When I decided to become a yoga teacher, I knew that there was a good deal of cultural appropriation occurring in the American yoga community. But I knew I would never be the type to wear a mala around my neck, have dreadlocks weaved into my hair, nor would I ever sport Spiritual Gangster attire. As I see it, malas were never intended to be worn as jewelry, dreads are not part of my personal heritage, and don’t even get me started on spiritual gangster. I have no problem with other people who partake; this is just not me. Part of me always felt wrong about some of these practices. Thereby, so long as I stick to my values, I figured I would not end up in an uncomfortable situation in which I found myself a perpetrator of cultural appropriation. I felt solid and sure. I just wanted to share my love for an ancient practice that helped me to reclaim my mental and physical health.
However, this internship presented a minor complication. For clarity, cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. Now, when it comes to yoga, I believe that it as a practice itself is not inherently cultural appropriation. But as with everything, there are certain ways for us to do things in a damaging and offensive manner, disregarding the history and cultural significance behind traditions, acts, practices, etc. (like yoga). Anyways, moving away from this tangent, Flow in Color (the festival put on by the company I am interning for) was pretty much the epitome of cultural appropriation. My supervisors decided to run a yoga festival modeled after Holi, all the while repurposing all of the tradition to fit their aims.
So what could I do? I already accepted the internship. I received this scholarship. I could not just back out and quit, though I also felt that I could not basically be a walking advertisement for an entire 6 weeks for something that I cannot even morally support myself.
This realization led to a gentle confrontation.
I decided to tell my supervisors some of my concern, namely focusing on how we can (at the very least) pay tribute to the tradition that they gained their inspiration from. They actually liked the idea! They asked that I spearhead the mission, so I edited all of the event descriptions to include the following blurb:
“We are inspired by Holi, the Festival of Color, an ancient Hindu tradition celebrated in India and Nepal that has now spread across the globe in which the community comes together to tell stories, celebrate the triumph of good over evil, and welcome in the warm weather. It is tradition to throw gulal, or colored powder, during the festival. At Flow in Color, we want to honor this tradition within our Michigan yoga community and create a place to play with people you love and revel in the vibrancy of summer.”
Now, of course I did not even scrape the surface of the significance of throwing gulal, how this tradition began, or why it is still so important in religious communities to this day. However, at least it was mentioned.
In addition, I asked them to talk about Holi at the festival so all of the participants would get to hear a bit more about the story and history. Kara was more than happy to do so, informing all 150 festival attendees of Holi and some of its meaning, symbolism, and cultural importance (this is actually her announcing everything prior to the main yoga “Color Class”).
While the event still did happen, I did my best to take little steps towards overcoming this obstacle. Morally, I feel a tad more resolved. At the very least, I learned how to successfully approach my superiors about a serious workplace concern.