“Yoga and” — i.e., yoga plus random other things — has been everywhere lately. There’s the fairly predictable category of “yoga and” other fitness activities (Sam likes spinning followed by yoga). And then there is a whole set of opportunities for “yoga and tiny creatures” — including yoga with your own baby (“Mamaste“), and yoga with tiny cute animals, most commonly cats (“Meowmaste“) and goats.
Sam and I have both done goat yoga, and since goats and yoga are two of my favourite things, I loved it. (It was halloween, the goats were in costume, what more do you need to know?)
Recently, though, we’ve been talking on the blog author community about a whole passel of “yoga and” that feels more problematic to me — beer yoga, wine yoga and weed yoga, and more recently, speed dating yoga. (Christine, about the speed dating yoga: “I’m pretty sure the Geneva Convention forbids things like this“).
It’s that last group of “yoga and” that finally made me pause and think about the implications of “yoga and.” There have been occasional bursts of criticism in the past few years about the proliferation of yoga in western countries as cultural appropriation, and I will be honest that I have generally skimmed over these discussions. I think I had a “too late, barn door already open” shrug about the whole conversation. But there was a piece about weed yoga on the CBC a couple of weeks ago that actually had me yelling at the radio, when the teacher said “where in another class we might say take child’s pose or grab some water, we say take a toke.”
My absolute fury about this notion of toking when you should be breathing made me really step back and reflect about “yoga and” for the first time. If I’m delighted by goat yoga, why am I so offended by ganja yoga? I sat with that a bit, and noticed that I was particularly outraged by some of the discourse around yoga with substances — the wine yoga with the tagline “sip, stretch, socialize,” (honestly, “yogiwino”???) — and the beer yoga with the tagline “detox to retox.”
Unpacking this, I realize I’m offended by the notion that yoga could be just another form of alcohol-infused socializing (aren’t there enough of those opportunities?) — or that “toxifying” ourselves is fine if we just “detox” first. And most of all, I’m offended at the notion of bringing substance use into a space that I engage with to slow down, breathe deeply, and start to notice the things about my body and my emotions and my hopes and sadnesses that I can’t engage with in my “normal” life. (See my post from last November I called “listen to your body when it whispers“).
For me, yoga is a whole lot of things packed into a tightly woven package: it’s a workout, and it’s about agility and balance as I age, and it’s a counterpoint to harder and more strenuous running and spinning — and it’s also a connecting place of quiet where I pay deep attention to what’s happening “inside” in one of the only truly quiet practices in my life. I set intentions and gratitudes before classes (is this “praying”?) and several of my teachers have us “share in the sound of om” before and after classes.
Clearly, my yoga practice has a kind of fuzzy spiritual edge to it. And if that’s true, shouldn’t I also be open to acknowledging that yoga has deeper spiritual roots and tradition? And if THAT is true, shouldn’t I also be open to acknowledging that I may be co-opting or appropriating this cultural tradition?
Damn you, speed-dating and weed yoga for making me reflect!
So I did some reading and exploring, and spent a fair bit of time with this recent article that made a bit of an online splash, as well as a podcast I’d listened to a little while ago about the origins and meaning of the word “namaste” (transcript here). I took away two overarching messages:
- Yoga IS obviously a form of cultural appropriation;
- That doesn’t mean you can’t practice it and decolonize your own relationship to it.
The simplest definition of cultural appropriation is the taking over of another culture’s traditions without regard for the history or lived experience of the people who originally practiced it. It stands to reason, then, that decolonizing my own relationship as a white westerner to my own fuzzy spiritual practice means engaging with some of the questions raised by Gandhi and Wolff in the Praxis article I linked above, including their framing request to the piece: “To the so many white people who practice yoga, please don’t stop, but please do take a moment to look outside of yourself and understand how the history of yoga practice in the United States is intimately linked to some of the larger forces of white supremacy.”
The most challenging point from Gandhi and Wolff I’m grappling with is whether I am experiencing a “spiritual void” in my own cultural context and tradition. If I am, I am not alone, since the rise of yoga in North America coincided exactly with disillusionment in religious institutions. (And, I’m typical — I’m a cultural Catholic who left anything resembling a traditionally religious setting a long time ago — but I want to feel a sense of meaning in my life). Over the past couple of decades, that quest for an alternative spiritual practice got bound together with what Hrishikesh Hirway describes in the podcast I linked above as an “emergent global consumer culture,” and “modern postural yoga” (all that secularized yoga that shows up in gyms and most western studios and yes, goat barns) really emerged.
This kind of yoga became very individualized, and much more accessible, and in fact, those are the arguments people make in favour of things like beer and cat yoga: that it draws in people who would otherwise never end up on a yoga mat. One yogi argues “In the end, whatever brings people to their yoga mats is a good thing. Perhaps someone’s very first yoga class starts in an animal shelter, but ends with many years of serious practice. Start superficially and eventually you’ll end up in the same place as the world’s most spiritual yogis.”
What then, does it take to engage thoughtfully with the cultural roots of yoga in our own practices? I like a lot of the ideas in this piece and in this piece, including voicing gratitude for both the opportunity to practice and for the people who originated the culture of yoga. Another possibility is to encourage studios to make sure classes are accessible to everyone, both physically and financially. One of the teachers quoted also notes the importance of moving beyond asana (the physical postures) and to be intentional about the breath practice (prana) and the meditative aspects.
Most importantly, it’s key to recognize that when we are white westerners practicing yoga, we are actively embodying a spiritual practice that is deeply meaningful to another culture. We shouldn’t use images from that practice (goddesses or Buddhas for example), as decor or clothing designs. And after listening to the podcast on the meaning of the word “namaste” (basically it means “greetings,” I have stopped saying it at all. (We tend to utter “namaste” as though it is weighted with some magical spiritual meaning, but no one can ever define what it means — that feels kind of icky to me when I think about it). And most importantly, we can use practicing yoga as an opportunity to reflect on the history of colonialism, what white Canadians call our “settler identity,” and what we are doing in our lives that perpetuates or challenges the privilege that we have.
I’m never going to try weed, beer or wine yoga — yoga for me needs a clear head and clear lungs. But I’d do goat yoga again in a heartbeat — maybe with a momentary pause for gratitude about the complex, messy world we live in that made this possible.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives and works in Toronto, when she’s not chasing goats in countries around the world.