There have been many claims about cultural appropriation recently in the news but none have been quite as silly as the claim that Yoga, the practice of realizing the illusion of our perceived separateness so as to find union in universal consciousness, should be shackled to its cultural origin and that people outside of that culture should not be allowed to practice it. This happened recently at the University of Ottawa where a yoga class was shut down due to claims of cultural appropriation.
An article in the Ottawa Sun states that "Staff at the Centre for Students with Disabilities believe that 'while yoga is a really great idea and accessible and great for students ... there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice.' The centre goes on to say, 'Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced,' and which cultures those practices 'are being taken from.' The centre official argues since many of those cultures 'have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy...we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practicing yoga."
Sri Aurobindo, a yogic philosopher, spiritual reformer, and Indian nationalist, who spent time in jail fighting for Indian independence against the British Empire, had a different outlook on how yoga was to be seen and practiced by the world. In his book Essays in Philosophy and Yoga he writes,
"It is still the orthodox view that the experiences of Yoga must not be revealed to the uninitiated. But a new era dawns upon us in which the old laws must be modified. Already the West is beginning to discover the secrets of Yoga....The time has almost come when India can no longer keep her light to herself but must pour it out upon the world. Yoga must be revealed to mankind because without it mankind cannot take the next step in the human evolution. "
He saw the world as a global village, in which ideas are shared for the greater good of humanity, while the views of the people so concerned about keeping yoga confined to India are labeled as "orthrodox". We should pause for a moment to consider that Aurobindo started writing this book in 1905, and ask ourselves how is it possible that students in 2015 have more in common with the Indian orthodoxy of a hundred years ago than with the philosopher? It is interesting that the man who actually lived in the time of colonialism, who experienced events that students can only read about, who was marginalized to the point of imprisonment, took the opposite point of view as the people who seek to "defend" his culture from the "colonialism" of western curiosity.
In that same book Aurobindo explains how as human beings, we should expect things to mix and change, adapt and evolve (even the structure of religion) and he specifically states that we should not define ourselves by rigid dogmas and social frameworks.
"The world moves through an indispensable interregnum of free thought and materialism to a new synthesis of religious thought and experience, a new religious world-life free from intolerance, yet full of faith and fervor, accepting all forms of religion because it has an unshakable faith in the One. The religion which embraces Science and faith, Theism, Christianity, Mahomedanism (Islam) and Buddhism and yet is none of these, is that to which the World-Spirit moves. In our own, which is the most skeptical and the most believing of all, the most skeptical because it has questioned and experimented the most, the most believing because it has the deepest experience and the most varied and positive spiritual knowledge, — that wider Hinduism which is not a dogma or combination of dogmas but a law of life, which is not a social framework but the spirit of a past and future social evolution, which rejects nothing but insists on testing and experiencing everything and when tested and experienced turning it to the soul’s uses, in this Hinduism we find the basis of the future world-religion. "
Again, here is a man who is stating that even after spending a good part of his life fighting for India and devoting himself to the practice of Yoga, he can see a day in which Hinduism mixes together with the other world religions to form something greater, what he call the "future world-religion". Whether you agree with anything that Aurobindo actually believes is beside the point. What's of interest is his stated openness that things change, that cultures mix, that ideas spread, and that this is a good thing.
This is important because when practices such as yoga go through cultural translations such as is happening now, we should be forgiving in the variety of manifestations that may occur as well as be vigilant that the deep structures of what makes Yoga a spiritual practice, and not simply exercise, remain in place. This is not an Indian problem or a Hindu problem. This is a human problem. As human beings we need to defend our good ideas. We have to decide which ideas from the library of ancient practices are actually useful, and which are irrelevant. Saying that an idea is 4,000 years old is not saying anything. How is it operating in the people that are alive today? Does it really make us less egocentric? Does it really help us feel more connected? Does it really provide us with contentment?
These are the questions that need to be asked, and they are questions no one culture can answer by itself. They are questions that no one can adequately approach without actually experiencing them first hand. This is why it is dangerous for people to restrict others from experiencing another culture's practice, regardless of the perfected form it has taken. They are essentially denying people the right to experience and see for themselves.
Good ideas are for everyone, and they should not be held back. I believe yoga is a good idea. The claims it makes are straightforward and it asks that the claims be tested, not by people of authority, not by philosophers, or religious historians, but by every single person that decides to practice.
Yoga seeks to show us the mechanics of our mind by having us examine our inner dialogue until we are convinced that this does not adequately define who we are. It stretches our bodies so we can move with ease. It hones our mind through concentration so we are able to give our full attention to the people around us. It seeks to remind us, since we often forget, that we are bodies, splashing around in the shallow pools of culture, and that we are yet to see the ocean.