Yoga and Cultural Appropriation
““With an understanding of the philosophical roots of yoga from Patanjali and the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, reflect upon the cultural appropriation of modern yoga, based on your previous experience and your time observing or assisting in classes as part of this course. Discuss how you feel you can best represent the essence of yoga through your own teaching that feels congruent with your understanding so far.””
Written by Freya Nettelsmith, Graduate of Yogasara Advanced Teacher Training 2021/22
The term cultural appropriation was first listed in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2018 where it is defined 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’. It is particularly relevant to the practice and teaching of modern yoga, which, on the one hand, is rooted in ancient South Asia and on the other, has attained so comprehensive a global spread that it has been described as “transnational” (Singleton, 2010). The practices encountered in most modern yoga classes have been shaped, over time and distance, by so wide a range of social and cultural influences, as to be unrecognisable to early practitioners (Mallinson and Singleton, 2017).
For any modern yoga teacher, this presents a significant challenge: how can one share yoga in a way that honours its cultural and historical roots at the same time as offering a practice that is appropriate to the population it is intended to serve?
The story of yoga is unfathomably complex, and to a certain extent unknowable, its origins significantly pre-dating the earliest written texts. Since its early history, it has touched and been touched by any number of different traditions, both religious and atheistic (Wallace, 2019) creating, as described by Christopher Gladwell, ‘a seamless web of inter-relationships’ and their influences (Gladwell, 2012, p. 2). As a result, the notion of a well-defined tradition that has persisted ‘intact’ since ancient times is a fallacy. However, with the globalisation of yoga, beginning at least one and a half centuries ago and intensifying over recent decades (Mallinson and Singleton, 2017), the pace of change has accelerated. To further complicate the picture, it is now the case that western style yoga practices have been reappropriated by Indian schools of yoga (Singleton, 2010; Antony, 2018) and therefore even within its country of origin, yoga, as currently practised, may be far removed from its roots. As a result, to explore, with sincerity, the essence of yoga (yogasāra), it is necessary to refer to historical texts.
Although many texts of the tradition are only available in their original Sanskrit, the Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali and the Vijñāna-bhairava-tantra have been translated into many languages and have received modern commentary and interpretation. Whilst such texts cannot be viewed as a comprehensive historical record (Mallinson and Singleton, 2017)), the fact of their existence suggests that they contain philosophical and practical guidance that was important at the time of writing and likely, represents some of the most enduring teachings from earlier periods (e.g., Hartranft, 2003).
Patañjali’s Yoga-Sūtra, compiled some 2000 years ago is based on a dualistic philosophy, in which prakṛti (everything in creation, including consciousness and therefore every thought, emotion, sensation and memory), is distinct from puruṣa (pure awareness). Whilst the material world (prakṛti) is in a perpetual state of flux, the immaterial puruṣa, which is, in fact, our true essence, remains constant and incorruptible. Patañjali explains that confusion between the material and the immaterial, the impermanent and the permanent, is at the heart of all human suffering and the purpose of yoga is therefore to recognise their separateness through clear seeing, vidyā, (Hartranft, 2003). This entails a process of stilling the fluctuations of the mind (nirodha), in order that the mind may become so still it can reflect pure awareness back to itself. In this way, the distinction between prakṛti and puruṣa is fully realised.
The much later Vijñāna-bhairava-tantra (VBT), which, in written form, dates back to the seventh or eighth century (Wallis, 2013), is underpinned by a non-dual philosophy, in which the true nature of reality is divine oneness. Consequently, there is no material world to be transcended, only the perfect union of Bhairava and Bhairavī (Śiva and Śatki) in everything. This being the case, the aim of the practices revealed in the text, is to give the practitioner a direct experience of universal divinity, and in so doing achieve spiritual liberation (Newcomb, 2014; Roche, 2014).
Patañjali sets out a comprehensive eight-limbed pathway (aṣṭaṅga-yoga) towards clear seeing by which the importance of a disciplined inner life is made explicit. These eight facets of yoga practice include the yamas and niyamas (a set of ethical and moral guidelines by which to navigate both one’s outward actions and the cultivation of one’s inner life), āsana (physical postures), prānāyāma (finding mental stillness through sustained attention on the breath), pratyāhāra (sense withdrawal), dharana (one-pointed focussed attention), dhyāna (meditative absorption) and finally samādhi (bliss or enlightenment resulting from ultimate clarification) (Hartranft, 2003).
The guidance provided in the VBT is much less prescriptive. Affirming the view that the sacred permeates all that we are and all that we experience, the VBT celebrates the sensual and teaches that even everyday human experience can be a gateway to the divine (Roche, 2014). It describes a variety of techniques by which to recognise one’s own divinity as the union of Siva (unbounded spaciousness) and Satki (primordial cosmic energy). These include visualisations, breathwork, awareness of the subtle body and more surprising methods such as spinning around until you fall or meditating on the sensations before or after a sneeze. Whilst the teachings of the VBT are somewhat vague and deceptively simplistic, a pre-existing spiritual discipline is implied in that its technologies were intended to be revealed only to the most accomplished practitioners (Newcomb, 2014; Roche, 2014), already skilled in meditation and the yoga of the subtle body.
Although the Yoga-Sūtra and the VBT ostensibly come from a different understanding of reality, at the heart of both is the intention to free the practitioner from a life (or lives) of suffering, through clear seeing and self-realisation. Hence according to these texts, spiritual growth and happiness isn’t a question of becoming something different, but of peeling back or seeing through the layers that prevent us from remembering our innate wholeness. Inherent in both texts is the view that this realisation is a natural spontaneous occurrence, which can, with the practice of yoga, become a continuous state of being and that the pathway to this state is underpinned by a sustained and disciplined inner enquiry.
There are many ways in which modern yoga deviates from this orientation. Of course, the context has changed considerably. In addition to the myriad of societal changes between contemporary and ancient/medieval periods, modern yoga is predominantly a phenomenon of the Western world (although this is changing, see above). Consequently, yoga is being shaped by influences that are distinct from the cultural ground in which it is rooted (Mallinson and Singleton, 2017).
One of the ways this seems to be reflected in modern yoga classes is in the overwhelming emphasis on physical postures (āsana), sometimes to the exclusion of all other content. This is in striking contrast to Patañjali’s aṣṭaṅga-yoga in which asana comprises just one of eight aspects of yoga practice, and in any case, is used to refer to postures which can be maintained for long periods of time, as appropriate for meditation. The āsana of modern yoga is often quite complex, athletically challenging and involves a lot of movement, all of which make this style of practice incompatible with the process of self-refinement described in the Yoga-Sūtra (Hartranft, 2003). In the Tantric tradition, although āsana features within the hatha yoga lineage, its role was a preparatory one (to condition the body and mind in order to be able to sit for meditation), rather than the goal (Singleton, 2010). Furthermore, in a recent metanalysis of historical hatha texts, Bühnemann (2007), went as far as to conclude that none of the āsana practices of modern yoga is directly based on any known textual tradition of yoga. There is no reference to āsana in the VBT.
There is an argument that the prominence of postural yoga in the modern day is simply a reflection of the ongoing adaptation of yoga to meet the needs of a changing demographic. Compared with early practitioners, we live a radically more sedentary lifestyle, with long periods of sitting in chairs, at desks and interfacing with screens of one kind or another. On a very practical level, therefore, most of us need to counteract the negative physical effects of lifestyle before we can sit for any time in meditation. Furthermore, because western culture typically elevates the thinking mind, many of us are so strongly identified with our thoughts that we have all but lost touch with the sensations of the body. Āsana can be a powerful way to reinhabit the body, reconnect body and mind and, with correct orientation, gain access to deeper levels of presence and self-understanding.
However, it isn’t only the content of modern yoga that distinguishes it from the yoga of Patañjali or the VBT, but also what is being sought from a yoga practice. A recent cross-sectional survey of yoga practitioners in the UK found that general well-ness was the most common initial motivation for engaging in yoga, followed by fitness, flexibility and seeking relief from physical or mental health conditions (Cartwright et al., 2020). These results suggest that yoga is rarely sought out as a spiritual path and is more frequently identified as something that you do to the body, in order to fix a perceived problem. The way in which yoga classes are framed often speaks to this problem-solving mindset e.g., yoga for runners, yoga for anxiety etc. In my experience, it is more common to see yoga advertised in this way than as an opportunity for spiritual growth.
The media portrayal of yoga plays into this misunderstanding, largely representing yoga as the domain of conventionally beautiful young women, wearing Lycra and posing in complicated physical postures. Such imagery suggests that achieving a particular physique or physical mastery is the central purpose of yoga. It also perpetuates the misconception that yoga is an activity for a particular physical elite. In this way, yoga, which offers the potential for radical integration becomes yet another way to divide the self, reinforcing feelings of inadequacy that are so common in modern western culture. Instead of stilling the mind, there is real potential for yoga to become yet another distraction from the path of awakening.
From the perspective of the Yoga-Sūtra, to be preoccupied with physical appearance or physical prowess is to miss the point of yoga entirely, serving to reinforce the illusion of a separate and substantial self rather than dissolve it (Hartranft, 2003). From a tantric outlook, given that everything in creation is the embodiment of the divine, self-improvement (for its own sake) is a misnomer and serves only to obscure the reality of our true nature. Instead of focussing on the appearance of our bodies, or on what they can or can’t do, our task, as Lorin Roche puts it, is ‘attending to the rhythms, pulsations, and sensuousness of the divine energy that we are made of and that flows through us always’ (Roche, 2014, p. 2).
Another product of extracting yoga from its original context is a reconfiguration of the way teaching happens. Most modern yoga teachers are non-Indian and as a result, have chosen yoga, rather than being immersed in it from an early age. The title of ‘yoga teacher’ is available to anyone completing a teacher-training, with many schools requiring just one month of intensive study and therefore new teachers may have little more experience than their students. This, in itself, has an impact on the student-teacher relationship. Modern yoga is also typically taught in a group setting, transforming the teaching relationship from one-to-one to one-to-many. Although there is much to be gained from practising with others (a feeling of connection, for example) group classes can undermine a sense of progression because it means that teachers are constantly having to meet the needs of students with different levels of experience. This situation is exacerbated by a culture of class drop-ins, as well as platforms such as MoveGB and ClassPass which make it even easier for students to pick and choose classes at their convenience, a far cry from the disciplined, consistent inner work of self-refinement that is described in the Yoga-Sūtra and implied in the VBT. Instead of being initiated into a specific guru-disciple relationship, it is very common for students to have many teachers and for none of those teachers to have a clear understanding of the student’s needs. This not only limits opportunities for personal growth and deepening experience but it creates issues around physical and emotional safety. At the furthest extreme, the relationship between student and teacher may not even involve the physical presence of the teacher with the appearance of an increasing number of online classes (live-streamed and pre-recorded), creating yet another twist in the ongoing evolution of yoga.
Observing and assisting in classes during this course has given me much to reflect on. My sense is that although people come to yoga for many different reasons, largely non-spiritual, the best teachers are those who can honour the immediate need and, at the same time, offer opportunities for deeper connection and self-discovery. Furthermore, although the potential for spiritual growth might not be what first attracts a student to class, it may become, over time, a much more important motivator (Cartwright et al., 2020). If we limit our teaching to what is expected we perpetuate the common misconceptions about what yoga is (e.g., physical gymnastics) and in the process, do the tradition, our students and the wider world, a grave disservice.
We live at a time strongly characterised by separation – from ourselves, from one another and from the natural world. The damage this is doing is evident in almost every aspect of daily life and in particular, in the collective failure of our species to respond to catastrophic climate change, species loss and ecosystem collapse. This ‘age of separation’ (Eisenstein, 2013) is underpinned by feelings of not having, doing or being enough – attitudes that are largely encouraged by our culture because they help to sustain an economy based on unbounded growth. Yoga offers an entirely different perspective, one in which we are, in fact, already whole, already enough, and gives us a range of practices designed to help us first recognise and then see through the layers that obscure this truth. In remembering our own wholeness, we naturally recognise the same in others and in so doing, appreciate the interconnection of all living things. This, for me, is the essence of yoga. It is a profound medicine and one that, in all human history, may never have been more relevant or more urgent.
As a teacher, I feel that one of the most important things I can offer is a space in which students feel safe to engage with the process of self-discovery and to be more fully themselves – to create a space in which some of the scaffolding can come down. Increasingly, I see that my capacity to hold space for others is entirely dependent on my own state, which naturally dictates how present I can be and therefore (I presume) how safe my students feel. As a result, whereas when I first started teaching, I prepared with rigorous planning, I am learning, through experience, to prioritise grounding myself in my own practice and to trust that from this place, what comes through me will be enough.
I’ve found, through observation and direct experience, that inviting a brief check-in at the start of a class can be a powerful way to initiate and validate the process of attending to one’s internal experience. It also helps to create a sense of community and connection through shared vulnerability.
I love to include a period of relative stillness at the start of a class, as a threshold between the activity of day-to-day life and the practice of yoga which requires a very different type of effort – a way of being, rather than doing. I normally include a short period of meditation, to facilitate this transition and a breath practice to deepen breath awareness, to help to regulate the nervous system and as a platform from which to emphasise the importance of breath in movement.
Generally, I have a theme in mind that I will introduce at this stage, maybe in my own words, or perhaps with a poem or a reading. I aim to choose something that resonates with me personally and that can serve as an invitation ‘to go more deeply into the experience of being human’ (Roche, 2014, p. 4) both on and off the mat. I also enjoy theming a series of classes to offer progression for regular students and to deepen my own learning. I have observed other teachers exploring the yamas and niyamas in this way.
I am becoming increasingly comfortable with holding periods of silence (i.e., reducing my own commentary) and my sense is that this is really welcomed by my students. From my own perspective, I find that the opportunity to sit in silence, in the company and sincerity of others, has a quality of sacredness that can quickly take me beneath the superficial narratives, to rest in something stiller and deeper.
I don’t typically include chanting in my own teaching, although as a student of other teachers, I love to chant and recognise that creating sound can quickly take me into stillness. I hope that this will be an area of growth in my own practice and that I will more readily bring my voice into my teaching as my confidence grows.
The majority of what I teach falls into the category of āsana practice. I try to frame this as meditation in motion and as a vehicle for self-discovery, emphasising the internal experience over the shape of the pose. I teach a breath-led practice and aim to offer poses that are congruent with the theme of the class (providing more opportunities for reflection and exploration) and allow sequential warming and opening of the body as well as building strength. I encourage students to listen closely to the wisdom of their own bodies and I try to offer options to allow individuals to honour what they find. I’m often impressed by other teachers who build into their classes more opportunities for choice, including periods of free movement, as I feel that this is a powerful way to facilitate a deepening connection with the intelligence of the body.
I aim to be clear in my verbal cues and to offer variety as I recognise that different language resonates with different people. I also enjoy using metaphor and more poetic expressions which I know, from personal experience, can help take me out of my head and closer towards, to quote Roche again, ‘an earthly reverence in embracing your bodily sensations’ (Roche, 2014, p. 6). As I deepen my understanding and personal experience of different yogic maps, for instance, the prana vayus and the maya koshas, I look forward to bringing these more explicitly into my teaching.
With consent, I also communicate through hands-on teaching. I find it helpful to ground myself in my intention and, as I build my experience, to remember that even simple touch, e.g., to bring awareness to a particular part of the body, or to encourage a fuller, deeper breath, can be a valuable teaching aid.
I tend to offer śavāsana to complete the āsana practice as a precious opportunity for integration and deep rest.
The depth and breadth of the yoga tradition can feel overwhelming, especially as a relatively new teacher. The teaching from our Teacher Training that I keep coming back to, that both steadies and inspires me, is that teaching yoga, is ultimately an expression of love. In service to love then, and to a world of greater connection, humility, wisdom and presence, I dedicate myself to teaching and practising yoga and the lifelong learning and unlearning that this may entail.
‘Please use me
Please move through me
Please unscrew me
Please loosen me up
Make music with me
Make everything stop
Make noise and make silence with me
Make love, let me be love
Let me be loving
Let me give love, receive love, and be nothing but love
In love and for love and with love
In love and for love and with love’
Extract from Grace, Kae Tempest
Antony, M.G. (2018) ‘That’s a stretch: Reconstructing, rearticulating, and commodifying yoga’, Frontiers in Communication, 3(47).
Bühnemann, G. (2007) Eighty-four āsanas in yoga: A survey of traditions: with illustrations. New Delhi: DK Printworld.
Cartwright, T. et al. (2020) ‘Yoga practice in the UK: A cross-sectional survey of motivation, health benefits and behaviours’, BMJ Open, 10(1).
Eisenstein, C. (2013) The more beautiful world our hearts know is possible. North Atlantic Books.
Gladwell, C. (2012) The story of yoga.
Hartranft, C. (2003) The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: a new translation with commentary. Shambhala Publications.
Mallinson, J. and Singleton, M. (2017) Roots of yoga. UK: Penguin.
Newcomb, J.A. (2014) Vijnana-Bhairava: A non-dual tantra. Arcane Hermetic Sourceworks.
Roche, L. (2014) The radiance sutras: 112 gateways to the yoga of wonder and delight. Sounds True.
Singleton, M. (2010) Yoga body: The origins of modern posture practice. Oxford University Press.
Wallace, H. (2019) The true origins of yoga: The real story of yoga. [online video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LWhz8PeLB7s (Accessed: 5 August 2022).
Wallis, C.D. (2013) Tantra illuminated: The philosophy, history, and practice of a timeless tradition. Mattamayura Press.