Sharing culture or appropriating it?
When the student federation at the University of Ottawa cancelled a yoga class last November, it was because someone complained.
“It was this cultural appropriation issue because yoga originally comes from India,” Jen Scharf, the woman who taught the class for seven years, told CBC. Scharf suggested calling it “mindful stretching” instead of yoga, but that wasn’t enough to soothe concerns. Some ridiculed the cancellation as pandering to people who think that if something offends, it must be stopped. Can yoga, the ancient Hindu practice that is a path to physical, mental, and spiritual well being, be offensive?
It depends on who you ask. The simple argument that it is cultural appropriation because it originated in India and has been taken up and altered by people in the West ignores an important detail.
Jenny Kierstead, the founder of Breathing Space Yoga Studio in Halifax, said there was a concerted effort by yogis in India to export yoga to the West. The trouble was, many people in the West didn’t adapt the mental and spiritual aspects of yoga, says Krishan Verma, a priest at the Hindu Temple of Halifax, who emigrated from India in 1973.
“They do the physical aspect as a form of exercise, but that is not the true essence of yoga,” Verma says. “There is a higher aspect of yoga that involves taking care of the mind and taking care of your inner soul, your spirit.”
He says that’s sad, because many valuable parts of yoga are stripped away for the sake of commercial gain. He understands why yoga instructors do this, but wishes they didn’t. “This wisdom is so beautiful and it is so practical that it can apply to any culture in any part of the world,” Verma says, adding that’s why the “great masters in India” sent teachers abroad.
Sadly, Verma says, only some teach yoga the way it was taught to them. He estimates that about 80 per cent of “yoga” classes simply teach one component of yoga, asana: a form of physical exercise.
It is odd, then, that yoga, as it practised in Nova Scotia and the rest of North America, is caught in a bizarre catch-22 of being a religious practice that offends and shouldn’t be taught in public schools while also being a secularized and commercialized form of the ancient practice.
The yoga schools practise isn’t religious, though that hasn’t stopped some people from fearing that it is. Blair Abbass, who introduced “mindfulness” to Nova Scotia schools in the 1990, says he once had to address a pastor’s concern about meditation.
“There are some people that think meditation puts you into a state that allows the devil to enter the mind,” said Abbass, who is Kierstead’s husband and runs the studio with her. After the encounter with the pastor, he stopped using meditation and switched to mindfulness.
Verma says this fear about meditation comes from a lack of knowledge. Meditation is merely a state of rest for the mind, like sleep is a state of rest for the body.
One of the yogis who came as an emissary to the West was Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who also taught Kierstead on her three trips to India. “I wanted to uphold the tradition as purely as I possibly could,” Kierstead says. “The
western world has done amazing things with yoga and taken it to new heights, yet we’ve also done a disservice.”
She says there is a frame of mind called bhoga, which is the opposite of yoga, that refers to focussing on things other than oneself, in which we seek approval from others and attempt to fit in. “A lot of us are doing bhoga when we’re doing yoga,” she says. “We are fostering a body obsession which is exactly what yoga is trying to avoid.”
Kierstead says Jois gave her direct instruction to come back to Canada and teach yoga. She says if instructors are “honouring the tradition and teaching it in a whole-hearted, authentic way,” then it is not appropriating culture, but honouring the wishes of the yogis.
To stop that from happening is to stem the tide of cultural exchange that has taken place throughout human history. “It’s like we’re trying to compartmentalize something that can’t be contained,” Kierstead says. “Culture evolves and changes. We’re morphing and evolving as a worldwide community.”
Although Verma thinks yoga can and should be practised in the West, it dismays him to see how it has changed. He doesn’t back away from notion that in some cases, there has been cultural appropriation. “It has been stolen,” he says. “It has been distorted in many ways. It would be good if it could be controlled, but I don’t see a way. You can’t tell people that you can’t teach this.”
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This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.