This article reviews the “Honor Don’t Appropriate Yoga” summit, and it provides my biggest takeaways from the series.
During the past few weeks, I’ve been incredibly excited to bake. Why? Because my baking time is my dedicated time to listen to podcasts, and I’ve recently had some very enticing ones on the burner. The main entertainment I’ve been chewing on recently is not a podcast per se, but rather a series of interviews packaged together as a “summit”. This virtual event, titled “Honor Don’t Appropriate Yoga” is a series of discussions between the host, Susanna Barkataki, and 21 influential voices on diversity and inclusion in yoga and wellness. The interviews dive deep into participants’ experiences in wellness with the ultimate goal of joining their voices to “ignite your integrity, challenge norms, celebrate diversity, and embody yogic leadership”.
While listening to the summit, I had numerous “Yes!” moments that made me want to fling my spatula across the kitchen in excited agreement. On the flipside, I had a handful of uncomfortable moments that made me want to hide my head in my bowl of vegan lemon blueberry muffin batter. Although uncomfortable, these moments may have been the most powerful ones within the audible journey.
As a white woman who works in both global health and yoga, I am no stranger to the uncomfortable process of checking myself. Yoga comes from a culture that is not my own, and global health often attempts to aid in improving the lives of populations that are not my own. I have built my career around both sectors because with the hope of inviting health and healing to the world. Yet I am constantly relocating myself within my interactions to determine when I should raise my voice in hope of helping marginalized communities and when I lack the lived experience to do so. Well-intentioned speech can cause more harm than good when it comes from a place of misunderstanding. I have seen this reality pan out too often in my work. I know that I’ve made my fair share of mistakes in the past, but rather than erase them from my memory, I hope to learn from them.
Collectively, we can both acknowledge and learn from the colonial legacy of yoga. The practice is said to have been brought by Swami Vivekananda to the United States for the first time in the 1890’s. His intention was to elevate the Western perspective of Indian tradition, which in turn he hoped would combat the crushing poverty that was left in the wake of the British colonial era. This was a time when racist and orientalist speech against Indians was the norm and when both yoga and Ayurveda were banned by the British in India, leading to fractures and eradications of lineages and traditions of healing that had been thriving for thousands of years. Since this time, yoga has become columbused and white-washed into something of our own in America. Often, yoga in the West can be presented as a means for physical fitness or stress reduction without due credit to its country of origin or the spiritual knowledge at the heart of the practice.
The ask of the summit is not to pour the practice down the drain, but rather to honor yoga’s roots. Specifically, the biggest takeaways for me from the summit that I believe may help us to inch toward making the yoga world a better place are as follows:
Commit to lifelong learning
When we are working with a practice that is not from our own roots, it is especially important to admit how little we know, even if we have years of teaching experience under our belts. One of the most important ways to honor yoga is to commit to being a lifelong student of the practice. Although there are phenomenal yoga teachers in the United States, it’s also important to learn from the source whenever possible. Traveling to India may not always be financially possible on a yoga teacher’s income, but it is such a worthwhile bucket list trip to take. Moreover, learning Sanskrit is not necessarily the easiest commitment to make, but flipping through Hindi language-learning books can help immensely with understanding the pronunciation and theory behind yoga terminology. Finally, seeking out South Asian teachers virtually or in-person can be an important step in both learning from the root and uplifting yoga from the root.
Learn to sit with discomfort
Part of being a lifelong learner means that the information that we take in won’t always be pleasant. Our views may be shaken or radically shifted. Keeping an open mind and learning to sit comfortably with the discomfort that new knowledge may bring can allow us to learn from our mistakes rather than ignore or conveniently forget them.
Acknowledge historical trauma
One of the most uncomfortable facts about yoga is its colonial legacy. Just as we can learn from the patterns of our own past, we can learn from the collective past. We can recognize that we may be unable to fully experience the lines of text that we’ve read in history books, but those who are the decedents of the experience inevitably will feel at least a small trace of historical trauma. Rather than forming assumptions or judgements about the lived experienced of colonized or marginalized populations, we can listen with open ears and commit to learning.
Become curious about our own cultures
I’ve spent most of my adolescence and early adulthood trying to run away from white American culture. I had a small moment of admiration for my father’s heritage (British culture), but then, Brexit happened, and my respect for the country’s culture began to diminish as well. This repulsion toward my own heritage is one of the threads that led me toward my love of travel, of global health, of French language and culture, and of yoga. As a daughter of the world’s worst colonizers, becoming curious about my own heritage is not an easy commitment to make. Yet the longer I am away from home, the more I begin to appreciate the small town where I was raised. Learning to celebrate our own culture can provide us with a stable foundation to celebrate rather than steal from others.
Embrace individuality and creativity
Rather than plagiarize culture or pick and choose from elements of a culture that can serve us while tossing out the rest, we can give credit where it is due when we explore practices that are not our own. Rather than stealing from others, we can embrace our own sense of individuality and creativity in our practices with movement and breath.
Acknowledge that yoga is a privilege
As it stands in the United States, yoga remains a privilege to practice. With this privilege comes the responsibility of taking our practice off the mat. We can stay calm, grounded, and centered whenever possible in our interactions with others because we have had the opportunity to understand this feeling in our bodies through yoga.
Celebrate the fact that yoga can be for everyone
Rather than keeping yoga as a privileged practice for the wealthy elite in the United States, we can celebrate the fact that at its heart, yoga can be a practice for everyone. We can spread the gift by donating our time to teach marginalized communities whenever feasible, we can advocate for making the practice more accessible, and we can understand that yoga doesn’t look like a lighting fast-paced Vinyasa practice for everyone. Yoga can be adapted for any body anywhere in the world as long as we honor the individual and honor the roots of the practice.