184: Is Yoga Cultural Appropriation? with Shailla Vaidya
It is common knowledge that yoga originated from India, and has been practised in India and South Asia for millennia. It is only recently that yoga has gained popularity in the Western world. Over time, people within the yoga space have adapted it to cater to different needs and trends, and today, there are many different forms of yoga that exist which can be very removed from the original practice of yoga as it was intended. This leads to the complex question – Is yoga cultural appropriation?
Dr. Shailla Vaidya joins Shannon as someone who is of South Asian descent and was raised in the yoga tradition to share her perspectives. Dr. Shailla Vaidya is a Physician and Yoga Therapist, who practices Mind-Body Medicine in Toronto, Ontario. Shailla teaches medically-informed therapeutic yoga to yoga therapists internationally and offers a variety of programs that combine the science of Western Medicine with the Eastern Mind-Body practice of Yoga.
In this eye-opening and straight-from-the-heart conversation, Shailla really opens up about her own personal experiences of what it was like to grow up in the culture of yoga and then to step into a Westen yoga class. She also talks about what we can do to honor the tradition of yoga and share it in a way that is respectful of its heritage and history, and the culture it comes from while acknowledging the challenges that come with it
Being respectful, culturally sensitive and appropriate is something we all constantly need to learn and work on. This interview is a great starting point to think about some of the issues around yoga and cultural appropriation.
[7:16] Shannon introduces her guest for this episode – Dr. Shailla Vaidya.
[8:32] Shannon and Shailla share some context about the situation at the time of recording.
“It is such an important turning point that we really have to stop and ask ourselves, ‘What is the way forward”.” ~ Dr. Shailla Vaidya
[11:51] Shailla shares a bit about her background.
“I’ve been doing yoga my whole life, it’s not something I learned to do or came across – it’s something that’s a part of my culture.” ~ Dr. Shailla Vaidya
[18:59] How does Shailla combine yoga and medicine?
[24:55] Where did Shailla’s journey begin with the understanding of cultural appropriation with regard to yoga?
[29:38] Shailla shares the experience of when she really felt the pain of cultural appropriation in yoga.
“How is it okay that you can use these symbols when I was repeatedly bullied and shamed and put down for my culture? How is it okay that you can do this as a white person, and make money off of it?” ~ Dr. Shailla Vaidya
[34:02] Colonization is a part of India’s history, and there is trauma carried by people of this heritage and culture, as a result of that.
[36:55] Shailla defines cultural appropriation.
“I was happy that other people are enjoying other cultures, that they’re appreciating other cultures, and yet, I’m still struggling with ‘Is this appropriation?’, or why am I feeling this pain?” ~ Dr. Shailla Vaidya
[38:38] Shannon and Shailla discuss why she felt like an imposter in a yoga class and at yoga conferences.
[41:55] What does Shailla wish yoga teachers knew? Shailla shares some of the practices that exist in the Western yoga community that are inappropriate.
[48:45] Un-learning things we have always done can be difficult, but it is something that we need to do. Shannon shares her experience of trying to un-learn saying ‘namaste’ at the end of a yoga class. We need to always be questioning and learning.
[52:49] It is also important to recognize when we’re profiting off somebody or someone’s culture.
“You have to understand the history and the culture of India, because you’re teaching something that is based in and from Indian culture, and you have to understand what was done to these people.” ~ Dr. Shailla Vaidya
[56:07] Shannon and Shailla discuss some ideas on how we can be a part of the solution.
[1:01:02] Who should we be seeking to learn from?
[1:07:25] How can we respect and honor the traditions of yoga as we bring it into our lives?
[1:12:13] Shailla shares some of her struggles around how people practice yoga in Western cultures.
[1:18:24] All of us need to do the work as we learn what’s okay and what’s not okay.
[1:20:22] What are some questions coming up for you after listening to this interview?
- Dr. Shailla Vaidya
- Adverse Childhood Experience Score
- The Connected Yoga Teacher Podcast Episode 137: Yoga and Brain Injuries with Ann Green
- Biopsychosocial Model of Care – Dr. Carolyn Vandyken
- Race-based Traumatic Injury – Dr. Gail Parker
- Symposium for Yoga Therapy and Research (SYTAR) by the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT)
- Yoga Therapy: Yoga, Body, Breath and Mind, by Mohan?
- Gandhi (movie)
- Herniated Lumbar Disk Discussion – The Connected Yoga Teacher Facebook Group
- The Connected Yoga Teacher Podcast Episode 116: Pain Language with Shelly Prosko (Part 1)
Gratitude to our Sponsor Schedulicity
Thanks so much for this conversation! I have been thinking about this topic a lot lately and appreciate Shailla’s sharing of her experience as an Indian person growing up in a predominantly white neighbourhood, her thoughts and feelings on cultural appropriation and yoga, as well as her tips on how to honour and respect yoga’s origins in Indian culture when teaching. I am a devotional chant artist and LOVE the sacredness of Kirtan, and sharing this beautiful practice with others. Although I am not Hindu, chanting is an important part of my personal spiritual practice. I want to make sure I am honouring the tradition and culture from which it originated. This conversation today has inspired me to continue my studies of Sanskrit and Kirtan, and, as Shailla suggested, to be mindful of who I choose to study with. My desire is to keep learning with the utmost respect for the tradition. Thank you for this important conversation!
with gratitude and blessings,
Just finished listening to this podcast. The way Dr. Shailla described her background, her research into other cultures, and her personal experiences all helped to create a safe space for me to listen with an open heart. Thank you, Shannon! Thank you Dr. Shailla! This incredible conversation is one that I will ponder for a very long time.
Thank you Shannon and Dr. Shailla Vaidya. This was such a powerful and helpful conversation.!
I really loved to hear the honest explanation of how it felt and feels when Dr Vaidya attends yoga conferences, yoga classes and listens to non-Hindu people share sacred chants incorrectly. Her stories were very poignant, touching and enlightening. I am a white Canadian yoga teacher who is very engaged in yoga philosophy. I continue to study and learn about this ancient practice and wish to honour the original teachings in the best way I can. I own several versions of the Yoga Sutras and try to learn from different translations and commentaries. I also read and study other sacred texts in an effort to deepen my knowledge.
I thought her comments relating to the use of sacred Hindu symbols was very interesting. I am not Hindu however I have great reverence for those religious teachings. I do have several OM symbols in my home and wonder what Dr Vaidya might think of that. I recognize them as sacred symbols and certainly do not want to appropriate them or undermine their importance to Hindu culture and religion. I wonder if she might find this disrespectful?
At the end of the podcast you asked what might I change in my yoga practice and teachings based on what I heard today? Well I am thinking about the use of Namaste at the end of class, the use of the OM symbol in ways that might be offensive and in attending Kirtan that is sung by people who may or may not have direct connection or teachings with Hindu culture. I will continue to consider, reflect and explore these ponderations.
I feel that indeed the intersection of yoga and religion is tricky. The fact that they are so intertwined throughout Indian culture is significant and must be explored, understood and respected.
Thank you once again Shannon, for being brave enough to have those difficult conversations and to always being open to learning, sharing and helping us all grow together!
It’s all interesting. It made me really think. I’m glad for the chance to hear Dr. Shaila’s perspective. These are not attacks but more things I’ve been thinking about a lot which cause me to experience dissonance. I’m unsure. I don’t quite see how it all of rinses out. So, it’s from a place of trying to understand that I ask these questions and give some reasons why I am looking for some answers. 🙂 … I’m wondering what Dr Vaidya might be able to say about the pizza effect of yoga returning to India and the rise in the number of modern yoga studios in India, like, for instance, Yoga Sutra in down town Mumbai. There is little difference in my opinion between this studio and the people who attend and the reasons why they do than any yoga studio in North America. How is it different, better or worse? If anything, it seems that this studio is an example of the supposed cultural appropriation by Indians of Western physical exercise that supposedly culturally appropriated yoga… Yoga only became a status symbol for conspicuous consumption amongst India’s middle class and up when it became trendy after certain Bollywood actors, such as Shilpa Shetty, etc. saw people like Madonna doing it… Now, yoga is a class and caste defining product of the leisure class for the most part in India. It is anything but inclusive or equitable, especially for say Dalits, OBCs, STs, etc. Is it not in some way at least ironic but possibly also hypocritical that this social justice focused yoga zeitgeist is geographically and culturally bound to North America? The first mention of the term yoga in the ṛgveda is in the context of yoga-kṣema (action-rest), but it more succinctly means securing property and prosperity… I guess, yoga has come a long way since then and has evolved from literally referring to going out to perform martial actions to literally cattle rustle and take slaves to now performing social justice actions… Yet, there is a complete disconnect between the social justice world of North American yoga and its historical development. While the Mahabharata is celebrated as a great epic, it contains one story of Ekalavya being forced to cut his own thumb off because of his low status as a member of caste considered ineligible for training in martial arts, yet he secretly learnt by himself and was punished for his transgression and ordered to maim himself by the person he secretly looked up to. So too, the Gautama Dharma Shastra, along with basically every other similar text which talks of all manner of hegemony and oppression for lower status groups, mentions that a low status person who hears Sanskrit uttered ought to have molten metal poured in their ears, if they speak it they should have their tongue cut out, and if they teach it they should be dismembered. So too, the history books and mythical stories of the puranas are full of sectarian violence. The grammarian Patañjali (300ish BCE and not the Yoga Sutra Patañjali 300ish CE) claims that the śramaṇas (i.e. Buddhists, Jains, Ajivikas) are the eternal enemies of the Brahmaṇas…The Agni, Linga, Kalki Puranas, to name a few, all discuss the final solution of sorts for the total annihilation of anyone not falling in line who supports the heresy of heterodox ideologies… How does one orient themselves in the world in a fair and just way through listening to anything found in the Bhagavad Gita, which was created as an ultra sectarian counter reformational text by the marginalized Brahmins who had lost political and economic power due to the Mauryan empire’s support of Buddhism? It is a political treatise camouflaged by poetic meter and philosophic language justifying the destruction of the perceived enemy through the idea of dharma yuddha (righteous war), which appropriates fundamental aspects of the śramaṇa groups that had something more to offer than the old religion…which persisted with begetting sons to learn Sanskrit to perform rituals to pay of the debts of the forefathers, uphold dharma so that ṛta could be maintained and the sky wouldn’t fall down, along the way killing hundreds of animals in various rituals at which it was sinful to not eat the meat, especially of cows… so these ideas of cultural appropriation, in my mind, can be excavated down to a much deeper level and cause us to reflect on so many things beyond superficial markers and perceived structural deficiencies. How yoga, which the ascetic evolute of the śramaṇas, which was essentially a life denying death cult that focused on internalised ritual suicide of the self and the complete isolation of Puruṣa in kaivalya has anything at all to with building community, yet still be the same ‘yoga’ is really confusing to me. Particularly when the yamas and niyamas have nothing to do with ethics. They only aim to reduce the seekers cognitive and emotional burden so as to obtain independence. If you don’t lie to people (satya) then you don’t have to remember your web of deceit. If you don’t engage in conflict then you are more likely able to not worry about being clubbed over the head…so you can attain samadhi maybe more easily… etc… Is it not weird how they are basically inverted and the intentions of going out to fight, or imagine oneself dying, or withdraw completely from the world into a coma-like samadhi from which one may not return, somehow have evolved to apparently mean social justice activism? Anyways, I wish everyone to be content and that no feeling of ill will exists between us all.
I am new to the pod! I very much love the content I have heard this far. One topic which has really been on my heart this year is indeed cultural appropriation.
I heard a Yoga is Dead episode that really made me evaluate my use of Namaste. I have felt personally that saying Namaste at the end of class is out of place. I worry that I have no business saying it, being that I am a young white woman in my late twenties. I know virtually no philosophy, which I am now working to change.
Now that I have become the owner of the yoga studio I’ve been at for 3 years, I feel like its my responsibly to address this and make the necessary changes.
I have two questions.
1. Do you have some philosophy resources you recommend? And,
2. What is an example of something I could say at the end of class, in place of Namaste? Something which clearly marks the end of class. A simple “thank you?”
Thank you for everything you do. I am so very thankful that my spotify algorithm knows me so well, and brought your podcast to me!
Welcome to the podcast, Shae, and thank you for leaving a comment on this episode. It was such an important episode and cultural appropriation in Yoga is an ongoing conversation that needs our discussion and light shone upon it. Are you a member of our Facebook group? There has been some great discussion in the group on the use of Namaste and some members have shared how they now close classes, and whether they use it. We also have another podcast episode that has just gone live with Jesal Parikh of Yoga is Dead, and that is another important listen with lots of food for thought. In terms of reading materials, if you check the show notes we have links to some suggested articles and also to Dr Shailla’s webpage where you can access her blogs and more information on her work. Thank you for listening and connecting with us!
Just as yoga was taught to be from India, we should be open to understanding earlier versions of yoga. Eygptains 3500 BCE have practiced very similar practices. I believe yoga as a spiritual practice was established as part of South Asian history;however, there maybe origins connected to other cultures. I think its important to be inclusive & open consistently!
Thank you so much for this comment Ava. I would love to talk more about this on the podcast, because as you said I often hear that yoga originated in India. Let me know if you have a guest in mind.