First thing in the morning, I like to do some stretches. Two of these stretches are known by my yoga-practising human as ‘upward dog’ and ‘downward dog’. Sometimes she does them too, so I do them back to mirror her, as it seems polite.
She wants me to end up doing this with her. But that’s not happening any time soon. Humans!
Using dog stretches in yoga seems like a kind of appropriation – humans are using dog stretches and adapting or appropriating them to their own human ends, such as getting a particular kind of exercise. I’m totally fine with that, and glad that the humans do at least give us credit for the stretches by giving them such good names.
Having lots of friends who’re either Religious Studies scholars or religious practitoners, I’m aware that not all appropriation is that uncontroversial. In fact, yoga is one of the appropriated practices that’s most debated. That’s to do with the difference between historical yoga in the East, and how yoga is represented and used today. Yoga has its origins in very diverse ancient Hindu practices, much of those unrecognisable as what we call yoga today, which were aimed at the reshaping of human consciousness towards some higher goal. But what we now know as 'yoga' in the West came out of nineteenth century attempts to adapt Indian practices to American and European healing movements. So the postural yoga we know today took ancient practices and continued the idea that humans can control and train the mind-body complex, but gave these practices a new purpose: health, beauty and wellbeing.
Today, postural yoga is practised in the West as a health and fitness routine independent of any religious worldview – in fact many people are keen to emphasise that, for them, it’s a physical exercise rather than related to spirituality. That said, other yoga practitioners do see it as spiritual – for example, by regarding it as a universal, eastern-inspired form of spirituality. Some people even adapt it to their own religious tradition, as in the case of Christian yoga, where the yoga is adapted to include exercises designed to strengthen the person’s relationship with Jesus. So people in the West relate yoga to religion and spirituality in different ways: by severing its link to religion or spirituality altogether; by seeing it as a form of spirituality but not religion; by adapting it to a religion other than the one it developed in.
Why would anyone be upset about any of this?
Part of the issue is simply the fact that yoga is misrepresented when people point to common practices in the West and attribute them to ancient India, as though the repurposing for health and fitness and other alterations hadn’t taken place or aren’t important. Much the same is true of other appropriated practices: Native American spirituality, mindfulness, Shamanism, reiki and so on. This misrepresentation seems particularly problematic when the leaders from the cultures doing the appropriating and the misrepresenting are the ones who in the past have harmed the people who are being appropriated – for example, through colonialism – and who continue to hold a dominant position over them. A related problem concerns the fact that these appropriated practices bring in big bucks – and it’s the appropriators, rather than the appropriated, who are getting the lion’s share. Seen in this light, we can begin to see why a Hindu or a Native American might be less than thrilled when presented with a barely-recognisable form of yoga repurposed for fitness and sold at an expensive gym by Europeans, or Native American dreamcatchers sold on high street markets by and to the white people whose society has systematically disadvantaged Native Americans. A final point of contention is that these misrepresentations are often infused with ‘noble savage’ racism: the idea that people in India or Native Americans are set apart from civilisation and so impart particular spiritual insight. This of course is a kind of racism it’s particularly hard to see, because it *looks* like one’s saying something nice about the people – that they’re especially spiritual and uncorrupted or whatever.
Is there a good way to do yoga in the West?
It’s worth saying at this point that there are lots of positive things about contemporary Western yoga. It undoubtedly contributes to many peoples' wellbeing. Many of the people who teach it do so because they want to pass something that’s helped them onto others. Many people are also motivated by ideas that, whether authentically ancient Indian or not, are reacting against unsatisfactory aspects of dominant Western thought. For example, the emphasis on being ‘holistic’ provides an alternative to the ideas that people are purely physical and mechanistic, or else that they can be carved into ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ components. So I don’t think we should lose yoga altogether. But we might want to think about how we can practice it in a more humble, respectful, and religiously or culturally informed way.
The human thinker Edward Said has had good things to say about the social and political issues surrounding how people in the West relate to 'Eastern' culture. You can read him here: Said.
Mental walkies with Lola,