Most 200 hour yoga teacher training courses are primarily focused on a physical asana practice and have minimized or stripped away the origins of this ancient spiritual practice. With the boom of this multi-billion-dollar industry, yoga studios popping up everywhere, and yoga teacher training courses on offer all over the world, yoga has become an industry to make money from. Yoga wear, malas, workshops, and yoga teacher certification courses are everywhere and usually owned and run by Westerners. With the Westernization and commercialization of yoga, many aspects of it have been appropriated in insensitive and insulting ways in the quest to make money. It is forgotten, ignored, or glossed over that yoga is thousands of years old, and comes from the Indian subcontinent where it has its origins in Hinduism. This has been stripped away in the Western presentation so that yoga is now synonymous with a physical practice that could be likened to a gym session and the culture that it has come from is seriously underrepresented.
But first, we need to understand what cultural appropriation is. According to the Oxford Dictionary, it is “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”
Yoga is one of six philosophical schools that come from Hinduism. The goal is not to be able to do a handstand or headstand; yoga is a personal inward journey to connect with your true nature. It is a path to release the practitioner from worldly attachments which is achieved primarily through meditation and cleansing practices. It’s our ability to still the mind, gain insight into deeper aspects of ourselves, and rest in a detached awareness. Yoga is how we are in the world and it is a way of life not a 90-minute class in a studio. Unless you are truly following, living, and breathing all aspects of Yoga you cannot really call yourself a yogi. It requires self-study, a deeper inquiry into your limiting beliefs, behaviors, and thoughts. It is a spiritual practice and one that is intrinsically connected to Indian culture.
As a newly graduated yoga teacher, you may want to incorporate some non-physical elements that you learned during your yoga certification course into your classes. So how do you know what’s appropriate and what’s not and how do you acknowledge where the practices have come from? Referencing things from another culture should always be done with respect, knowledge, and understanding. Wearing malas, a Ganesha t-shirt, and chanting Om does not make someone spiritual. In fact, it’s usually the opposite! A spiritual journey is not all peace, love, and ease. It can be messy and challenging but if you use these outer symbols to appear more spiritual you are appropriating a culture that is not part of your daily life and practice.
We would like to offer a few things to think about and how you engage with various representations of Hinduism.
You may have heard this word commonly used at the beginning or end of a yoga class by Western teachers. But do they actually know what it means and is it appropriate? Namaste is derived from the Sanskrit Namaskar. Nama means to bow and te means to you. It is used, predominantly in North India as a greeting of respect towards elders, people you don’t know, or priests. It is a way to show respect to God in someone as you would respect God in a temple. If a yoga teacher is indeed bowing to respect the Soul that resides in each person in the class, then it can add a level of meaning but according to Hindu culture an elder person won’t offer Namaste to younger people it’s the other way around. So, it’s important that if the word is used it is used with understanding and context otherwise it’s just throwing a word around. But will the same teachers say Namaste when they meet people outside of the context of a yoga class? Will they acknowledge the divine Soul that resides in people with whom they have daily interactions with the word Namaste? If it’s not part of their usual vocabulary then does it become a throwaway word in a yoga class to make it seem more “authentic”?
Ganesha is a Hindu God that represents beginnings so at the start of any ceremony or prayer he would be honoured. He also represents prosperity and is the remover of obstacles. In India, he would be at the entrance to a temple, in a home temple, and in shops and businesses. Wherever he is represented people would perform a daily offering and prayer to Ganesha. You will often see a statue of Ganesha in yoga studios but if he is not worshipped daily as part of the studio owners’ own practice then why would he be there? He becomes nothing more than interior decoration in the guise of spirituality unless he is held in reverence and worshipped. Clothing is another area where Ganesha has been misappropriated. Unfortunately, many yoga clothing manufacturers insensitively print an image of Ganesha on leggings and t-shirts as a way to make money and make the wearer feel more “spiritual”. This is gross cultural misappropriation and is not a way that you would revere a God. Gods and Goddesses should never be in a lower position than humans so it is inappropriate to have them on a lower part of the body, let alone leggings.
Many Westerners like to tattoo symbols or texts onto their bodies to display that they are spiritual or following a yoga lifestyle but are they appropriate? The first thing to think about is where on the body they are placed. Many people tattoo the Om symbol on the back of their necks or on their feet which to a Hindu is totally inappropriate. They should only appear on the front side of the body and usually that only on the upper outer or inner lower arm. They would never appear on the feet or lower part of the body. We mentioned earlier that Gods and Goddesses should sit higher than humans according to Hindu belief, yet so many people tattoo Ganesha on their lower legs or backs. Similarly, sacred texts shouldn’t be tattooed on the side of the torso or near the buttocks. If you want to express yourself through tattoos then make sure that what you are tattooing and where it is located is appropriate and respectful to the culture which it comes from.