There has been a ton of chatter, lately, about yoga and cultural appropriation.
It is an enormous topic, and can feel a bit overwhelming with all the emotional and controversial perspectives out there.
We live in a time when cultures (past and present) have become enmeshed. World travel and the internet have brought the citizens of our planet into close proximity.
The inevitable question has risen: what belongs to whom? ...and this is a momentous ask; one that cannot have a simple answer. It must be taken on with curiosity, courage, and compassion; with the intention of unified benefit. Perhaps, as always, there are no direct answers–only stories and suggestions.
This is the first of a series that I hope will address yoga and appropriation head-on, one story and suggestion at a time.
Appropriation and Asteya (non-stealing)
In Inner Power Yoga® Education programs, we emphasize the importance of yoga ethics which revolves around the yamas and niyamas (ethical restraints and conventions) from the Yoga Sutras. Asteya (non-stealing) is one of those restraints that comes up again and again in heart-felt debate with constellating questions like:
Appropriation and "Namaste."
Recently one of our STFs has been wrestling with this question as it pertains to the use of the word "Namaste."
Particularly used as a closing salutation at the end of a yoga class, a teacher might use the Sanskrit term to indicate: "Thanks for coming." "You can open your eyes now." and/or "That's all folks!"
I think we were all taught that "Namaste" means "I honor the light in you as the same light that is in me. In that light, we are one..." or some variation of that unifying sentiment.
Recently, however, there has been chatter in the yoga community that using "Namaste" in class is an appropriation of Indian culture. It has been said that "Indian and South Asian people are uncomfortable" with the rampant use of their greeting and yoga teachers have been actively deciding to use new closing remarks instead. I am not sure what exactly. Perhaps "Thanks for coming." "You can open your eyes now." and/or "That's all folks!" could work.
Somehow, those endings just come up short of the infinite transformation potential that yoga offers.
We wanted to know what one of our favorite Indian teachers, Sreedevi Bringi, had to say about Namaste. So we asked her. Below is her simple, yet eloquent response:
My opinion: Use what you are comfortable with first. Then teach students how the Sanskrit greeting "Namaste" is used as a universal greeting spoken with the anjali hand mudra - all fingers touching one another close together - not apart !
Subtle energy Prana flow connects both polarities of our EM field together with this mudra. It is the same when both feet come together in a sitting pose .
There are two Sanskrit words coming together in "Namaste:" Namaha (salutations) and te (to you).
It does not mean “hello” in any casual way. Though it is now being used that way among elders and guests. Younger people in India or here in the Indian diaspora engage in more casual greetings like "Hello" or "HI" or "Hey". They don’t use Namaste any more, other than with elders or guests.
Namaste honors the Divine with you; coming from the Divine within me.
When one learns yoga from masters in India, then the true meaning of Namaste is received. Which is what I am giving you!
Shanti, Shanti, Shantiḥ
Personally, I have decided not to discontinue my use of the word "Namaste" just yet.
In fact, I generally double down with a short mantra at the end of each practice such as "Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu," or "Shantiḥ, shantiḥ, shantiḥ."
I make sure to unpack what I express–you STFs know that "unpacking" means teaching the depth of meaning behind every practice instruction or technique. For instance, when I share "Shantiḥ, shantiḥ, shantiḥ," I also provide the translation: "Peace, peace, peace."
I might even extend a blessing like, "May the peace 'that passes all understanding' surround you today and every day." That blessing is inspired from the Bible (Philippians 4:7). It expresses the sentiment of shanti in a way that may be profoundly resonant for this messy world where true peace is, seemingly, incomprehensible. Still, we explore the possibility and remain open to life's gifts.
Valuable treasures–art, philosophy, and science–lie in the soils of every culture. According to Tantrik teachings, we all have different points of view and, at the same time, we are ALL ONE. That fact is as beautiful as it is messy. We live in a beautiful mess.
“There is a continuity of mind, as the Yogis call it. The mind is universal. Your mind, my mind, all these little minds, are fragments of that universal mind, little waves in the ocean..."
― Swami Vivekananda, Raja Yoga
I encourage you to honor yoga for its healing potential while remembering its roots. Yoga is accessible to everyone from any culture. It is also a practice that hails specifically from India and, as such, the most potent words associated with the practice are Sanskrit words. Yoga is, itself, a Sanskrit word. An Indian word.
The practice of yoga has extended far beyond India, but let's not take the India out of the yoga. Because, in my opinion, THAT would be real cultural appropriation.
Inner Power Yoga® is a dynamic practice combining holistic body wisdom, Tantrik teachings, and Yoga Psychology to empower each individual.