The Cultural Appropriation of Yoga: A Search for Social Justice

October 1, 2015 ~ Demetra Szatkowski

I am lost in a way that feels good.

This began for me maybe a while ago, not long after I first started teaching. I remember expressing my exasperation with the “yoga world” to a friend, saying how nobody really seemed legitimate to me and everything seemed to be more about the image of yoga than yoga itself.

I read this article, which made me pause, but I did not listen. As most white people do, I closed my eyes because I knew I was doing good work. Either way, my yoga practice was too precious to me for me to question it.

Even though I had done yoga a little bit before, I consider myself truly coming to yoga a month or so after my younger brother’s car accident. He was in a coma and not expected to survive, which completely tore my world apart. I took a yoga class because I didn’t know what else to do. It was there that I was finally able to find some sense of peace. I went almost every single day, not because it magically made me happy, but because it allowed me to feel in some way that everything would eventually be okay. Six months later, I did my teacher training.

Fast forward a few years to opening a studio with a deep desire to make yoga accessible to everyone, but not really knowing how to accomplish such a thing. I naively entered into a partnership that quickly ended up becoming horrible and extremely stressful for me.

And I accomplished good things. Our prices were cheaper than other studios, and our welcoming environment saw people of different shapes and sizes – more than I had seen at any other studio prior. People were friendly to one another and appreciative. The business did well.

But I had a lot of nagging thoughts that got harder and harder for me to ignore. Honestly, I grew to hate everything that had to do with the studio except for the people and teaching. I cannot stand marketing; inspirational posts feel so fake to me. Anybody who knows me knows that I am a horrible liar, but this becomes even worse in online settings – I feel genuinely incapable of writing something I do not truly believe in or see as worthwhile. So posting advertisements doesn’t work for me; nor does really anything else that has to do with growing a business – especially one currently so heavily based on image.  And at the same time, I really was just in an awful place with my business partner, which I won’t go into here.

I also was experiencing an intense desire to leave and travel aimlessly, which I have now begun to connect as a pattern of wanting to simply run away from everything causing me issues in my life. I knew I didn’t want to go back to college, and so I told everybody I was going to leave in January to travel. That was what felt right to me.

That was four months ago. For four months I felt trapped in a situation that did not feel truthful to me and for me that is too long.

And then I reread that article. I was feeling fake about advertising and fake about teaching and I googled “I don’t want to teach yoga anymore” and that article popped up and I read it for the first time with my eyes wide open.

I simply could not ignore it anymore. I found SAAPYA and watched hours of them speaking and I found endless articles on the internet about cultural appropriation and why it is such a terrible thing.

And I was uncomfortable. So uncomfortable.

Look – I am not perfect, at all. I opened a studio and for a while my name on Facebook was “Demetra Ananda” (a Sanskrit word) for reasons that don’t excuse anything. I taught yoga and took pictures of myself in different poses and posted inspirational things that did feel true to me and I really did believe everything I was saying. I believed I was doing good work.

And I was.

But this is the thing, the thing that most people don’t get when I try to explain this: I can do better.

I can help people in a way that does not include stealing from an already oppressed culture. I know that this is possible. I find myself in this crisis of not being able to teach or even take class because everything I used to say and hear said all of a sudden feels so fake to me. I cannot watch videos of South Asian girls with tears in their eyes talk about white privilege and still market my yoga and my business. A few months ago I would have told you that yeah, maybe I don’t know or even agree with everything about yoga, but that it doesn’t matter, because it’s okay to just take what you want from it and leave the rest.

I know now that is not okay. But to see why it is not okay really requires the openness and the willingness to see the bigger picture.

White people have a huge, long history of taking everything that does not belong to them, mostly because they can and because they feel entitled to it. Some of these people are bad people, but most of these people have just simply been raised that way and don’t even notice what they’re doing. I highly, highly encourage you to watch this short documentary if you are interested in (or “don’t believe in”) white privilege and all that it encompasses.

I quite honestly do not feel like I have enough knowledge to write a thorough essay on this topic yet.

What I have formed in my head and what I want to say to other white yoga teachers in this moment, though, is this:

We do not get to take yoga, which is an ancient, spiritual practice from another culture, a culture that feels very oppressed in our country, and take what we want from it and put a different spin on it and turn it into workouts and workshops and businesses.  I don’t think we should disregard noticing what kinds of people show up for class. We have made yoga exclusive in this country whether we like it or not. We have taken something so sacred to so many people and turned it into a laughable version of what it once was. Yes, we are helping people. Yes, we are doing good work. Our intentions are good. But we are hurting humanity and society in the process.

To me, this is an exchange I cannot justify.

And, believe me, I know – this does not feel good to hear. At all. It feels like something is being taken away. I don’t think though that discomfort is a good reason to abstain from analyzing ourselves

I think that white people in America are in a space of confusion. We have lost our roots and our connection to our own ethnic backgrounds, our own cultures, and so we are looking for identity and belonging in other cultures that do not belong to us. This is hard. I do not have a total solution, but I am looking for one.

And so I’m stuck in this strange place of figuring out what feels okay to me in this moment with this newfound knowledge and what does not. Teaching yoga poses to and sharing my knowledge of the body with my brain-injured brother to help him learn to move his body feels okay. It feels okay to show friends poses that will help them feel better, without pretending I am an authority on yoga. Even yin yoga feels okay to me in a way, I think because it is so non-striving, so gentle, although I don’t want to teach that in this moment either. It currently feels weird to practice by myself. I think this is mostly because the way I rely so much on yoga has been brought to my attention and I want to find many ways that support me in the way yoga does. I have also noticed how much being a yoga teacher is so central and crucial to my sense of identity and I want to move away from that. I don’t know if I want to travel still or if I want to go to school or what I want to do. I really just want to help people.

I feel a sense of wholeness right now that I think faded away for me while ago – this sense of wholeness that comes when our actions are truly in alignment with our beliefs.

This is an ongoing journey for me. Thank you so much for listening.