Postcolonial yoga, appropriation and humanism

This article by Susanna Barkataki is one of many in a new wave of recognition of the downsides of the current wave of popularity of Eastern-derived practices such as meditation and yoga. I don’t think of it as a “backlash”, quite, and I don’t think she would either: “Powerful practices that reduce suffering persist, despite all attempts to end them.” Hardly what you’d expect to read in a “backlash”. Instead, I think there is a growing sense that our cultural tendency to jump thoughtlessly on the latest bandwagon, our “irrational exuberance”, could once again give us trouble if we don’t stop to think. We need to be more mindful about mindfulness, as it were.

Barkataki describes how Indians suffered the repression of their own culture under centuries of colonialism. “To be colonized is to become a stranger in your own land.” And now, Westerners’ shallow appropriation of parts of that same culture is echoing the harms of colonialism. “As a desi, this is the feeling I get in most Westernized yoga spaces today.”

“If someone from the dominant culture completes a yoga teacher training that is primarily asana based, and remains blissfully unaware of the complexity of yoga’s true aim or the roots of the practices, they are culturally appropriating yoga. By remaining unaware of the history, roots, complexity and challenges of the heritage from which yoga springs and the challenges it has faced under Western culture, they perpetuate a re-colonization of it by stripping its essence away.”

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I think the main point of Barkataki’s article is so incontrovertible that I’m just going to leave it without further comment and focus on a philosophical side issue that is more up my alley.

Here’s a statement of one item of my own personal moral belief system: One culture or person is not “better” or “worse” than another. To make someone the “other” is equally dehumanizing, regardless of whether you imagine them to be savages, or noble. To be a humanist is to recognize our universal shared humanity that transcends any shallow and momentary sense of “better” or “worse” and to love all merely for being human, not because each human is uniquely important, but merely because they are human. 

In my belief system, the reason it’s bad for the dominant culture to appropriate and marginalize other cultures is simply because it hurts people. It steals from them and leaves them uncompensated. When you instead start to think that it’s all about other cultures being naturally Noble, Pure and Perfect, you’re dehumanizing them just as much as you are if you think they’re savages. Humans are human: flawed, alive, complicated, beautiful. Humanism is to love and respect all people simply because they’re human, not because they’re better or worse.

Myself, I practice Hatha Yoga from the Patanjali tradition, and meditation and yoga from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. I do these things because my experience is that they are uniquely beneficial to me; I also have observed them being beneficial to others. So there’s some real value there. And, I make an effort to learn as much as I can about their roles and contexts in their original homes, and how those changed over time. I’m well aware that throughout their own histories these practices have been used and abused, preserved and scrambled, worshiped for historical authenticity and updated with contemporary relevance. And in some ways what we are doing now in America is just a continuation of this process. Are we losing the “essence” of yoga, or meditation? Well, maybe in some senses we are, and in other senses we aren’t. Some techniques and principles are being preserved, because they appeal to us; and others are being lost. Some of these changes will turn out to be for the better, and some will turn out to be for the worse.

As quick examples, I would say that one change for the worse is that “meditation” is often practiced abstracted from a great deal of context, including social support, body practice, ritual and tradition, ethical framework, and other diverse supportive techniques. Us Americans don’t have the experience with this collection of practices yet to have any kind of reasonable sense of what might be affected by the parts we’re stripping out. On the other hand, a change for the better is that it is now entirely possible to practice these techniques without first learning classical Sanskrit or Tibetan. Those are not easy languages to learn, and (I think) there is nothing inherent about the practices that should require anyone to jump through that enormous hoop before getting access to them.

As for cultural appropriation, that genie is already out of the bottle, the train has left the station, and the ship has sailed. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. By way of a comically ironic allegory, there is an old story about how the Native Americans used every part of the buffalo, and thanked the buffalo for helping them live. This story itself is a prime example of the kind of “noble savageism” I’m discouraging here, but that doesn’t diminish its usefulness as a mere allegory. In some sense it appears that our culture is inherently carnivorous; we must eat the traditions of other cultures to survive. We may not  ever stop doing that, but we can at least try to do it with respect. Treat other cultures with respect. Appropriate with awareness and gratitude. Ask ourselves, would someone from the source culture be pleased to see us respectfully keeping their traditions alive? Or will they look at us and see something like an old blackface performance? Better yet, ask them. If you’re teaching a yoga class for Susanna Barkataki, listen to her. Pay attention. Be very open to learning that you’re “doing it wrong.”

Another genie that is permanently (I hope) out of the bottle is global communication. Cultures are henceforth aware of each other and appropriation is the new normal. An open and optimistic eye, looking around, sees many examples of how incredibly enriching this is. Artistic and spiritual exchange has created tremendous beauty. I dream of a future where we continue to create this beauty, and we exchange respectfully, as friends and colleagues.

Edit: My buddy Joe points out this video that sensitively summarizes the whole issue:

(note: just kidding, it’s hilarious!)