I have serious white woman guilt about taking up space in the yoga community. Now that I am a regularly practicing yogi, I feel a huge sense of guilt and resentment of what I represent as another suburban middle-class white woman practicing yoga. How dare I? How do I have the gall to appropriate the entirety of this history, culture, and religion to make me feel more connected with myself? I’m using it to look INSIDE as a form of self-help. It’s selfish and disrespectful. And when most people in the West think of yoga, they see someone sort of like me talking about how amazing and profound it is and probably roll their eyes. I don't see myself that way - I recognize my white privilege, and I've also experienced a profound amount of pain and alienation in other aspects of my life, but that doesn’t make it better. I recognize that I need to respect my own human experience, but the balance seems impossible when it feels like the entire community needs to change. I know on a superficial level that I probably shouldn’t stunt my own growth because it doesn’t really help anyone and may not make space for a more worthy or less able person to experience what I want as a proxy. So then what? Besides being respectful and aware and not wearing malas as jewelry, what am I missing? How do we elevate the collective without being martyrs for no reason?
Signed, Taking Up Space.
Dear Taking Up Space,
You do realize that you are asking a suburban, middle class, white, female yoga teacher advice on the cultural appropriation of yoga, right? That’s not just ironic, it’s symbolic. I’ll unpack why in a moment. First, let’s address your guilt.
There is a woman named Susanna Barkataki who has started a movement called “Honor Don’t Appropriate Yoga.” She’s of Indian descent. She has created a remarkable thing just by opening up the conversation around the cultural appropriation of yoga in Western civilization. I think that her teachings may be something that will help you understand more deeply what I am about to tell you.
You’re not taking up space. Yoga is a life study which encourages us to go INSIDE and evaluate the Self in order to be of benefit to the whole. The fact that you are aware of what cultural appropriation of yoga looks like, in and of itself, speaks volumes to your authenticity within this practice. Your presence in the yoga community is due to past colonization and cultural appropriation which cannot be undone.
The pain and alienation you struggled with in the past may or may not have led you to this practice--I don’t know for sure, it’s just a guess. But, if that is correct then I can only assume you have a heightened sensitivity to inclusivity, and what it means to truly include others.
Inclusivity is a given in yoga, and that can be hard for people in Western culture to digest. We don’t like to include the “other.” We don’t like the idea of oneness. We like to feel entitled, and we do feel entitled. Often this leads to outcasting those who have multi-generational, cultural ties to the practice of yoga. We like to think that their yoga isn’t our yoga, or--even worse--that we have created a version of yoga that is not applicable to “them.” But we can’t own yoga. We cannot make it our own, because it’s not and it never will be. We have to honor those who it belongs to.
Just because it is a practice which came from deep cultural roots that do not belong to us, does not mean that we are prohibited from fostering a relationship with yoga. This practice should not be warped or dumbed down to fit the needs of people who are just in it for its trend in modern society. This practice, as a whole, must be respected. Its practitioners must take it upon themselves to uphold the integrity of something so very sacred by not claiming it as their own, but by sitting down and learning and listening from those who inherited it from their ancestors.
Why is it symbolic that you are asking me this question? It’s symbolic because I am a practitioner and teacher of Bhakti yoga: the path of devotion. I play the harmonium and chant in sanskrit at the end of all my classes. I try to make sanskrit mantra more accessible to Westerners by fusing it with Western pop songs. The songs cannot be just any songs. To me, they have to have the vibrational quality of the mantra or the deity I am honoring. I have studied sanskrit both with a teacher and on my own for years, now. I feel comfortable doing what I am doing because I am meeting a need within our culture. My students need to understand the depth of this practice. Mantra and music, known as Kirtan, establishes a deep connection to the roots of yoga. This connection fosters an understanding that yoga is not here to make us feel good about ourselves, it’s here to teach us how to find Oneness with the Self and the Whole.
Am I the right person to make this offering? Are my intentions pure and respectful to a culture that is not my own? Am I creating awareness around the roots and history of yoga? I have struggled with these questions. I have made mistakes. I have had to sit with them. I have listened. I have learned. I found that I could create cultural appreciation within my own practice, as well as any one of my students, by centralizing ancient storytelling while committing to always remain a student and never claim ownership over anything I teach.
So now what? Now it is up to white, suburban women who practice yoga--like you and me--to honor this practice as something that exists outside of our after-work yoga class. If you want to dig deeper and honor the roots of yoga, study familiar Sanskrit words. Words like “Namaste.” Learn how to pronounce them correctly, learn the vibrational subtleties behind them, learn their root meaning. Explore the many branches of yoga, or even different lineages. And don’t learn more to feel better about your practice; learn more so that you can honor your practice as the sacred thing it is. Create awareness within your practice, and encourage others like you to do the same.
These are simple suggestions. There are many more wonderfully meaningful ways for you to connect to yoga authentically while maintaining its cultural integrity. The number one “rule,” in yoga is that you are always a student. No matter your background, no matter how far down the path you travel, be a good student. Sit down. Listen. Learn.