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Tackling the topic of spirituality is bound to open a can of worms since it is such a personal, inner experience. To start, what IS spirituality? Originally the word “spirituality” emerged from ancient Christianity to refer to a life in alignment with the Holy Spirit. Over time, its meaning has broadened and expanded to include a life oriented to the Greater Power of your understanding, personal growth/the inner path, a connection to your own soul, and the quest for meaning in life. Though it is not a subject that can be easily simplified, perhaps a broad definition is that spirituality refers to our relationship with that which is greater than us as individuals. And as yoga teachers, therein lies the challenge: How can you support the opportunity for rich spiritual exploration without imposing your own beliefs and the nature of spirituality on your students?
Let’s Talk Spiritual Appropriation…
If defining spirituality was a can of worms, then delving into spiritual appropriation within modern yoga is a bucket of eels. Yoga has been influenced over centuries by many religions and spiritual traditions, including Hinduism, Tantra, Jainism, Buddhism, Theosophism, and New Ageism as well as British colonialism and exercise systems from Denmark, Sweden, and England. (Read more in The Ancient & Modern Roots of Yoga.) And it continues to evolve and change. But in spite of yoga’s evolution, diverse influences, and slightly murky origins, cultural and spiritual appropriation are always something to be vigilant of in your teaching. Appropriation involves power—the power to choose what we take from a culture or tradition and discard or ignore the rest simply because it suits our needs and supports our beliefs.
A classic sign of spiritual appropriation is not knowing or recognizing the origins or broader context of the spiritual objects, statues, chants, language, or scriptures referenced or focused on in a yoga class. Sometimes teachers feel the inclusion of these things gives their offerings or themes more “yogic power” and authenticity. But without a personal relationship and a deep understanding of their significance and context, we may, at best, simply be exoticizing and, at worst, disrespecting or belittling another culture’s sacred objects and practices.
3 Ways to Teach Spirituality in Yoga with Authenticity & Sensitivity to Cultural Appropriation
1. Develop a deep respect and understanding of any given theme’s cultural contexts.
No matter which spiritual tradition your theme comes from, you should personally engage with it, as deeply as possible, before offering it to others as a teacher. Study and honor the cultural context(s) it emerged in and understand its meanings and protocols, which may be varied. It is respectful not only to offer the teaching with personal knowledge and experience but also with sensitivity to whom you are offering it. In other words, as a teacher you are offering an invitation and providing an opportunity to learn something, not imposing a spiritual practice or belief system on your students.
2. Determine whether you need to teach spirituality at all.
First and foremost, you’ve got to take inner stock and note if it feels authentic to you as a yoga teacher to share spiritual teachings. While there is plenty of debate out there around whether modern yoga is an embodied spiritual practice or an Eastern calisthenics practice, it is essential to look inward and assess what feels real and important to you. Offering spiritual teachings from a place of actual or perceived peer pressure usually comes off as disingenuous and contrived. If the inspiration is truly there, start by identifying what you resonate with spiritually and dive deep into that before you make offerings from that well as a teacher. Then, teach as a student of the spiritual path that guides you with reverence and humility. We can never expect to teach spirituality without first fully developing it in ourselves. And if that call is not within you, honor that too.
See also Is Yoga a Religion?
3. Own your positionality and support your students’ individual journeys.
Unless your yoga class is clearly described as one that embraces a particular religious or spiritual practice, you can’t assume everyone in class will be interested or share similar beliefs to yours. So it’s also important to respect the diversity of beliefs and practices of your students when imparting spiritual teachings.
Positionality is a concept that involves recognizing that our perspectives of reality, spirituality, and what is true are dependent on our lives, experiences, and positions in society and they are not all the same. As such, our intention should always be to make offerings that empower our students to find their own way. One practical way to present spirituality sensitively is to use language that emphasizes choice and your desire to offer something for consideration, not impose a belief or practice. Another way to be respectful is to be clear about the roots and origins of the spiritual practice you’re teaching and remind students of their option to embrace and participate with it or not, without concern for judgment from you. And lastly, it is essential that you have no attachment to whether or not your spiritual teaching lands well or resonates with your students. The relationship you have with something greater than your individual self is deeply personal. While you may feel great impetus to share your spiritual practice with others and for those teachings to be as empowering to them as they have been to you, depth and meaning can really only come from your students’ own paths, positions, and perspectives. You are just in the incredibly fortunate position of teacher. That gives you the opportunity to shine a light on the different practices, rituals, and subtleties that engage you so your students feel more informed, educated, and resourced for their own journey.
The noble challenge teachers must rise to is to teach spirituality in authentic, heart-felt ways that invite inquiry, exploration, and heightened awareness to experience the intangible aspects of life.
About Our Expert
Gina Caputo is the Founder and Director of the Colorado School of Yoga. Learn more about her and where you can practice with her at ginacaputo.com.