Discussing Cultural Appropriation Amidst the Yoga Trolling
This notable comment about cultural appropriation in yoga just popped up on my post called “Am I Even Teaching Yoga Anymore?”
Notable, because it shows how reasonableness can occlude emotional intelligence. I’ll paste an excerpt in here in full and then offer some commentary below.
“At what point is it appropriation? Was it appropriation when the Gandharans started making Buddha statues? Was it appropriation when Vyasa/Patanjali whoever it was decided to borrow Jain metaphysics for the Yogashastra? Was it appropriation when the Devi-Mahatmya brought the goddess into the Brahmanical worldview? Was it appropriation when Shankara decided the Bhagavad Gita was about non-dualism (a claim that was rigorously fought by Ramanuja, and quite successfully at that)? Was it appropriation when the ontology of Vedanta was combined with Islam and helped to produce what we understand now as Sufism? What about when the Hatha Yogis reinterpreted Buddhist tantras through the framework of a mix of Shaiva ones and Vedanta? Was it appropriation when Vivekananda interpreted the teachings of a man he lived with for a short time, a Kali tantrika, through the frame of theosophy? Was it appropriation when Krishnamacharya looked at the still practicing Hatha yogis in India and decided that wasn’t the true yoga, which bore more resemblance to calisthenics? When K. told AG Mohan among others that the third chapter of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika contained nothing of value due to its inclusion of Vajroli et al?
“I find this line of appropriation tells us little and offers us nothing more than the same narrative we’ve always had: Yoga is good, pure and right, and yoga is from India, the source of all that is good and pure and right in the world, and all of the achievements of India stretching back to the Veda are the creation of an eternal order called Hinduism, to the exclusion of everyone else from the sub-continent. This is at best naive and at worst total chauvinism, and it boggles the mind why people that clearly lean left and are skeptical of any kind of essentialism accept it. There is a question embedded in your statement: Who are we calling to mind when we say someone else if the land is clearly India?”
So it looks like the commenter did their Religious Studies homework. It’s true: the essentialism of what Andrea Jain calls the “Hindu Origins” view of modern yoga doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
But what kind of scrutiny? The comment implies “This shouldn’t even be a thing,” when clearly for many people it is definitely a thing. It’s using an academic argument to foreclose an emotional-cultural event. Will it work?
The combatants in the cultural appropriation debate are, at least in part, using the subject of yoga as a platform for exercising essentialisms other than that worrying the commenter. Yoga discourse is now the home of fraught dialogue over a much more material history than studies of the origins of practices and philosophies can uncover. Its transnational status has produced a cage match about the impacts of transnationality.
For starters, there’s the essential and ongoing condition of white supremacy and the intergenerational trauma of colonization. “The West has stolen and corrupted yoga”, means what it says, but it is also shorthand for “colonial brutality irretrievably altered the course of South Asian history, and it feels shitty to watch white people accessorize themselves with the only things they didn’t destroy.” It is a call for repentance, for realizing that the freedom that some privileged people have to self-actualize and chant and drink green juices comes with a hidden historical price tag that the spotlight of the internet can now illuminate.
As one yogi of South Indian heritage recently asked me: “Why can’t y’all play with the trinkets of your own past? Not interesting anymore?”
The call pushes the tender buttons of white guilt, but draws out something deeper as well: an essential feeling I believe exists not only on the Right via puritanical conservatism but also on the Left via postmodern ennui: the yearning for something inviolate, authentic, and sacred in the chaos of the technocapitalism from which we shamefully benefit.
When things are bleak, the Left will take any vision of coherence it can get.
Maybe the discussion of the integrity of yoga is really a discussion about integrity. Listen carefully to how the appropriation critics always reach for depth as the litmus test for integrity. “Yoga is not a fitness fad,” they’ll say.
(Our commenter above might reply that this ignores the fact that it was Indian modernizers who first backgrounded moksha to market yoga as a wellness discipline. They still wouldn’t be listening.)
“It’s a path that demands ethics and meditation.”
(The commenter might reply that all serious global practitioners acknowledge and practice this. Still not listening.)
“It’s a path that leads to liberation.”
(The commenter says “I know that.” But what liberation are we talking about? Textbook freedom? Interpersonal freedom? Intercultural freedom?)
There’s a stalemate, unless the commenter listens between the lines.
Does it make sense to think that the anti-appropriation side believes it can police the internal experience or intentions of non-Indian practitioners? Who would be so grandiose as to think that? How would they even know it had been accomplished, that the formerly appropriative non-Indian yoga person was now legit, and not just another pretender who’s taken a Sanskrit name or who’s bowing down before a saffron robe because of unresolved Daddy issues?
The argument isn’t just about personal depth or character. Anti-appropriators are consistently appealing to historical depth, the depth of memory, to a fundamental honesty about the inequities that have happened between peoples. Inequities so blatant and present that Indian per capita income in 2015 was 1600 USD, and so internalized that some Indian folks try to whiten their skin to get ahead.
If honesty and recognition of global inequality were a hallmark of global yoga, if non-Indian people generally connected personal practice with concrete efforts to support global equality, would some other version of moksha be felt?
Anti-appropriaters can never really answer the question of what those they accuse of appropriating should do to make amends. Why should they? Historical restitution is not accomplished through good-behaviour checklists. It’s approached through the hard effort of ongoing relationship. I.e., not like what our Canadian Prime Minister Selfie Trudeau does, making a show of care for First Nations and then building pipelines through their unceded lands.
It’s not about saying a creed or getting the footnotes right. It’s about looking the other in the eye and saying I’m going to surrender to relationship with you. Maybe that’s a good remix of isvara pranidhana?
I’m not trying to romanticize the task or sugar-coat the context. It’s not all earnestness and people trying their best to navigate deep wounds. There are some folks you’re better off not looking in the eye. There are anti-appropriationists who co-opt the language of social justice to forward reactionary politics. There are participants in these debates who are simply trolling.
Included would be non-Indians on the anti-appropriation side who are clearly dealing with their own cultural alienation by finding validation in a new gang. If that means tacitly endorsing the politics of the Indian right, that’s a fair price for entry. Then there are people out to ruin the reputations of people they think are competitors, and they’ll spread lies to do it. There are people I’d swear are drunk-posting. There are roving bands of commenters who don’t even bother to read the thread they’re summoned to before seizing it to wag the dog. And I’m about 97% sure that there’s this one Jekyll and Hyde dude who’s using multiple pseudonyms to argue both sides vociferously on multiple groups and sites just to whip shit up, while carefully maintaining an entirely different real-world persona.
Deep emotions are easy to illicit by internet predators, and yogaland offers no end of content to rile the emotions of people sensitive enough to be attracted to yoga.
Two days ago I shared a solid article by professional scholars outlining Baba Ramdev’s documented homophobia and his ties to the current Indian government. A yoga culture war debate broke out like a rash. It featured the old standbys of rage, yoga bypassing, yogasplaining, yoga piety pissing contests, more rage, strawmanning, dehumanization, scapegoating, religious bigotry, accusations of racism against LGBTQI activists commenting on the plight of queer Indian people, diversions via link-dumping, more rage, summoning reinforcements through mass tagging, crass reductions of complex social ills for ideological gain, gaslighting and ad hominem circularity.
Beneath it all, there were also some good points made about cultural appropriation and privilege.
What to do? Leave it alone? Moderate? Block?
I really really don’t like blocking. I counted up all the reasons why. There are eight.
First: there are real people behind those words, and I myself fear abandonment.
Second: the id-content of the trolling remark reveals an emotion or politics I want to understand and sometimes feel.
Third: people are often inconsistent with their trolling behaviour and it can be worth it to take the bad with the good. Plus, people change their behaviour. Not often, but sometimes.
Fourth: my posts are usually provocative and I have a lot of blind spots and make a lot of mistakes, so it’s only fair to expose myself to as much and as varied criticism as I can get.
Fifth: when the content of dispute is so often about which voices are privileged and which are silenced, blocking should be an utterly last resort.
Sixth: taking responsibility for the white and male privilege wrapped up in accumulating this platform demands recognizing that a little aggression is peanuts compared to structural inequality and the best thing to do is listen and feel all the feelings instead of policing the feelings of others.
Seventh: Some parts of some exchanges are helpful before they become troll-y. Blocking people breaks the record of exchange, often making the argument unintelligible for those who want to follow. I bristle at this from a labour perspective. People put time and effort into this, and blocking can erase way more labour than is just.
Eighth: the self-selection bias of this platform’s network model means that we are all subject to malnourishment by too many confirming views. To wit: I doubt there is a single Trump supporter amongst 5000 friends here. That’s a huge problem.
However, my page also hosts many whose speech has been chilled and silenced because of the flaming. They’ve told me so in private messages and in person. Ironically, these are always people who value social justice, religious tolerance, cultural respect, checking privilege, intellectual honesty and civility in relation to discourse around yoga’s self-inquiry and service practices. That they are too intimidated to contribute their sensitive perspectives is a total drag.
It is also a fact that professional scholars of yoga — both Indian and non-Indian — have been terrorized by the trolling these contentious subjects attract. This is an outrage. But even trolling is just the tip of the iceberg for those who endure structural and somatic oppression every day. Like when gay people have to read comments claiming that Ramdev’s promise that yoga can cure homosexuality and his efforts to keep homosexuality criminalized are harmless opinions because he doesn’t hold office. I can be all circumspect and equanimous about such commenters in my hetero cis-burb, but they can’t.
I know that some media outlets ban all trolling, while others are simply closing their comment departments altogether. So it seems that there’s a gathering consensus that trolling is harassment, and not protected speech. That feels right.
I’m not sure what to do, but I’m paying close attention to it. At the heart of the matter for me is a confusion about identity and ownership in this real estate: whether the trolling comment is my problem, given that it’s a personal page, or the problem of everyone who dialogues here, given its public accessibility. If it’s the latter, what is my responsibility to the whole?
Part of me leans towards fostering safety through blocking, knowing that there are many environments in which those compelled to be abusive or distractive can freely operate. But another part is afraid that if I block people I will encourage polarization, and degrade the opportunities for listening that allow me and perhaps others to feel our way into the emotions beneath the rhetoric. I can’t imagine a blanket policy that would work. Perhaps it has to be moment by moment, like everything else.
I appreciate your evenness on this issue and I think that more listening all around, as always, is key. I think the spirit of understanding you’re working towards can help all sides. I — as much as I can in my admitted place of privilege — understand what you pinpoint here — that a lot of the feeling that’s rising up is an understandable reaction to colonialism and how it must feel to see something culturally precious be turned into a fad.
I also wouldn’t be so quick to ‘nah’ the original comment. When an ’emotional-cultural event’ wants to be anything more sustained and effective than a flash in the pan, it needs to eventually be able to be founded in the world of facts and specifics, and here the specifics happen to be incredibly important. Yoga history isn’t so simple as, for example, the cases I see in the southwest United States, in which there are people directly pillaging native traditions and capitalizing on them without any authorization to do so. Yoga history is different, and that difference matters. Does this invalidate feelings? No. But it is very important. It is important that it is understood within the conversation that the four people most responsible for yoga’s spread to the west were all Indian. It is important that people know that these four people wanted yoga to spread as far and wide as possible. It is important that people know that Iyengar said that yoga’s spread to the west was absolutely essential for yoga’s survival. The idea that yoga was ‘robbed’ is simply historically inaccurate. Now, does that justify some of the shenanigans that are going on these days with uneducated and uninformed western teachers making deep cultural blunders? No. Does it invalidate people’s feelings? No. But again, the facts happen to be vital. Pattabhi Jois and Iyengar proactively and intentionally trained westerners to be yoga teachers so they could spread yoga to the west. Sharath is still doing this, as are dozens of other Indian teachers. Yoga is here because Indian people wanted it to be here.
If cultural ownership applied to athletic disciplines, Judo would not be an olympic sport. Jiu Jitsu never would have made it to Brazil. If ownership applied to spiritual traditions, there would be no Christianity in America or Europe, no Zen in Japan, no Vajrayana in Tibet. The fact is that most spiritual traditions are actively trying to spread beyond borders. It’s part of their mission. Now, if a culture chooses proprietary ownership of a spiritual tradition should we respect it? Absolutely. Do the Acoma tribe here in New Mexico have the right to keep their sacred creation story to themselves and not have it published? Yes. But Yoga was never historically viewed as proprietary. Even now, the vast majority of the Indian people I know within India are all in favor of westerners practicing yoga. For a vocal minority to retroactively say yoga is proprietary… well, it’s quite simply too late.
The difficult part for me is understanding what the collective anti-appropriation crowd is asking for, if anything. if it’s simply to listen, then me personally, I want to listen. If it’s to encourage yoga instructors to be more informed, to help, to be involved, or — as you say — to be in relationship, I’m all for it. If it’s to point and blame, well, there’s enough blame in the world already, and I don’t see how more of it helps anything. If it’s to draw an invisible line in the sand and say this belongs to us and you can’t have it, that’s quite frankly, impossible. At a certain point, as with any movement that’s anything more than internet commentary, there needs to be decision as to what is being proactively sought, or else it just becomes a catalog of complaint.
Hi Josh, your examples of Christianity and what not, spreading around was due when the white people came, invaded, stole, enslaved…moved people around. So those people tried to keep a part of their culture in a foreign land as their bodies adapted to the different new climates they experienced.
Perhaps we’re talking past one another my friend, but I do appreciate the thoughtful response as opposed to the initial ‘nah, thanks.’ I will try to write a response to this in the next few days.
On the topic of “blocking” it seems like an issue is the permanence of the written word. If this were a live coversation, each person, regardless of their level of trolling, would be given time to “say their piece” and then the coversation would move on. Perhaps some sort of comment time limit would create a virtual version of this. 24 hours? One week? Maybe this is more management than you are interested in taking on. I’m clearly uncertain about the time interval and it’s potential efficacy.