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  • helizabethcaney8

'Flow yoga, Goat yoga, Chakra yoga, Ashtanga yoga' : a discussion on styles of yoga and cultural appropriation.

Until relatively recently I would get annoyed at the publicity of things like 'Puppy yoga', 'Beer yoga', 'Disco yoga', 'Alpacha yoga', I deemed these things as so culturally appropriated and ignorant to the philosophy of yoga, making a joke of a suppressed/discriminated population's spiritual and ancestral practices.

Then I thought to myself; here I am, a white, western woman, capitalising from teaching the same spiritual practice for the last ten years, who do I think I am questioning and judging these admittedly gimmicky styles of yoga, is this because I think I'm not culturally appropriating myself- and if that's the case I really need to take a step back and look at myself.

Why was I assuming that classes like 'Ashtanga yoga' 'Iyenger yoga' or 'Hatha yoga' were more ‘real’ and authentic, is it because they reference their gurus (although most of which have huge sexual abuse cases connected to them):

It is an unfortunate fact that this is just the latest in a long line of sexual abuses scandals that have affected many of the major yoga styles and lineages – Ashtanga, Bikram, Jivamukti, Anusara, Kundalini, Manouso Manos in the Iyengar tradition, Satyananda, Kausthub Desikachar and countless more.

Shannon Roche, chief operating officer of the Yoga Alliance internationally in 2018 commented that “almost every yoga tradition” now has its own sexual abuse scandal. (5)

How is it that the most 'authentic' styles of yoga are deemed as credible, yes maybe they don't from the outside look as gimmicky as a yoga class filled with goats walking all over you, but is any form of yoga in the West 'authentic'?

I feel like the harder those who teach or practice trying to make/portray it as authentic or part of their culture or lives perhaps the more cultural appropriation and ignorance they are presenting?

I realise this questioning lends itself to the question of cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation, the divide of which I think is very convoluted here in the West and even with the best intentions the opposite can be achieved.

Now looking at it I'd much rather someone chuck me a pair of headphones so I can listen to bit of Talking Heads and bop my way through a sun salutation, than being asked to chant in Sanskrit (often mispronounced) or be taught asana-positions that are not thoroughly described, the intention and philosophy behind them not mentioned?

Admittedly the development of yoga into combining it with things like beer, goats, water etc has been a relatively modern development - the first use of goat yoga I can find is recorded in February 2015, in Arizona ' this was the first day goats were officially trained in yoga activity‐ It has since spread across the entire world. In February of 2015, on a little farm in Gilbert Arizona, the founding seeds of Goat Yoga were planted.' (6)

I asked my partner what he would choose if he had a choice (after saying neither) he said goats over gongs. Why is this? He said because it all looks the same and there is probably less pretence when a goat is involved.

But what about the classes/styles that are surfacing that are perhaps a little in the grey area, looking in my local paper at the huge amount of yoga adverts, mentioned was 'mystical yoga' 'chakra yoga' 'yoga for runners' 'sunset flow yoga' 'slow yoga' 'fast yoga' 'dynamic yoga' 'mindful yoga' 'meditative yoga' 'yoga and breathwork'. I found this interesting.

If we are all teaching the same thing which was gained through our individual studying of yoga and are all 'yoga teachers' why the variation, different people will always be drawn to different teachers, different styles of practice, guidance, settings etc. But why the extreme difference in classes, if it is 'yoga' does it not encompass different speeds e.g. faster and slower, does it not focus on different areas of the body that each 'chakra' (or energy wheel) is located in, does it not target muscles that are used repetitively in the action of running. Or are we being true westerners, exotifying yoga and using that as a sales point. Is this appropriate/where did it derive from/do people like it/where does it end? Are these gimmicks not a prime example of the capitalism of yoga, or are they a lovely way of celebrtaing how diverse yoga can be, and how it can compliment other interests we as individuals have in life?

The questions I have is where does a gimmick end and "real yoga" begin? Is gaining new yogis who come in through one of these fantastical doors a good thing? Can we get so focused on “new and improved” that we lose yoga all together? (2)

To make an example how would it seem if we did the same with acupuncture or counseling (which I realise is not the same but hopefully you get the gist, as both are a practice that have arguably similar effects to yoga/feeling calmer, relaxed, aware of your body etc) how about we add puppy's to it, or beer, or do it to rock music. Does this change what it is, and the effect it has, or does it not matter.

Can we just blend anything with yoga, now yoga has been so gentrified/colonised/popular. Do we have to give it any consideration, how far can we go with it, with such a theme can we still authentically teach yoga and its philosophy, to be honest I'm not sure.

The wonderful podcast hosts Tejal Patel and Jesal Parikh state how 'My feeling is this: if it brings more mindfulness, then it's yoga. If it brings more distractions or takes away from the fact that it's a spirituality rooted practice that comes from south Asia, then it's not yoga. If I'm not even aware of my breath, my movement, or myself because I'm trying to keep up or there's a goat on me, then it's not yoga....

We know yoga is an evolving practice, but if you need to change the practice so much to add completely unlikely elements and still add a movement practice, consider not calling it yoga because it feels disrespectful and culturally appropriated.'

I think this is a hugely valid argument, where gimicky yoga could be described as inauthentic and a sign of colonialism/ gentrification how far us westerners feel we can remove the roots of yoga from the practice when teaching it.

Maybe the 'lure' of these gimmicks is that they are ice breakers- they may (like my partner) indicate there is a humour or trivialness about the class, however where do we go from there- once you have done a couple of classes with puppies, does it then start can we progress/journey through yoga - does a certain narrative get created where puppies are used to help guide you in your 'Pratyahara' (withdrawal of the senses) or 'Dharana' (concentration) or any of the eight limbs of yoga, can we still teach a class and call it yoga if we aren't aware of all the foundations of what yoga is. And maybe none if that needs to be spoken about but if we are claiming we are not only practitioners but instructors of yoga then should we not be able to talk about this to students or question our guidance ourselves as teachers and it's appropriateness.

Dr. Laura McGuire, yoga teacher, trauma-informed specialist, and inclusion consultant at The National Center for Equity and Agency perfectly puts it in my opinion;

'The questions I have is where does a gimmick end and "real yoga" begin? Is gaining new yogis who come in through one of these fantastical doors a good thing? Can we get so focused on “new and improved” that we lose yoga all together?

The answer to this, for me, is twofold: one, I must accept that yoga is always evolving and even the most ancient versions have been modified for modern Western palettes, and two, I need to clarify for myself, if no one else, what makes yoga, "real yoga."

We often hear well-known instructors say that their lineage is the most ancient or the most authentic, but history paints a very different picture. We now know that yoga was not a clear sequence of poses until the late 19th century.

Yogis thousands of years ago were more focused on meditation and breathwork than asanas (poses) whereas now many people, who rarely meditate or practice pranayama call themselves yoga experts. Yoga, as we know it, is already a gimmick of sorts. It has been both appropriated and developed to meet the needs of wider audiences.' (2)

Kat Rosenfield pop culture and political writer goes on to say: 'Considering the global saturation of the practice, the idea that Westerners doing yoga represents a form of cultural theft is surprisingly resilient. After a 2013 essay on the now-defunct XOJane website declared, “LIKE IT OR NOT, WESTERN YOGA IS A TEXTBOOK EXAMPLE OF CULTURAL APPROPRIATION”, a painstakingly-researched rebuttal by Michelle Goldberg should really have put an end to the discussion once and for all'. (3)

So where does that leave us? Well personally I'm pretty confident that I dont think I'll ever partake in a disco yoga class, even more so teaching one. But I also have no want to attend a class that calls itself 'Flow' or 'Iyenger', but I realise many will love that and I shouldn't judge that, I do think that as teachers we should be aware of what we are doing to yoga to make it fit around our own personal interests but then again maybe that doesn't matter either, because maybe there is no such thing as authentic yoga and if anyone claims their yoga is truly authentic maybe that's where a bigger problem lies?


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