THE ROW over the cultural appropriation of yoga by Western practitioners rages on. It is part of a rising tide of righteous anger at injustices and abuses, inflamed by the Black Lives Matters and Me Too movements.
My heart sinks when I read about a yoga teacher banned from teaching free university classes in Canada following complaints her sessions were unacceptable cultural appropriation of a non-Western practice.
Suddenly teaching and even practising yoga as a white woman is under scrutiny.
As a Western Yoga teacher I am grieved by the ‘vulgarization and distortion of yoga’. This happens when people become so intent on making money they lose sight of the basic principles – non stealing, non violence, non grasping, truthfulness.
A few years I was approached by the proprietors of a local yoga studio who promised me a number of things in return for teaching a schedule of 20 classes while they went on holiday. Bit by bit they withdrew everything promised, leaving me penniless and without thanks or acknowledgement for the hours I devoted to their business.
It was an experience I’d expect in sweatshop not a yoga studio. I was deeply hurt by this treatment. As a result I share many of the misgivings about the misappropriation of yoga.
On the other hand I am dismayed by arguments that practising or teaching yoga as a white woman is wrong. Some dismiss this as ‘politically correct madness’. Can the ancient text of yoga shed light on the rights and wrongs of this debate.
Where better to go than to the horse’s mouth – The Bhagavad Gita which dates back to 500 BCE and sets out basic principles of yoga. I arm myself with a Penguin edition translated by Mascaro and a recent series of lectures by Swami Sarvipriyanada, a monk of more than 25 years in the Ramakrishna Order – an institution dedicated to teaching yoga philosophy.
The Gita is no stranger to disagreement. It is set on a battlefield in a civil war – where members of one large family prepare to slaughter one another to seize control of the kingdom.
The warring factions of the yoga family have not yet declared murderous intent – but there is pent up resentment about the way yoga has become elitist, exclusive and expensive in the West.
And just as the warrior Arjuna throws away his bow and arrow in the Gita, there are yoga teachers who have given up teaching in fear of reprisals.
But Gita is a philosophy of action – not of withdrawal. “Fall not into degrading weakness, for this becomes not a man who is a man…..arise like a fire that burns all before it.” Chapter 2:3
It’s not by giving up that we come closer to authentic state of yoga, says Sarvipriyanda. “Inaction is also being trapped in action.”
Yoga is a practice – and as with all practice we will inevitably blunder. Undoubtedly Western practitioners are guilty of transgressions.
But let’s not forget the staggering number of accusations against Indian practitioners too. With an entire wikipedia page dedicated to sexual abuse by yoga gurus – yoga is fast becoming as sleazy in India as the Catholic Church is in Rome.
The notorious Calcutta born Bikram Choudary has been subject of civil law suits alleging sexual assault and discrimination against racial and sexual minorities. He also attempted to steal yoga – with failed attempts to copyright poses to stop other practitioners using them.
Elsewhere, Pattahbi Jois, founder of hugely popular Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, has been accused of systematic sexual abuse while Asaram Bapu who established 400 ashrams in India is serving a life sentence for rape. And this is the tip of the iceberg.
With all of the above considered – it’s hard to know who can be trusted to impart yoga knowledge. These days I’m less and less inclined to put my faith in anyone presenting as a ‘guru’.
Sarvipriyanda says the philosophy of Gita can be summed up in the following sentence
“Thou art that” or “Tat Tvam Asi “.
This deceptively simple statement melts away notions of separateness, the belief in self and other and the polarities of right and wrong, good and evil. It suggests we are One.
This philosophy instructs us to redirect trust and responsibility within. “We must have faith in ourselves. Believe we can change our life for the better. One who does not believe in himself is an atheist,” says Sarvipriyanda.
Thou art that. When we absorb this basic yoga principle – it becomes harder to point a finger of blame at the so called wrong doer. It’s equally hard to slavishly abandon ourselves to a guru – because great foolishness and great learnedness are part of the same delusion.