The practice of yoga raises questions of cultural appropriation

By Dara Stack, Contributing Writer

A spiritual practice spanning thousands of years is taking place all around us. The setting: studios, fitness centers, homes or even outdoors. It is a physical and conscious practice: it is yoga.

Lots of people have gone to a yoga class or watched a yoga video online. Many say it has become commonplace all over the world. However, some teachers have said that the spread of yoga has resulted in its cultural appropriation.

Jan Erkert, professor and head of the dance department at the university, said yoga has strayed from its original purpose.

“A mainstream culture has taken the work of a spiritual practice in India and what is problematic is the idea that it has taken it and turned into a workout routine,” Erkert said. . “The idea that a traditionally spiritual practice has become a fitness routine to improve physical appearance for many seems to take away the true value and meaning of the practice.”

Christopher Callahan, assistant professor and specialist in Japanese religions and Buddhism at the University, said yoga was a significant practice for many religions in East Asia.

“East Asian religions are more practice-oriented,” Callahan said. “Belief is secondary to practice.”

Considering the original goals of these religions and yoga, Callahan said that the movements and feelings of yoga take on more importance than the religious motivations behind them.

He said people tend to modify yoga and make it their own by doing what works best for them. However, he said it contradicted the original intent of many cultures and changed the specific yoga poses that were done in a certain way.

Erkert said the spread of yoga is probably inevitable, but on closer inspection it has a variety of benefits for different types of people. She said yoga is a powerful practice with the potential to transform not only bodies, but lives as well.

Michelle Liang, an engineering junior, practiced yoga for the purpose of fitness and relaxation. She said that yoga is specifically different from other physical practices and sports she participates in.

“I think the way they get you to do different exercises is a lot more of the smaller movements and focusing on mindfulness,” Liang said.

Many have said that yoga is unique for incorporating mindfulness into physical activity for personal benefit.

Liang said yoga has helped her become more relaxed, which she believes could be helpful for many students with busy and stressful schedules.

Erkert said people need to understand how to respect yoga’s spiritual origins and work to avoid appropriation. As a white woman teaching yoga, Erkert said she strives to be extremely respectful and aware of cultural practice.

“I think as a dance practitioner this awareness of the impact of different cultures on the way we move is really important,” Erkert said.

Erkert said it’s important to recognize that yoga’s origins are religious and that through its spread it has been culturally appropriate.

Erkert also said there is a lack of diversity among yoga teachers in the United States. She said her department is planning a nationwide search for a professor with a background in health and wellness in order to diversify.

“(There will be) a national research where we can really seek to diversify our whole faculty in general, but especially in the area of ​​yoga,” Erkert said.

However, Erkert said the future of yoga in our country and our community looks bright.

“The work is slow, but I think it’s stable if you really work at it,” Erkert said. “Our community is a very different community now than it was 10 or 15 years ago because we have really actively worked to diversify both our faculty, our students, etc. To commit to.”

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