yoga & cultural appropriation: new mini-doc explores the basics

yoga & cultural appropriation: new mini-doc explores the basics

The conversation around yoga and cultural appropriation is growing and expanding, with increased resources and educational opportunities. You Are Here: Exploring Yoga & the Impacts of Cultural Appropriation, a new mini-doc featuring nisha ahuja and produced by Toby Wiggins, is a valuable contribution to the conversation. Simple and beautifully produced, the 25-minute film introduces the basic elements of cultural appropriation in North American yoga and clear strategies to counter it.

You Are Here has been created in response to a live event in Toronto in January 2014, when ahuja presented her work and ideas to a packed house at Kula Annex yoga studio. She has since received countless requests to make the information available to everyone online. In the video, ahuja clearly defines cultural appropriation, identifies its roots and gives concrete examples for how it impacts yoga in North America. She outlines Indigenous artist and activist Tannis Nielsen‘s five steps of colonization, applying it to North American colonization of yoga practices.

nisha ahuja has been sharing her examination of yoga and cultural appropriation for over a decade, most notably through her play Yoga Cannibal, a cutting look at the consumption of cultural in the quest for spiritual fulfillment. She is also an actor, physical theatre creator, writer, singer/songwriter, and arts educator who has worked in Canada, the Netherlands, and India. ahuja is dedicated to dissolving the boundaries between art, traditional/ancient medicines, spirituality, and politics. The film is a collaboration with community-based activist and filmmaker, Toby Wiggins. He’s a PhD student at York University, Toronto in the department of Gender, Feminist, and Women’s Studies, where his areas of research include queer theory, feminist cultural production, critical race theory, perversion, and psychoanalysis. 

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  1. I am so fascinated by this topic but she seems intent on setting up that ‘no one in the US does yoga right….except me’. She does realize that she’s complicit in this, as well? Wearing your shawl (talk about fetishization!) does not free set you above everyone in the US who is interested in yoga. Additionally, if she knew her history she’d know that Islam, for one, is hardly free of the taint of colonialism, nor Asian cultures (please ask Koreans about this).

    Asian cultures are notably also racist ( gaijin) and sexist (the idea of women doing yoga was anathema thirty years ago, anywhere OUTSIDE the US!)

  2. Thanks for posting this interesting video! I agree with the commenter above that while I think this is such an important discussion, the perspective of the documentary felt really simplified – yoga in North America=always bad. I really take issue with that – I think there are plenty of people practicing yoga in North America that recognize the full meaning of yoga and include philosophy and spirituality as the foundation. I did a 200 hour training at Kripalu, and the bulk of our training was centered around history, philosophy, learning to hold space for others, and meditation. There are also many traditions in North America that are very inclusive of various mobilities, backgrounds, body types, gender identities, etc. It is true that the advertising doesn’t always reflect this diversity (and I think that should change) but the same could be said of many other activities.

    The history of yoga is absolutely fascinating, but I think it is also important to recognize that yoga as practiced in India has also evolved over time – it has not been a rigid static practice in India or anywhere. What yoga was 5,000 years ago in India is not how yoga is in India now. (And as the above commenter noted, yoga long ago was not always inclusive either!) Culture is a fluid, changing thing everywhere. I think it is certainly important to recognize when cultural appropriation is occurring, but I think that being influenced by a practice that originated someplace else and making it a part of your own life is not necessarily cultural appropriation.

  3. I am in no way supporting the colonization of India by the Brits. My understanding is that the West actually saved yoga from extinction. Krishnamacharya understood that traditions had to be broken during those challenging times of colonization and yoga was dying, he said ‘if we do not encourage women the great Indian tradition of yoga will die’. His position shifted from being staunchly anti woman to being their biggest supporter. He eventually taught Indra Devi for one year straight, and then asked her to become a teacher and bring the practice to the west. His foresight guaranteed the traditions revival. I love the documentary, Yoga Unveiled. It goes through the history of yoga. Yoga is one of the greatest gifts we have in the world, it belongs to the world, and the world desperately needs it.