6 Ways to Teach Yoga With Less Cultural Appropriation

On our path to healing, we can seek to practice without as much appropriation. Here’s how.

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I see you. You’ve experienced deep personal, emotional, physical, and even spiritual benefits from your yoga practice. It’s a profound gift for your life and you want to share it with others. You want to explore more deeply. Perhaps even visit the source of these wisdom teachings.

I get it. After all, the yoga you’ve experienced up until now has brought you so much good. So how can any of this be causing harm, you wonder?

Self-reflection is critical for us as yogis. Part of our practice is to be willing to practice svadhyaya, or self-study.

As we explore deeper, sometimes complexities are unearthed in our path of practice. The topic of cultural appropriation is one such complexity. As practitioners, we can pause and reflect, and instead of turning away, we can lean in. Inquiring is a great beginning.

See also What’s the Difference Between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Appreciation?

We need to be brave enough to do our yoga and see satya in this context—the truth of our power and position—and then apply the very first of the yamas, ahimsa, or non-harming, to our role in how the context of yoga is taught and portrayed. This will help us reduce the harm. For example, if we mostly see a certain type of person practicing yoga at our studio, we can go out of our way to frequent studios or events put on by folks who are different from that norm. We can attend classes taught by South Asian teachers and invite them in as experts to uplift vital voices who are often left out. On our path to healing, we can seek to practice without as much appropriation. Here’s how:

1. First, pause

Come to yoga with humility and openness, and a willingness to consider whether your actions may be causing harm. If you are taking parts of yoga (say, the chakra system) without incorporating the full range of its practice and knowledge, you may be doing more harm than good.

2. Ask questions

This doesn’t mean cornering any South Asian person and asking them about yoga. Instead, intentionally platform South Asian yoga teachers or seek out groups committed to social justice, such as Showing Up for Racial Justice (showingupforracialjustice.org), and ask questions of them.

See also What It’s Like Being an Indian-American Yoga Teacher

3. Go beyond the physical

Make sure you are practicing and sharing yoga beyond just asana. Include as many of the limbs as possible. For example, according to my main teacher, in Bihar, India, the practice of yoga is to bring one’s mind, body, and spirit into unity. He encourages the study of sacred texts and japa practice to harness the mind, asana practice to strengthen the body, and meditation practice to unify all three. Finally, he encourages an engagement with the world, where we bring mind, body, and spirit together into action to further the liberation of all.

4. Learn about the indigenous roots and wisdom of the practice

Read the sutras and cite sources of these wisdom teachings. Respectfully learn and practice using Sanskrit.

See also Sanskrit 101: 4 Reasons Why Studying This Ancient Language Is Worth Your Time

5. Be respectful of symbols and iconography

For many Indians, Ganesh does not belong on shoes. The Om symbol is a sacred sound, not a cute tattoo.

6. Be committed to your studentship

This path is unending. Embody reverence for and devotion to your yoga path. This ancient practice in its entirety has so much hope to offer us now and for the future. When we honor, rather than appropriate, and practice unity, we preserve the tradition. 

See also Why Yoga is More Than the Poses You Practice In Class

Susanna Barkataki
Christopher Dougherty

About our author

Susanna Barkataki is the founder of Ignite Yoga and Wellness Institute. She helps yoga teachers, studios, nonprofits, and businesses become leaders in equity, diversity, and yogic values so that they embody thriving yoga leadership with integrity and confidence. Learn more and get the Honor Yoga Manifesto at susannabarkataki.com.