Cultural Appropriation in Western Yoga

Well, if that title isn’t enough to make you go oh boy, buckle up. This is going to be a ride. Civil and polite, yes, but a ride nonetheless.

A few housekeeping things before we begin:

  • I’ve been teaching yoga since July 2016.
  • I’ve been practicing yoga AND Tibetan Buddhism since December 2011.
  • I am white.
  • This story is not meant, in any way, to detract from the Christian faith, nor is it meant to sway you away from it or hate on it. It’s simply not for me, and while I believe in it for those who need it, it’s not my faith anymore, and this is my story.

A few definitions, as well, because I don’t want you to feel like you have to Google things mid-blog:

  • A yogi is someone who seeks to master their physical selves through meditation, and thus retreats to solitude to commune with their mental selves.
  • A bodhisattva is someone who has the ability to achieve enlightenment, but chooses to stay on an Earthly plane so that they can continue to help suffering beings.
  • Asana are the physical poses of yoga. In the East, they were a way to get the body comfortable so that it could easily sit in meditation for hours on end. In the West, it’s just physical fitness.
  • There are different types of canonized yoga, including Ashtanga, Bikram, Iyengar, Yin, Hatha, and Kundalini. All of these originated in the East or from Eastern practitioners. There are other types of Western yoga that were created purely in an American fashion, like power, but this blog will focus more on buti, which is a combination of standard vinyasa yoga, plyometrics, cardio, and “tribal” dance. The word means a secret remedy or cure.

That should about cover it, and I am going to touch on all of these points in detail, but just wanted to get those out of the way first. Because I know I’m going to get someone yelling at me about how I “don’t understand” yoga. I do, actually, and I’m coming from a background having loved and taught it.

Now, you might be wondering why now? Why have I chosen this moment to talk about cultural appropriation in yoga? A little while back, I started seeing the term “butisattva” being used in the buti community. The word, once broken down, is buti + sattva. Buti, meaning a secret remedy or cure, and sattva, meaning purity & wholesomeness. As a note, these words come from different languages, cultures, and semantics. Buti is a word used in the Indian dialect, Marathi. Sattva is a philosophy from Hindu mythology.

Right off the bat, a couple things bother me, but before we get there, I want to give you a little personal background on why this bothers me and then historical background on why the terms “yogi” and “butisattva” are harmful.


Honestly, though, is there anything better than a 6AM practice? . Maybe cats are better, but that’s about it. . #yoga #yogaeverydamnday #childspose #balasana https://www.instagram.com/p/BzdAWVZDFE1/?igshid=f9rr7armk36d

The year is 2011, and I am just entering my sophomore year of college. In August, I broke up with my boyfriend of a year and a half, my first long-term relationship that survived my first year away at college. We had our ups and downs during that year, and even one brief 24-hour breakup in November of that first year, but everything came to a head in August, and it ended in tears, the throwing of a necklace, and demands to get out. My favorite part of the breakup was being told that, on the way to a week-long vacation that we’d spent a thousand dollars on, he was thinking of ending it the whole time.

And people wonder why I’m single.

When September rolled around and it was time for me to go back to school, I did it with both a lighter and heavier heart. Lighter in that I was ready for it this year. I’d already lived away from home for a full year and knew now that I could do it. The year previous, when my mom gave me a final hug, she asked me if I was okay and I said no, and I’m forever going to feel awful for that because wow, great job, Mary, sending your mom away knowing that her firstborn child isn’t okay and is now going to be 3+ hours away. But, sophomore year was a lot easier. I was going back to friends and a familiar space. I was also going back feeling like I’d lost a part of myself, and really, I was. That boyfriend was my first for a lot of things, and looking back now, I definitely loved him. I wouldn’t say that I look back on the time fondly, but there’s no hate there.

It was tough to move on from it. As a teenager, a year and a half is a long damn time, and while I never really had that meant to be forever kind of feeling, I definitely never imagined I was going to go through college without him. And yet, here I stood. Alone.

I’m sure it’s easy to imagine those first few months. Any kind of loss is hard, and though I was knee-deep in my studies and my friends, I felt like I was out at sea on a sinking lifeboat with no help on the horizon.

But to accurately tell this next part of the story, we have to go back a little farther.

Wake up, wake up, wake up. . The world is waiting for you. . #yoga #yogaeverydamnday #downwarddog #adhomukhasvanasana #threeleggeddowndog #downdog https://www.instagram.com/p/BzNf2SknV2n/?igshid=1brbkqwi1e0ut

The year is 2006, and I am days away from graduating eighth grade. Days away from stepping into the jungle that is high school. Days away from my last summer as a kid.

I was raised in a Christian household. I was baptized, went to Sunday school, was given first communion, and confirmed in the Episcopalian church. I dutifully said my prayers and volunteered to read passages aloud during church. But when I was 14 or so, I was walking the mostly empty halls of my middle school with two boys–a boy that I liked and one of our mutual friends. I was dressed head-to-toe in black, and the boy that I liked was friends with a bunch of popular kids, so I thought I was living the good life. We walked those halls for hours, over and over, talking about middle school and high school both, talking about our favorite bands, our fears, and our hopes, talking about everything and nothing because that’s what you do when you’re 14 and you’re free to just roam.

A few weeks later, deep in my last summer before high school, our mutual friend died.

Just like that.

No warning. Nothing. He was away at camp, spending his summer in a way that he loved, and then he just wasn’t. His summer was over. He was never going to go to high school and see if those fears and hopes were real. He was never going to have a girlfriend and go to college and see the world because he was dead.

Of every moment that has ever happened in my life, this is one of those moments. The ones you remember forever. The ones that are crystal clear no matter how many years have passed. The ones that stay with you. I don’t know how long it was after I heard the news, but I turned to my mom and I asked her if I could make an appointment with our priest. I had some questions, I told her.

I want you to imagine fourteen-year-old Mary, who used to wear baggy band t-shirts and baggy jeans and a pyramid studded belt, with big hoop earrings and huge Hagrid hair, sitting down in front of an elderly priest and saying, “I don’t think I believe in God anymore.” To her credit, my priest didn’t immediately tell me that I was wrong. Instead, we had a conversation.

“Why are you suddenly feeling that way?” she asked.

I told myself not to cry. “A boy my age just died. A boy that I knew, that I spent time with, that I was friends with.” I started to cry. “What kind of god does that? How is that okay?”

And then–and this is in no way her fault, what happened in the years to come–she said a few choice words that would shatter everything, “Well, that was God’s plan for him. He did what he was here to do.”

He was fourteen. He was fourteen, and that’s it? That’s the end of his life? God sent him down here for fourteen years and decided that was all he got?

I stopped crying. I stared at my priest. “Okay,” I said, “Thank you for talking to me.” She was baffled. I’d only been there for a few minutes. She tried to stop me, but I shook my head and stood up. “I’m all set,” I said, “I’m leaving now.”

Consciously, I meant that I was leaving this moment, that I was going to go back to my mom waiting in her car and go home. Subconsciously, I meant that I was leaving the church. It would take several years still, but eventually, I would step away and never come back.

I’ve been forced to take it slow lately, and this is the first week I’m starting to add back in activity in the mornings. It’s just been yoga and very chill yoga in comparison to my usual vibe, and there’s probably a lesson here I’m supposed to be...

Back to 2011. It’s been five years, and I’ve been struggling with this loss of faith, not just in the religion I was raised in, but in humanity. How do we just accept this all-knowing entity, no questions asked, when he takes the lives of innocent children? For five years, I was asking myself this question, over and over and over. And as humans, we want faith. We want to believe in something. It doesn’t have to be a higher power, but we crave that sense of belonging and community that comes from religion.

For five years, I felt what can only be described as a lack of peace spiritually. I had been taught, from an early age, that not believing in God meant that I was going to hell. (Oh, teenage Mary, just wait until you meet college Mary, and she’s totally okay with this notion.) And then, let’s drop a breakup on top of that, and it was just a fuse waiting to blow.

I didn’t know what to do with myself at the end of 2011. I felt so lost. I could articulate that I felt lost, though, and that that sense of loss was not just in my heart, but also internally, whatever you want to call it–spirit, soul, essence, what have you. Well, Google is great for figuring everything else out, I thought, so why not this? I can’t even tell you how I got to Buddhism through whatever I was Googling, but eventually, I landed there, and something incredible happened.

I lost hours that first day reading up on Buddhism. And then I lost days. Weeks. I couldn’t step away from it. Something had reached out to me from what I was reading and held on. Something like hope started to light on fire. Everything made sense to me. The practices, the mythology, the culture–it all just clicked into place like yes this is what you’ve been searching for this is where you’re meant to be. And then, somewhere in the midst of this frenzied research, I read about something so, so important, something that would echo back those this is God’s plan for him words and reshape them.

Reincarnation.

Even now, almost nine years since that fateful ideal ever crossed paths with me, I can bring myself right back to that moment. He wasn’t dead and gone forever, just like that. And maybe he wasn’t alive again yet, but he was going to come back. Maybe we wouldn’t recognize him, but fourteen years was not all that that boy was going to see. He had a whole eternity ahead of him.

I didn’t even bother telling myself not to cry. I’d already started long ago.


Dreaming about all the words I’m going to read and write today, and feeling empowered to do it because I smashed my goals this morning. #yoga #yogaeverydamnday #boxing #traincentr #centr #centrfit @centrfit...

You’ll notice that nowhere does yoga show up in this story. Yoga, for me, was an addendum. Oh hey, there’s this cool thing that Buddhists practice with their body, might as well do that, too. For me, it was Buddhism that started everything. In December 2016, I started meditating every single morning. I started collecting statues for an altar to the different deities, but only the ones that spoke to me. To this day, I still only reach for the Buddha, Tara, and Ganesh, though I am very, very slowly starting to branch out to others. I woke up early so that I could meditate, using different mantras that I had found, and pray. For the first time in a decade, I was praying again. Because despite still going to church (and I would continue to go for a few years more), when I knelt in the pew to prayer, I did not pray to God. I didn’t believe in Him anymore.

After I was done with meditation and prayer, I did ten sun salutations because it was the most common thing, and probably the first thing, that I’d found when researching yoga. Very slowly, over the coming months as my meditation & prayer practice broadened, I started looking for more yoga, too. I found pictures on Pinterest and Tumblr. I found flows on YouTube. I started piecing together my own poses. My practice was about 15-20 minutes at the beginning, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but for the first time in my life, I’d found a physical practice that I really enjoyed and that I kept coming back to.

As an obese child, teenager, and adult, finding a physical fitness that was enjoyable? That’s golden. That’s a needle in a haystack. And I had found it.

I was so ecstatic. For almost two years, I meditated, I prayed, and I practiced yoga. It was the best two years of my life. I was blissfully unaware of anything outside of my little circle of happiness. Look at me! I can do a headstand now!

There are a lot of different emotions in my heart today. Good. Bad. In between. I’m going to feel all of them to their fullest instead of hiding from them because the only way to heal is to keep going and shine as much as possible. . This morning, I...

Let’s fast forward a little to 2014, my senior year of college. A couple months before spring semester begins, we’re given the opportunity to pick our classes. I double majored in Creative Writing & English, and I was an overachiever, so I took every single creative writing course, both standard and advanced, that they offered. That meant that I had four intro to fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting, and poetry under my belt, as well as all four advanced courses. That also meant that I’d taken the required courses in American lit, which were only about two or three, and every single course in European lit that I could get my hands on, which ranged from ancient European texts to a full semester of Shakespeare. I was also wildly in love with language, and though I didn’t need to take all three years of French, I 100% did, as well as considered minoring in French. Not to mention dropping American Sign Language on top of that because why the heck not. Man, I love college. I love electives.

So, when fall semester was midway through and we were asked to pick our spring courses, I dove headlong into the electives and spied something I’d never seen before–Buddhism. Here I was, almost two years into my practice as a “Buddhist,” which was how I referred to myself before that fateful class, and I’d never seen this class. The requirement to taking it was Intro to Religion, but that wasn’t going to stop me. I emailed the professor, and I described to her how much Buddhism had changed my life and could I please take her class even though I didn’t meet the requirements? Sure, she said, why the heck not.

Again, here was a moment I was going to remember for the rest of my life. And not just one moment. I can’t tell you how many moments because I think that whole class might live in my memory in crystal clear detail forever.

The first moment: sitting nervously in my desk in a lecture hall with about 10 other people when our tiny (honestly, she was so little) professor came thunking down the stairs with her cane and her hightop Converse before she hopped up onto her desk, sat cross-legged, and gave us a big ole grin.

The second moment: barely 15 minutes into the class, she said, “Raise your hand if you can tell me about what’s going on in Tibet.”

Now, college Mary is not the same person you know now. She was terrified of everything, and so college Mary did not raise her hand.

But I knew.

I knew because I had cried over what was happening in Tibet. I had bought a Free Tibet bracelet in support and wore it every single day. I retweeted anything and everything that came through my feed about it on Twitter. But everyone that I talked to didn’t know, so I was curious (and also terrified), so I didn’t raise my hand.

No one else did. No one knew what was happening. And I’m gonna bet that most of the people reading this probably don’t either. Fair warning, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Tibetans are literally being murdered by the Chinese for openly practicing their Buddhist faith. If you’re caught supporting the Dalai Lama, at best, you end up tortured in prison; at worst, you’re killed. You cannot speak your native Tibetan tongue. You cannot practice anything that speaks to Tibetan Buddhism and not Chinese Buddhism. Traditional Chinese music is blasted through the streets at all hours. Parents send their children through the treacherous Himalayas in the hopes that they’ll make it to India. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, is often invited back to Tibet, but only if he’ll give his exact location so that the Chinese can find and murder him.

A note: this is not an attack on China as a country. This is not even an attack on its military or its government. (Though that’s another conversation entirely.) This is not an attack at all. These are facts. This is not even me hating on the Chinese. I gave up hate years ago, and while there’s still sorrow, they don’t deserve hate for what they’ve done, but forgiveness and a healthy conversation about how to move forward.

That said, do I have any artifacts on my altar from China? Absolutely not. Everything was either made in Tibet, Thailand, or India. And, in some cases, America.

But no one raised their hand, and when our professor started talking about it, everyone was shocked. They couldn’t believe this was actually happening in the world.

And then came the third moment: a month or two into class, our professor prepared us for a movie. She told us it was about the Dalai Lama and nothing more. It was called Kundun, which is one of the titles given to His Holiness, and it was about to change my life.

I kept a straight face the entire movie. Many times, I had to hold my breath or pinch myself to refrain from crying. When it was over, our professor told us we were wrapping up class early and that we’d talk about the movie next week. Either she’d prepared it this way, or she’d seen the look on our faces. I gathered my things, walked out of class calmly, and then ran from the lecture hall to my dorm room. I banged into my room, shook my head when my roommate asked me if I was alright, and threw everything onto my bed. One of my best friends lived around the corner and down the hall, and I sped back out of my room and sprinted down the hallway. I knocked furiously on her door, and when she opened the door, I couldn’t hold it in anymore.

“They tried to kill him,” I remember whispering. I think back on that moment a lot, and how bewildered she must have been before I was able to tell her what I was talking about. In between sobbing hysterically, I told her about the movie and about the Dalai Lama’s life. She’d already listened to me babble on about the atrocities in Tibet and how much I loved Buddhism, so she had some background. But this movie broke me. I couldn’t piece myself back together. I curled up on her bed and just cried.

I heard my professor’s voice in my head, “You can’t be a Buddhist unless you’re born into that culture. In the West, we can practice Buddhism, but we can’t be Buddhists.” I hadn’t understand those words until that movie. Of course I can’t be a Buddhist. I haven’t grown up in that environment and surrounded by that beautiful culture. I haven’t been wrapped up in love and sorrow equally like the Tibetans have. I can’t even begin to fathom the suffering they’ve gone through, and yet I think I can just be one of them?

Absolutely not. And from that pivotal moment on, I never claimed to be a Buddhist. I’ve practiced Tibetan Buddhism for the last eight and a half years, but never will I claim to be a Buddhist again. It’s insensitive and ignorant, and I apologize for the two years that I did flounce around saying that.

And honestly? If you practice yoga, whether you are a teacher or a student, you need to watch this movie. You need to understand where the Western practice comes from. You need to know its roots, and you need to because what we’re doing, calling people “yogis” and “butisattvas”–that is where the cultural appropriation comes in.


Resetting after a crazy weekend with a lot of twists, a lot of core, and some wild moves. It’s good to be back. #yoga #yogaeverydamnday #threadtheneedle (at Barefoot Yoga Shala) https://www.instagram.com/p/BwDlI8Zh1Pj/?igshid=h0cjn50u2yrk

Okay, we’ve arrived! 2016 was a few years back, but since then, I’ve graduated college, gone through yoga teacher training, and taught yoga for the last three years. During my training, we learned the Sanskrit terms for the asanas (did you know a downward dog is translated from adho mukha svanasana?), we got a high level run-down on Hindu mythology, we discussed a few different types of yoga, and we learned how to sequence a Western practice. Never once was the word yogi thrown about or even discussed. If it was, I promise you that I would have said something then and there.

Alright. So you’ve definitely heard it before if you’ve been to a yoga class. “Great job, yogis!” And recently, if you’ve tried out buti. “You are a butisattva.”

Truthfully, just typing that sentence makes me want to cry again. Because I did cry this weekend. My heart broke. All I can think about is watching monks self-immolate because they couldn’t bear to live in a world where their faith, the truth of their heart and soul, was forbidden. People have been murdered for seeking the path to become a bodhisattva. People have been murdered for openly practicing the Buddhist faith. People have been murdered for using words like yogi. And you think that you have a right to them? And not just to them, but to create your own versions of them.

I am ashamed at the yoga community.

This weekend, I posted something on my story on Instagram, and I want to share that here in case anyone wants to screenshot them. They’re in order of how I posted them, and there are some spelling mistakes because I was upset when I wrote it, but, like this blog, it is both civil and polite.

One of my best friends has a boyfriend born and raised in India, who is now living in the US, and when she related this story to him, he was horrified. He said, “That is pure stupid and disrespectful.” He’s not wrong.

I’m not trying to call anyone out. I’m not saying that I’m some saint because I don’t use these words. Recently, one of my favorite yoga instructors, Rachel Brathen, shared something very similar that talked about the word “gypsy,” and how those of the Romani culture were literally persecuted and murdered for being gypsies, and that to reappropriate the “vibe” for our own gain is appalling. And it really, really is. I’m never going to describe myself as a gypsy again.

Because why would I call myself a gypsy when I haven’t gone through the kind of suffering real gypsies have? That is cultural appropriation.

Calling yourself a yogi when all you do is move your body is cultural appropriation.

Taking two different languages and cultures and smashing them together into a made-up word, butisattva, that references not just a word, but an entire philosophy, bodhisattva, that people were murdered for is cultural appropriation.

Saying that you are anywhere close to spiritual enlightenment when you have never experienced the kind of compassion and fear equally that people like the Tibetans have is gross cultural appropriation.

And if we’re being frank, what we practice in the West is not yoga. It’s a bastardized, Americanized, ugly form of it. And I’ve made my peace with that. But I will not sit idly by while people call themselves and each other yogis and butisattvas. It is harmful. It is insensitive. It is cultural appropriation, and it needs to stop.

Now, this has been long and exhausting for me to write, but as I said on my Instagram, I am always open for questions and conversation. I’m not any kind of expert, and though I’ve studied for almost nine years, I have only a seed of knowledge compared to the vast culture. My point in this post is to start talking about the words that we use in yoga and the history behind them. I’m not going to interrupt your yoga class to yell at you for calling your students a yogi or a butisattva. I’m not trying to stir trouble. I’m trying to remind you that words taken from another culture often don’t carry over into your own. I’m trying to remind you to be careful when it comes to adapting something that is not your own. We’ve already appropriated yoga from the East. Do you really want to appropriate pieces of their culture that are steeped in sacred meanings, too?


Tonight, I tried my first ever yin class with @cin_glen. No less than four people said they were surprised to see me there since I tend to move at a much higher frequency. And it’s true—slowing down is really, really hard for me. . But then an...

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. Thank you for taking the time to listen and maybe learn something new. Thank you for being open. Please let me know if you have any questions or anything else in the comments below!

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Mary RYT 200 Tibetan Buddhism Gryffindor Part-time witch, full-time novelist. Lover of words, planets, dragons, and mountains.

3 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation in Western Yoga

  1. Wow what a great post! From one yogi to another I have a few thoughts to share. For some background on me I have practiced Tibetan Buddhism since 2010 and Yoga since 2006. I also grew up in the church and left for lack of real answers to life’s questions. For the first time in my life, because of the Buddhadharma, I have more answers than questions.
    I disagree that Yoga is for physical fitness in the west. This might be true for some but not for all. But here’s the point even when one does it for fitness you cannot avoid that you are still working with mind even if it is subconscious. You must already know this for yourself.

    I am not sure cultural appropriation applies here. Yoga in all its forms meditation as well are the greatest gifts that mother India has to share with all humanity. This line “In the West, we can practice Buddhism, but we can’t be Buddhists.” Is totally false. In year 700 when Guru Rimpoche came to Tibet they where not Buddhist either. They had missed the fist 1000 years of the buddhadharma in India. We all have various degrees of sorrow and joy in our lives based on our karma from previous lives. If reincarnation is true. Then many of us Western Yogis were Tibetan in our last life. We had such good karma that we took rebirth in the west and can now continue our boddhisattva activity by being living examples of the Buddha here in complete freedom, given to us by the Christians.

    Now I get your point about being upset. Some things really suck here in the west about how we have “appropriated” the eastern philosophies and wisdom traditions. For me it’s mindfulness and how any joe can take a weekend course and become a mindless mindfulness teacher for a healthy profit. This is just stupid. But Buddhism is not something like concrete it is bendable and supple. It has changed and adapted to many cultures over time, and we are just the latest edition.

    Tibet is giving us a tremendous gift. I am not in any way making light of the suffering there but things were not all bright and rosy in shambala. Tibet was in bad shape, they had many wars and instances of Dalai Lamas inviting the mongols in to take over while they forcibly converted hundreds of monasteries. Tibet was still in the Middle Ages at best in 1960 when Mao came. So in some strange way the Chinese have done us a favor, the Buddhadharma is far more approachable today than it ever was. So I will concede that you and I will not know in this life what it is to be a Tibetan but we are Buddhists. This is true because we all have the Buddha nature, bhoddichita, the enlightened mind. We can all achieve what the Buddha and all his students in Bali, Japan, Korea, china, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Germany, France and all the other countries did. Enlightenment is for all. A bhodisattva works for all beings not just Tibetans. And you my dear are a bhodisattva and that is what it really means to be Buddhist. I can tell in your writing.

    Namaste

    QP

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    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! While I disagree with much of what you’ve said, I would have loved to start an open dialogue and discuss the differences. However, as you’ve just equated mass genocide to the Chinese doing a “favor” for the Tibetans, it’s clear we have nothing to talk about.

      Like

      1. I am not into a big disagreement here but I did say “Tibet is giving us a tremendous gift. I am not in any way making light of the suffering there” I fully understand what had happened and what continues to happen it is terrifying actually. But if there is a silver lining in this very dark cloud it is that the Tibetan diaspora in India and Nepal came into contact under good conditions with many open minded westerners who where prepared to transport Buddhism to the west. They gave teachings to people who would have had to practice for years because they wanted/needed students and the students needed them. Please do not mistake what I said as making the Chinese genocide ok or anything of the sort. That is not at all what I meant.

        QP

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