"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Yoga Indians

In the current edition of Newsweek magazine, there is a great article by Lisa Miller about a unique Indian spiritual practice that is currently practiced by over 16 million Americans.

Yoga of course!

Lisa Miller makes some great points about America and its obsession with appropriating anything and everything exotic.  The parallels that can be made between this topic and issues of American Indian spirituality and culture are striking...

"Sixteen million Americans practice yoga, according to Yoga Journal, and in 2008 we spent nearly $6 billion on classes and stretch pants. Yet aside from "om" and the occasional "namaste," Americans rarely acknowledge that yoga is, at its foundation, an ancient Hindu religious practice, the goal of which is to achieve spiritual liberation by joining one's soul to the essence of the divine. In its American version, yoga is a mishmash: Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, 12-step rhetoric, self-help philosophies, cleansing diets, exercise, physical therapy, and massage. Its Hindu roots are obliterated by the modern infatuation with all things Eastern—and by our growing predilection for spiritual practices stripped of the sectarian burdens of religion."

I literally went back and read this paragraph a second time, inserting Native American references where appropriate.  (For example, the sweat lodge and its appropriation by New Age types.)

Miller notes how Americans have this unique ability to take other spiritual or cultural practices and completely strip them of their religious context.  We sanitize them to make them more comfortable and palatable for us Americans who don't care for the religious aspects.

She quotes Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero who says:

"America has this amazing capacity to make everything banal. That's what we do. We make things banal and then we sell them. If you're a Hindu, you see this beautiful, ancient tradition of yoga being turned into this ugly materialistic vehicle for selling clothes. It makes sense to me that you would be upset... But you can't stop people from appropriating elements in your religion.  You can't stop people from using and transforming yoga. But you have to honor and credit the source."

Miller finishes the piece essentially saying it is alright to appropriate Yoga and transform it into something new so long as you "honor and credit the source."

Lisa Miller definitely takes a pragmatic approach to the topic of cultural appropriation.  I agree with her that Americans will and do appropriate things all the time.  I also agree that Americans should have an accurate understanding of the origins of anything they appropriate.

She does not however answer the toughest question of all.  Where do you draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable appropriation?  And is it all really a matter of honoring and crediting the source?

Can you ever "respect the origins" of a cultural or religious practice while simultaneously stripping it of religious or cultural meaning?

All food for thought...