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Because I’m an Indian yoga teacher in America, I am often asked about my views on cultural appropriation. For the last several years, I’ve watched the dialogue around this topic become increasingly hostile and divisive. I find that, like so many other issues these days, the conversation lacks nuance.
As an Indian-American, I’ve grown up dancing between cultures in a way that’s familiar to most first- and second-generation immigrants. We often feel like outsiders when we immerse ourselves in our home culture and like foreigners when we live in western society. This experience, though, gives us the opportunity to find an inner authenticity that grounds us in each environment and allows us to see the virtues and flaws of each.
The role of yoga in Indian culture
To begin, I think it’s important for us to look at all the elements that create a culture. Yes, there’s a shared history involved. Culture also encompasses language, clothing, culinary traditions, forms of movement, societal norms, rituals, celebrations, art, and family structures. Indian culture is, indeed, rich in all these ways and more.
The practice of yoga is just one thread in this tapestry. Yoga practice could mean pranayama and a few stretches in the morning, half an hour of prayer and chanting in the puja room, or reading the Bhagavad Gita before bed. It is incorporated into one’s day as simultaneously essential and not the most important thing.
This context is what I feel is often missing in the cultural appropriation conversation. Those of us in the west for whom yoga has become a profession or lifestyle tend to obsess about it in a way that I rarely witness in India. In our quest to practice or teach yoga “the right way,” many of us turn the yogic arts into a commodity that must be consumed and perfected through books, training, retreats, and endless online discussion.
As an alternative, I wonder if it would be more beneficial for those of us who are leaders in the yoga space to encourage practitioners to simply practice the way Indians do—as a lighthearted part of everyday life.
Redefining cultural “appropriation”
I recently read a post from someone who was angry about how the west has adopted haldi doodh, a turmeric milk drink common in India, and stripped it of its Indian name, instead referring to it as “golden milk.”
I can understand the problematic nature of removing something from its cultural context. Indeed, this is how asana practice can turn into a circus show.
But I don’t think that the answer to appropriation lies solely in calling something by its proper name or consuming it from the right proprietor, whether that be a yoga teacher, an ayurvedic practitioner, or another expert. The deeper wisdom lies in integration.
In Indian culture, we don’t need a special mix to make haldi doodh. We simply boil milk on the stove and add turmeric, ginger, black pepper, and other spices to taste. If we teach people how to do this, we give them the gift of ritual and we free them, in one small way, to move from consumerism to culture.
I can see why Indian culture is seductive to westerners. In the west, we value freedom, independence, and progress. In India, we value familial bonds, interdependence, and tradition. I imagine it feels welcoming and exciting for someone who grew up in the individualistic culture of the west to experience the rich sights, sounds, smells, and tactile sensations of India.
I think we owe gratitude to the westerners who have fallen in love with our country and shared its practices with the world. We do not own these practices because they came from our people. And we can acknowledge this universality without condoning the exoticization and profiteering of indigenous wisdom, or excusing the harm that can come from taking something that’s been rooted in a culture throughout generations and ridiculing it or seizing it for personal gain.
Nothing is perfect
I also think we need to be clear that Indian culture is like any other in that it is complex and imperfect. I had the experience of finding myself weighed down by the expectations of my home culture and drawn to chart my own course in America. The freedom I feel here is a gift, and I’m grateful for the grounding I get from my Indian roots. There’s value in each way of living. There are also potential pitfalls.
Let’s take the example of a teaching lineage. In most forms of traditional yoga, the practice is passed down from a teacher to their students. Some of the students will eventually become teachers and continue to pass on these teachings, resulting in an unbroken thread. When manifested with pure and humble hearts, lineage is a beautiful way to surrender one’s ego. Each person in the lineage is a wave in the flow of wisdom, a part of something bigger while also living out their unique purpose.
In reality, however, it doesn’t always work that way. Indian culture’s emphasis on duty can lead to subservience and rigidity within a lineage, which leads to unhealthy power dynamics, which can lead to abuse of various kinds. In this way, hierarchies become authoritarian and harmful.
The west’s typical response to this is also problematic. Our tendency is to cast aside anything that requires us to quiet our individual sense of importance. We brand ancient practices as our own and inflate our egos in the process, losing the greater meaning behind what we teach.
A way forward with cultural appropriation and appreciation
So what’s the answer to these conversations about cultural appropriation? In this moment, when we are fighting all kinds of culture wars, often online, perhaps the most radical and effective path forward is to be engaged in the process of yoga in real life. To come to our practice in a way that honors its roots and allows us to evolve. To spend more time on the mat, on the cushion, and in connection with people than we do worrying about pronouncing things perfectly or shouting into the social media void. To cultivate a life that is full and to bring yoga into its appropriate place within that life.
In this way, the practice of yoga becomes not our primary focus but our support system. It becomes something that cannot be exploited for profit because it lives within each of us. Moving forward in this way, we might actually begin to trust in one another’s good intentions and build a continually evolving culture of authenticity, respect, humility, and love.
About our contributor
Pranidhi Varshney is the founder of Yoga Shala West, a community-supported Ashtanga Yoga studio in West Los Angeles. She is also mother to two children who she describes as “courageous and wise little beings.” The thread that runs through all her work is the desire to build community and live from the heart.