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Is it Cultural Appropriation?

In recent years, conversation has begun around the “cultural appropriation” of yoga and many different activities or artifacts from other cultures that some people adopt. Whether it is studying a martial art technique, a massage technique or any other action, music or material from somewhere other from where your ancestors hail from, how can it be that we can only share knowledge, sing, dance or dress from the culture that is in our blood? What about learning another language or appreciating the diversity of culture? It seems I might be experiencing cognitive dissonance.

I was chatting to my friend Lore de Angeles the other day and they asked me why I released a YouTube meditation on ‘root chakra grounding affirmations? They asked why I was using another culture’s language and what I had to gain, they said it was cultural appropriation. I have since contemplated more on this.

As a working yoga teacher, how can I still practice and teach yoga without being offensive or appropriating something from another culture other than my ancestral heritage? Yours and mine, us and them, creates division which is in effect, part of the problem. To teach authentically and share from a place of respect, it means that I teach in the original language to the best of my ability and translate this into my own words. I’ve worked hard to understand Sanskrit, pronounce it well and share its context in the yoga room. I also study very hard to understand the practices of yoga and share them with the world. This is how I honour tradition. But I also understand evolution.



The definition according to Oxford languages says.

“Cultural appropriation is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”

First of all, I don’t think of myself as being a more dominant person than from the culture where yoga originates, (although white colonial society and religion has a  lot to answer for) and secondly, I acknowledge where I learned my craft. I also don’t think dogmatically. I am open to views from many sources, and generally I keep my opinions to myself. But, was I being inappropriate by sharing a mediation on grounding and mentioning the concept of the chakras? Does that mean I also can’t study and share on the subject of Chinese medicine, Kahuna bodywork, Ayurveda,  Thai Massage, Judo, Russian dance or anything else from anywhere that is not obviously apparent in my bloodline? Let’s dive into this.

A bit of my background

I’m from ‘Celtic’ roots, Irish, British and Scandinavian DNA. I’ve always explored movement in athletic sports. My parents took me to gymnastics at the age of five, then judo at around seven years old and kung fu at eleven. Then, among my kung fu explorations, still not more than a boy, I studied the arts of meditation, learned the basics of Chinese medicine, tai chi and dived headlong into mysticism with tarot. Was this cultural appropriation for me then to wear the traditional ‘gi’, learn bits of Japanese within Judo and learn about the concept of meridians in Kung Fu? Through my teenage years I enjoyed gymnastics again, learned of sun salutations and my interest in yoga blossomed. At twenty-one years old I worked with vipassana meditation and explored other mystical and physical disciplines including more tarot, aikido, iaido and eventually, circus arts. (Which proved to be a life-long career, performing and teaching aerial circus arts over the world. Quite the unexpected line of work for an introvert). While living and performing in Europe through my thirties I continued my yoga practice and then travelled off to India for my first teacher training. Since then, I have gained over 1,600 hours of accredited yoga teacher-training in various styles, merging the traditional with a knowledge of my gymnastics, martial arts and aerial acrobatic background. My inner journey evolved through all of these movement explorations, and still does.



A bit of yogic background

As far as yoga is concerned the exact history is unknown. One theory of origin can be traced to the Indus Valley culture settlement in the archaeological site of Mohenjo-Daro, which is now Sindh, Pakistan, (they found soapstone like seals depicting yoga like postures which have been dated to around 2,000 BCE). The Indus Valley included areas of Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. People from the north of this area are believed to have migrated toward India and settled in the Indus Valley and Ganges Plain from around 2000-1500 BCE. The most prominent of these groups spoke Indo-European languages and were called Aryans, which means “noble people” in the Sanskrit language. Interestingly, the English language belongs to the Indo-European family of languages and is therefore related to most other languages spoken in Europe and western Asia, from Iceland to India. Does that mean we could all share some common ancestry? A particular language points to the culture of a particular social group, and that is a whole other story. (Does culture define who we are?) These Indo-Aryan people as a branch of Indo-Iranians, originated in present-day Northern Afghanistan and by 1500 BCE had created small herding and agricultural communities all across Northern India.

There are theories as to whether these Aryan tribes had come from southern Russia through Persia and into Pakistan, and then gradually invaded/migrated to the Indus valley and in doing so, brought their religious beliefs and cultural practices with them. This could very well have ushered in the ‘beginning’ of the historical roots of yoga. Interesting. The Aryans introduced Sanskrit in the form of both an oral and written tradition which then became the basis for the ancient Vedic texts of yoga, (Veda translates as “knowledge”). Within the ritual structure of the Indo-Aryans, some of the earliest forms of meditation, body posture (asana), breath control (pranayama), and ritual hand posture (mudras) emerged. The chakra system I mentioned in my mediation also originated in these Vedas.




The Latin word for “ponder,” meditari, is the root of the word, meditate. People have been pondering as long as there has been brain cells, so am I culturally appropriating a meditation technique or are elements of cultures naturally interweaving and evolving into mine? Does it make everyone happier if I just use the English language and not mention anything in sanskrit about the concept of chakras? Even though it is part of my job? Am I meant to change career? (So many questions I know!) My intention in releasing a free meditation out into the world was for people to be calm and grounded in a time where there is a lot of bombardment and chaos around about a virus, social distancing, lockdowns, jabs etc.  Some people are really struggling and if I can do something to possibly help, then why not do it? My intention is not to dishonour the roots of this Indo-Aryan culture, nor to dishonour my own. I don’t think I am actually hurting anyone by doing that, but the question remains, is it cultural appropriation?

What is the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, then what about the evolution of art, movement and the sharing of knowledge as a teacher of the arts?



On exotic evolution

The many facets of yoga are a journey of involution and evolution, a personal journey of remembering your own strength, confidence and clarity, and yes, connecting to its diverse mysterious roots.

Wikipedia explains:

“Evolution is change in the heritable characteristics of biological populations over successive generations. Evolutionary processes give rise to biodiversity at every level of biological organisation, including the levels of species, individual organisms, and molecules”.

So, diversity and evolution are part of our biology, it happens when cultures migrate, when wars happen over territory, when people marry from different tribes and from travelling. We bring with us the wealth of our life experiences wherever we go and share that with the people and places we meet. Of course our ideas merge as we inspire each-other, each person and culture brings their unique experience. Culture in my opinion is living, breathing and evolving. Yet, as yoga gets more popular in our mainstream ‘colonial culture’, people are learning about the benefits of a yoga practice who aren’t necessarily connected to the practice’s deep roots. Through colonial suppression of yogic practices and spirituality during the British Raj (1858-1947 CE), a person could be violently persecuted for not converting to Christianity or for publicly promoting yogic teachings. (I’m sure in some parts of the world, still could be, anything different from what the “culture” seems the norm). This oppression and fear led to ‘western style’ athleticism, aesthetics, body building and physical culture in some lines of yoga re-emerged. Many lineages maintained the deep spiritual practices but had to keep these teachings private for fear of violent repercussions. Movement adapts according to the environment as we all do, to survive.

‘Exotifying’ is another buzz word right now. It is loosely interpreted as seeing someone or something as exotic or unusual, and with that, romanticise different stereotypes that are connected to who you think the person or “thing” is. Are we exotifying cultural practices and is this the root of the problem? Personally, I don’t mind being seen as exotic, and to me the practices of yoga aren’t exotic, it is my every-day world. But I can see the point with the exotifying of yoga and India through commercialism, but if people enjoy Om or Hindu deity tattoos, T-shirts with sanskrit scriptures is that really a problem? Not for me. Would I be offended if someone from India got a Celtic tattoo? No.



So now what?

The image of yoga being marketed to you has a lot to answer for. It is often associated with white, thin, able-bodied people in skimpy clothes (if any), maybe mala beads and performing some kind of fancy pose. Flaunt it while you have it, No harm in that right? But, do you feel anything wrong with the way it’s being advertised? If you’re from a white European background you may have your own reasons for doing yoga like I do, for health, strength, flexibility or maybe it’s your career. Yoga brings food on my table and keeps a roof over my head, but more-so, I love sharing it. It might be strange to think of it hurting or offending anyone else, especially when your intention is to help. Seems to be a conundrum. So, as cultural appropriation is the adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity (yoga in my instance) by members (me) of another culture or identity, could I be a part of the problem? I apologize if I am.

Human societies are very complex. Myths and ideas that dictate how people follow certain rules have shaped the various elements of cultures across the world. Each culture does not have an unchanging essence, it is organic and evolving. Every culture has its values, but it always transforms itself through interaction with others. Change is unavoidable. The world is connected, now so more than ever. Thousands of years ago, perhaps there were more separate cultures that had less influence on each other, but now with more accessible international travel, cultures are merging and spreading.

I have been to India many times and have a love of the land and my experiences there. I have been awakened on so many levels by those experiences. My journey to my first 200-hour teacher training, then subsequent visits to my advanced teacher training, and many other explorations since. I was taught by an Indian man (Barrath Shetty) who was also taught by an Indian man (B.K.S Iyengar) who was also taught by an Indian man (T.Krishnamacharya). The lineage I am connected to connects straight to the tree of “modern yoga”.  Now, I share the evolution of their teachings through my experience with people from all backgrounds. I was given this blessing from my teacher to go and share the knowledge I’d learned with my community, and that’s what I still intend to do. To share this passion of movement, to find a way for life to express itself through me. I have also been initiated into ancient movement traditions in India that have nothing to do with my indigenous Celtic heritage. Is that acceptable? People have been moving forever, there are styles that share a common form of martial movement all over the world. Is it appropriation or evolution? Do we have to define it?


So, have I answered my own question and solved the conundrum? Who knows?

Maybe you can tell me?

Ari Levanael

With a long history of yoga practice spanning almost 30 years, Ari is a passionate and dedicated student of the yoga tradition. Currently, Ari holds over 1,700 hours of accredited yoga teacher-training in various styles, merging the traditional with a knowledge of gymnastics, martial arts and aerial acrobatics.

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