Indian woman in yoga pose by a lake

Is Christian Yoga Cultural Appropriation?

This topic of cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation is also near and dear to my heart. I began learning about “multicultural education” over thirty years ago! I continue to teach through the lens of cultural responsiveness in my career teaching English Language Development. But is practicing Christian yoga cultural appropriation?

Of course, Christian congregations differ greatly in their levels of diversity. However, for too many churches, little has changed since Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, “[T]he hour of 11:00 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour in Christian America.” 

[See a short clip of his speech from 1960 here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1q881g1L_d8].

This is a serious continuing problem, and many churches need to work harder to combat it. But what does this have to do with Christians practicing yoga? Well, let’s begin with defining our terms.

What is cultural appropriation (and why should you care)?

If you have never heard of the term, don’t feel too bad. It is relatively new. Oxford Dictionaries only put the phrase into its official lexicon in 2017. They define cultural appropriation as “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.” 

One obvious example of cultural appropriation of Black culture was White actor Bo Derek wearing cornrows in the 1979 movie, “10.” Black people have traditionally worn their hair in this style. Black people in the U.S. continue to be discriminated against, to this day, specifically because of wearing traditional Black hairstyles. But when Bo Derek wore cornrows, she became a star.  I remember some of my White high school friends copying her with no repercussions.  Do you see the problem here?

So in the United States, who needs to beware of committing cultural appropriation? That’s right – White people! I believe this term comes into our vocabulary thanks to the many people from more marginalized populations in our society. Rather than reacting defensively or shouting about “political correctness,” shouldn’t White Americans respond with gratitude? [i.e. “Thank you for letting me know how that makes you feel when that happens. I wasn’t aware, and I’ll try not to do it again.”] Shouldn’t White Christians (especially) respond with love

Cultural Appropriation versus Cultural Appreciation

I don’t believe many White people intend to culturally appropriate anything. We just think that an aspect of another culture or society is cool. It can be difficult to know where the line is between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Here is a link to a recent article by Timbrel Chyatee, an Indian-American blogger and entrepreneur. https://susquehannastyle.com/bloggers/get-cultured/appreciation-versus-appropriation/

She explains much better than I could about how to appreciate and honor other cultures without appropriating aspects of them.

I especially like her point that the difference often comes down to one’s intentions. If we respectfully borrow an aspect of another culture with the intent to learn and share about it, that is cultural appreciation. If we take an element of another culture without fully understanding its history and significance, then that is likely to be cultural appropriation. Our intentions are key!

So is Christian Yoga Cultural Appropriation, or Not?

First, I do prefer the term “Christ-centered yoga,” rather than Christian yoga. I’ve never heard the term “Hindu yoga” or “Muslim yoga” or any other religion yoga, have you? I think calling it “Christ-centered yoga” does a better job of letting people know that it is truly yoga taught from a Christian perspective. It does not refer to any particular type of yoga, or claim that yoga itself is Christian. There are many types of yoga, and Christian yoga is not one of them. Yoga is yoga. It doesn’t belong to any religion!

Regardless of what we call it, though, does practicing yoga, as a White Christian, mean that I am culturally appropriating it? I’d have to reply with a resounding… maybe. 

Again, I think it is wise to defer to those whose culture is at risk of being appropriated. Let’s listen to Susanna Barkataki, a yoga teacher and speaker of Indian and British descent, and the author of a book called Embrace Yoga’s Roots. She wrote this article back in 2016 called “Is My Yoga Cultural Appropriation.” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/is-my-yoga-cultural-appro_b_9191342

Her conclusion, I believe, is that White people practicing yoga, without honoring and appreciating yoga’s roots, is cultural appropriation. She states that cultural appropriation involves an imbalance of power. It involves the power to “pick and choose what we take from a culture and to leave the rest behind.” In other words, many White Westerners risk culturally appropriating yoga by focusing only on its physical postures and choosing to remain ignorant of its history, ethics and heritage.

But What If Christians Aren’t Interested in Yoga Philosophy?

Now I do not believe we have to become experts in all aspects of yoga in order to practice yoga as Christians. That would be nearly impossible to do anyway!  I wholeheartedly believe that teachers of yoga should be well-acquainted with yoga’s history and philosophy. One of my main goals in starting this blog is to learn more about the many aspects of yoga in order to share them, respectfully, with you.

This also does not mean that we Christians need to believe everything that the ancient Eastern writers wrote about yoga. They wrote from a different perspective and knew nothing about Jesus, after all. However, their beliefs about life, ethics and health are fascinating, enlightening and often very helpful.  I do find many parallels between what I have learned about yoga philosophy and Christian philosophy. Hopefully, I can share some of these things with you in future posts!

I am incredibly proud of my European immigrant heritage and the bravery, work ethic and contributions of my ancestors. However, I also acknowledge and grieve the incredible harm that Europeans caused to Indigenous People and People of Color. Shouldn’t all Christians? Shouldn’t followers of Jesus especially desire to heal the harms and injustices committed against our neighbors in the past and today? Yet, I do believe that Christian yoga can be, and often is, cultural appropriation. If we practice it without appreciating and honoring its roots, that is cultural appropriation. If we practice the postures while denying that they are yoga (even changing their names), that is cultural appropriation.

So How Should Christians Practice Yoga?

My point is that White Christians like myself can and should practice yoga without culturally appropriating anything. See also my previous post “Why Christians Should Practice Yoga” here: https://christcenteredyogareflections.com/why-christians-should-practice-yoga/

White Christians (like, really, everyone) simply need to practice yoga with an open mind and heart full of gratitude, love and appreciation.  We must be willing to continue to learn about new things, and from people who are from different cultures and have different beliefs. We can also learn more about our own faith through Biblical study and prayer at the same time. My hope for you, my reader, is that these two types of learning can be accomplished with Christ-centered yoga.