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 Jess Herman, Graduate of Yogasara Advanced Teacher Training 2021/22
Since September 2018, I have begun the lifelong journey of delving ever deeper into yoga, the teachings, the practice, the philosophy and the way of life, a way of life that proves to be richer in meaning, contentment and connection to self, to others and to something much bigger. I feel I have dipped only my big toe into the ocean of what yoga has to offer, my body and soul is thirsty to dive ever deeper into the bottomless beautiful, mystical and practical waters.
Yoga has an incredibly rich history, the beginnings of which I have been learning throughout the Yogasara Teacher Training course (arguably the best money I have ever spent). On the course we began by learning about yoga sutra and tantra.
Tantra is described here by the learned and devoted scholar of the topic, Christopher Wallace as “Tantra, spreads (Tan) Wisdom that Saves (Tra)”, later in his prestigious book Tantra Illuminated, he goes on to explain “The original tantric worldview – a way of seeing and understanding reality that can challenge and illuminate you to the deepest levels of your being.” (Wallace) This is the part of the point or the essence of yoga, to learn how to do ‘being human’ better and therefore to live from our highest self, or indeed out of our highest self and into non-dualism. Non-dualism is the view that all is one, you are not separate from consciousness, the creator or this computer. A state of realised consciousness where the concept of self and other has ceased, where suffering ends and bliss may begin. The end of selfing – Selfing defined here by Christopehr Gladwell as “a process of constantly constructing a story of who we are in relationship to others.” (Gladwell). The journey of Tantra and the path to non-dualism can reveal itself through the study and practices of yoga-sutra.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra
Patanjali’s yoga-sutra is said to have been designed to still the disturbances of the mind. It is a path to realisation through action, by embodying it. A practitioner is able to use these methods towards spiritual growth. In this clear and practical way, sutra acts a form of guidance.
Yoga is the stilling of the mind in order to get out of your head and into your heart and your soul, considering the Maya Koshas, yoga put all five koshas on the ‘map’. As Chip Hartranft writes in his book The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali:
“Patanjali defines yoga as a multi-faceted method of bringing consciousness to a state of stillness… The Predicament, he says, is that consciousness and the pure awareness underlying it are separate but generally feel like the same thing.” (Hartranft)
This causes much suffering and in order to relieve humans of this condition of suffering, we must “let consciousness settle to the point where it can reflect awareness back to itself” (Hartranft). We already have this potential for such bliss:
“human beings… possess a bottomless well of inner silence and stillness… The yoga of Patanjali is more a program for developing this capacity than for it is a state to be reached.” (Hartranft)
Roger Gabriel explains very succinctly in his article ‘Yoga Sutras 101: Everything You Need to Know’:
“Your spiritual practices should be to look within. Your true Self lies hidden in the silence between your thoughts, beyond all limitations. However, the doubts, chaos, and confusion of your thoughts cause you to forget who you really are… The fruit of wrong action is sorrow, the fruit of right action is joy. You must take responsibility for your thoughts, words, and actions by living consciously. The Yoga Sutras are a path of purification, refinement, and surrender.” (Gabriel)
The eight limbs of Patanjali’s yoga-sutra are a journey of this purification, they are a set of practices designed to stop doing things which can cause a disturbance of the mind to support the practitioner on a journey from selfishness towards awakened presence into the processing of the deep realisation of non-dualistic experience. The journey takes the practitioner from external to internal, from ignorance to realisation and from suffering to integration.
It is worth noting that ‘asana’ is only one of the eight limbs and its main intended result is to prepare the body for the stillness of meditation. “If it is to be a limb of Patanjali’s Yoga, asana must embody steadiness (sthira) and ease (sukha)” (Hartranft). This being considered, the asana aspect of teaching yoga could be seen to be just one eigth of the essence of yoga.
This is arguably what separates an asana only class to a class where the deeper teachings of yoga seep through, perhaps parts contained in other seven limbs for example the concept of ahimsa (non-harming) or pranayama (breath control). I maintain that this is what separates yoga style stretching classes to tantra yoga classes which weave in this philosophy. Yoga is a fusion or a ‘yoking’ of many things, teachings and postures, breath and body, “yoga is connecting – connecting all the elements and levels of your being”. (Roche)
The Yamas are type of personal and ethical code about how to be a better person in the world, especially in relation to others. The Niyamas more moral and ethical principles for living. These can all be useful tools to share in a yoga class, to weave in to the class or any posture using themes and introducing sanskrit and philosophy gently to articulate the learning. Asana practice can help us to embody what we are learning. For example, ahimsa the yama of non-violence can mean not physically or emotionally pushing into pain, finding balance, being kind to yourself. The asana practice can be used as an enquiry as to how one can use their relationship with their body as a metaphor for how they want to be in the world or how they might relate to others.
Vijnana Bhairava Tantra
The Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra is a key Tantra text of the Trika school of Pratyabhijna/Kashmir Shaivism in Sanskrit language. Cast as a discourse between the god Bhairava and his consort Bhairavi, it briefly presents 112 Tantric meditation methods or centering techniques (dharana). These include several variants of breath awareness, concentration on various centers in the body, non-dual awareness, Mantra chanting, imagination and visualization and contemplation through each of the senses. (Wikipedia 1)
Again this text offers the practitioner 112 very practical and tantric methods to use the mind and body for an enquiry into a deeper sense of connection and non-dualism, supporting people to experience tantra. Lorin Roche writes in his famous and poetic book The Radiance Sutras:
“Bhairava describes techniques for becoming enlightened through everyday life experience. Each of these techniques is a way of attending to the rhythms, pulsations and sensuousness of the divine energy that we are made of and that flows through us always.” (Roche)
In agreement, Daniel Odier says:
“According to the Vijnanabhairava Tantra, the earliest text on yoga which has been discovered, the work of Kasmirian yoga is to spontaneously recognise our absolute, divine essence. This is experienced in the body as inner vibrations of non-duality.” (Odier)
“Cultural appropriation… is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures.” (Wikipedia 2)
In this context of yoga, is the West culturally appropriating the Eastern concept of Yoga? Here in the Western world we have certainly commodified yoga – making it into a marketable and saleable product. Selling yoga classes, courses, retreats, clothes, equipment, magazines, aerial yoga hammocks, the list goes on. There is also a social media yoga culture ever increased by instagram and hashtags.
Modern Yoga has become popular, fashionable even. This is not necessarily bad even if it has been to some extent culturally appropriated, borrowed or even bastardised from the original Indian yoga intended to help (mainly boys) prepare the body for sitting for long periods of meditation.
Matthew Remski writes in his powerful and sad article Yoga’s Culture of Sexual Abuse: Nine Women Tell Their Stories:
“Today, Ashtanga is at the centre of the multi-billion-dollar yoga economy—one that also includes yoga methods such as Kundalini, Iyengar, and Bikram (the original hot yoga).”
He goes on to highlight the influence celebrities such as Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Sting had in the rise of popular yoga culture.
People are drawn to yoga in the west for many varied reasons; wanting to shape their bum, seeking some calm or some centering in the crazy pace of modern society, the need to stretch, to increase flexibility or to delve deeper into a meditative practice. Modern yoga does seem to be ‘in fashion’ as can be seen by the rise in yoga classes, studios, teacher trainings and products available on the market. Yet I do not believe this to necessarily be negative; even if someone is attending with a friend, on a date, to impress a girl, to tone those abs, etc… the benefits of yoga can, will and do seep through gently and subtly. People often finish the class reporting they feel ‘better than when they arrived’ or much more calm/relaxed/centered. These feelings are an integral part of yoga as the practice does exactly this – it brings us home. Home to ourselves, to our body and to the source of love – to the non-dual concept that all is one. This idea is backed up in the story by Roach, How Yoga Works, the young teacher ‘Miss Friday’ explains “Suppose someone has gotten too heavy and is hoping that doing yoga might be able to help them. And suppose they meet up with a good teacher who not only knows all the best yoga poses for them, but also understands how yoga really works: they know that the poses will have to be targeted at the root of the problem – at blockages in the subtle channels…”. (Roach). It is not enough only for a student to attend a yoga class, the yoga class must also be taught with real knowledge of all aspects of yoga from asana to philosophy to positive personal interaction such as the embodied lenses of micro, medio, macro, metta & mystica.
I have been volunteering weekly assisting a yoga class designed to help young people with their mental health at Off The Record since September 2018. The aim of these classes is to give young people the tools to bring them into the calm that can be obtained by using simple practices. This is a wonderful example of the power for good and positive change yoga has if cultivated and delivered correctly and safely to these young people. Indeed I have seen young people with extremely challenging mental health issues learn to use yoga as a tool to harness self control in a safe way i.e. breath work instead of self-harm. Although the effect is not always this profound, seeds are planted as young people start to connect positively and healthily to their bodies and their breath.
I noted this same positive effect when working with women who are moving on from crisis at the One25 Peony project. They enjoy getting into their bodies in a deep, profound and safe manner and thus although cultural appropriation is generally a negative term, so much good comes from the spreading of yoga. I agree with my teachers who say that everyone on the planet can benefit from yoga, hopefully making the oversaturation of the yoga market not a bad thing. What does concern me is whether the majority of the yoga classes available will be disembodied asana stretching or yogasara – yoga with the essence of yoga wound deeply throughout the class. I only know ‘modern yoga’ and so it is hard for me to comment on the cultural appropriation of traditional yoga but from observing and attending classes I noted the difference in richness and depth of the class.
What have I discovered in class?
I feel I can distinctly separate my experience of observing and assisting yoga classes this past year into two categories; classes I have liked where the teacher is knowledgeable and authentic and classes that have lacked the yogic part of yoga resulting in what I perceived to be a style of disembodied asana stretching.
I witnessed gym yoga which seemed to be very scripted sadly making the teacher seemed bored. I also noted a lack of kramas which I felt to be unsafe for those needing options. I felt in some classes that there were missed opportunities to engage with oneself, for going deeper and for relating back to life through the work of the asana practice.
On the contrary, when I observed classes at yogasara I was struck by Sarah’s ability to respond exactly to the needs of the students, sometimes without even checking-in verbally. This is what comes from the practice of ‘embodied presence’ and from cultivating the yoga to flow congruently through you as a teacher – the ‘mystica’ and ‘macro’ elements of embodied presence. Unscripted, the teachings seem fresh, new and relevant in each class. Any teacher that was congruent with themselves could not help but to let their personality shine through, this along with some deep inner connection to self and something bigger is what I think attracts students to return. People knowingly or unknowingly seek this medicine, this tantra.
Additionally the deeper a teacher has gone with the philosophy, the more I also saw a connection with their understanding of anatomy and physiology. This resulted in teachers being able to cue students creatively and concisely, to encourage safe alignment and to be able to use ‘hands on teaching’ to support this.
There are so many aspects of yoga for a teacher to consider during their class. Not all of these need to be addressed in each class of course. These aspects include but are not limited to: meditation, anatomy and physiology knowledge (nuances in instruction), bandha, chakras, drishti, pranayama, mudra, mantra, yantra, intention, kramas, chants & prayers, language, vayus, koshas, breath, curiosity, sanskrit, sthiram (streadieness) & sukham (ease), yamas and niyamas, sutra and tantra.
How will I best represent the essence of yoga authentically?
“To be a yoga teacher you have to practice!” (Harlow)
There is a discipline that is needed in order for me (or any yoga teacher) to congruently teach. If my teaching is not based in my own practice it is groundless and this will become apparent. The root of the word discipline comes from ‘to follow’, to follow yoga as a way of life to be fully engaged with. To have a daily practice, to keep delving ever deeper into the gifts that are the ancient teachings, to make sense of the philosophical roots of yoga and be able to deliver them coherently to my future students so that they may also reap this medicine and all its rewards.
I will aim to only teach what I really know which will grow and expand with my own personal practice. I will be mindful to always bring my personality to my classes as this is one of my main shining lights that makes me, me and my class different to any other class. My personality, I hope, as a teacher includes a willingness to enquire, to go within, to stay light with the students and to bring humour when appropriate and clarity always, to make the class relevant and accessible to the students depending on the students, the day, the place and myself. It is imperative for me to be myself, to offer what I have to offer whilst cultivating embodied presence by using my inner teacher, my in-tuition.
I will strive to teach a class that I would want to attend whilst keeping in mind that it is not a class for me, it is for my students. I will give kramas as to ensure safety and to meet and match students where they are at, to encourage diversity of bodies, abilities and energies from day to day and moment to moment.
I will keep studying anatomy and physiology in order to teach safely and effectively and to enable me to become more knowledgeable to deliver ‘Hands On Teaching’ and give clear and concise verbal cues. I will strive to deliver classes that are always and without exception breath-led.
Having assisted Lel Pender teaching yoga to teenagers through the mental health social movement Off The Record, I have seen the power and the need to keep making yoga accessible for young people. As a youth worker I have a great desire to work with young people in this context, this was originally my main drive to attend the Yogasara Teacher Training course. I have also completed the ‘Teen Yoga’ course but I appreciate there is a lot more to learn and explore in this context. I have delivered yoga to women through Peony project by One25, working with women who are ready to move on from crisis. This is another area where I love to teach, again recognising the huge benefit to these women to get into their body and into their parasympathetic nervous system, it is truly a tool for wellbeing and healing. I will strive to teach trauma informed yoga with these groups of women & young people and to use accessible language.
I have started teaching a yoga class at the university and although I do not have control regarding price and accessibility I would like to encourage all people to attend and to strive to invite more people from ‘BAME’ communities (Black And Minority Ethnic) should I start any other classes. Perhaps I will offer a ‘pay as you feel’ or donation options for those with less disposable cash. If it is not inclusive and accessible arguably it is not cultivating unity and so it is not yoga.
I view yoga as medicine and I feel I need it for myself and I have the ability, indeed the gift, to pass this medicine on to others.
I have only just begun a lifelong journey into yoga. I know I need to keep learning, I can feel my gaps and they lie in anatomy & physiology, sequencing, sanskrit, language and understanding tantra and yogic philosophy in a deeper context. In order to best represent the essence of yoga and to honour and respect the roots of yoga, I will keep learning, keep doing, keep being, keep experiencing and I will stay curious and humble to all this wonder.
Gabriel, R. (2018) Yoga Sutras 101: Everything You Need to Know. [Online] available at: https://chopra.com/articles/yoga-sutras-101-everything-you-need-to-know accessed 1st July 2019
Gladwell, C. Primary source from Yogasara Teacher Training 7th July 2019
Harlow, S. Primary source from at Yogasara Teacher Training. 15th December 2018 Hartranft, C. (2003). The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali. Shambala Publications
Odier, D. (Translation by Caroline Preller) The Tantric Shivast Teachings from Kashmir according to the Kaula Tradition and the Spanda Pratyabhijna Schools [Online] Available at https://www.danielodier.com/english/thePath.php accessed 10th July 2019
Remsky, M. (2018) Yoga’s Culture of Sexual Abuse: Nine Women Tell Their Stories [Online] Available at: https://thewalrus.ca/yogas-culture-of-sexual-abuse-nine-women-tell-their-stories/ accessed July 10th 2019
Roche, L, (2014). The Radiance Sutras. Boulder: Sounds True Roach, G.M. (2004). How Yoga Works. USA: Diamond Cutter Press
Wallis, C. (2013). Tantra Illuminated. Petaluma CA: Mattamayura Press
Wikipedia 1. Vijnana Bhairava Tantra [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vij%C3%B1%C4%81na_Bhairava_Tantra accessed 1st July 2019
Wikipedia 2. Cultural appropriation [online] Available at: https://www.google.com/search?q=cultural+appropriation&oq=cultural+appropriation&aqs=c hrome..69i57.9415j0j4&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8 accessed 2nd July 2019