Cultural misappropriation? Don’t ban the yoga; ban the inept thinking

December 9, 2015 Originally published on SFGate

Which is worse: Living life so nervously, so hyper-cautious about potential offenses, about insulting traditions and peoples you do not fully understand – being, in short, so desperate to do the “right,” politically correct thing that you end up doing it all wrong indeed, stumbling all over your misinformed ideology and spoiling the fun for everyone.


You say to hell with all that. Maybe it’s better (or rather, worse) to just not give a damn, to do whatever the hell you like as you remain willfully, blissfully, even aggressively ignorant of any potential offense or flagrant disrespect, because, after all, history is written by the victors, yes? And really, who has the time to care? Right, Mr. Trump?

Given these two choices (and without the option of the far better, more nuanced Middle Way), I’ll usually side with the former. Better to err on the side of excessive respect, after all, than no respect at all. Better to at least attempt intelligent deference, and fail dumbly, than to blunder through like a belligerent, entitled jackass. Just ask the GOP.

But oh, that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

It doesn’t mean my eyes didn’t almost roll right out of my Berkeley-educated head as I read about the precious clump of students at the University of Ottawa who somehow managed, though a combination of plaintive whining, half-baked ideology and a complete failure on the part of the university to impart sufficient critical thinking skills, to put an end to a very sweet, very benign, free yoga class on campus.

And why? The usual embarrassing, politically correct silliness, of course: something about Western yoga being culturally insensitive, about British colonialism, the diaspora, India being at one point culturally maligned and politically convoluted (thank goodness it’s not that way anymore).

Voilá, an absurd non-sequitur: A simple, well-liked yoga class – basically just some nice stretching for kids on campus – is canceled over claims of “cultural misappropriation,” which is sort of like refusing to cook with a wok because of the Chinese uprising of 1745. You are, you might say, missing the point.

Let's just say it outright: If you're complaining about cultural insensitivity and the Indian diaspora in this position, you're doing it wrong.

Let’s just say it outright: If you’re complaining about cultural insensitivity and the Indian diaspora in this position, you’re doing it wrong.

Let’s be clear: It is indeed embarrassing, as an experienced (white, male, non-Hindu) yoga teacher of more than 16 years, just how little most modern teachers and practitioners know of yoga’s true lineage, the vast body of philosophies, gurus and practices it encompasses. Countless indeed are the sassy-sweaty-perky Lululemon-branded teachers who have no idea of yoga’s historical context, not to mention the rich, difficult spiritual work involved in a fully integrated yoga practice. Hell, I’m still learning it myself. Always will be.

Which is to say: Those precious Ottawa kids have it right in one respect: Yoga’s lineage and history very much deserve respect and acknowledgement. Should this somehow translate into a whiny cancellation of Jen Scarf’s sweet, free yoga class on the U. of Ottawa’s campus, because no one speaks fluent Sanskrit or understands how the Hindus suffered during the Mughal empire in the 16th century? Honey, are you high?

Thing is, yoga isn’t even about exercise. It has almost nothing to do with downward dogs, or headstands, ridiculous Instagram contortions or $100 yoga mats. Those are minor tools, at best. And really, how can you misappropriate something you’re not clear on in the first place?

Ultimately and across most traditions, yoga is about one simple thing: freedom. It’s about total liberation from the ego, from the incessant, gnarled churnings of the mind, its stories and doubts and fears, so the practitioner can finally repose into the true nature of Reality, without illusion.

Which is to say, yoga is the means by which the Self, the world and all its inhabitants are revealed as they truly are: inextricably interconnected, each a unique expression of the same pulsing, vibrating, unified field of divine consciousness. Simple, really.

So let’s get it clear. Attention, Ottawa youth! Be not outraged over bogus evidence of non-existent cultural misappropriation you don’t even understand. Instead, aim your ire at the far more nefarious problem this story reveals: The abject failure of your college to teach you right.

See, there’s really only reason to attend university, and it has little to do with learning a specific trade or teaching kids how to complain and be nervously offended all the time.

The point of college is to gain vital critical thinking skills. It’s about moral aptitude, intellectual nimbleness and depth, so you can tell the difference between the whiny and misinformed, and authentic and aligned.

This is far more important that you might think. In fact, you could argue this is the largest problem facing Western culture today (certainly true in America), the source of nearly all our ills and all our idiots, from Bible literalists to science deniers, Trump supporters to anti-refugee racists, anti-vaxxers to cruel Internet trolls.

It’s a desperate lack of deep intelligence, a savage inability to unpack the various subtleties and complexities of modern life with compassion, humor and grace. It is, in short, an alarming dearth of humans who can’t tell the difference between that which brings energy and nourishment, and that which brings depletion and fear.

Maybe they should try yoga. I hear it’s wonderful for that sort of thing.

Read more here:: Cultural misappropriation? Don’t ban the yoga; ban the inept thinking

Mark Morford

About Mark Morford