and simply pull on some underwear, without having to worry about packing enough pads for the day. To be able to wear my skinniest jeans, and to be wearing underwear that I actually like! Washing them is so easy too. You rinse the top layer of blood off at the end of the day in cold water, and then pop them in a cold delicates wash with natural detergent (I use Ecover’s Delicate Laundry Detergent) along with all your other underwear and delicates.

Thinx are more than just an amazing underwear company though. Their factory in Sri Lanka is a family run company that is committed to training and educating their female employees so that that they can become empowered leaders in the community. Thinx ALSO contribute some of their profits to ARFIpads, an organisation that trains women in developing countries to sew reusable sanitary pads. They sell these pads to girls in their communities who are then able to attend school whilst menstruating, something that they wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.

In total my pants took me to about £100, which I was completely happy with to be honest. Yeah they’re not cheap, but the technology, ethics, the comfort, confidence and convenience make them more than worth the investment. Take a look at their amazing range here.