Authentic yoga is yoga that is authentic to one’s practice both on and off the mat. Many practitioners come into a studio and practice yoga. Some might Om when they are in the studio all the while feeling uncomfortable and inauthentic. When they go home and practice yoga they might not Om, they might avoid chanting, but when they’re in a studio they might feel pressured to participate in practices that feel inauthentic or in conflict with their belief system.
This is a prime example of how NOT to be authentic in your yoga practice. As teachers, we want to encourage students to study and practice what feels good, not just what they think they should be doing. Authentic yoga is authentic to the individual, it’s not the same for everyone and we can’t impose what we think yoga should be on someone else.
When we encourage our students to practice authentic yoga we want to encourage them to listen to their hearts, to do what is natural and comfortable, and above all else we want them to do what helps them to feel more connected to the source. If that is a silent prayer while others are chanting Om then so be it. In fact, these practices, the ones that are authentic to the individual, are more powerful than practices that are inauthentic.
Just because the Yoga Sutras say that there are eight limbs of yoga doesn’t mean that every student will practice all eight limbs, and it doesn’t mean that someone’s practice is inauthentic if they don’t practice all eight limbs. In fact, if you practice something you don’t believe in not only is that inauthentic, it is appropriative.
There has been a lot of talk about cultural appropriation, colonization, and even decolonization of yoga, but many people don’t really understand what any of these things mean. To make matters worse, we are all so scared as a society to ask questions, to speak up, and to advocate for what we feel is right that many times we go with the flow only to find out later that our perception of something was a misunderstanding.
To culturally appropriate something is to take a concept, like St. Patrick’s Day, and manipulate it into something that it is not, like a party. That is cultural appropriation. St. Patrick’s Day is actually a celebration in commemoration of Catholocism arriving in Ireland. So, if you’re not Catholic, and you are not Irish, and you’re not going to mass and having a celebratory meal with the congregation in gratitude for the establishment of the church in Ireland then you are culturally appropriating the holiday. How many people who celebrate St. Patrick’s day by wearing green, drinking green beer, and eating corn beef are actually celebrating the establishment of the catholic church?
It’s true that there are some examples of cultural appropriation in the yoga industry, but they are few and far between. For the most part, people who want to share yoga are doing it in an authentic way because they want others to understand the healing benefits of having an intimate relationship with Self. Cultural appropriation doesn’t necessarily mean that you only practice asana; it’s ok to only practice asana. In fact, there are many practitioners in the world who focus on the physical aspects of yoga. If that is their authentic practice so be it. We have to avoid projecting what we think yoga is onto others, and we have to encourage our students to live in their authentic truth. If they don’t, if they come into a yoga shala and pretend to be something they are not, then they are living a lie and that is outside of the Yamas, the foundational principles of yoga.
Cultural appropriation doesn’t occur because you say Namaste at the end of a class, it’s not something that happens when a white woman teaches yoga in designer yoga pants. Cultural appropriation occurs when we manipulate something to be something it’s not. Vino and Vinyasa is cultural appropriation because yoga and alcohol do not mix. Goat yoga is not necessarily cultural appropriation because goats are sacred animals and you’re practicing with them, yay! Rage yoga may be cultural appropriation, or it may not, it all depends on your intention. As you can see, there are grey lines when we’re talking about appropriation, but discernment is key to understanding what is and is not appropriation.
If you look into the eyes of your students and see the light of the Divine after class and welcome it, if you see your greatest teacher in each one of them, if you recognize that they are the same as you and you are the same as them and you say Namaste then you are NOT being culturally appropriative. If you say Namaste, but judge your students or find them annoying, petty, frustrating, or time-consuming, or if you see them as separate in any way then maybe using Namaste is appropriative. Cultural appropriation is not black and white, and we as teachers have a duty to share and teach on these topics so that students stand in their authentic practice and can leverage the power of discernment to better understand these difficult topics. This is how we help to support the globalization of yoga.