Thursday, March 10, 2011

I want to tell you a myth about an Elephant: Should Yogis be careful with Cultural Appropriation?

Imagine: You're in a yoga class, sitting on your mat and getting emotionally and mentally ready for class. You sit cross legged and patiently wait for the teacher to begin, anticipating a quick intro and maybe a few 'aums'. The teacher enters, sits on his mat and welcomes you. All is good. Then the teacher begins:

'Today I want to tell y'all a story. It's about this dude on my shirt here, you see? He's on a cross. Anyhow, it's really a myth about a shepherd and his flock of sheep. This dude on my shirt? His name is Jesus and he told this story about the shepherd. You see, there was this shepherd who had like a 100 sheep. One day, one of his sheep ran away, which of course upset the shepherd. He loved every one of his sheep. So, he of course left the other 99 sheep and went searching for the one that ran away. When the shepherd found his lost sheep he had a party and everyone was happy...'

Alright, feel uncomfortable yet? What about the choice of words: 'Myth' and 'story'? We can agree, perhaps, that the more politically correct term would be 'religious parable', and that the general pretense of a religious story prior to a yoga class not otherwise specified as such (i.e. religious) feels a bit strange (to say the least). Did you feel a bit perturbed that the teacher also didn't specifically connect his 'story' with the religion of Christianity, or at least acknowledge that this 'Jesus' fellow is a religious deity for Christians?

How about we change the teacher's story to one about Ganesha... and the 16 phases of the moon. Leave the words 'myth' and 'story' as well as the extremely casual tone of the telling and lack of any reference to Ganesha being a Hindu deity. Now how do you feel?

This is not a post to say that Yoga shouldn't involve anything remotely Hindu in nature- that would be ridiculous. It is to voice my growing annoyance with individuals who co-opt certain aspects of Hinduism in an otherwise secular yoga practice. My yoga practice is spiritual and personal and does not involve Krishna, Buddha, Jesus or God for that matter. Since I can't shut off my ears, roll up my mat and leave or voice my concerns during a yoga class- it is the perfect setting to take advantage of a 'captive' audience and share their spiritual;co-opted views.

Of course, most yoga classes are not like this. Which is fabulous. Nevertheless, I am simply not a fan of appropriating parts of a religious or cultural movement as your own... so this event completely irked me.


article copyright of EcoYogini at


  1. All of my teachers have so far stuck to a few tales of Hanuman or Ganesha, and I think it's fine as long as they help set an intention. I wouldn't like it either if they started to arbitrarily tell a story or just expound their own beliefs. I've never been comfortable with religion in the first place.

  2. Yoga is a spiritual practice with roots in Hindu, Buddhist, and indigenous Indian spiritual traditions, so it really shouldn't be a surprise that teachings and stories from those areas will appear in classes. In fact, I personally am disappointed at how often yoga is being turned into an exercise routine, with everything else stripped out of it. But this is why I make sure I know the focus and reputation of teachers/centers before taking classes there.

    If the teacher or center offering classes explicitly says they are "secular," and then a teacher incorporates religious or spiritual teachings - this would be an case of false advertising. But mostly what I see is a lack of clear definition of what "yoga" means to a particular teacher or center.

    Perhaps your expectations don't align with what is being offered. But using a term like cultural appropriation is pretty loaded. Some folks argue that all of yoga in North America is a cultural appropriation, especially given how little the majority of people practicing care and respect for the multifaceted tradition. I don't agree with them that all of yoga here is cultural appropriation, but I do see a lot of folks who just want to have hot bodies and whatnot, which has nothing to do with the 5000+ year history of the practice.

    So, I suppose you might ask yourself what exactly it is that you want from a class. And maybe ask the center or teachers what it is exactly they are offering. And see if they match up or not.

  3. I couldn't agree more. I enjoy yoga because it is a personal thing, not a religious thing. Whenever it delves too deeply into religion, it ruins the practice.

  4. Lots of thoughts, though not sure how to express them all. I have gone back and forth on this "issue" many, many times, especially since becoming a yoga teacher and then trying to bring yoga to lawyers for stress management. I have found that many of the "religious" teachings of yoga are just really great ways of being, and I often connect them to other religious teachings, like that guy Jesus, or my own Jewish upbringing. But there is something special about poses being named after certain deities, such as Hanuman. There is also the fact that asana is only one aspect of a yoga practice, and now we have the Hindu Foundation of America trying to take back yoga while Bikram tries to turn it into a competition. I think this plethora of ideas/thoughts/ changes means we have to find what works for us, and that is probably the most important teaching I have learned from my yoga practice, from asana to spirituality. We each have our own unique lives, practices, spirits, and the best we can do is be true to ourselves and learn from one another. If we are being honest, then a misstep here and there is okay and will hopefully not feel like stealing pieces of a deeply religious practice. Of course, I could be totally wrong as well, but I struggle with this issue every single day. Thanks for asking!

  5. @Jethero and Nathan: I agree. Yoga is spiritual and not just an exercise (for myself).
    My issue was that this teacher specifically was quite blazé about his story about 'An Elephant called Ganesha'. I recognize that using the term 'cultural appropriation' is a loaded term... this was why I voiced it.

    I feel like with all the discussion recently coming from India, the movement to 'take back Yoga' that's happening- some pretty strong reactions are happening from individuals who feel that yoga is being misrepresented by North American Yogis. That Hindu roots are being ignored or disregarded.

    I found this teacher disrespectful by completely disregarding who Ganesha really is: A Hindu Deity and not some random 'Myth' or 'story'.

  6. @Rebecca: exactly! I love how you express this. Perfectly.
    It is definitely a complicated problem, and I think an open discussion needs to happen.
    What I've been reading (maybe I'm missing posts though) is a more defensive reaction from North American Yogis.
    Obviously a chord has been struck and many individuals feel strongly that there have been missteps along the way here.
    I see no issue with benefiting from the Hindu aspects and connections to Yoga with our practice. I just would have appreciated it had the teacher acknowledged that while using the Ganesha and the moon example to set up the class intention and treated it with more respect...
    and I'm not even Hindu.

  7. "I found this teacher disrespectful by completely disregarding who Ganesha really is: A Hindu Deity and not some random 'Myth' or 'story'."

    Ah, I see now. Yes, this is an issue.

    It seems to tap into the whole feel good spirituality approach that is a strand of the yoga community. Instead of being specific about sources and intentions, what's offered is comments like "let's bliss out with Ganesha in this pose."

    How to respond to this? Not sure in general.

    Although I think figuring out a way to talk to the specific teacher in question might be a start. Of course, it helps to be more than one when doing so because a single student can be dismissed as out of line, whereas multiple students saying the same thing is hard to ignore. (I remember this from my years as an ESL teacher; whenever more than one student raised an issue or question, I knew I had to take notice.)

    Now that I'm in a yoga teacher training program, and considering how I might teach, and also how teaching includes speaking up about community wide ethics issues, these kinds of issues just get louder in my mind.

  8. I'm not sure I would be bothered by this; I can appreciate teachings from all religions as long as I'm not being purposefully converted. If the teacher is a Christian and feels that it needs to be part of their yoga, then all the power to them; he will find his flock and those who don't like it have many other teachers to choose from.

    Did he intentionally neglect to mention Jesus's connection to Christianity, or is it that since we live in a christian culture, he just assumed you'd all know?

    I may misunderstand what you're saying. Are you saying he followed up the Jesus story with a further myth about Ganesh, or are you just adding that as an example religion in yoga? B/c if he did tell both and made the one out to be true while the other a falsehood, then, yeah, that would bother me too.

  9. didn't bother me at all. all the bible is is bunch of stories that some folks decided to say one day were true and then force their beliefs upon others. yoga has many roots, we do what feels right, that is what's important.

    (but girl i love how you started a conversation..!!)

  10. EY, I see your point, the way you tell that story in the beginning may make me uncomfortable... I suppose there is a very fine line on how teachers use story in classes. I was a trainer in the corporate world for 10 years before yoga and I found the hard way that only when the stories are absolutely relevant and in context to what is happening do they make sense...

    So anyway, I prefer my silent Ashtanga classes and then find out about myth when I take other classes or as I progress in my own understanding... perhaps that is why...

    Good topic

  11. This is exactly why I stopped going to yoga classes and now practice at home, alone. WHile it may be true, in Canada anyway, that "most" yoga classes are not like that, many are, and actually where I live, it may even be most. I'm perfectly fine with a time for meditation and for one's *own* spiritual reflection but the reading of religious texts (including Hindu) and the praying (call it whatever you like) put me off so much that finally I just didn't want to have to try to shut it out. Maybe it is "cultural appropriation" but I am practicing yoga in North America, not India, and I am no more interested in Hindu (or Christian for that matter and I've heard Christian readings in class as well) than I am in a 95-Degree-Fahrenheit room. I may or may not have walked out of that class (I'd say odds are about 50/50) but I would not go back.

  12. At this point in the very early stage of my teaching career, I've not felt the need to talk about the Hindu gods and goddesses in a class.

    Perhaps I will at some stage, although if I do it'll be in relation to specific poses - like Hanumanasana which is of course, named for Hanuman.

    But otherwise, I don't see the need. I think asking people to chant "Om" and "Shanti Shanti Shanti" isn't asking too much, although anyone who doesn't want to is welcome to keep silent for those couple of minutes.

    I think it also depends on the school. I teach at a place where the practice of asana and meditation isn't extracted from it's roots as much as it might be in other studios or schools.

    In fact, apparently someone compared my class to another and said it didn't have as much "spiritual direction" as another teachers. Whatever that means! Perhaps I'm not using as much flowery language or something?

    Then again, it possibly also comes down to teaching style. Perhaps the teacher with the elephant story didn't see it as cultural appropriation. Who knows?

    I guess that's one of the issues that comes up for westerners doing a practice that has it's origins in another culture. Everyone takes and interprets it differently - we see that in all the current "yoga scandals". And it only makes sense that this filters down into teaching style, too.

  13. As a Christian yogi - no, it wouldn't bother me if a yoga teacher spoke about Jesus in that way. In fact, I strongly suspect Jesus would approve.

    I do think yogis should be careful about cultural appropriation, I just don't find this particular example illustrative. I find a completely secular yoga practice intrinsically more appropriative, and therefore requiring greater care, than one which acknowledges yoga's heritage within Hinduism - even in a humourous fashion - because it removes so much context.


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