Tools for Cultural Appreciation (The Antidote to Appropriation)

This article is adapted from Embrace Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Practice by Susanna Barkataki. 

As an antidote to cultural appropriation, let’s explore the skills of cultural appreciation, power balancing, and (non-harm). We know that we don’t want to appropriate, so understanding what cultural appreciation is and how we can do it is key. I often get asked the question, “If I am not an Indian or South Asian person, should I teach yoga?” My response is “No one outside of yourself can answer that question for you.” If you are asking this question, I encourage you to apply the practice of viveka, wise discrimination and deep inquiry. Utilizing some of the tools in this article, as well as the support of cultural appreciation, may help guide your exploration. 

Cultural appreciation seeks to connect with cultures different from one’s own from the inside out. It respects the codes, values, and practices of the culture. Cultural appreciation can happen when one enjoys or respects the culture of origin, when, instead of harming or taking, one learns with humility, gives back, and uplifts the source culture. 

Remember that to be present, cultural appropriation has two criteria: 

1. Power imbalance 

2. Causing harm 

Similarly, cultural appreciation involves two criteria of power-balancing and ahimsa (non-harm or harm reduction). 

1. Power balancing: Sharing power or using privilege or advantage to uplift or support an under-resourced group or people. This is an appropriate use of shakti, or power. 

2. Non-harm (ahimsa): Reducing or mitigating harm, or actively uplifting the source culture and its people. Consideration, care, and respect that come from learning about and uplifting the source culture and those who often don’t receive support. This can include financial, social, political, emotional, and cultural care and support. 

For example, examining one’s privilege and using it to lift others up is a form of balancing power. I experienced this when I was a young organizer in my early 20s. I attended a meeting to help organize an anti-war march. Those in attendance were mostly white men in their 40s. My friend and I were the only people of color, and we were both in our mid-20s. I was inexperienced in that space. My friend was a confident young man. I assumed he would step up and help lead the march we were organizing together and that I would help from behind the scenes. 

As discussions unfolded on who would run the peacekeeping team for the march, I heard my friend say, “I think she should be our head peacekeeper,” pointing at me. In that moment, I was terrified. I didn’t feel capable of leading much, let alone an entire peace march of what turned out to be more than 100,000 people. I tried to deflect. My friend insisted. 

In the end, I did indeed lead the peacekeeping team on that historic march. And though I was terrified, it was a good thing I was leading, because someone with significant compassion and care was needed to break up a fight between pro-war and anti-war protestors. It turned out that my calm demeanor, fresh from the meditation cushion, helped calm a tense situation from becoming an out-and-out fight. 

I never would have volunteered for that position, and none of the usual leaders would have chosen me. It was my friend’s choice to use his male privilege to speak up and give power over to the youngest, brownest woman in the room that changed the course of that march and of my life. 

Sometimes, having a voice that other people listen to means speaking up and using it, not to claim power for oneself, but to pass the power to someone else.

I learned not only that I could lead a march and keep the peace, but that sometimes, having a voice that other people listen to means speaking up and using it, not to claim power for oneself, but to pass the power to someone else. 

This is a lesson I haven’t forgotten and one that I carry with me as a reminder of sharing power. 

Non-Harm: Concrete Actions for Cultural Appreciation, Not Appropriation 

Coming toward a tradition with openness, willingness to listen, respect, and humility are wonderful ways to engage mutual exchange. We must avoid harm and address power imbalances. 

• First and foremost, address your impact, not just your intention. Consider whether your actions may be causing harm and try to reduce that harm.

• Another powerful way to avoid appropriation is to honor yoga’s roots. Learn about the culture from the inside out. Explore the lineages. Explore the expanse of this practice far beyond just the physical. Read the and cite sources of these wisdom teachings.

• If you are a yoga practitioner, ask your teachers for more than asana. Go deeper. Ask and take the time to learn and practice more. Practice and teach as many of the limbs and other aspects of yoga as possible so we can experience the full range of what yoga has to offer.

• We can own our positionality and honor our lineage. At the beginning of a yoga class, teachers can share, “This is who I am, this is how I learned; I have a lot of respect for the lineage…”

• Actively uplift. Centralize those who have been left out. Consider yoga’s legacy and traditions, and what we may be missing by historical and present-day omission. We South Asians, Indians, and Desis are here. Include us. Centralize us. Ask us. Invite us in. Lift us up. For example, if you are attending or hosting a yoga festival or conference, in-person or online, ensure that there are multiple South Asian wisdom holders speaking, teaching, or otherwise represented in the lineup. Historical oppression and omission have taken from us a centralized position and a voice that should be ours to share. Include us and know there’s room for you in the circle and in the practice.

• Be committed to studentship—practicing and teaching. We are always students of this practice. Act as if we could study it for our whole lives and always be learning, because, of course, we can. A little humility, a little reverence, goes a long way. 

• Honor symbols and iconography. Make sure that if we are using images of deities or regalia such as statues, malas (prayer beads), or bindis (spiritual adornment), that we know where they came from, what they mean, how to relate to them respectfully with sincere intention in our hearts. Deepening our relationship is key. 

• Avoid exploitation. Show that we really care about others’ well-being. This is not just a thing we are doing. Consider whether you are profiting off another culture’s wisdom and practices and, if so, how you might make material reparations. 

• Engage in courageous conversations at yoga sites. For example, you can connect with people at your studio or wherever you practice and engage in conversations exploring yoga and cultural issues. These conversations aren’t always comfortable, but they invite us to deal with the real. We must make space to lean into hard conversations such as these. We must reach for each other as we change ourselves and the world. We are all connected. 

• We can explore questions such as: 

- Where might we be appropriating yoga in our actions, practices, classes, merchandise? What might we do differently? 

- What aspects of yoga culture and practice are we strong at practicing? 

- What aspects can we deepen and practice more fully?

- What are some areas of growth and learning we can embrace as a community? 

Appreciation involves awe, respect, reverence, and humility, like the kind you’d feel when you look at a raging river delivering sustenance to old-growth forests and cities for centuries, knowing the river has been here before you, and that it will continue long and strong and beautiful after you are gone. This perspective invites awe and humility, rather than ownership and control. We can look at yoga with the same reverence. 

Identify and reflect on your power, and bring large amounts of compassion for yourself and others into this practice.

Excerpted from Embrace Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Practice by Susanna Barkataki. Copyright © 2020 Susanna Barkataki. Reprinted with permission from Ignite Wellness & Yoga Institute. Get your book at embraceyogasrootsbook.com.

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An Indian yoga practitioner in the Shankaracharya tradition, Susanna Barkataki supports practitioners... Read more

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