Reflective Essay by Abigail McDougall

On the contexts of cultural appropriation, the commodification of spirituality and White rootlessness and their influence on the marketing and practice of yoga.

In a society in which everyone’s selfhood is undermined by the rapidity of cultural, economic and technological change, by uncertainty over who controls what (accompanied by a sense that someone or something is in control of each of us), by fascination with fantasies centered on interchangeable images, and by a severing of roots and traditions in the context of an increasing sameness of culture…social uncertainty produces individual disease; personal emptiness leaves one open to the fragmenting and demeaning impact of collective regression

Frosh (1991) cited in Pacquing (2017) p.14
Written by Abigail McDougall, Graduate of Yogasara Teacher Training 2023

There are no limits to what neoliberal capitalism has fenced in and which problems it has attempted to solve and monetize. The ensuing massive breakdown of community has produced a culture of individuals entitled to pursue their own prerogatives and to sell any traditional custom or idea about spirituality they have found to be useful, without accountability to the often-marginalized cultures that these ideas and customs have been taken from. While cultural appropriation is essential to learn about in its contexts and spectrums, I will look at how, beyond commodification and the imperative to monetize our activities, the naïve taking of spiritual practices by White Westerners happens mostly out of a genuine sense of rootlessness, spiritual impoverishment and a craving for belonging, ritual, community and connection to the land that the current system and its elites have taken away. This must have been what I was referring to when at age 20 I gave my first rock band the cerebral name The Divinity Deficiency and, following on much later came into my attempts to find rootedness through yoga, meditation and Stone Age immersions. This essay will discuss the ways in which cultural appropriation within this structurally racist system is normalized in a myriad of unseen ways, leaving yoga and Western attempts to regain spirituality open to criticism.

As  documented by the likes of Guy Standing in “Plunder of the Commons (2019) and Charles Eisenstein in “The Ascent of Humanity” (2007), capitalism took root with the advent of agriculture and the hoarding of extra stock, leading to the restriction or elimination of nomadic lives and culminating in today’s neoliberalism, where nothing sacred remains uncommodified, including all aspects of culture, spirituality and, with the advent of social media and smartphones: thoughts, opinions and attention spans. This latest iteration of capitalism, beginning with big policy shifts by Thatcher and Regan with their project to eliminate “society”, has left populations with hardly any physical community spaces and atomized people into individuals who are responsible for their own physical and mental wellbeing, external circumstances notwithstanding. Land and indoor space are so expensive to buy or rent in our cities that it’s hard for attempts to reignite the spiritual and sacred not to end up seeming like an expensive racket devoid of true humanity. Traditional spiritual practices, such as yoga and “shamanism” (a controversial term to some Native Americans for its flattening of “primitively” perceived cultural practices as being all alike) have been commandeered and distorted through absorption into the market under the dominant, globalizing belief system of neoliberalism. (Hemenway and Gandhi, no date).

On the “Embodied Philosophy Wisdom School” online course entitled The Spectrum and Contexts of Cultural Appropriation, (CA module 1 part 1) Hemenway and Gandhi give an outline of how structural White supremacy operates within neoliberal societies via:

– Capitalism, involving enslavement and exploitation of labour and land

– Colonialism: extraction and genocide

– Orientalism: exoticizing and appropriating

– Villainization of othered populations (use of war, the military industrial complex)

– White evangelicalism: mythologies about White genteelness: bringers of the “civilized”, saviours of the “uncivilized”

– Education via curriculum control

Capitalist White supremacy not only exacerbates racism, but impacts all areas of life including gender discourse, sexuality, religion, environment, education, banking, city planning, laws, rights, animal cruelty, who gets to have a voice and a valid body (CA module 1 part 1).  Some highlighted characteristics of hegemonic dominant culture are perfectionism, deadlines and sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, worship of the written word (problematic historical access to this), only one right way, paternalism (helping people because They are poor souls and we know better), either/ or thinking, power and resource hoarding, entitlement (commanding/ deserving respect), fear of open conflict, individualism, progress meaning bigger and more, objectivity, having the right to experience comfort and safety, entitled to concern paid (eg. when someone goes missing), outrage (“how could this happen”), fragility, not being used to being told “no” by “others”.  Hemenway and Gandhi (no date).

In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate Morrison (quoted by Hemenway and Gandhi, no date, CA module 1 part 2)

The propagation of white neoliberal ideals happens in all arenas: in sports, education, workplaces, pop culture, music festivals, fashion, video games, media, cartoons, movies, TV, books, plays, consumer products and celebrations like Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas (Hemenway and Gandhi, no date). Alternatives to these are also fully colonized: new-age gurus and spiritualists, appropriated Eastern religious practices: yoga, Buddhism through Mindfulness, marketed to increase “mental capital” (Purser, 2019) and Indigenous rituals, (sweat lodges etc.).

Once you start to see all the ways in which White supremacy has impacted every single part of our lives, we get a better realization of what has been lost

Gandhi (no date) Questions and Answers video

Interaction between individuals becomes strained and shallow small talk, superficial comments about one’s identity, tied to the primary activity that “earns one’s living”, followed with identities of family ties, whether one happens to be a spouse, partner or parent, (one’s fertility gets brought up very quickly);  anything one might do that doesn’t make money is classed as a “hobby” and relegated to the bottom of the hierarchy. Religion is quaint and not really de rigueur for most “progressives” who might profess to be “spiritual but not religious”. The socio-economic landscape means that we have no time to invest for any “hobbies” to be classed as truly meaningful. The land wherein one’s ancestors thrived is often unknown, the place one lives now is interchangeable and becomes a flat topic under globalization. We claim we are atheists with no religious beliefs, yet beliefs are constantly marketed to us. Our wedding customs require that mines be constructed to extract diamonds at great cost to health and lives for precious talismans with mystical value (or is it just monetary?) offered up at our ceremonies. The increasingly precarious nature of working lives and absence of structures to challenge this means that if we are selling something we must remain apolitical, or, one could argue, conservative, since one must always promote the view that all is well “NO BAD VIBES” here, as the t-shirt slogan reads (Jain, 2020 p. 9)

Capitalism is dependent on enslavement through free labour and, later, on the exploitation of labour without a fair living wage. Innovation and creativity depend on land grabbing (for agriculture, mining, pipelines), the exploitation of animals, niche markets and the availability of everything. Any pushback today is from those under the most precarious conditions: indigenous communities and groups opposed to the patenting of seeds and chemical industrialization of farming, mostly in Asia, Africa and South America. Capitalism centres on the individual, destroys community and is falsely empowering (Hemenway and Gandhi, no date), the power gained only allows access to whatever you want at any time, funds permitting. The increasing stresses on lives under the system is why Mindfulness has been the perfect kind of spirituality to market to Westerners, putting a plaster on over-stressed lives and discouraging the questioning and confronting of the root causes of stress, as Purser argues in “McMindfulness” (2019).

So, what does spirituality look like in the context of capitalism? Unfortunately, the way it looks is often offensive for marginalized communities who have had their traditional customs stolen and misappropriated, while being stripped of their voices, demonized when they speak out and excluded from taking part. The marketing of yoga over the years, for example, the myriad of idealized or sexualized images of white, young, skinny, bendy female yogis, is exclusionary and the price of attending is often also exclusionary (Gilani, 2022) This is just one of the ways that capitalism is racist, whether consciously or not on the part of those selling yoga. Any cultural or spiritual offering within the system becomes exclusionary.

The breakdown of communities is justified, as people’s identities and cultures are consistently being appropriated and marketed in a bid for companies to espouse freedom and progress and to look like they are helping to solve problems. This strikes me personally when I see gay people being depicted in advertising for such things as insurance, McDonald’s and Cadbury’s Cream Eggs. The warm glow of feeling included quickly wears off and gives way to anger at this tokenism, that people’s sexualities are just a useful way of selling pointless goods and services, in absence of deeper remedies for the suffering that continues to be caused in the lack of education. If I offered this out loud, I would be accused by some of never being satisfied. I would be told to look at the TV, there are gays everywhere. It would take writing a whole book to explain why this doesn’t make up for our collective suffering, one they wouldn’t be interested in reading.

Capitalism encourages the commodification of spirituality, the appropriation of cultural practices, stereotyping and the appearance that dominant culture and, conversely, “othered” cultures, are homogenous (Jain, no date). It is instructive that both Native American populations and those colonized in the East, were deemed “Indians” by the colonizers. There have been many examples of White Westerners of European descent taking Native American or Eastern names, pretending to be “authentic” teachers, publishing books and taking over media. In dominant neoliberalism, traditional culture is exchanged for power and then other cultures are looked to to fill in that gap. But cultural appropriation is dependent on context and is on a spectrum. In the context of the formation of the US, the natives were treated as wild animals which you have to kill in order to bring in domesticated ones: the Black slaves. Although yoga cannot be taken out of the context of British colonialism in India and although there aren’t grounds for saying that there has ever been a fair exchange of culture, the extent of genocide by the British in India is not on a par with the elimination of Indigenous Americans and thus, the commandeering of cultural practice is usually not seen to be as harmful as it is to the First Nations who were murdered and continue to be, almost to extinction and who are still constantly under threat to this day (Hemenway and Gandhi, no date).

Today’s neoliberal ideology and avoidance of uncomfortable truths – like colonial history, not only harms the colonized and marginalized, it harms everyone. To paraphrase Pacquing in the article “Neoliberalism and our Precarious Culture” (2017), neoliberal power annihilates social spaces in favour of a saturation of images expressing capitalist ideology. Our social structures are not built on anything stable and we become full of contradictions, fluidities, frustrations and impulses. A neoliberal character or personality emerges and dissuades the context and space for interactions, traditions are thrown to the wind. A disassociation arises and an emotional withdrawal, which result in the alienation of the self, which in turn is transformed into a wish not to be oneself.

The growth of orientalism i.e. the bringing of Eastern philosophy and culture into Western learning, the fetishizing and commodification of the “exotic”, began with the likes of American “Transcendentalist” writer Henry David Thoreau, who was captivated by the Bhagavad Gita and started practicing yoga and meditation next to the Walden pond. He commented that he felt alienated from his own culture, was railing against it and concluded that the answers lay in Eastern culture (Thoreau, 1854). Here we have an early example of the rootlessness of whiteness under colonial capitalism and the “seeking” that ensues. Western colonialism has a proliferation of ideas that are still in circulation about how the East needs the West and vice versa, an argument which serves to whitewash and justify the history of British colonial rule. There’s this idea that the West is rich (materially and intellectually), but spiritually poor, whereas the East is poor, but spiritually rich. This dichotomy of opposites and win-win narrative, encourages the purchase of spirituality, without the burden or concern about colonialism or unfair exchange of resources and gives the impression that the West is somehow donating its material wealth back to India, which is not the case (Jain, no date). The only thing donated is that these notions might also serve oriental teachers who want to attract Western students and benefit from the orient having been lent a title of being “spiritually authoritative”. To me, this is reminiscent of the male gaze that flatters the feminine principal with mystical, unquantifiable qualities that he can never possibly gain himself, inviting her to capitalize on these qualities by coming into his ownership.

The other popularized dichotomy that Jain points to is that the occident is masculine and the orient is feminine. This goes some way to explaining why Western yoga participants and teachers are predominantly female. Yoga is seen as an appropriate way for women to practice bodily exercise. It is feminine because it is deemed “gentle” and comes from India, the effeminate corner of the world, according to the orientalist gaze. Yoga has been historically sold to women as a regime in which you are encouraged to find the right way for you, a philosophy that appeals to the feminine. When choosing an exercise regime, or spiritual practice, some like clear boundaries between right and wrong, a very disciplined approach (masculine rigour) and some are attracted to a more open, fluid style. Modern asana practice in India was constructed in conjunction with the development of biomechanics in medicine, for Indian men to help them to resist the colonial regime and thus weaved well into US counter-culturalism of the 60s (Jain, no date), when Eastern philosophy (and most culture) was dominated by male proponents. Interestingly, this hasn’t translated into many men doing asana practice today.

Since colonialism began, there have been romanticized images of exotic (colonized) places and imperial nostalgia continues. These images contribute to a view of yoga that is “all good”, “all beneficial”, “all powerful”, “all pleasurable” and utilitarian to our needs (fitness, mental clarity, stress reduction). Maintaining that wholesome image is what makes it marketable and profitable and contributes to the positioning of gurus, whether “authentically” Asian, or White, of being particularly attached to an “authentic lineage”. These dichotomies of real and fake yoga, ancient or commercial yoga infiltrate, as individual teachers vie for attention with declarations that they are delivering THE essentialized, authentic yoga. The trouble is: yoga has never been one linear thing and here enters problematic dogma and power dynamics. (Jain, no date). At the other extreme is a sense in modern yoga and marketing spirituality in general, that you can pick and choose different things, a bit of “shamanic” drumming, anything from here and there, to insert into your yoga retreat or wellness festival, without any prior discussion.

To conclude, I will consider ways in which the yoga we teach and practice could gain a sense of rootedness, without resorting to shallow tokenism, given the imposed limitations to achieving a sense of depth that dominant culture has built into its ideology, customs and societal formatting. Jain (no date) predicts that in the context of individualism, the construction of personalized lifestyles, variety of choice and dominance of the market, the term yoga will continue to be used in an increasing variety of ways, selling more and more solutions to a never-ending list of problems. But yoga has never been static, it changes depending on social contexts, it is always plural, there is no one set of practices or interpretation of texts. Just as our traditional celebrations have changed over time, with diaspora and capitalist ideology, how we deliver yoga can be intentionally changed. We can consider how to re-root our identities and customs, modify celebrations so that they are more considerate and attempt to rebuild community. 

Personally, yoga has helped me to feel more at home in my body, which has been an important journey, when I consider how most women and, increasingly, more and more people in general suffer with varying degrees of body dysmorphia, up to varying degrees of disordered eating. I see photos of myself as a teenager, attractive but downturned, with hunched shoulders, this was the age when, as Simone de Beauvoir documented in 1949 in The Second Sex that the female spirit and body is trampled down by society, but I felt this particularly strongly as I became conscious of being gay. The reclamation of the body is important and healing, but it is also complex. Rigid beauty norms abound in modern yoga, offering new ways of trying to control the body and mind.

Within the context of yoga, ongoing engagement with and reflection on history, power dynamics of gender, race and class, diversity and community eases the damage caused by cultural appropriation. It is important to reflect on power dynamics that might be at play, in wider society and in the studio and to be courageous to talk about them. It could be useful to learn about the history of the land that we inhabit and the ancient practices from our cultures that have been erased. We should be wary of spiritual practices that tell us that all our problems lie inside ourselves, which can be personally damaging and stop us looking at societal causes (Purser, 2019). Likewise, we should question practices that market themselves as improving “resilience”: what exactly are we aiming or being asked to become resilient to? One danger in making yoga and meditation secular is that, in becoming solely utilitarian, other deeper elements around the traditions are missed out: the integrity, sense of interconnectedness, the learning practices that the Yamas and Nyamas recommend, the connection to community and a questioning mind. This could lead to a deepening of neoliberal individualism and further losses to society. Wherever possible, it would be advantageous to advocate for system change.

An intersectional approach to leadership is important: to increase awareness of spectrums of identity. It is helpful to start by enquiring: how does my own identity impact the way I see and move in the world, to discover my positionality, my context. How many perspectives can I take? In what ways is my position not objective, because of my privilege? In order to inquire into positionality, the Engineer Inclusion website recommends taking time to analyze every aspect of one’s identity: ability, mental and physical health, gender identity, gender expression, appearance, political affiliation, language, occupation, religion, class, race, fertility, sexual orientation, personality, nationality, location, hobbies, education, marital status, ethnicity, culture, age, access to legal rights. It is suggested that one looks at some of the predominant identities and then consider: what are the life impacts of these positions in terms of values, attachment to certain identities, interpretation of events and interactions? What are one’s sensitivities? What are the emotions and feelings, the self/ other judgements that the various interpretations bring up? (Hemenway and Gandhi, no date)

Sacred texts, such as The Book of Revelation and, perhaps, The Bhagavad Gita in the passage where Arjuna asks to see Krishna in his full manifestation, ask us the question: how can we take in the full beauty and the full horror of this existence and then, knowing its full intensity, how can we find ways to cope with living in that intensity? What is the third thing, the creative aspect that integrates the two extremes? In my experience, yoga practices help us to see, to process grief, to commune, to ignite devotion when at a loss, to witness and to manage. We learn to appreciate the subtle flow of energy in the body and universe, the importance of self-initiated praise and gratitude, perhaps, we learn to live.

References

De Beauvoir, S. 1949, The Second Sex, Random House Audio 2019

Eisenstein, C. 2007, The Ascent of Humanity: Civilization and the human sense of self, Panenthea Productions, USA

Engineer Inclusion website: https://engineerinclusion.com/what-is-positionality/

Gandhi, S.N. and Hemenway, E. The Spectrum and Contexts of Cultural Appropriation (online course), Embodied Philosophy Wisdom School, www.embodiedphilosphy.com

Gilani, N. 2022, The Yoga Manifesto, Pan Macmillan, London

Hawley, J. 2012, The Bhagavad Gita, a walkthrough for Westerners, New World Library (Audiobook)

Jain, A. (no date), Buying and selling yoga, An extra video on the Embodied Philosophy Wisdom School’s course: The Spectrum and Contexts of Cultural Appropriation www.embodiedphilosphy.com

Jain, A. 2014, Selling Yoga, from counterculture to pop culture, Oxford University Press, USA

Jain, A. 2020, Peace Love Yoga, the politics of global spirituality, Oxford University Press, USA

Koester, C. 2013, The Apocalypse: Controversies and meaning in Western history, (audiobook), The Great Courses, USA

Pacquing, I.R.B. June 2017, (Article) Neoliberalism and our precarious culture, Kritike Volume Eleven Number One 129-148.

Purser, R. 2019, McMindfulness, how mindfulness became the new capitalist spirituality, Repeater, USA

Standing, G. 2019, Plunder of the Commons, Penguin Random House, UK

Thoreau, H.D. 1854, Walden, Penguin Random House, UK 2017