Is De-Culturing Yoga an Act of Good Faith or a Promotion of Xenophobic Ideology? /// A Light and Easy Subject

Today I wanted to look at the discussion that’s been brewing on the site as to whether a person who makes a concerted effort to de-culture yoga is whitewashing the tradition or simply making it more accessible to people who don’t understand squiggly.

My feeling is this:

People like Tara Stiles and, of course, No Om Zone author, Kimberly Fowler, are not in the business of making yoga accessible to “everyone.” Using a Sanskrit word for an asana does not make yoga impenetrable. Xenophobia, on the other hand—the fear of other cultures—makes yoga incredibly impenetrable.

There is a commonly held belief in the yoga world that whatever form you need to present yoga in is worth the effort. If that means stripping it of every Om possible, than so be it. On the surface this sentiment makes sense. You have something you believe “works” and you want the greatest number of people to experience that. I get it. When I teach students, I, perhaps like you, meet them where they are at as best I can. However, I then try to take them a step further. If memorizing a bunch of squiggly words they’ve never heard happens to be a bit daunting, then I scale it back. However, my intention is to always maintain a forward movement, and, as we go, introduce them to the full spectrum of the yogic tradition as it has been taught to me. It just so happens that squiggly words are 100% a part of that tradition, and can at times make up a significant portion of it. In my opinion, to not present yoga in as much of its entirety as I can, is to do my students a disservice.

And yet, the biggest issue I have with sentiments like the one above are when they are made in reference to people like Tara Stiles and Kimberly Fowler, as if they are simply trying to make yoga available to the largest swath of people. The fact is, Tara and Kimberly are not “making yoga accessible to everyone.” They are certainly not making yoga accessible to me, as I don’t trust a teacher who’s explicit mission is to erase the cultural foundation of the physical-spiritual traditions I practice. On the contrary, people who’s agenda is to universally de-culture the yogic tradition are promoting nothing less than an ideology based on xenophobia.

Now, I’m not talking here about lightening up on the “Om’s” and the “Namaste’s” ’cause grandma still thinks “Orientals are bad luck,” and you’re only teaching her for five minutes over Christmas break, and you think she might not make it to the next one. I’m not talking about using the phrase “downward facing dog” instead of “Adho Mukha Svanasana” from time to time, or most of the time. All y’all who verbally mix it up Sanskrenglish style are not who I am referring to. I’m referring to people who have made aggressive attempts to remove Sanskrit, remove the founding culture(s) of yoga from the practice irregardless of who the students may be. To do so is, I believe, an ideologically motivated act, the basis of which states that no matter where a tradition comes from, people (in this case white people) have a right to erase that culture in an effort to better cater to other people’s xenophobic limitations.

Now, isn’t that interesting? It has always been my understanding that yogic practice, and especially practices involving the “other limbs,” has always been taught as a way of confronting the learned limited tendencies of civilized society. As far as I know, yogic practices were taught to almost disregard any catering to the self. That is one reason why the practices of varying spiritual traditions can be so very choreographed. That is why sitting zazen (Zen meditation) is so highly structured, repetitive, and boring. That is why your hand goes right there. That is why you wipe your begging bowl just like this. That is why you walk at this speed. That is why you fold your napkin just so. That is why you wake up at this time. That is why you do it this many days a week always and forever until your teacher tells you otherwise.

Without all those annoying details, and believe me, they are very annoying, spiritual practice becomes a practice of simply self back patting. And, guess what? Some places are just too hard to reach.

____________________

PS: There may be a few readers who believe that the above piece puts Hinduism on a pedestal. That is not my intention. Contrary to what some might think, I do not believe any one culture “owns” yoga, nor do I believe the practice and tradition should remain static (as if that were even possible). Just as I find aspects of other cultures infinitely inspiring, I also find traditional European culture to be teeming with magic and mysticism, and believe American English to be a potent otherworldly tongue. Please know that the above is not a romanticizing of Hindu culture, but rather a checking of my own. Peace out.

71 comments

  1. fred

    No chanting. No granola. No Sanskrit. Brilliant !! So tired of the pseudo Hindu ripoff artists disguised as yoga teachers.

    • amphibi1yogini

      Amen!

      In my personal practice, I leave the chanting and OM’s in, but that’s pretty much as far as it goes.

      • gross

        you are so cool and amazing. i should find out who you are and worship you.

        • amphibi1yogini

          Not a chance of that. My heirs will get my Movement with Breath Awareness practice (I did leave the word “yoga” in the subtitle, let THEM struggle with that … )

          So, hopefully, that won’t be for many years.

  2. I see parallels to ballet here. It’s kind of like learning, teaching, or self-teaching ballet without the French terminology and using no classical music and learning none of the classical fundamentals. And without the ritualizing hours of practice necessary.

    Ballet has never been and will continue never to be accessible to everyone; and, strictly speaking, not everyone can do ballet.

    Ballet pervades the culture, and even the counterculture (remember Occupy Wall Street?), and ballet instruction could be extremely commercial.

    But down here at the advanced beginner level, and at my age and walk of life … me foot-rubbing me = me being my own guru. And that is Kimberly Fowler’s tagline. “I’m not your Guru, You are”

    • voxygen

      remember the NYCity Ballet “Workout”? all the exercise without any of the dance.

      • amphibi1yogini

        Well, also without the elitism, and the years of study and the priming of juvenile toes; without the anorexia, pain, comparisons, recriminations … or the pathos that a young girl does not deserve to have …

        But, YES … no DANCE!

  3. Garuda

    If you are tired of the Sanskrit, don’t listen to it. If you don’t understand what the words mean, perhaps you should be paying more attention. Taking Yoga lessons is not adult daycare. The lessons include the language, if you are paying attention. But I guess if you are doing Yoga to touch your toes and make your ass look just so in that pair of jeans, why dont you just go to Pilates class and let those who want to practice, practice without having to listen to your ignorance and impatience?

  4. Garuda

    Chanting and Om-ing are tools to direct awareness inward, Period. They are not magical words with mystical properties that levitate anyone or anything. They are benign, but they certainly are a part of Yoga. Yoga without the Sanskrit is like pasta without sauce.

  5. Melney

    “Yoga without the Sanskrit is like pasta without sauce.” Oh please. Loony Tunes.

  6. I see no problem with people separating the physical postures from the religious practice which accompanies yoga. Yoga is SUPPOSED to be about the individual journey. To claim those who want to take that journey without religious or cultural indoctrination of ANY kind are somehow racist or xenophobic is ridiculous. There are simply people who do not aspire to uphold religion, ANY religion. I consider myself a spiritual agnostic yogi. I have no more desire to recite the Bible as I do any Hindu religious text. I simply do not wish to attend yoga classes where there is heavy religious influence of ANY kind. This decision has not been made lightly. I have practiced yoga since 1998. I spent a year training and preparing to become a yoga teacher. It was after I started to encounter the EXPECTATION of the embrace of and the deeper learning of it’s Hindu roots that I realized the yoga teaching profession was not for me. I do see a segment of the yoga population that benefits from ‘No Om’ yoga but I fear the alternative is Christian based which is of no interest to me either.

    • I can relate to this. I don’t really like magical thinking of any kind, and all religions are based on magical thinking. In addition most, if not all, religions seem to oppress people, and Hinduism is no exception. I recently read a translated and abridged version of the Ramayana. I was horrified when I read that Rama expelled Sita while she was pregnant because people were gossiping saying she must have had sex with Ravana when he abducted her. Forget that she did not, what about even if she did, it would have been rape.

      There are certainly smarter and more informed people on this blog than I, but I thought yoga came about in order to get away from the trappings of religions. So, bringing organized religion into yoga is a bit odd. However, I don’t think Babs is arguing that we should bring religion into yoga, rather we should not ignore its culture roots. This may mean recognizing its connection to eastern religions, but it does not necessitate statues to Hindu gods, or pujas or other necessarily religious acts. Besides, 90% of the time I feel like when the later is done in the west, it is done more to consume and to identify as a holier-than-thou yogi.

      On to xenophobia: if foreign words scare someone, chances are they are a xenophobe. If you intentionally avoid using these words around them, you are catering to their fears. This may be the optimal response in some circumstances, but is it the best way to present something that is deeply rooted in another culture and language…probably not.

      I also have to say that yoga is an individual journey, however, it is not individualized. There is a difference between going it alone, and tailoring it to your whims.

  7. In my own teaching, I use both sanskrit and english as a means to expand both inner and outer awareness (got a problem with learning a new language?). I also lead Om as a means of inner connection and connection to the community that is practicing together. The inner vibration is subtle and the sound we make together can rock the world. Yes, students come for their individual practices but come on folks, we are a part of something so much bigger! The cover of that books disgusts. Even her facial expression seems to say fuck you, yoga tradition.

    • Best thing that happened to my practice script, was showing it to someone else. “It’s in a foreign language”, or
      “You’ve taken up another religion!” they said.

      I said, “Be lucky this is not a script for an Ashtanga class … then, it would be 25 pages long.” But then I changed my ways.

      Though nobody is there to see it, I use Sanskrit names for every pose, mudra, and bandha. I also translate every Sanskrit word I ever use, into detailed English. I have it all written down as a system . I love the vibrations of the Sanskrit language, and I realize that my legacy will NOT include .. ever .. charging people (or requesting donations … maybe by then rampant commercialized yoga would be moribund) for a class whoever sees my material would teach .. I’m putting that in my will … no use of this script without “bilingualism”, as it were.

      Her expression says, merely, “I am not your guru” … not “A friend to all …” (yes, this dig is implied here)

    • .b

      Agreed. When I teach, I teach from my own personal practice and to me, yoga is about vibration and expansion. i find no better way to experience this than through the mix of breath, posture and, yes, language. The words we use are potent and it is thrilling to me to think about how this plays out when we expose ourselves to languages with which we are unfamiliar. I remember when I first started teaching, I was too embarrassed to om and a student asked me if I could start leading it. Now, I feel like I would do my students a disservice if I ignored the om. My chanting is in honor of yoga’s lineage, as well as my own growth;it is also a chance to give everyone voice. That being said, I ask students to chant along with a full heart, or not chant along with a full heart.

      Also: “The cover of that books disgusts. Even her facial expression seems to say fuck you, yoga tradition.” Couldn’t agree more.

  8. Chai Fan

    What bothers me is the harshness of the title. “No Om Zone” really seems to put down the spiritual roots of yoga, not just leave it out. Like a no smoking zone, we put that in language when something is bad for you. As opposed to “om-free yoga” or something (which doesn’t sound much better to me). If you don’t want it in a yoga class you take that is one thing. I may not agree with that, but I understand some people have a comfort issue (at first). But the title “no om zone” suggests it is some kind of disease. AND is also just more marketing/way to sell a DVD. As opposed to teaching a conservative 85 year old yoga for the first time, and wanting to not overwhelm them.

    • Colleen

      Yah that title really struck me. Yesterday I commented on the tara stiles hometown tour article that people don’t have to buy into the history of yoga, but they need to respect it. And the cover of that DVD doesn’t respect it, including the “no granola” line – what does that even mean? I never eat granola less than 2 hours before my practice 🙂

      • amphibi1yogini

        By “granola”, I’m sure she means those skinny, outdoorsy California blonde chicks with the tie dye and beads; and the attitude … always talking about hemp and being green … I’m sure she was NOT referring to food

        • Colleen

          Heh yes I knew that – I was hoping the emoticon would have accurately conveyed my sarcasm. Good to know for next time!

  9. Gus

    Y’all know that yoga is older than Hinduism right????

    • I AM THAT

      YES YES YES everyone please READ THIS COMMENT ^^^^^^

    • That’s a interesting assertion. The first occurrence of the word “yoga” in recorded history is in the Katha Upanisad (around 3 century BCE), where is it revealed to the boy by Yama, as a means leave beyond joy and sorrow and overcome death itself. Then it is mentioned in the Svetasvatara Upanisad as prodecure involving upright posture (no not the postures you do in your class) and breath control resulting in a controlled mind. Much later it is mentioned in Matri Upanisad as a six fold methodology of breath control, sense withdrawal, meditation, concentration, philosophy and absorption. Then later than that it is mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita and so on.

      The terms “Hindu” and “Hinduism” are very recent in origin (a few hundred years old), true. The system of religious faith followed in ancient India, which is based on the Vedic culture, and which includes the classical system of Yoga, is termed “Sanatana Dharma” The main point of contention is whether Hinduism is the same as Sanatana Dharma or not. But most scholars, religious figures and Indologists would find your statement meaningless, and say “yes.” (Of course Chopra doesn’t count.) Yoga is mentioned inside of cosmology and pantheon of Gods that we would all pretty immediately recognize as “Hindu.” It is not mentioned outside of that until Buddhism.

      But I will ask, what is your argument/evidence? What dates do you give for the start of Yoga and the start of what you consider Hinduism proper? How you do know that any practices pre-dating the Upanisads were regarded and called “yoga” by their respective practitioners?

      • Gus

        “To learn about the historical evolution of Yoga is more than an academic exercise; it actually furthers our self-understanding and hence our efforts to swim free of the boundaries of the ego-personality.” – Georg Feuerstein

        We all know that the history of yoga is elaborate and complex especially when we consider that much of what was passed down was only verbal and not written. I guess I am referring to what is generally considered Proto-Yoga or Pre-Vedic Yoga. Historians don’t have much to go on about this time period, but many scholars consider the seals found in the Indus River-Sarasvati Civilization to be an important part of the history of Yoga. My information derives mainly from the recently deceased yoga scholar, Georg Feuerstein. His immense book, ‘The Yoga Tradition’ details the rich and complicated origins of Yoga. Feuerstein begins the introduction of his book by saying, “The desire to transcend the human condition, to go beyond our ordinary consciousness and personality, is a deeply rooted impulse that is as old as self-aware humanity.” This is important. Yoga didn’t suddenly show up. It became more defined and organized, but Yoga came about because it is part of the human condition, the human pursuit. The reason I wanted to point out that yoga is Pre-Hindu is for us to remember that before dominance, dogma, and doctrine there were humans, with their minds, breath, and bodies, and they were “practicing” something, and that something resembled Yoga. I don’t believe my statement is meaningless. Understanding history and it’s nuances should be a constant pursuit, if we stop, we are in danger of oversimplifying it….and then you end up with books like, ‘The No Om Zone’.

  10. This whole thing feels somewhat synthetic.

    Look, I can’t speak for other persons of Indian descent, I can only speak for myself. Yes, I agree with Babs 150% that this is not about putting Indian culture on a pedestal, that European-based cultures also have just as much magic to offer.
    However, let’s also not kid ourselves here. Eurocentric cultures also have a long, violent and shadowy history of pilfering and taking things from the darker continents and peoples and claiming it for their own, getting all the credit for it and denigrating the original culture from whilst it came. It’s continuing even now, but it’s just getting much more sophisticated in it’s execution. And that hurts. Kimberley Fowler for all intents and purposes could have also titled her book “Yoga for West Village Thin, Blonde Chicks in Ugg Boots named Kelly or Heather who eat Magnolia cupcakes” Call you see why THAT title would be offensive to some? Likewise, Fowler’s title is equally offensive to others.
    Cultural appropriation hurts when you are on the other side of the equation. I’m not talking about proselytizing people to make them as you are. It hurts because it’s a complete broadsided brush-off of who you are, and that includes your genetic make-up (i.e color of your skin), your food, your history etc.

    I’m going to include a long comment that was left at the end of my EJ article, because I think the writer Lakshmi Nair really explains on an emotional level, what this feels like. I don’t agree with everything she wrote, but the gist of it is quite spot-on.

    “I struggle with the issues raised in this article a lot, as well as many of the issues raised by the commenters. I’m an Indian-American yoga teacher teaching in a city in which yoga is still predominantly “a white people thing.” This makes me uncomfortable because of my own personal issues. ….I have to admit that I don’t enjoy attending classes where I’m the only non-white person, and I really really struggle when I have to teach classes that have no people of color at all. I see so many comments by people who are offended by the idea that yogis should even acknowledge skin color at all. But I’ll admit that I do. I do because during my formative years, my skin color never went unnoticed and I often felt excluded because of it. So when I find myself in that situation, it triggers a very deep sense of self-consciousness. Of course, I recognize that that is part of my spiritual work that I have to do. But I know many won’t even come through the door (like my sister, for example) because they can’t get through the discomfort of that situation. It’s harder for us because we are Indian and yoga is supposed to be part of our spiritual heritage. We should feel safest and most at home here. And yet, sometimes…I’m just going to admit it…it feels like it doesn’t belong to us anymore. I know people will say that yoga is universal. It belongs to no one. And of course that is true in a sense, but it is also the best part of our culture and heritage as Indians. If that’s taken away from us, we are only left with the crap (which all cultures have). I don’t know how to describe it, but I can only say that it is an incredibly awkward feeling to feel on the outside of something that you grew up with. That is why the cultural appropriation issue gets our chuddis all up in a bunch… If I saw some of that in the responses, I would feel that yoga is doing its job in the West. I believe that when the Indian teachers of the past came to the West en masse, they did so from a calling to spread the universal message of yoga because the West sorely needed it. All people can benefit from yoga, but maybe white people (and I’m sorry if that term offends) need it the most because (in general) they aren’t as grounded in spiritual tradition as most people of color (in general) are already….maybe.

    As a teacher, who grew up reciting Sanskrit prayers and can pronounce them properly, I still find myself feeling awkward chanting in a class because I feel like it’s ok for a non-Indian to chant these quaint, archaic nonsensical syllables, but if I do it, then I might be pushing Hinduism or something because I, just because of my appearance, give the words a culturally specific context, instead of the new-agey, feel-good and dare I say, “white-wash” that other teachers give them. I’ve raised this concern with my students. Most of them assure me that they want my “authenticity.” But I still struggle because the whole thing feels surreal sometimes…to go from being ostracized to being fetishized…none of it feels authentic.

    Cultural appropriation is real. It’s not fair to say that Indians wear t-shirts and jeans, so Westerners can wear saris and bindis. Like it or not, there is a real political dynamic behind both of those fashion phenomena which greatly favors one side over the other. If people could admit that, I would feel like yoga is truly opening people’s eyes. Unfortunately, I see that people use yoga’s essential teaching of oneness and unity to cast a lovey-dovey fog over real issues of oppression and inequality that exist and I don’t think that is at all the intention of yoga. I’ve had some really horrendous experiences with this in the yoga community. Gandhi saw oppression and named it and yet he still treated the oppressor as human and worthy of compassion and kindness. That was what made him a yogi. His eyes were open to the truth that all are equal and all are deserving of respect. Opening your eyes and acknowledging where yoga comes from and where it is going wrong will not mean you will be excluded from it. It will only make us all more connected in truth.

    Just wanted to add…I’m not saying Westerners can’t wear saris and bindis…It’s a beautiful dress and I know people genuinely enjoy wearing it. I”m just saying that it’s not the same as Indians wearing jeans and t-shirts. Indians wear jeans and t-shirts because globalization means that jeans and t-shirts signify assimilation into a globalized (read Westernized) culture. But why do westerners wear saris? To look exotic. There’s a big difference between trying to assimilate and trying to stand out as unique, right? I mean, why hasn’t any Hollywood starlet worn a burqa to the Oscars? Or a hanbok? Or a buckskin dress? Or any other kind of culturally specific ethnic wear? Why sari? Because other communities might make a hoo-ha over their cultures being appropriated. Because Indian things being stripped of their Indian-ness is so commonplace, no one blinks.”

  11. I bet the part where she disses all her prior teachers for wasting her time on all that
    OM business is mercifully short. Vande Gurunam must be for non athlete sissies.

  12. I am also 150% on board with this post.
    Thank you, also, EER for your informative comment above.
    I would like to seriously ask those of you who agree with slicing yoga’s contextual backbone out of the practice — either to make it more accessible or to feel comfortable practicing “IT”– these questions:
    Why call what you do YOGA?
    What language is the word YOGA?
    Where does YOGA come from?
    Who brought YOGA to the West?
    Can you define the word YOGA?
    If you can answer all these questions then can you still stand behind your decision to practice YOGA without acknowledging YOGA?
    If so, then why not just say:
    I like to stretch.
    I like to teach stretching and I like to talk about breathing while stretching.
    What does YOGA have to do with it?
    I would also love to ask Tara and Kimberly:
    Is it not condescending to assume that making yoga “accessible to everyone” means removing its cultural context?
    Shouldn’t we assume our “audience members” are all intelligent sentient beings with the potential for digesting complexity?

  13. Yes, and as for my opus, I don’t have to call what I do “yoga”. Not really. I am not marketing it in this lifetime. It is yoga with some pilates thrown in. I could be behind calling it “Movement with Breath Awareness”. But if, IF, IF I’m not ditching the Sanskrit … the waters get a little muddied …

    So the issue is definitely “Marketing” … as in Marketing 101, Rule 1: “Keep it high-concept ..”

    • amphibi1yogini

      And those acro yogis should call what they do “acrobatics” and not yoga
      And those aerial yogis should call what they do “aerial movement” and not yoga
      And those fishing yogis shouldn’t really be calling what they do yoga at all …

      Aping a purist is so much fun

  14. Pingback: Self Made Aspirations/Delusions | Serene Flavorful

  15. Excellent post. Agree completely.

  16. Yoga Whelp

    I was thinking we should just call it the “Bo-om Bo-om Zone.” That would probably cover half the psychic waterfront. Actually, I’m far more concerned about Kimberly’s grey/light green color combo? Talk about your Yoga Barf Zone.

  17. wondering

    like others mentioned here before, she appears to be a USER… using yoga to make a buck and working the shock value. stretching w/breathing awareness sounds lovely. why not market it as such?

  18. Yoga Whelp

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. It’s probably absurd to try to establish politically or theologically correct boundaries for any form of spiritual prostitution. Rinpoche said: “Spiritual materialism is Satanism.” Once you enter the commercial charnel house, you can try to create a hierarchy of acceptable demons, but I’m not sure they will behave? Some of the mellowest coolest people in yoga know virtually nothing about it – its history, its many intricacies, and they certainly don’t read the yoga blogs. Some of the very worst abusers – true power trippers and psychopaths – are the yoga spiritual “purists,” who can probably count the public hairs on Patanjali’s testicles.

  19. Ed Staskus

    It seems to that what the author of this book is proposing is simply the fast food of yoga, more or less like what the Olive Garden is to Italian fare at an Italian restaurant. I don’t see a problem with that. It may not be very nutritious, but at least it is cheap.
    .

  20. voxygen

    There is a similar “secularizing” trend in Buddhism these days and some thought provoking articles in the Fall issue of Tricycle. A quote from one:

    “We reassure ourselves that the changes we’ve made in Buddhism are all for the best — that Buddhism has always adapted itself to every culture it enters, and we can trust it to adapt wisely to the West. But this treats Buddhism as if it were a conscious agent — a wise amoebic force that knows how to adapt to its environment in order to survive. Actually, Buddhism isn’t an agent and it doesn’t adapt. It gets adapted — sometimes by people who know what they’re doing, sometimes by people who don’t. Just because a particular adaptation survives and prevails doesn’t mean that it’s genuine dharma. It may simply appeal to the desires and fears of its target audience… Is a designer dharma what we really want?… People sometimes argue that in our diverse, postmodern world we need a postmodern Buddhism in which no one’s interpretation can be criticized as wrong. But that’s trading the possibility of total freedom from suffering for something much less: the freedom from criticism…” -Thanissaro Bhikkhu

  21. matt

    If someone is so opposed to respecting yoga for what it is and where it came from then they should be honest and call what they’re doing just another form of exercise.

  22. gross

    this stuff just drives me insane. all of you who think yoga can be yoga minus anything but anatomy and exercise movements can SUCK IT HARD.

  23. gross

    go do yoga with mitt romney SUCKAS.

  24. amphibi1yogini

    This is an economic class issue, an accessibility issue, an age issue … NOT a red/blue political issue … PLEASE … and I think you meant Paul Ryan with his P90X yoga … we can’t all be left-leaning
    Ashtangis, now, can we?

  25. Yoga Whelp

    The idea that there is this pure, pristine, de-historicized Godhead of Hindu yoga is a myth.

    It’s a reverse form of commodity fetishism.

    In fact, the idea has already been superseded – and refuted – By Mark Singleton.

    What we call “yoga” is situated within a fascinating, historically evolving inter-cultural dynamic shaped by class, religious and ideological forces operating globally — and within India, even prior to the clash of colonialism and nationalism.

    I was hoping that we might avoid resurrecting – and promoting – the revanchist Vedantic fantasies of the Hindu-American Foundation.

    Apparently not!

  26. gross

    whatev. go be a smart-ass alone with no friends.

  27. gross

    so is “kirtan” just whatever words your wanna sing back and forth? this whole convo is BORING.

  28. longtimelurker@yahoo.ca

    Then there’s the opposite side of the cultural appropriation coin . . . In tonight’s class the teacher invited us to pantomime Hindu deities (i.e. “Kali” = squat and bring arms up and growl like lil’ grizzly bears; “Ganesh” = make an elephant’s trunk with our arms ; “Shiva” = stand on one leg and pretend to play the flute).

    I asked the teacher about where this deity imitation business came from (Answer = Laughing Lotus TT strikes again!) She asked if I was offended – probably b/c I’m brown? I’m not Hindu so I didn’t take it personally at all – it just felt kinda fucking goofy and it was something I’d never come across before in about 10 years of yoga practice from different traditions.

    She assured me it was meant in a “spirit of creative energy”, “no harm was meant” and we were meant to simply “embody” aspects of these deities (i.e. Kali= release energy, Ganesh= grounding, etc.) Got the sense she was telling me to lighten up, it’s all in good fun. No offense was meant.

    Yoga is good stuff, I feel fantastic after this teacher’s classes, and I appreciate that someone has opened a cozy and friendly studio in my small northern city (most leisure options seem limited to hunting and driving quads.) To be completely honest, I felt like a bit of an asshole bringing it up, but a conscientious teacher would rather have a considered question than “thanks for the lovely class” and wonder why that person never came back again. Right?

  29. The Buffy Project

    ::“the full spectrum of the yogic tradition as it has been taught to me”
    Taught by whom? How many years did you spend learning “the full spectrum of the yogic tradition” from Hindu priests by the side of the Ganges? Not a few weeks, not a 200 or 500 hour program. Years. You don’t need years? Thinking you have the right to decide what is and is not necessary and how long it should take is assumption of Western privilege,

    ::“…Tara and Kimberly are not “making yoga accessible to everyone.” They are certainly not making yoga accessible to me, as I don’t trust a teacher who’s explicit mission is to erase the cultural foundation of the physical-spiritual traditions I practice.”
    That’s cool. You’re not their market. You already have information, and if you want more you know where to find it. What they do and teach to other people has nothing to do with you and your practice. Sheesh! That argument doesn’t hold water when DOMA supporters make it and it doesn’t here, either. [i.e.: what I do in my marriage doesn’t have anything to do with what you do in yours…]

    “On the contrary, people who’s[sic] agenda is to universally de-culture the yogic tradition are promoting nothing less than an ideology based on xenophobia.”
    ::Western privilege. You assume you’ve the right to interpret their agenda for them. Where have they said their mission is “universal”? You assume you know the Real Underpinnings of their Agenda [capitalizations mine], How uncreative and mean. I can think of 3 alternatives without blinking my 3rd eye.

    “All y’all who verbally mix it up Sanskrenglishstyle are not who I am referring to.”
    ::Explicit example of Western white monolingual privilege. Who gave you the right to judge? But since you appointed yourself, “Sanskrenglishstyle” gets a pass? Do I need to explain why that is not ok? Remember that piece you wrote about Dana Flynn and the cartoon Ganesh on the wall, the photos by the holy sites? DUDE(TTE). No. Sanskrenglishtyle is not ok and you know that.

    “It has always been my understanding that yogic practice, and especially practices involving the “other limbs,” has always been taught as a way of confronting the learned limited tendencies of civilized society. As far as I know, yogic practices were taught to almost disregard any catering to the self.“
    ::”Your understanding” is the problem. You are not an authority. You are a Western trained practicitioner of Western-style yoga. You only have the right to speak about what you know about Western-style yoga. Not what you know about Patanjali’s Yoga, the Gita, and the pantheon. According yourself the right to teach that material under the auspices of bringing them closer to “real” yoga is tantamount to blackface.

    The sincerity behind such actions does not make the wound better, but worse. Why? Good intentions rarely make room for the possibility for true self-examination if it’s likely to be critical in the end. For reference: the Crusades, the massacres on Hispaniola. Western civilization has a long history of doing to others what they would supposedly like to have done to them. Except, they never seem to get around to asking first, and aren’t stopped if “No thank you” is the answer they get back.

    Finally:
    “Contrary to what some might think, I do not believe any one culture “owns” yoga, nor do I believe the practice and tradition should remain static (as if that were even possible).”
    ::There could be no finer example of cultural imperialism and Western privilege than this statement. The fact is that Sanskrit does belong to a specific culture. And, the spiritual-physical practices you follow (I’m making an assumption here, I know.) are derived from an even more specific culture/religion within that language group: Hinduism. Since you are not Hindu, and have not (again, making an assumption) trained to become the equivalent of a Hindu-priest-recognized yogi, who gave you the right to speak for it?

    If people cared as much for what they believe and feel is the meaning of yoga as they do for the trappings of what they call yoga, they’d quit interpreting Patanjali to each their students, use names their students understand and remember, and put out the incense (it’s bad for you anyway). That they don’t reveals that far from respecting the tradition, they’ve fetishized it. This is a complete romanticization of Hindu culture. If, as you say, you find traditional European culture to be “teeming with magic and mysticism” why do you feel the need to steal from another culture? Far from “checking [your] own” culture, I suggest checking yourself. We like to think we’re immune to racism, but we’re not. This entire thread has been rife with well-intentioned racism. The hard thing for Westerners to accept? Sometimes respect means backing the f^&% off and accepting the word, “No.”

    I don’t know whether Tara and her ilk are xenophobic or not. I’ve never spoken with them and I am over the name-calling games (including those in this article, thread, and response). I don’t know what their motives are and don’t care. What I see by their actions is that they are bringing the spirit of something I value highly to more people. I know the Sanskrit names. I’ve practiced yoga since I was 10 (go Indra Devi!) I’ve dabbled in Sanskrit, and in translating a few short, easy passages of Patanjali myself and for myself. I studied Hindu culture and Indian cultural history at university, and have attended a few Hindu ceremonies where I was one of only a few non-Hindus. But, I would never, ever presume to teach others the Hindu tradition behind yoga. Why? Because I am not, and never will be an authority unless that is conferred upon me by (basically) a Hindu priest/yogi after years and years of training.

    You want to call me xenophobic? Go for it. Better that than steal someone’s culture in the name of “respect”.

    Side Note: What anybody does in the privacy of their own home is their own business. It’s only when they teach it to others that it becomes ideologically questionable.

    • “::“…Tara and Kimberly are not “making yoga accessible to everyone.” They are certainly not making yoga accessible to me, as I don’t trust a teacher who’s explicit mission is to erase the cultural foundation of the physical-spiritual traditions I practice.”
      That’s cool. You’re not their market. You already have information, and if you want more you know where to find it. What they do and teach to other people has nothing to do with you and your practice. Sheesh! That argument doesn’t hold water when DOMA supporters make it and it doesn’t here, either. [i.e.: what I do in my marriage doesn’t have anything to do with what you do in yours…]”

      Further affiant sayeth naught …

      GREAT JOB!

      But I think you are accusing Babs of Orientalism.

      They don’t quite go that far, according to the definition:
      http://yogaisforlovers.wordpress.com/2007/02/08/yoga-and-orientalism/

      No this is not a sociological high priest academic guru giving the definition (to continue your trope), only the best definition I have seen …

      I just think they are a bunch of Ashtangis (and maybe one who practices Dharma Mittra Shiva-Vinyasa Yoga) who somehow got a little dogma mixed in with their practice …

      It is really a nice touch on Tara Stiles. I really had thought she had been in your pantheon of uncriticizables until previous post.

      • Colleen

        @amphibi1yogini This is the second comment of yours in which you feel the need to ding Ashtangis. I’m confused why you’re insulting a bunch of people who never did anything to you? I’ve been a long-time reader but only recent commenting and if I’m not welcome, I’ll have to bounce.

        • No, it’s not personal and not all Ashtangis. No, they never did anything to me whatsoever. In fact, I have benefited by knowing Ashtangis in my life. A practitioner of Ashtanga yoga had taught me yoga and probably one of the best Stott pilates classes I could ever hope to take, back in the days I took yoga at a gym.

          In addition, I am making an assumption that people who are active writing and commenting on this blog have pretty much figured out the one, true way to practice which comes forth in their posts and comments … I allege that they espouse a lot of ritual. I equate that ritual with not practicing on Moon Days, and making sure they get up at 4 am for Mysore class, somehow …

          In this workaday culture of New York City high rents and high prices, somehow Ashtanga practice comes across as a luxury I can’t afford. This is ignoring the fact that my body is always on the mend, and that I’m old … thus I am further out of the picture …

          • My experience with ashtangis tells me there’s very little luxury in waking up early to practice in a tiny one bedroom apartment, either. After a while, no explicit need to mysore it up. Find a practice that works, and do it wherever. No big deal really.

        • Colleen, don’t bounce because a commenter is weird about ashtangis! Ashtanga practitioners are very welcome here.

          You will meet many, and they also make comments.

    • Thanks for the comment, buffyproject. Unfortunately, you seem to undermine almost everything you say by misusing your key terms and arguments and by attempting to throw out every colonial studies term you can find. I mean, I can see that you’re trying to sort of “throw us back at us,” however, I feel as if you missed your target on this one. Let’s take a look:

      “::“the full spectrum of the yogic tradition as it has been taught to me”
      Taught by whom? How many years did you spend learning “the full spectrum of the yogic tradition” from Hindu priests by the side of the Ganges? Not a few weeks, not a 200 or 500 hour program. Years. You don’t need years? Thinking you have the right to decide what is and is not necessary and how long it should take is assumption of Western privilege”

      By saying “as it has been taught to me,” I am making a caveat that my information is limited in the same way that all information is limited or altered when passed down. I certainly do not have the “full spectrum” on anything, but rather a piece, in as much as I have been taught (and have gathered on my own). Drawing attention to my own subjectivity is not an act of “Western privilege” as you say.

      “::“…Tara and Kimberly are not “making yoga accessible to everyone.” They are certainly not making yoga accessible to me, as I don’t trust a teacher who’s explicit mission is to erase the cultural foundation of the physical-spiritual traditions I practice.”
      That’s cool. You’re not their market. You already have information, and if you want more you know where to find it. What they do and teach to other people has nothing to do with you and your practice. Sheesh! That argument doesn’t hold water when DOMA supporters make it and it doesn’t here, either. [i.e.: what I do in my marriage doesn’t have anything to do with what you do in yours…]”

      The argument actually completely holds water. T and K make explicit claims to having made yoga available to everyone. I am simply stating that this is not true, and that if this is the basis of their de-culturing yoga, they may be up Shit’s Creek.

      ““On the contrary, people who’s[sic] agenda is to universally de-culture the yogic tradition are promoting nothing less than an ideology based on xenophobia.”
      ::Western privilege. You assume you’ve the right to interpret their agenda for them. Where have they said their mission is “universal”? You assume you know the Real Underpinnings of their Agenda [capitalizations mine], How uncreative and mean. I can think of 3 alternatives without blinking my 3rd eye.”

      Again, your use of the term “Western privilege” is strange here. As a benefactor (so to speak) of “western privilege,” perhaps the only time it does not manifest fully is when I act within my own culturally privileged class to critique my fellow benefactors. Usually that’s seen as a good thing: starting at home. As for “interpreting their agenda.” Well, that’s pretty much all I really do have the right to do: interpret. I look at what’s presented an interpret how that might play out in the world. If I interpreted someone’s actions to be of benefit to the public, it’d be no different.

      ““All y’all who verbally mix it up Sanskrenglishstyle are not who I am referring to.”
      ::Explicit example of Western white monolingual privilege. Who gave you the right to judge? But since you appointed yourself, “Sanskrenglishstyle” gets a pass? Do I need to explain why that is not ok? Remember that piece you wrote about Dana Flynn and the cartoon Ganesh on the wall, the photos by the holy sites? DUDE(TTE). No. Sanskrenglishtyle is not ok and you know that.”

      I think it’s pretty clear that I am not making a general claim about what’s acceptable universally, but rather demarcating where the critique in this specific piece is directed. How that is an example of “Western white monolingual privilege” sort of confuses me. We could certainly look at “Sanskritenglish” critically in other scenarios, however, I thought it right to separate out what I believe to be the marketed concerted agendas by some to actively de-culture the yoga tradition.

      ““It has always been my understanding that yogic practice, and especially practices involving the “other limbs,” has always been taught as a way of confronting the learned limited tendencies of civilized society. As far as I know, yogic practices were taught to almost disregard any catering to the self.“
      ::”Your understanding” is the problem. You are not an authority. You are a Western trained practicitioner of Western-style yoga. You only have the right to speak about what you know about Western-style yoga. Not what you know about Patanjali’s Yoga, the Gita, and the pantheon. According yourself the right to teach that material under the auspices of bringing them closer to “real” yoga is tantamount to blackface.”

      Again, using phrases like “t has always been my understanding that…” and “As far as I know…” are intentional placed in order to leave room for debate. They are statements of transparency. They are essentially ways of saying, “This is my belief, and although it is a strong one, there is room for disagreement.” Equating that to “blackface,” leads me to believe you are, how shall we say…?

      Anyway, I could go on and on and on. However, that probably isn’t necessary based on your closing statement:

      “I don’t know what their motives are and don’t care. What I see by their actions is that they are bringing the spirit of something I value highly to more people.” [emphasis added]

      Yes. We are most definitely in disagreement.

  30. Greenpoint

    ultimately what Kimberly and Tara are offering is nothing, empty ideas/concepts, and what can make that so appealing to us is that it challenges nothing in terms of how we view ourselves/others/culture/country/world…

    so I can say I practice yoga but at the same time challenge nothing about how I view any material/spiritual ideas/concepts…no stress! no self-examination! And let’s face it, who wants to do that!

    they make people feel like they are working towards change/improvement/developement, when in reality its just a offering of a nice comfy pillow/blanket/bed…stay asleep, it’s ok!

  31. Omiya

    It is funny. As an Indian in Canada, practising yoga, I never thought much about cultural appropriation or cultural power imbalances as expressed in such appropriation or the whitewashing of yoga, but I certainly *felt* it. Being the only Indian in the class. Having a bouncy grinning white woman want to teach me about Ganesh-ji. Watching John Friend “teach” the predominantly white, adoring audience about Lakshmi and Sita. Feeling annoyed when white women show up to yoga class with mala beads all over their body and Om symbols. Malas are sacred and akin to a rosary in India, Indians do not wear them as jewellry. Chanting in yoga classes makes me itchy as, like it or not, these are religious chants, the Hinduism cannot be stripped out of them. I am not Hindu in practice but I am Hindu in my heritage and family.
    (Thank you, Earth Energy Reader, for your awesome comment and the comment you posted from Lakshmi Nair. A bit of a balm to the soul to read those words).
    How I feel, when I observe all these things, is VERY VERY ANNOYED. Then I wonder if I have justification for being annoyed and I try to be understanding. I am as Western as they come, having been born and raised on this continent. I sometimes wear mala beads on my wrist (but feel a bit guilty and shallow when I do). I chant the Ashtanga invocation when I practice, but I feel OK about it because it came from Pattabhi Jois and Krishnamacharya and before them. It relates exactly to the practice I am doing.
    When I taught yoga, I did not Om but I did Namaste. I would start slowly introducing the deeper aspects of the yoga tradition (not the Hindu tradition) in my teachings, mainly from those who came first in this modern yoga, Krishnamacharya, SKPJ and Iyengar.
    I think I am probably too understanding. Which is why I have exited the yoga world wholesale (no more studios) and have retreated to my home, the blogosphere, senior Ashtanga teachers and small Mysore studios.
    So no clear answer, except a big huge NO to whitewashing. And an even bigger NO to cultural appropriation. The pantomiming of Hindu deities in yoga poses by a white teacher (above) was probably the worst example of all. That is like the picture on this website sometime past of the yoga teachers standing with their feet on Ganesh statues in India.
    Be careful with those Hindu Gods. Even if they are not your gods, they deserve as much respect as JESUS and Buddha and all of the other Gods. Imagine the other side of the coin, Indians pantomiming Jesus in some fitness or yoga class and dressing up as Catholic priests to be “exotic”.
    Great discussion and excellent post, thanks Babarazzi.

    • Linda-Sama

      “Having a bouncy grinning white woman want to teach me about Ganesh-ji. Watching John Friend “teach” the predominantly white, adoring audience about Lakshmi and Sita. Feeling annoyed when white women show up to yoga class with mala beads all over their body and Om symbols……Chanting in yoga classes makes me itchy.”

      funny….makes me itchy, too. and I am neither Indian (at least in this lifetime) nor Hindu. go figure…..

  32. Long time reader, first time commentor.

    I’m not sure you/we can afford to be so puritanical about our practices and what sort of authenticity they have. They often don’t have the orthodoxy we think they do.

    _Most_ of the asanas that we do (certainly all of the standing poses) almost certainly originated in the 1920-30s and have their roots more in Western (“Harmonial”) gymnastics than “classic” Hatha yoga. These poses never existed when Sanskrit was spoken commonly, rather were labeled as such in a time when Sanskrit existed solely as a form of communication by the upper classes of society (like our Greek or Latin). Educated, high-ranking men and religious scholars spoke and wrote Sanskrit, not the unwashed scary yogis on the street doing the real Hatha yoga stuff.

    Is Kimberly Fowler an opportunist trying to milk yoga for all its worth? Yes. Is she pandering to mainline Protestants who love how yoga makes them feel, but way find it “sacrilegious?” Yes. (And another discussion would be the difference between finding something sacrilegious and being xenophobic…) Is her book straight up wack? I’m almost certainly sure it is! But Postural Yoga least represents Yoga as it as been know historically than any other form. Its a huge modern experiment. If she was trying to teach Pranayama or Raja Yoga divorced from the squiggles, that would be offensive and probably xenophobic. But taking the chanting and Sanskrit away from such a thoroughly modern and cross-cultural enterprise… I am not so sure. But I am not familiar with her and her schtick. Is she trying to be non-dogmatic or is she actually hostile to Vedic culture? I mean, Vinyasa Yoga is good exercise and why do we feel threatened by those who just want it to be just that? Unless there is more…

    Also, I would say that a lot of teachers would be far better of dropping their ill-informed, New Agey version of Hinduism/Vedanta although and leaving out the OMs and chanting and such until they approached something of some sort of orthodoxy.

    What we talk about when we talk about our Yoga practice is mainly, outwardly, asana. Probably, for most, mainly PJ/Iyenger/Krishnaymacharya based. The asana portion of our practice isn’t old, is just as Western as Eastern in its forms, and has little to do with Sanskrit in any substantive way (Dekasana?). Your point about xenophobia in the America yoga world is well taken, as it is pervasive, but using not chanting Sanskrit or OMing during poses is not the best argument for it. Your argument may actually help prop up a mythology that what we do is somehow ancient and pure. That sort of revisionism about Postural Yoga can be xenophobic too, if we aren’t careful; we have to remember what the _real_ practices and beliefs of Yoga were during Patanjali’s day, what they were Svātmārāma’s day, and realize that ours are not those but a highly syncretistic form, and above all blend of both Eastern and Western ideas of physical culture and modern spirituality divorced from traditional religious beliefs.

  33. Pingback: de-culturing Yoga: Or, “You say asana, I say assana” « linda's yoga journey

  34. I AM THAT

    “Our natural desire for ultimate meaning, happiness, enlightenment, liberation, an salvation has become the most exploited commodity of the twentieth century, creating what one contemporary theologian termed a disastrous “seduction of the spirit.” This seduction is, indeed, the most tragic kind of exploitation. And the unfortunate consequence of this exploitation is a kind of deadening cynicism that discourages our search for self-fulfillment and a means to attain it. 
    …The word yoga may conjure up an image of some skinny fakir contorted like a human pretzel, or perhaps a room full of corpulent matrons in black leotards struggling to stand on their heads in hope of improving their health, losig weight, or increasing their sexual powers. This is not what we mean by yoga. Here we are referring to an ancient philosophy and meditational system that has been practiced by millions throughout the ages. What has, in modern times, even reduced to a commercially exploited technique of bodily agility and pseudomeditation was once a comprehensive and easily applied form of self-realization.”
    1979, The publishers from the Bhaktivedanta book trust

  35. “corpulent matrons in black leotards struggling to stand on their heads”

    Give up the struggle. Dance with Life. Susan Jeffers 1993

    I certainly will not be heading back to a commercial yoga class. I believe I’ve downloaded the last ever of my downloads from the online (paid) yoga sites (sorry, my yoga)

    Despite the fact that I’ve probably meditated for more hours over more years than many yoga people have, I did not need yoga to get there.

    Something called INTEGRITY … too ill-represented in the commercialized yoga world …

    Though, over at my blogsite I have blogged admiringly about Kimberly Fowler. Exact words:

    “I may be my own guru, but I don’t expect any followers.

    And now for the famous quote from yoga teacher Kimberly Fowler,

    “I’m not your guru … you are!”

    And, I know Ms. Fowler is also known for her spinning classes. I did not take spinning at a Town Sports International gym from a yoga teacher who also wanted me in her spinning class. Spinning does not appeal to me. But somehow, I think a yoga teacher who groks spinning is also on my wavelength – probably – just like spin teachers – they have an vast imagination, a taste for consistency (even if it bores them!), and an idea that all of their yoga students need encouragement … from the casual trend-follower to the spiritual seeker ..”

    In a fit of pique I may have sent links to this blog post to my former yoga teacher …

    He is no longer actually teaching yoga to students …

    I do think people know if they want “yoga” with all the trappings, or real yoga .. I do think a real yoga teacher does not charge highway prices a working class person can’t afford, as well …

    INTEGRITY is not accompanied by having an axe to grind …

  36. Pingback: The Rainbow Tribe « The Shift Has Hit The Fan

  37. Pingback: Cultural Appropriation and Yoga – A List of Resources | moonlitmoth

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