It’s summer, and for my family, that means beaches, hiking, and picnics pretty much every weekend. I’ll admit, every year, I too succumb to the “summer body” ideal and start exercising, working out, to achieve it (knowing full well that it will all go to waste once midterms hit, but I digress).
My mother has wanted to go to Yoga classes for a few years now, and this summer we decided to finally do that. After all, it’s supposedly great for building body strength and toning muscle. So we signed up, and started going.
At our very first class, the (very white instructor) told us that we were going to start our practice with an “Ohm.” That made me feel a little bit weird, but..Ohm isn’t a strictly Hindu word, many different religions and cultures use and view it differently, I told myself. It wasn’t until the end of the practice, when our instructor said “Namaste,” that I genuinely felt something was wrong.
It made me uncomfortable. Maybe it was the accent, maybe it was the realization that Yoga has such strong ties to Hinduism that have been erased from its everyday meaning and practice. I’m not entirely sure. But I was uncomfortable.
The word “Namaste” is a greeting. Plain and simple. We use it to greet others, and to show respect to our elders upon meeting them. It’s been construed to have a spiritual meaning, something like “my soul recognizes your soul, and we are made of the same stardust,” or some other ridiculously “deep” definition. It’s honestly just weird. I would feel incredibly weird if someone said “Namaste” to me.
I think what makes it even worse, is when people say “Namaste, B*****s,” or, “Namaste, “Mother****ers” (I didn’t want to post images with the offensive language, but you can easily google these phrases to see the t-shirts and tattoos that have them). That’s downright offensive to our language, our culture, our religion.
I think the problem is the allure of “exotic” and the use of our words, our symbols, our culture, our gods, to come across as enlightened, hippie, peaceful, holy, otherworldy, etc.
White people have been stealing from us for centuries. They were the ones who colonized us, ruled over us, made us speak English, brought colourism to India—ensuring darker skinned girls would feel inferior and worthless for generations to come. They took the parts of our culture they liked—the spices, the land—and condemned the rest. The problem is the complete disregard for the history behind Yoga, behind these words, behind Hinduism.
The exotification of Hinduism is the issue. My religion is not a tool to use to become edgy. It is a collection of beliefs that belong to one of the oldest religions in the world, that encompasses ancestral history before anything else. There is technically no conversion ritual for Hinduism, like there is for Christianity or Islam. Some Hindus, although not all, do believe that you have to be born into the religion to be Hindu. And the interesting bit, is that the people who “convert” are directly ignoring the parts of the religion and scriptures that say it is technically not possible. Sound familiar?
That’s really what it comes down to. Far too often, we see people picking and choosing the symbols and words from our religion, without bothering to understand the meaning behind them, and leaving out the parts they don’t like, not bothering with them. And the point really is, you cannot understand, because you have not been a part of it, you have not been immersed in the collectivist community and family values that are the foundation of Hinduism and India itself.
It is disrespectful to get an “Ohm” tattoo on your foot. Just like it is disrespectful to touch books with our feet, or put our feet on tables where we eat, among other things. That may sound odd, but it is part of our culture. You may not understand it, but you must respect it.
I don’t want to outright say that practicing Yoga is cultural appropriation. It probably is, but the practice of Yoga is so normalized in the Western Sphere that it seems ridiculous to say, “You can’t do that, because it is cultural appropriation.”
But I do think it opens up a conversation about how much of “exoticness” and “spirituality” is really just a form of cultural appropriation that isn’t even seen as such due to how normalized it is. Hinduism isn’t a cool trend, it’s a religion. One that deserves respect, and understanding. It’s frustrating to see these blurred lines. I do believe Yoga is for everyone. I really do think people can respectfully participate. But we can honestly do without the “Namaste” at the end.
See, when we practice our religion in public, we are not “assimilated,” we “need to go back to where we came from.” But when the white people do it, they are “open-minded” and “exotic.” As I have said before, it is not fair to take the parts of the culture you like, and leave us with the ramifications of colonization, the self-loathing of our dark skin, the shame that accompanies wearing our religious clothes in public, the constant eyebrow plucking, waxing, hair straightening that we must engage in to not be ridiculed.
Don’t get me wrong. We are proud of our heritage, our struggle, everything we have been through. It is a part of that collective history, that brings us together.
I don’t really know how to close this off. There’s no clear-cut statement that decrees what is right, what is wrong, what is acceptable, and what is not. Different people are offended by different things.
Most of us are happy to share our culture with you, we really are. We are happy to teach, to explain, to let you experience our holidays and rites with us. The key is to not do things without permission, and to listen to Hindus when we tell you we find something you are doing offensive. It is first and foremost our religion, our practice, our culture. We will welcome you, but it does not belong to you. You are not entitled to it. And the real problem is, you think you are.
Note: For those of you who don’t know, I’m Indian. Specifically, I was born in Chandigarh (which is the capital of the state of Punjab), and I am Hindu. The first language I learned was Hindi (which I still speak fluently), and I was exposed to Punjabi (I can understand it, but struggle with speaking), before moving to Canada and learning English.