The Student News Site of University of Arizona

The Daily Wildcat

74° Tucson, AZ

The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: Avoiding appropriation: Leave the yoga pants at home

Would you like it if someone came into your house, moved your furniture and claimed the place as their own?

This is what happens when people take things from other cultures without regard for customs or knowledge of the culture­­—a phenomenon known as cultural appropriation.

While it’s important to recognize appropriation, there are also overzealous critics who point fingers at any instance of a Westerner sporting a dress or practicing a tradition from a different culture. They too need to realize: not everything is offensive.

The issue is multifaceted and not concretely defined. Officially, cultural appropriation refers to one culture adopting elements from a different culture and integrating them into their lives.

However, it has a negative connotation due to the imbalance of power commonly exerted between two cultures in such a situation. The culture doing the “borrowing” is often the more privileged culture, while the other is often a minority. The disparity mirrors old colonization mentality, in which the dominant culture takes what they please from others while exploiting and disrespecting them.

Businesses often capitalize on this imbalance, turning culture into an industry.

“Cultural artifacts thus become commercial products, yet the people who actually produce the cultural artifacts (NOT the people who made the products in factories but those who in fact engage in production and use of the artifacts in culturally meaningful ways) neither benefit from the process nor have a voice on what they mean,” said Dr. Wenhao Diao, a UA assistant professor in East Asian Studies. “The commercialization aspect is what I see as problematic.”

But here’s the shocking truth: we don’t live in a bubble. All over the world, cultures are communicating and influencing each other. There is no way for us to keep each culture separate and distant, and neither would we want to. The diversity that is brought by fusing cultures is what makes societies unique.

The ideal solution would be to find a happy medium between isolated bubble cultures and exploitative or commercial cultural appropriation. This can come in the form of cultural exchange, in which there is a mutual understanding between the cultures involved.

While we do not live in a perfect world, there are ways to create equal exchange rather than appropriation of culture.

Cultural exchange means respecting a culture’s values—not overextending your welcome. It means asking questions before adopting a new style or tradition. Is it sacred and significant to this culture? How do its members feel about outsiders performing this tradition? Would you be perpetuating stereotypes and demeaning this culture? Is the way this tradition is being practiced in the West skewing the meaning from that of the original culture?

These questions are rarely asked in the ever-growing multi-billion dollar yoga industry. Originating as a Hindu tradition in India, yoga has been practiced for thousands of years as a spiritual discipline with the goal of expanding the consciousness, involving breathing exercises, meditation, introspection, and finally, physical poses.

However, when many Americans think of yoga, they don’t imagine yogis practicing for years to master the art. Instead, people think of, and even celebrate, young suburban women in tight leggings stretching on mats. Thanks to cultural appropriation, the philosophy and deeper goals behind yoga are being replaced by misplaced “Namastes” and “Om” tramp stamps—becoming more and more of a trend than a sacred way of life.

In response, the Hindu American Foundation launched the Take Back Yoga campaign in 2008 to encourage Americans practicing and teaching yoga to become more aware of the culture and meaning behind it. It doesn’t say that people in Western cultures should not practice yoga, only that it is possible and preferable to practice yoga the way it was meant to be practiced.

Picking and choosing which aspects of yoga you would like to practice is ignoring the deep cultural roots behind the ancient practice, reducing it simply to another Instagram-able fitness fad.

Yoga is only one example of cultural tradition that has been appropriated in the West and consequently lost meaning. The medley of cultures in our lives is what creates an engaging and accepting society, but nonetheless, we must not forget to respect the cultures that allow us to be their guests. After all, you shouldn’t trash your host’s house and leave to find a new one once you get bored.

Follow Apoorva Bhaskara on Twitter.

More to Discover
Activate Search