Yogi-as-Saboteur

Under the Green Line, 11th St., Chicago circa 2014.  

Under the Green Line, 11th St., Chicago circa 2014.  

I recently read an article about yoga and appropriation that left me troubled. On paper, it sounded right up my street. Written by a yoga teacher in Florida, it offered suggestions on how to make sure that in your practice of yoga (not just asana), that you're honoring "the roots" of the practice. It was a great effort, but I felt the advice on avoiding cultural appropriation was a little too light for my taste. "A little humility, a little reverence, goes a long way", she writes. Yes, absolutely true. But what the hell does that mean? The further I read into the post, the more I realized  I was frustrated because I felt the advice was vague, and I wasn't sure about the context from where it was coming. 

It took me a lot of digging in corners corners of the internet to discover that the writer identifies--at least in one particular post--as an Indian woman. But the writer didn't mention their identity in the context of the advice.  I wondered, why--on a blog on their own website (and also in the Huffington Post), in a discussion about the appropriation of a practice deeply connected to identity and nationality, that has been colonized and arguably appropriated by the majority culture-- why did the writer not identify as a person of color, and as an Indian woman specifically?

I mean, if I give this even a minute of thought, I can throw up guesses at why. Sometimes wearing a specific label in the public discourse of a specific context can get you questions you don't want to answer, get you ignorance you don't want to tolerate. Coming out as an Indian woman in a conversation about how not to culturally appropriate yoga might mean getting comments like, "Does tantric yoga really give you multiple orgasms?" or "What's up with that red dot on the forehead?" Right? and that's just the low-hanging fruit: I have no idea the ignorant shite that actually gets said to Desi folk who move in the context of yoga in the West. But I bet it would make me angry. 

As someone whose identity sometimes puts me on the margins in certain communities, I hate it when I'm asked to speak for the sub-culture I'm part of (depending on the conversation it changes), and it happens so easily. In my new favorite podcast, the two hosts were fielding questions from white listeners addressing the idea, "How can I, as a white person, be an ally to people of color?" Their answers were so thoughtful, and not a little impatient at having to answer the question AGAIN, and you should definitely listen to the podcast, but it boiled down to: Don't be ally, do ally. Read a book. Then read all the books.*** Talk to your people who aren't doing this right, or who aren't doing it at all. Keep your mouth shut and listen as often as possible.  People of color are tired of talking the talk to folk who don't and won't listen; white person, you wanna be an ally, stop worrying about the label, pick up your knapsack of privilege and use it to create some justice in our world. 

So maybe the writer didn't self-identify in her space as Indian because she doesn't want that part of her identity to encompass how she's working in that context. Or maybe they thought it wasn't relevant to do so. Or maybe there's some element of what's happening in cultural appropriation that this conversation is missing sight of.  

I don't have the luxury of choosing whether or not to identify. There are definitely times when I feel I can manipulate my racial identity--code switching, anyone?--but I don't forget about it, and in the world I travel from day to day, it's always there: an indivisible part of me from which I'd never want to separate. I feel a responsibility to bear witness to my experience, and out of it, to work for a world I actually want to be around for. My experience is complicated, hard to quantify, and it's also black, it's woman, it's cis: I cannot do otherwise. In spaces that are working to raise consciousness (and sometimes in spaces that aren't), I feel an expectation that marginalized folk who step to those spaces are at most eager, but at least willing, to identify. I need us to be seen, to take up space and not to shrink from what we need to say or do. 

So I read this post I mentioned earlier, a kind of "How Not to Culturally Appropriate", and then I read this piece, positing cultural appropriation as a symptom of our world's systems of privilege and oppression. It was fresh and insightful and smart and so powerful. It hit the notes that I think I was seeking in the other piece: a clear, penetrating look at the real damage appropriation does, and a challenge to tear down our own moments and actions of appropriation by seeking to destroy the systems of oppression that exist in our world.

Like so many other systemic problems—police brutality, say, or a lack of diversity in film and television—cultural appropriation is a symptom, not the cause, of an oppressive and exploitative world order. And yes, these symptoms do reinforce the systems that created it (police brutality will reinforce the supremacy of Whiteness through fear and violence, therefore helping to enable more police brutality), but ridding society of any of these individual factors does not touch the systems of oppression that created it.
— "When We Talk About Cultural Appropriation, We're Missing the Point"--Ijeoma Oluo

So what are the systems of oppression in the yoga community? Drop-in and package prices that are prohibitively high? Studios that are inaccessible to the differently-abled? An absence of gender-neutral restrooms or changing rooms? Adjustment without consent? Using tools of worship as adornments of fashion? These are just the ones that I can see with my teeny vantage point; some of them, that I sometimes feel, are harder to articulate, and harder to wrestle with and uproot. How do I talk about the oppression that creates a space where I as a person of color feel both indelible and invisible at the same time, while I also feel at home in my asana practice? How do I talk about it so others will hear me? How do I reckon with the idea that teaching--an act which, at least in our society, inherently creates a kind of top-down, expert-novice, student-teacher dichotomy--requires me to share experience and information in a way that is grounded in a spiritual practice (yeah, I said it), that is not a part of my national or cultural heritage? How do I dismantle and transgress the classroom context so that I am not the expert in the room, but instead a servant to the students, and a compassionate, guiding witness in their individual and collective work?

This conversation about appropriation in the culture of how I do my life's work, how I earn my rent, how I serve--and initiate change in--my community by using a practice that feels at once mine and not-mine, well, it's a conversation I have with myself over and over. If I'm lucky, I occasionally have it with other yogis and teachers who are down for the cause as well, and if I'm doing my job, I have the conversation worth yogis and teachers who aren't down--this is harder but it matters. I get so excited about using yoga as a tool to dismantle the patriarchy, as an agent of subversion for the good of humanity. I don't think yoga is a rising tide that lifts all boats; I don't think that every class we go to is going to raise consciousness and  pursue/manifest justice and healing for all. But I think when we decide that our practice as teachers and students is also to subvert, to dismantle, and not to just open hamstrings and calm breath, we can begin to practice and to teach without appropriation. When we engage yoga as a tool of crumbling systems of oppression and equalizing systems of privilege, we can heal institutions and not just bodies. 

P.S. In the midst of drafting this, I watched Beyonce's "Formation" video and read a little bit about it, and I also watched that Coldplay video, "Hymn for the Weekend." Quite the spectacle in both, and talk about exploitative world order:  It gave me a  cultural appropriation headache. The best thing I read about it is here.

 

 

***Also, ohmygourd, in NO WAY, is this list exhaustive. There are so many I would add, not singularly in terms of black feminist education, but in consciousness raising. Maybe I'll put together a list in another post...