Yoga and spirituality is a complicated topic. It is a topic that every individual who practices yoga should spend time thinking about before starting or continuing their yoga practice.
Can I first and foremost reiterate that this is my personal opinion that has been influenced by a combination of my personal experiences as both a student and teacher, years of readings, discussion, reflection, podcasts, and influenced by my career in the mental health field. Can I also remind you that I am an imperfect person?
Great. Now that we have cleared that up…
Most of my perspective on yoga is rooted in one fundamental question.
How can I utilize the scientifically proved benefits of yoga to better my client/student’s health without culturally appropriating a culture or misguiding my clients/students existing spiritual practice?
If I am being honest, I think I will struggle with this topic for years to come, but here is my current perspective on this question.
Yoga is fundamentally a spiritual practice. The roots of yoga are deeply rooted in the Hindu and Buddhist religions. It should also be noted that the physical postures or “asanas” are only one aspect to these complex and historically rich faiths. They are so deeply rooted that it is impossible to completely separate the spirituality from yoga.
It should also be noted that the Catholic church has voiced its concerns about Catholics practicing yoga. If you have questions about what impact practicing yoga may have on your current faith practice, I encourage you to speak to a spiritual mentor, priest, pastor, elder. Even if you haven’t given it much thought as to what impact it may have, I still recommend having this discussion. It is never my goal or intention to disrespect your existing spiritual practice through a yoga class.
I am an Orthodox Christian, and because of my personal spiritual foundation there are clear distinctions in my teaching that may differ from other teachers. In my class, the goal of meditation is to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of watching or observing your thoughts. Mindfulness has been studied as an effective tool in managing anxiety and depression. My direction in class may include redirecting intrusive or anxious thoughts to focus on your breath or body sensations. I will never give the cue to “empty the mind” or direct a mediation towards a “separation of self”. These concepts are deeply spiritually tied to a faith that I personally do not practice, so I am most certainly not in a place to guide my students in this direction.
And that leads to the bigger topic of cultural appropriation. Ugh even writing this sends me into a funk because I have tied myself into mental knots over this topic.
The definition of cultural appropriation (from the Cambridge Dictionary) is “the act of taking or using something from a culture that is not your own, without showing that you understand and respect the culture”. Some definitions also tie in the concept of taking something from a marginalized group and bringing it to the majority culture. Is cultural appropriation of yoga a huge problem in the United States? HECK YES.
Am I contributing to it? After a lot of honest reflection, I do think that teaching yoga stripped of its original spirituality is a form of cultural appropriation. I have tried to think my way out it, and I just don’t think there is a way around this. Yoga is not an exercise class and to think of it as one is simply ignorant.
I even looked into other “rebranded” forms of yoga, in a desperate attempt to run away from the ugly truth.. but to be honest I found the “christian yoga” or the “jewish yoga” to be even more culturally offensive.
With that said, I sit in the discomfort of what yoga has become here in the west. Instead, I do my best to address the second part of the definition of cultural appropriation… “without showing that you understand and RESPECT the culture”.
I do not utilize chanting.
I try to not talk a lot in class beyond giving physical cues.
I do not utilize mudras.
I do not utilize sacred objects.
I do not utilize the ancient language of Sanskrit in my class.
Why? Well, to be honest, I feel uncomfortable doing so. I am ignorant (enough) of the history of these things. I find that most of my clients don’t understand these things. I don’t see a need to use them to serve my clients. Because of this, if I were to use these things in the context of class, I believe it would be disrespectful.
With the growing amount of scientific studies that are show the mental and physical benefits of yoga, I struggle with the concept of abandoning yoga entirely. I have seen the dramatic impact it has had on individuals lives, my own life, and the incredible benefit it possesses. Unfortunately there is not easy black or white answer when it comes to addressing this important and complex topic. I encourage you to spend some time in reflection. Ask your teachers questions. They may teach differently. Ask why. If you aren’t satisfied with their answer, then find a new teacher.
The goal of my yoga instruction is to provide my students/clients with tools that they can utilize to better themselves physically and mentally but, first and foremost, my goal is to show every human being the respect that they deserve.
I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions about spirituality, yoga, and cultural appropriation. I strongly believe that learning from one another is vital to respecting each other and try to remind myself of the privileged position I form my opinions from.Thank you for keeping this a safe space and speaking with love and respect as we all learn.
If you would like to learn more about the benefits of yoga or inquire about my yoga services, contact me today!