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Cultural Appropriation Part 1: India

16 August 2017

Trimbakeshwar, Nasik 4th Jan 2017 - 3 am

Its been ten years since I first visited this ashram which is located in a vast & beautiful valley, nestled amongst the sacred hills of Sahyadri. I first came here to train as a yoga teacher in 2007. I’d been practising yoga for about seven years and having been to India a few times before, I wanted to learn how to teach from an authentic school in India.

Each morning we would be woken by a bell at 5 am and after a bucket shower and herbal tea would begin the day by assembling in the main hall at 5:30 am. The windows of the hall afforded a panoramic view of the surrounding fields, villages and mountains of Trimbakeshwar in the distance. As the sun cast its first rays across the misty valley below, we would sit and chant the Holy names of the Goddess Durga - the Great Mother. We would then commence our daily routine of karma yoga, kriya, asana, pranayama and philosophy classes which were punctuated by regular chants to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

At the time, I’d been living in a shared house in Devon with some friends who are Hare Krishna devotees and I'd become fond of chanting the Maha Mantra each day - so I found that I enjoyed the chanting more than anything else on the course. I struggled with the meaning and pronunciation of the new Sanskrit words though and also remember wondering (perhaps due to a monotheistic, Christian education) if it would be somehow offensive to Krishna chanting the names of the other Deities. At the end of the course, I was conscious of how the chanting may be perceived back home and I remember saying to my teacher Gandhar something like "if I do all this chanting in my classes back home, I’m not sure if anyone will come to the class." Gandhar smiled and shrugged a little wearily and said "ok, no problem, you don’t have to do the chanting, focus on the asana and pranayama, maybe chant Om a little instead."

Fast forward a month and I’m back in the UK at my first big class - it's in a busy leisure centre studio: no windows; a wall of mirrors on one side; bright fluorescent lighting and about 25 people packed into three rows. All eyes are upon me, expectantly waiting for the new teacher to begin the class. I didn’t know what else to do, so I did exactly as we’d been taught at the ashram, I put my palms together, closed my eyes and took a deep breath. In the strongest voice I could muster without trembling, I invited the class to join in, call-and-response style, as I began to chant:

Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu,
Guru Devo Maheshwaraha
Guru Sakshat Para Brahma
Tasmai Sri Gurave Namaha
Tasmai Sri Gurave namaha

Om Shanti, Shanti Shanti
Hari OM Tat Sat

No one joined in and I completed the verse on my own.

When I opened my eyes, I found three rows of puzzled faces still staring at me. Some looked amused, others uncomfortable. Perhaps it was my own insecurity and lack of experience - but it felt awkward. I took strength from remembering my teachers at the ashram and struggled through the rest of the class as best as I could. The next week the number of students had fallen from 25 to about 5. I remembered Gandhar’s advice - and left out the chanting - we chanted Om instead, just once. I watered it down. I left out the pranayama. I focused on the asana - postures instead. People seemed to like it - they said so at the end. I felt like a fraud.

What prompted me to modify the class wasn’t a lack of respect for Hindu culture, it was determined by a combination of inexperience and the complexity of teaching an eastern spiritual practice within the context of a western, fitness & leisure environment.

  • I genuinely wanted the students in the class to learn about yoga and to have a positive experience, so I tried to adapt the teaching in such a way that it would be accessible to them.
  • The leisure centre would only continue to run the class with a minimum of 8 regular attendees. Therefore I needed students and was under pressure to find a way to present yoga in such a way that people would want to come back for more.
  • When presented with a teaching outside of the (western) norm - a pluralistic ‘Hindu yoga’ replete with Brahma, Vishu and Maheshwaraha, students felt uncomfortable - that it was odd, strange & religious somehow.
  • It was outside the context of the leisure centre paradigm. The class beforehand was called ‘body attack’ and the class after us was ‘box training’.

With hindsight, I recognise that I was, and arguably still am, a classic case of cultural appropriation. Here in ‘the west’ (for want of a better word) appropriation is something which I think most yoga teachers participate in, a lot of the time. We may not like the sound of this very much but if we look the term up in an encyclopaedia, it's clear that it is a thing and that what we do fits with the description.

Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture, in a colonial manner: elements are copied from a minority culture by members of the dominant culture, and these elements are used outside their original cultural context. Often, the original meaning of these cultural elements is lost or distorted, which means that these uses may be viewed as disrespectful by members of the originating culture, or even as a form of desecration. Cultural elements which may have deep meaning to the original culture can be reduced to “exotic” fashion by those from the dominant culture. When this is done, the imitator, “who does not experience that oppression is able to ‘play,’ temporarily, an ‘exotic’ other, without experiencing any of the daily discriminations faced by other cultures.” - Wikipedia

In 2007, no one in the yoga community really talked much about cultural appropriation. However, I’m sure that my Indian teachers were all too aware of the colonial dynamics of white privileged spiritual tourists like myself taking the well-trodden path to India, visiting an ashram and training to teach yoga in the UK. At that time, all the tuition on the course was free and I paid around $600 for food and accommodation. Our teachers shared the teachings freely with unwavering faith in the merit of the practices and an altruistic desire to see them spread far and wide across the globe.

Returning to this beautiful place, I am once again humbled by the generosity of our hosts who have welcomed myself, my partner Alice who also studied here, and our young family to stay with open arms. I’d imagined that in coming here I might reflect upon ten years of teaching with a sense of accomplishment - but in many ways, I still feel like a fraud and when I talk to the yogis and teachers here, I am reminded once again that I am still a student with much to learn.

Yesterday, we met a talented young teacher who is studying for an MA in Yoga Shastra at the Yoga College in Nasik. Although she is half my age and has been teaching yoga for less than 6 months: her knowledge of Sanskrit already far exceeds my own and she gently corrected me on my mispronunciation of some simple pranayama terms. She said that she'd like to travel and perhaps teach yoga abroad one day but that it is incredibly difficult for Indian teachers to find the money for airfares and also to gain patronage and appropriate work permits and visas to teach in Europe or the US.

There are currently no teacher training courses running at the ashram so we’re the only visitors. The ashram is blissfully quiet and most of the other people here are residents: karma yogis who live and work at the ashram, teaching yoga, preparing food, looking after the grounds, picking up litter and maintaining the numerous ashram buildings. Karma yoga is the practice of offering selfless service for the benefit of other beings. Today we did our bit by clearing out a pond and also weeding some vegetable beds. The kids loved it and it felt good to work hard and be doing something to help out. At the end of the day, we were invited to join the Havan, a fire ceremony conducted at the end of each day. As we sat around an altar, a teacher performed the ancient rite of feeding the fire with ghee and cow dung and together we chanted 108 rounds of the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra mantra:

Om tryambakaṃ yajāmahe
Sugandhiṃ puṣṭivardhanam
Urvārukamiva bandhanān
Mṛtyormukṣīya mā'mṛtāt

Afterwards, we enjoyed a delicious meal lovingly prepared by the karma yogis in the kitchen. Although we hadn’t set foot on a yoga mat or done a single pranayama, it felt like the most yoga we’d practised for many years.

Back home I keep hearing and seeing online, the expression ‘yogaland’ and I find myself wondering what kind of place it denotes. It seems to have a fuzzy, general online locus. Although there are no fixed geographical boundaries, the inhabitants are predominantly American & European yoga practitioners with the luxury of time and money to blog, post on Facebook & Instagram, attend retreats, workshops, and read the latest English books & articles. Yogaland is a colonial territory: a place of entitlement in which the word ‘yoga’ is skied and morphed and bandied about. We dissect, analyse and affirm our own secularised vision of yoga with little regard for the way that people are practising yoga here in India. This brave new yoga world of ours is suspended in a cultural vacuum - a tiny bubble with an inflated sense of its own proportion.

Western yoga teachers enjoy unhampered access to the fruit of thousands of years of Indian culture. How often do we stop to consider the oppression through which our privilege was secured or the legacy of socioeconomic inequality by which our vantage point is maintained? We may not like the word appropriation and most teachers don’t want to hear it, but no matter how much we try and dress it up, that is what we all do. It is usually done with the best of intentions. Perhaps we leave out the philosophy or we start to misuse & mispronounce Sanskrit terms and there is no one there to gently correct us or challenge our interpretation. Over time the appropriation is repeated and becomes our way of doing things - we may even come to think of it as ‘the’ way of doing things. Our students accept our failings as truth and we become accustomed, perhaps enamoured with being our own little torch bearers of yoga.

But if we teach these practices called 'yoga' and use the ancient Sanskrit words then surely it is vital that we do our best to understand and explain their context and application - and that we give due respect and acknowledgement to their culture of origin. Our fumbled words and omissive compromise are perhaps unlikely to offend and aren't intended to be disrespectful. However, they are symptoms of a much wider trend in which yoga is being steadily displaced, diluted & secularised - and the cultural identity of indigenous yoga irrevocably eroded and diminished. Until we begin to acknowledge and question our own role in appropriation, we remain tacit accomplices to the wealthy corporations and governing bodies that brand, control and monetise yoga through standardisation and homogenous commercialisation.

Perhaps the problem arises when the motive for profit and recognition exceeds the motive to educate, honour and respect tradition.

When I talked with Gandhar earlier about the commodified yoga now being sold in the west, he was surprisingly optimistic. He expressed his continued faith that ultimately it doesn't matter because at some point people will be drawn to the other deeper, more spiritual aspects of yoga practice. I very much hope that he is right.

India is vast. The scale of humanity and spiritual diversity is unfathomable. Many, many people are practising yoga here. Cultural reference points are often radically different from our own so that the idea of a yoga practice is generally very different from the popular perception in the west. Yoga has been practised here in various guises for millennia. Yoga here is in the air, the trees, the rocks, the smells, sounds, temples - the faith and generosity of the people. It's everywhere and has been for all time. Yoga historians may reject such romantic sentiments. But in the textbook of the world, I sense these things to be true.

Beyond the asana circus, the big Gurus in the cities and the dusty Sanskrit texts in crumbling libraries, yoga is alive and well in rural India. The yoga that survives here endures in spite of neocolonialism. It isn't a version of yoga that lends itself well to appropriation and commodification. It may not be a yoga that we can ever fully understand, but it's here all right and I am glad.

Hari Om Tat Sat
James, Trimbak 2017

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James Russell Yoga Teacher

About James

James is a yoga teacher & researcher who's practised yoga for 24 years. He holds an MA in Traditions of Yoga & Meditation from SOAS, University of London, where he specialised in premodern yoga.

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