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Losing the Meaning of Yoga - from East to West


I was fortunate enough to take an advanced training several weeks ago where the topic of cultural appropriation came up, specifically with regards to yoga. Let's start with an update from the Oxford English Dictionary from 2018 on the actual definition.

OED defines cultural appropriation as ‘the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the practices, customs, or aesthetics of one social or ethnic group by members of another (typically dominant) community or society.’

The important take away when defining this is a dominant group is taking cultural customs, etc. from a less dominant group and morphing them into their own.


I did some research on the topic recently. The leading force in the current movement is author and yoga teacher, Susanna Barkataki (who wrote an amazing book on the very topic of yoga’s integration into the West, and the glamorizing and sterilization of the practice taken from the East). If you aren’t a reader, at least check out her 60 Minute Podcast with Yoga Girl on Spotify where she explored the appropriateness of Namaste from multiple angles.


Susanna’s wisdom definitely got me thinking. Some of her concepts weren’t necessarily "ground breaking" for me personally, as I have been vocal of the disservice we (The West) have done to yoga, stripping it of everything that isn’t asana (the poses). This is coming from the guy who just taught a month long exploration on inversion practices (Handstands and other poses have their place, but they are not the end all be all of the practice – to be honest, the poses are about 12.5% if what yoga is (1 of the 8 key tenants).


Yoga is about more than the postures. When we focus solely on nailing handstand we lose personal and social liberation – which is what yoga is truly about. How many us in yoga teacher trainings learned about the colonization of India from British rule and the impact that had on the translation to the US? The answer is usually the minority. Without considering this essential transition in the history of India, we are essentially leaving behind very important indigenous wisdom.


Yoga is not necessarily about politics, but it is about creating personal and social uplift, and preserving the meaning of yoga – if asana is 12.5% of what yoga is about, aren’t you curious what the other “stuff” is? – social ethics, personal ethics, meditation, surrender, energy, mudras, mantra, to name a few.


The word privilege almost sends chills down one’s spines nowadays – it can be such a divisive word now. I can recall being in my graduate program in 2008, where we were required to take a Diversity class and were assigned the book "White Privilege." It was such a divisive topic even back then - to a group of therapists studying to help ALL types of people. Susanna does an excellent way of informing what to do if you have privilege (she points out, it's isn't a bad thing, or necessarily your fault, but asks if you could use it to uplift others and question what you can do to be more inclusive in the offerings you have as teachers or as a community. Also, use sanskrit! Why? Because it is an opportunity to hold the integrity of the language of the people who created the practice – preserving culture.


Susanna served up an interesting take on "Namaste," the salutation used at the end of the practice. In more or less words, she points out how this greeting of hello, not good bye, has no use of the word I in the transition.

I myself have ended classes with the saying, “The light in my heart honors and loves the light in your heart. Namaste.”

She further asks why we are saying hello at the end of the practice, but is then os challenged by peoples in Nepal who clarify for her that Namaste can be said as a gesture of good bye because it is essentially saying: “I bow to you.”

The literal transition is: "I bow to you."

So, should you say Namaste at the end of class? First off, that is a personal choice. For me, the answer is yes. Because it is about intention. For me personally, the intention is not coming from a place of ME, it is coming from a place of US/OUR. When I say this at the end of an asana practice I am saying Namaste because I truly bow to the students I hold space for, and as Susanna's mentions, the ending of class can signify a new moment, a potential new you.


So, either stick with Namaste, or substitute it from some other word, phrase or poem, but be intentional with your words, and try to do you part to hold the integrity of the practice.

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