Recently, a local yoga studio that I follow on Instagram announced that they were changing their name. In an effort to no longer culturally appropriate, the word “Yoga” was being changed to “Expansion.” While I applaud their effort to be aware of and give credit to where we share traditions from, I’m not so sure that simply removing the word yoga is the answer. Here’s why I think that this change creates some opposition in my own mind.
Firstly, if you’ve never read the book An Autobiography of a Yogi, I highly recommend it. Written by Sri Paramhansa Yogananda, this book is a dedication to the author’s Indian teachers, Sri Yukteswar and Lahiri Mahasaya. The goal of writing the book is to bring yoga to the West and to teach all readers and seekers that you don’t need to be a saint or some famous yogi to make a big difference in the world. It is possible to do much good and to be a good person by being a simple man/woman with a simple life, job, and family, basically a “common” person. Yogananda realized later in his life, that his purpose here on earth was to bring yoga to the West to popularize yoga. He presents the teachings of his teachers in a way that can be understood and shared, to benefit all of society.
Yogananda is buried in Glendale California, and he spent the latest years of his life traveling and teaching yoga throughout the West. He wrote books in English for English speakers, and he even recorded music in English, after immortalizing his songs through constant evocation into the universe, so that their vibrations when spoken and sang would greatly benefit those who chanted them. If Yogananda, beloved by many in India and around the world, didn’t want yoga to become culturally steeped into western society, why would he then make all of these efforts? Not to mention that bringing yoga to the West was also the wish of his teacher Sri Yukteswar.
Secondly, as someone who has been lucky enough to travel a bit, I must also include some of my personal experiences that leave me feeling unsure about our possible over-concern with appropriation in yoga. While this experience is not tied to the country of India, I do feel like the message is the same. I love Spanish culture. I like to speak in Spanish, dance to Spanish music, cook and eat Spanish food and definitely travel to Spanish-speaking countries. Every time that I’ve been to a Spanish-speaking country, the locals love to chat it up with me. I have an excellent accent, and although I’m not completely fluent, I make the effort to practice the language. Never once in my life has a taxi driver, waiter, hotel concierge, or anyone told me, “Hey your accent isn’t good and you need to learn to speak better.” I make mistakes, but everyone I encounter is excited that I have made and been making the effort to try and learn their native language. Often I hear, “Your accent is so good, you would be fluent if you lived here for 3 months, and you’re already fluent.” It leaves me tickled that they motivate me to keep on, and I honestly believe that the locals really appreciate my effort and embrace me for it. And honestly, this is the attitude I think we should approach yoga in the west with. Forever students enjoying a practice that originates from another country.
So why do we take issue with Yoga being taught in the West? Why are we being told after spending lots of money to learn the practice of yoga, that we are appropriating? Did someone ever say, “Yoga was created in the West?” Did someone try to claim ownership over the practice of yoga? So why do we allow ourselves to be shamed into believing that we are now bad people for enjoying a practice that was meant to be shared with the world? I know many people, including myself, who say “Yoga saved my life.” How can something so beautiful and transformative now be a bad word?
Lastly, I’d like to include one more personal experience to lay out what I’m trying to say. I taught yoga for 7 Years in San Francisco, after being a practitioner for many years before that. I was lucky enough to live in an incredibly diverse city with people from all over the world. I was lucky enough to get to teach yoga to people from India. My students, never had a problem with me teaching a tradition from their country. In fact, many times these same students would be tickled that I would share a mantra with the class that “reminded them of their childhood.” Or teach them poses that they “never got to practice back home.” These same students would go to India and visit their families and return with gifts for me. They would often ask me, “have you ever been to India?” To which I would reply, “No but it is on my list and I’m really looking forward to going one day.” Never was I ever made to feel that I was doing anything bad. These students came to my classes as often as they could, because they loved my classes.
I think it’s important to not exclude intent. What is your intent for teaching? Because I promise you, if your intent is to share the magic and the gift of yoga, your students are not going to be offended. If yoga did truly “Save your life,” why should you be ashamed? If our beloved Yogananda made it his life purpose to bring yoga to the west and popularize it for all of mankind to benefit from, how could such an amazing person be wrong to do that? I think it’s time that we all stop shaming ourselves and embrace the fact that yes, we share cultures with others around the world. We don’t need to exclude the word yoga from our studio so that we don’t appropriate or offend.
We simply need to remember why we do what we do, and to live our truth unapologetically.
By Jessica Waters
January 18, 2022