When it comes to engaging respectfully with yoga – a practice that originates in a culture other than our own – it doesn’t take long to get coiled into an ethical conundrum.Leslie & Leena, Branches Co-Directors
For example, a question we’re currently mulling over is about language. Perhaps it’s best to use Sanskrit terminology and chanting in class out of respect and reverence for the main original language used in codifying and passing on yogic philosophy and practice. But maybe we should actually set Sanskrit aside until we can get the pronunciation right. Or, thinking further, it might be best to abandon Sanskrit completely for its association with the history of caste-based oppression, where some caste-oppressed people were barred from hearing or speaking it (alongside other forms of oppression and continued discrimination).
You already know there isn’t going to be a correct answer here, and that approaches to the above question (and questions like it) will impact various individuals and groups in different ways, both positively and negatively. While we care deeply about our impact and reducing harm, short of closing up shop and never sharing yoga again, we’re aware that our actions will never be perfect and acceptable to all.
The temptation to give up
When faced with the reality that there is no right answer, it can be tempting to throw up your hands and say, “I’m damned if I do, and damned if I don’t, so I might as well just do what I want.” That mentality is an excuse, and we think it indicates a lack of mental and emotional stamina.
If you identify with that attitude and feel a little hurt by what we just said, we get it, because we’ve been there. Conversations around cultural appropriation can be overwhelming and tiring. We know that underneath defensiveness, there is difficulty in sitting with the fact that cultural appropriation is harmful, and there may also be shame or guilt for things you’ve done, or anxiety about what you might do or fail to do in the future. It is hard (though not as hard as having your culture looted).
Working out our learning muscles
But (of course there’s a but!) like anything else that requires stamina, we can train to maintain our mental and emotional strength for the endless and endlessly complex learning process.
Over the last nine years, we’ve noticed a gradual improvement in how this conversation goes within our yoga teacher training. If this life-long learning process (undoing the harms of cultural appropriation and relearning respectful engagement with yoga) were a marathon, many of those in our first cohort needed to be cheered on to take even just a few jogging steps. Cultural appropriation was a brand new topic, and we didn’t get too much further than reading an article and having a discussion to debrief it.
In our most recent cohort, many participants had already begun to think about how cultural appropriation might be harmful. They had their metaphorical running shoes laced up, and some had even run a 5k or 10k race before. The learning our program offers has also deepened and broadened, incorporating Susanna Barkataki’s book Embrace Yoga’s Roots, and inviting four different guest faculty of diverse South Asian heritage to explore history, philosophy, Sanskrit, and more.
Respecting the process
We keep calling it a conversation – this is on purpose. You can’t just read an article about the Dos and Don’ts of cultural appropriation, and close that book forever. Real conversations, the type that go back and forth, never really end, and include multiple perspectives, allow for more nuance and complexity. A conversation isn’t a test or an exam – there is no final answer. In fact, it’s the not-knowing part that can feel the hardest and be most worthwhile. It’s vital to rest in your humility and really listen before jumping into action just to prove you know what to do so that you won’t offend anyone (which is impossible anyway).
This isn’t the first and won’t be the last time we talk with you about cultural appropriation. Here’s a letter from Emma we sent in August, 2022, as a recent example. We consider it part of our job to perpetually refuel, trade in our worn-out runners for new ones, and stay hydrated so that we can keep going. If and when overwhelm shows up, we take it as a cue to slow the pace down, walk for a bit, or take a water break before continuing.
We welcome your responses and thoughts on this topic as an ongoing venue for conversation.
Yours in life-long learning,
Leslie, Leena, and the whole TBY Team