A Response to the Question of the “Cultural Appropriation of Yoga”

The following was written in response to this piece, written by Andi MacDonald, who I do not know but whose piece was sent to me by my dear friend and colleague Donna Bickford.

First, thank you, Donna M. Bickford, for the chance to engage with this piece. I like it a lot, actually, and certainly agree with much of what the author says about privilege in yoga (racial and otherwise) and what yoga means to most people today and what it should mean. Here are a few other thoughts, which might invite new ways of thinking about all of this: 1) Yoga is a specific discipline and practice–it isn’t simply whatever we want it to be. We might have different interpretations of yogic texts, or different traditions in which we are rooted, or different practices that we are more or less drawn to (I like meditation, you prefer karmic yoga, etc.) and thus can reasonably disagree about what it means. But it does mean something and, thus, it takes a specific shape. With that, then, comes the recognition that it isn’t everything. In other words, it is not, actually, a method for dismantling racism, engendering economic equality, cultivating gender equality, etc. It is something different. All of these things have to do with power. Yoga, on the other hand, has to do with Self-knowledge and Love. Yoga can teach us some important things about power, but it isn’t a practice or even a way of being that is adequately equipped to help us negotiate and transform relationships of radical inequality. And to expect this from it is to expect too much. 2) One of the reasons why I do not think it is wise for yoga to serve as yet another platform for white people to “teach” us about racial equality is because there are plenty of wise and willing black folks out there already doing a good job of this. And, anyway, when white teachers do teach about racial injustice from the seat of the teacher, it is usually in a comfortable, palatable way that, to my mind, does not actually bring us to the risky place of discomfort and dis-ease that is perhaps necessary for political accountability and honesty. This is not always the case, of course, but often it is. One way of demonstrating that we have learned something about our power and privilege is to stop talking (especially about how much we have learned and how much better we *could* be) and instead create more spaces for marginalized voices to be heard. 3) I am very honored to teach in the lineage of Jivamukti Yoga, which, many of you will note, is incredibly politically engaged, in particular, around the issue of animal rights and non-violence with respect to animal lives. We are ethical vegetarians and try to adopt a lifestyle that causes the least amount of harm to others; we pay particular attention to our relationship with animals because it their suffering has been so invisible to so many and for so long. Why is this an acceptable form of political engagement for yoga? Because when we speak in the name of animals–that is, when we speak about their rights and what counts as just behavior towards them–we do so precisely because they are not able to do so themselves. They are, therefore, peculiar members of our moral community, in so far as they lack the capacity for usual forms of communication. But this is not true for other marginalized and oppressed groups. They ARE speaking in political spaces, and the best we can do right now is to listen and learn from them. 4) The author is right. Yoga is a spiritual way of being in the world. It is also a set of practices designed to help one achieve the aim of Yoga, which is a state of union with the Self and with all beings. My teacher Manorama D’Alvia often quotes her own teacher and friend, Sri Brahmananda Saraswati, who, when speaking about the ego and yoga, liked to say, “Mind your business!” And what could be your business but knowing your Self? Let us not pretend that Yoga asks anything more of us than that. For that is enough to keep us busy for a lifetime. Of course, do your duty, as the Gita teaches. Do what you must do, and walk the journey you are here to walk. But when you are doing yoga, know where to aim your arrow, and know what the practice is meant to achieve. Not an end to all of our political problems, but rather an end to the way in which we suffer from them. Tricky, indeed.