Irish “Buddha” figure; about 800 AD
I have noticed a lot of articles in the online media recently about “cultural appropriation” with many good, responsible teachers and students apologising because they are concerned that they are pirating Indian culture by doing or teaching yoga. I found this very odd. Because it seems to me that yoga, by definition, is the opposite of a cultural property that one can appropriate.
On the contrary, it involves a realisation of our connection with all things and all people and it does not belong to any particular culture; it is our heritage as humans on this Earth and exists in all cultures. We owe the Indian people a great debt of gratitude for taking care of and making available this amazing resource—but they can’t be said to own it so how can it be appropriated?
It all reminds me of an animated speech Desmond Tutu gave at the opening of the World Cup tournament in South Africa in 2010. Hardly able to contain his joy, he looked around at about 100,000 people who had come from all around the world and reminded them that their “modern human” ancestors had left Africa only about 70,000 years ago to travel North to Asia and Australia and later move on to colonise the planet.
We mustn’t think that these were “primitive” people. Certainly their technology was not highly developed, but their feelings, their music, their dreams and their love for their children were not that much different from our own. And they certainly had adventurous spirits. When they left Africa, they brought their assembled traditions and memories with them so that many of our cultural expressions today must resonate with that homeland and that journey. These things stay in our collective memories.
Archbishop Tutu, speaking in English, German, French, Afrikaans and several other languages, looked around at representatives of all the peoples of the world and said “I want to welcome you home”.
Much later, only about 150 lifetimes ago, when Indo-European people expanded West as far as Ireland and East as far as India, they took their culture with them too; partly African in origin I suppose, and partly learned from the natural world on the shores of the Black Sea. And, as I suggested in the book The Celtic School of Yoga, some of this still seems remarkably well-preserved here in Ireland, at the western edge of that movement—from the Upanishadic nature of the Song of Aimhirghin, the Irish Creation Myth, to what looks like a meditating Buddha on an 8th Century Irish bucket now in the national museum in Norway.
Of course, this all refers to the real, deep aspect of yoga which deals with our fundamental relationship between us and the universe. As regards the more surface elements–such as another culture’s music or metaphors or pantheon of goddesses and gods or way of speaking or thinking or hats or clothing or whatever–some borrowings could legitimately be seen as inappropriate. Do be careful about things which can be culturally sensitive; wearing another culture’s real or meatphorical clothing can cause difficulties or just be plain silly. Don’t do it lightly. In all of this, the important thing is to be yourself; your true authentic self.
Even then things can get complicated. I was walking down the main street in Galway the other day when I saw two Japanese women playing beautiful Irish dance music outside one of the larger book shops. A creeping, almost nationalistic feeling began to rise inside me—could this be “cultural appropriation”?—until I realised the truth. The music they were playing was what all the world would call Irish—but:
- The Reels came from Scotland in the 18th Century
- The Jigs originated in Britain in the 16th Century, travelled to France and Italy and then to Ireland in the 18th Century
- The Mazurkas had come from the Czech Republic in the 19th Century
- The Slides came from French quadrilles in the 18th Century and are related to American Square dancing music
- The Polkas came from Poland; Waltzes came from Austria…
In the same way Yoga poses have a multitude of origins. Some certainly came from India, but some came from Scandinavian fitness programmes, some from British army gymnastic teachers, some from American yoga schools and on and on…
The point of all of this? Be yourself, be respectful of other people and peoples and don’t pretend you are part of a different culture. At the same time, realise that the fundamental basis of yoga—of realising your connection with everything that is— is yours as much as it is anybody’s and don’t worry about “cultural appropriation”! As St Augustine said, “Love and do what you want”, because if you truly love you can do nothing wrong.
Do your yoga, if you love it, in your place, in your season, and be joyful that it is your birthright as a human.