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! Most cities will have a pay-what-you-can Yoga group (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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How to do something for the world (instead of just feeling bad about it)

The world is in terrible state right now and it’s frightening to sit and watch it happen. It’s easy to feel powerless when we look at the awful things that are happening to people at home and abroad. I’ve participated in my fair share of volunteering and activism over the years, so I thought I would share a few ideas on ways that you can help. This isn’t about being a ‘saviour’, this is about the fact that people reading this almost certainly have a far more comfortable existence than a lot of people in the world. We have a moral duty to do something with our personal resources. Sharing posts on Facebook, by the way, isn’t on this list. Sorry, but it isn’t enough just to ‘care’ anymore. I’ve split these suggestions into sections – things everyone can do, things you can do with money, things you can do with your time, things you can do with yourself. I hope you find something helpful! It’s not exhaustive by any means, but if I’ve missed something you think is vital, please let me know.

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Things everyone can do

These are just a few little ideas that you can adopt into your life to help your everyday life make a more positive impact on the world.

Reduce meat consumption or cut it out entirely. The meat industry contributes to global warming more than almost anything else, so the less of it you can eat, the better. If you feel you have to, stick to poultry. The dairy industry is also linked to this of course, so reduce that too if you can.

Buy ethically. Sounds daunting but it’s really not! Shop in Lidl, Aldi, the Co-op, M&S or Whole Foods. Make leftover food into lunches. Use The Guardian’s ethical fashion directory for clothes, or buy on second hand apps like Depop. Get clothes, homeware items and cosmetics from independently owned companies or creators. Donate your old clothes to charity. If you have enough money to be looking for a car, get a hybrid. Let your license fee lapse (the BBC promotes fascism, sorry). Consider boycotting some of these. Bank with Nationwide or the Co-op, if you have a choice of energy supplier get an ethical one like Ovo Energy. Buy cosmetics and household products that are as natural as possible, and buy recycled toilet paper. Basically whenever you hand over money for something, think to yourself ‘is this doing damage, is it fairly neutral, or is it doing good?’

Do what you can to make your home more energy efficient. From double lining your curtains to making sure nothing gets left on standby, from timing your showers to only flushing the loo when you have to.

Join a political party (you don’t have to have any money OR time to do this), and vote in every election you can, even if you think it’s meaningless. There’s no such thing. Not sure who you should join? Take the Political Matchmaker!

Things you can do with money

There are thousands of worthy charities in the world – you can commit to one and donate just to them, or dot your donation around different ones. Either way, if you have disposable income this is the best way to use it if you want to help people. 

Donate to Syria. There are specific Syrian charities such as Syria Relief that you can donate money too, or you can donate to UNICEF, UNHCR, Oxfam or Save the Children.

Donate to environmental charities. While humans may be pretty preoccupied with killing each other right now, the war on the environment rages on in the background. Deforestation, waste, the depletion of resources such as rare earth elements, fossil fuels and water is still happening, as it global warming. Pollution is through the roof, in the UK especially. Crops are fucked. The World Land Trust, WWF and Rainforest Alliance are solid choices.

Donate to human rights/wellbeing charities. Mental health care in the UK is in disarray at the moment, and it’s clear that huge groups of people are suffering massively from mental health problems. You can donate to Mind to help with this. Or how about Amnesty International, to help end female genital mutilation, to help hold war criminals to account, to protect refugees and to protect human rights worldwide. If you’re particularly concerned about women, perhaps you could donate to Womankind, a charity that supports female entrepreneurship in developing countries. Or Women’s Aid, a UK charity that helps female and child victims of domestic violence. What about water availability? Wateraid works to provide safe drinking water around the world. Poverty in the UK is rising fast. Why not donate to Shelter or Barnardos?

Donate to your chosen political party. This will help them to fight the rising altneo-rightnazis which as we can all clearly see, is growing problem that we really fucking need to do something about. Donating to the party that you believe is the best for the job will help them to eradicate white extremism.

Things you can do with your time

Not all of us have spare time, but if you do, these are great ways to spend it.

Take the UNICEF free online course on Social Change. This is a wonderful thing for anyone who wants to be a better citizen, activist or campaigner. The course looks at the distinctions between societal norms and societal conventions, before moving on to social change, and the tools that can be used to enact it.

Do volunteer work for political parties or charities. Small charities and parties in the run up to elections are often desperate for tech savvy people to do a bit of SEO, HTML, Photoshop or photography for them. During the last general election I volunteered on Natalie Bennett’s campaign and learned photoshop so I could produce digital campaign communications as well as doing some social media. Unfortunately I was in the middle of moving jobs and I had to stop, which is why it’s very important to work out if time is something you have to give. Just like some people don’t have money to give, others don’t have time.

Work for a helpline. I put this in ‘time’ but it depends. Sometimes helplines that offer online or social support will let you do it from home, and I’ve heard about helplines doing the same, but more commonly you will have to go to their office. Samaritans, LGBT+ Switchboard, Refuge and SANE all offer volunteer positions.

Sign petitions and write to your MP. A while ago I campaigned against funding cuts that were being made to the research teams at Kew Gardens – I attended some advisory meetings and learned a lot about how to put weight behind a cause. Making ‘noise’ is one of the best ways to do this, and can be done by writing to your MP about an issue you are concerned about, whether it’s sending aid to Syria, poverty in the UK or violence against women For lots of campaigns, especially ones that have a petition attached to them, you will be able to send a pre-written letter to your MP that you personalise as well.

Things you can do with your self

Some of these are very big commitments indeed, but I thought I’d put them in because if you’re in a position to do something big, why not? 

Sign up to the UN Volunteers Database. I joined this recently. Basically you go on their website, fill in all necessary details about yourself and your skills, as well as the level of commitment you can offer. If anything comes up that’s suitable for you, they get in touch.

Do VSO. Voluntary Services Overseas is an organisation that sends skilled people to other countries to help the community using their skills. I know someone who helped with tourism infrastructure in Sri Lanka because she had lots of business knowledge, but there are positions for loads of different areas of expertise including accountancy, education and agriculture. The great thing about this particular organisation over others is that you are required to have skills that a community can benefit from before you can be placed somewhere. You aren’t just buying a trip to ‘Africa’ to ruin the lives of some children play with orphans.

Join MSF. Médecins Sans Frontières is one of the most important critical aid charities in the world. They are at the forefront of every health crisis, be it conflicts, epidemics or natural disasters and their teams are fearless. They don’t just need healthcare professionals though – HR managers, pharmacists, technical engineers, supply chain management, finance, communication and admin coordinators are all needed. This is a very big choice. I’m not suggesting you join MSF after reading one blog post by an irrelevant woman in London. But it’s worth being aware of, no?

Do some community volunteering. Something less perilous and much closer to home! There are always local groups looking for help maintaining a nature reserve, painting a school, being a friend to an isolated person or working in museums. I can’t link to this obviously, but here’s the website for my area, hopefully it will give you a clue as to how to search for yours.

Canvas for a political party. I’ll never forget how cold I got handing out leaflets at 7am for the Green Party in February 2015. But it was important, so I did it. You can do house calls, leafleting or phonecalls for your chosen party, depending on what you prefer.

Join a protest. Numbers make an impact. If a protest for something you believe in takes place, stand up and be counted if you can. Protest marches have been effective many times before. Often they aren’t, but it is one of the purest expressions of our democratic rights and you can’t deny its importance.

Fundraising! Everyone loves a sponsored half marathon, coffee morning or whatever else you fancy doing. Not only does fundraising generate more funds than you might be able to give yourself, you also raise awareness of the cause you’re helping. Plus, it’s usually pretty fun, especially if you’re an outgoing sort of person with lots of friends.

And one final thing that everyone, everyone who doesn’t have to use them should do? Donate food to your nearest foodbank. 3.8 million workers in the UK are now living in poverty – and that’s just people in work, let alone people out of work. If you can afford to feed yourself, you can afford to buy a little bit of food for someone else.  

Kew Gardens – A centre for scientific research

Have you read this great article about Jane Goodall’s take on the Kew Cuts? Make sure you go to KewCuts.org for all the latest updates on the situation, as well as links to press and info. This past week has been quite the learning curve – I’ve read so much about the different research projects that Kew is running and how important they are. I’ve picked out some of my favourites below to share with you, because I want to illustrate why it’s so important make the effort to pressure the government about this.

 Medicinal Plant Names Services (MPNS)

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Herbal medicines are increasingly in demand, as is the public interest in natural body care, which means that there is an growing trade in medicinal plants. Across the world all these plants have different names, some subtly different from one another, some completely so. Kew’s MPNS database will provide a free resource for medicinal plant identification, to avoid confusion and mistakes.

This is very much a ‘behind the scenes’ service, without much intrigue for consumers. But it is so important. Could you imagine buying something you thought was one plant to use in a medicine, and it turned out you’d bought, and used, a completely different one? For example, click here and type in ‘chamomile’ then click ‘go’ and then click ‘Matricaria chamomilla L.’ – you’ll see the gigantic list of different names you can buy chamomile under on the world market. This resource will allow the people who make your natural remedies, health supplements, body lotions, and herbal medicines, to know exactly what they’re selling to you. Thanks, Kew!

Coffee in Ethiopia

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Well, coffee is my favourite thing in the world so it makes sense I’d want to share this with you. This short film is about research Kew did into the effect of climate change on coffee production – you probably saw that in the news because it made quite an impression, and rightly so.

Something that really struck me in this film is where they mention the counterargument ‘well, its just a beverage’. I can’t believe anyone has this viewpoint! Would people really rather see a plant go extinct as a result of human activity, than actually do something about the activity? That’s like loosing all your friends by being horrible to them – wouldn’t you just rather be nice to them instead! This study was so important, and really puts the effects of climate change into perspective. Would we even know about this if it weren’t for Kew scientists? There’s no reason to assume so.

The Fungarium

This is so cool. I know next to nothing about fungi, which is hilarious, because the novel I’m writing actually has a lot of mycology in it. This film is a wonderful behind the scenes peek at a part of Kew you’d never see otherwise. Kew has the largest collection of dried fungi in the world – and a rare team of mycologists to go along with it. Working on the understanding and conservation of fungi is something you might have never thought about, because lets face it, we don’t generally spend much time thinking about mushrooms. But it’s unquestionably important that we have these people researching them and learning about them, without outside pressure or monetary interests.

I could go on. And on and on, seriously, they have such an incredible list of different amazing projects. Here’s a link to a list of environmental research projects including ones on biodiversity, food crops, water and agriculture. Their page on Plants and Fungi also has access to a whole load of databases on plants and what they do – which for a plant geek like me is just absolute heaven.

Now, some news – with the cabinet reshuffle today, we have a new Environment Minister, Liz Truss. Remember the petition you signed? Well, it was addressed to the old one, Owen Paterson. Paterson was a right wing green-hater (literally I don’t even think he’d be offended by that description?) and although I don’t know anything about this new person, I don’t see how she could be any worse than him.

I don’t know exactly what will happen with the petition, but my suggestion for anyone reading this would be to tweet at her, and make parliamentary noise by writing to your MP asking them to sign or support the Early Day Motion. If you follow @KewCuts on Twitter they’ll be sure to keep you updated on the petition. While I’m certainly no political expert (or novice even) it seems to me that it would make sense for Truss to listen, because she’ll be able to make lots of people happy without spending much money at all. Let’s face it, this government have pretty much alienated any voter with a shred of green integrity.

Save Kew Gardens – funding cuts and how to stop them

Yesterday I went to the Houses of Parliament, to protest the Kew Gardens funding cuts. I wasn’t sure what I was in for as I walked through the ornately decorated halls and corridors, but it was an absolutely fascinating, motivating experience. Most of the attendees were employees of Kew, and I think I was the only person there with no real connection to place. Given that the petition to stop the cuts has over 90,000 signatures, this was a surprise. But this anti-cuts campaign is falling victim to the same thing that many others have – not enough noise is being made about it. Kew has worldwide influence, and it’s up to people who know how important a place it is, to take the initiative and make the government listen.

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The thing is – it shouldn’t be that hard. Recently, the government boasted about spending over £7 billion on scientific research. With the cuts, Kew only has a £5 million deficit. While that’s disastrous for Kew, in comparison to the kind of money the government normally works with, it’s nothing. This isn’t like trying to convince the government to re-privatise the rail service, or stop the destruction of the probation service. In reality, there aren’t many things the government can do with that £5 million, but saving a British institution of worldwide environmental importance is most certainly one of them.

It’s worth noting that much of that £7 billion the government spent on science has been spent on car manufacturing and overseas oil research. A lot of things could be said about that, but let’s leave it at this: they could probably stand to spend a little bit of money on GREEN science now. Science that will not only benefit the environment, but also the people who live and work in their country.

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Already, 100 jobs have been cut at Kew, and having experienced first-hand a government mandated ‘voluntary exit’ scheme, I know how utterly horrible this is. Everyone is worried about their job, and the ones who are left have a sudden, unbelievable workload to cope with. The work the other people were doing doesn’t just go away. I know a government worker who, in the two weeks following the privatisation of her sector, worked a conservative estimate of 30 hours of overtime in two weeks. And there were people at the Kew meeting who were doing the same.

It’s easy to forget about the human cost of these things – but it’s important not to. You might not think about how job cuts will affect the people who work at Kew, or you might not find it particularly motivating. But you should. After all, humans are what bring you all the wonderful things that Kew does, and without them, there is no garden. Those beautiful flowers and stunning buildings only exist because there are people maintaining them, and the world-renowned research only happens because there are people conducting it.

Sometimes I have to wonder if politicians completely forget this – I mean, they’re kind of prepared for a life of stress, pressure and an absence of job security. That doesn’t mean everyone else is, or that everyone else should be. Stress is not a measure of success, especially in science, the arts and many public services. Being overworked is not an aspiration, it is a problem. And the government, whether they realise it or not, are creating a population of exhausted, stressed, underpaid workers, who never signed up for any of it.

I’ve learned a lot about the amazing work that Kew is doing, and why it’s so important. I will be sharing this with you soon too, but I wanted to talk to you about the people behind Kew, because I met a lot of them yesterday and they were wonderful, dedicated individuals with an enormous, undeserved weight on their shoulders. You can help them, and by helping them, you can help Kew Gardens.

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Wherever you come from, sign this petition, and if you’re in the UK, write to your MP (instructions are below the main text). It doesn’t matter where in the UK you live, because the wider the reach, the better. Although I’m in London now, I still contacted my old MP because technically I’m still registered there, and I thought it would make more sense to spread the word further afield. Neither of these things are hard or take much time, but they make a lot of ‘noise’ in parliament. We were told at the meeting that this ‘noise’ is what makes politicians take note of something – so the more of it you make, the more notice they’ll take.

The Palm House – Kew Gardens in Crisis

This place, this magical building bursting with life, is in danger.

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And so is the wonderful botanic garden and conservation heavyweight that contains it. That’s right. Our government is cutting its funding of Kew Gardens, endangering the history, collections and research that make it one of, if not the most important botanic gardens in the world.

I can’t believe I’ve only just heard about this stupidity. The government is making cuts left right and centre, which has resulted in a smaller workforce dealing with the same amount of work that they, and their old colleagues, were doing before that. The implication here is insulting – that government workers and civil servants weren’t pulling their weight beforehand. The vast number of hours the remaining workforce have clocked in overtime demonstrates that this just wasn’t true. What a surprise.

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Cutting Kew’s funding has had similar effects – but these won’t just negatively affect such unimportant areas as the NHS, the criminal justice system and the legal system (I hope you can hear the exhausted sarcasm here), these cuts affect the E N V I R O N M E N T. The current government hasn’t done nearly enough to protect the environment in the first place, but apparently they think they’ve been far too generous.

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Kew needs funding. It’s not a theme park, its not a trashy attraction in the centre of London with a metric tonne of touristy crap to buy. It’s quiet, sensible, beautiful and important. What does that mean? That is isn’t going to make enough money from ticket sales to operate without a subsidy, that’s what.

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I’m not trying to claim that Kew is a tiny victim that needs to be protected. It’s world renowned, has partnerships with huge corporations and an annual footfall of over a million. But a botanic garden and massive research centre has employees, it has costs, and when every square inch of a place isn’t built to make a profit, that means it isn’t going to make much profit. That’s the fundamental misunderstanding of capitalism, that everything worthwhile will make money. Frankly, the opposite is true, but I’ll get sidetracked if I say any more on that subject.

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Kew’s sponsorship was fulfilled, and cut, by DEFRA, who I actually have some experience working with. They [were?] a very creative government agency who a few years ago subsidised the creation of a website called Our Land, that encourages UK tourists to spend their holidays in eco-friendly places in protected destinations like the Cotswolds, the South Downs, the Cairngorms and the New Forest. The idea was that tourism was the only way to keep these areas profitable, and so by promoting tourism they were protecting the areas. The website is gone now but you can still find places in the UK on the parent website, Responsible Travel.

Very clever, and exactly what is happening in the rainforest with organisation like the Rainforest Alliance. There was some disagreement within DEFRA about cutting Kew’s funding, and I’m sure they were under pressure to make cuts because of all this austerity b******t, so hopefully the people who actually care about the environment are still there. Or maybe I just want to like them because working for Our Land was what financially allowed me to volunteer with Crees.

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I wanted to make a post talking about how magical the Palm House is, how it was hotter and more humid than the real rainforest and made me feel like I was in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. Those things are true, but when I read about the threats and cuts being made, I couldn’t just keep my mouth shut. Enjoying natural beauty is great, but when we can, we have a responsibility to preserve and protect the things that please us.

On the 8th of July, there will be a Parliamentary Rally asking the government to reverse the cuts, and to cancel proposed new cuts too. You could go along and support it, you could tweet, send a letter to your MP, tell all your friends, or just generally spread the word. Our planet is in crisis, we are destroying the environment. Kew’s research can and will help us save it – help save them so they can do their job.

Update: I went to the Parliamentary Rally. Read about it here.