DevaTree Blog

Cultural Appropriation: Why NamaSlay is Not Okay

Posted By Candice on Oct 21, 2019

I’ve been killing it in yoga lately. #NamaSlay

This was my Instagram post from September, 2015—but you won’t find it there now. Once I’d realized I’d disrespected the sacred word namaste, I quickly deleted it. 

As a yogi, I learned there were many other things I’d done that could be considered cultural appropriation. 

I was no longer naïve about it, but I was embarrassed and ashamed. 

Instead of opening up a dialogue, I went silent.

Oxford Press defines cultural appropriation as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” 

As a Métis woman, I know firsthand the scarring depths of cultural appropriation; the harm felt when elements of Indigenous cultures, rituals, and traditions are taken out of context and misused. When sports teams, high end fashion, and corporations use Indigenous symbolism to create products or mascots, it trivializes our traditions. It hurts. 

My ancestors have lived through centuries of unimaginable traumas that were designed to strip them of their culture. Despite these horrific crimes, Indigenous people have worked so hard to keep our traditions alive. So, when I see a headdress worn as a runway costume or I hear about Dior’s new fragrance called Sauvage, it insults any progress we’ve made. 

The culture has raised us to be ashamed of who we are—but then casually uses us to sell perfume. 

We need to think twice before we casually use the sacred rituals and symbols of another culture. Especially when we’re privileged and the other culture has been marginalized. 

The East-Indian community (where yoga comes from) has also experienced racism and xenophobia.

Realizing I’d contributed to the cultural appropriation of yoga left me feeling insecure, confused, and overwhelmed. Yoga had transformed my life, but I was nervous about exploiting the roots of my practice.

Depending on the circumstances and the intention of the person doing it, many common practices can be considered cultural appropriation, such as:

  1. Wearing mala beads
  2. Wearing bindis
  3. Wearing clothing printed with gods/goddesses
  4. Displaying statues and pictures of Ganesh and other gods/goddesses 
  5. Using the Om symbol (tattoos, home décor, bumper stickers, etc.)
  6. Saying Namaste at the end of a yoga class
  7. NamaSlay, Namastay in bed, and other plays on sacred words
  8. Participating in yoga classes involving alcohol 
  9. Profiting off another culture’s wisdom

If you’re like me, you’ve done a lot of these things—or still do—and you may be feeling uncomfortable right now. I did when I learned about appropriation.

Discomfort is okay—in fact, it’s a good thing. Instead of running away from the discomfort, let it sink in for a minute. It means you care about marginalized cultures. 

My reflection process was messy. Thoughts about intention and appreciation versus appropriation kept bubbling up—and they still do.

What I’m working on now is a softer approach toward myself. Instead of shaming myself into silence, I choose to be part of the dialogue. 

These discussions are challenging, but important.

You might be wondering what to do now, especially if (like me) you didn’t know any better. Here are six questions you can ask yourself to determine if you’re part of the problem:

  1. Do I understand and acknowledge my privilege?
  2. How might this choice (to wear mala beads, use the Om symbol etc.) impact people from that culture? 
  3. Do I actually understand the roots and purpose of these symbols, or am I only using them ‘to be cool’?
  4. Are my actions causing harm to any marginalized group?
  5. Am I honouring yoga’s cultural and historical roots?
  6. Am I cultivating a space in which people who’ve traditionally felt powerless, feel safe to share, heal, and grow?

Studying at DevaTree taught me that we can all do our part to cultivate space for healing, empowerment, and growth. Learning about yogic philosophy, I experienced profound healing myself, and also a deep honouring of the roots and traditions of yoga. We did use mantras, say Namaste, and even wore bindis at grad. Is it right or wrong? I don’t know. What I do know is that we did it with intentionality and respect for the cultures that created those rituals. 

I’m grateful to be a part of a community who takes responsibility to ensure our yoga spaces are inclusive, lifts up the voices of those who have felt systemic marginalization, honours the roots of yoga, and creates unity.

And I’m grateful DevaTree encouraged me to break my silence on cultural appropriation.

Engaging in these difficult conversations breathes change. 

How do you feel about this topic? In the comments below, I’d love to hear your thoughts—don’t go silent.

All the love,

XO Candice

Enjoyed this article? Get email updates… it’s free!

An email address is required.

10 Comment(s)

Bethany on October 21, 2019
I wondered about this myself and asked some colleagues from India, though they do not practice yoga themselves, if there was that feeling about yoga in the West. They told me they've never heard of any and we discussed how yoga was brought here by yogis believing the West needed yoga at that time. I agree wholeheartedly that we should not alter sacred words/symbols for the sake of entertainment or fashion. I do wonder if there is room for the sharing of practices, as yogis did back then, to reconnect the West with our lost devotion.
Candice on October 21, 2019
Bethany, your questions are valid! Yoga is union–to unite with the self, with others, and the universe. I believe there is space for this practice in the West, but we need to consider if our practice contributes to appropriation. Thank you for sharing your light!! XO
Jess Micah on October 21, 2019
YESSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!! (Jumps for joy and fist pumps in the air while reading this post!!!!!) Okay, I've sat down now and can type. Thank you!!! This is such a crucial and necessary conversation and I am so grateful to Candice for this post! I love your list of questions to can ask!! We spend a lot of time in the yoga community speaking about personal growth and sitting with discomfort; yet, when asked to confront privilege, I have seen people become defensive and respond with anger or simply shut down the discussion. For someone to speak up and say "hey, what you just said/did/copied is actually troubling" is brave and invites a space for conversation. When this happens, the most appropriate option, in my opinion, begins with listening: actually pausing and listening to the person who is saying something is wrong, then responding with thanks to the person who took the time to engage. Responding with sensitivity, care, and an authentic desire to take ownership for mistakes offers spaces for healing. There's an oft-used phrase "when we know better, we do better." Well, we cannot do better unless we are willing to know and be aware that our actions are not in line with respect. SO grateful to Candice for being open and asking us to do the same! Also, a loving reminder to readers that we are responsible for our own growth. If people are new to phrases like "cultural appropriation" or "confronting privilege," check out All My Relations podcast or Ibram Kendi's new book How to Be An Antiracist.
Candice on October 21, 2019
Jess! I'm so happy this landed for you! Thank you for all of your wisdom and loving reminder that we are all responsible for our own healing and growth! So much love for you! XO
Rachel McGarry on October 21, 2019
Thank you Candice for this courageous post! It is something that I think about and sometimes am confronted with as a devotional chant artist. Here is what I feel...the intention behind the action is crucial. If the intention is pure, honouring of the traditions/peoples it came from, connected to love, to Source/Spirit/Divine and authentic to you...then yes. If there is no consciousness around the use of the practices, learn more, ask questions and make an informed decision about whether or not the practice is for you. If something feels not quite right, trust your gut on this...(i.e. Candice's fashion example is an obvious no). Indian gurus sent their proteges to the West to bring the practices of Yoga to westerners because we sorely needed yoga. The practice of yoga is a gift and available to anyone who feels called to it...with thoughtfulness we can treat yoga, it's history and traditions, with the reverence and respect it deserves. xo
Lindsay on October 21, 2019
Rachel, you've brought to light an important point–intention and consciousness surrounding the things we do and say. Yoga certainly is a gift! Lots of love to you! XO
Bija on October 21, 2019
Wow, such a huuuuuge subject, and so important:) Thank-you sweet Candice for your honesty and for making us really think about how we present ourselves in our world...My kids and I have been talking a lot about cultural appropriation during this election, and I really do feel we need to consider intention, always. Adopting cultural ideas/food/words/looks etc can be a beautiful homage, with pure intentions. This can allow a blurring between the “us” and “them” mentality and give us a better understanding when done in an honouring way. We need to check in with ourselves and make sure we are practicing Cultural Appreciation rather than Cultural Appropriation... When applied to our love of yoga, if we were to practice exactly the way traditional yoga began, we would be in a patriarchal, no women allowed situation. Evolution is everything—I don’t feel the Universe meant for yoga to stay the exact same way forever. As long as we practice with the utmost integrity, from a place of love and honour, we are part of spreading the most beautiful, life/changing practice around the world. And the world needs more Yoga☮️
Candice on October 24, 2019
Thank you, Bija! I'm so glad to hear that you're having these conversations with your kids! I am so excited to hear the interest from younger generations in having these challenging discussions; the more open and honest we can be surrounding these important subjects, the more we can learn, heal, and grow. I'm with you–thank you for being on this journey with us! XO
Mandy Bedi on October 22, 2019
Thank you Candice. I am of Indian descent. I practice meditation and yogasan and have been my whole life. I am also Canadian and live and work in a town with hardly any POC (person of colour). Since receiving my yoga instruction certification I have made it my goal (from necessity) to educate people on our customs and rituals from the correct pronunciation of नमस्ते - Namaste and other sacred Sanskrit sounds to not placing Hindu idols statues on the floor etc (I could go on and on, phew) and HONOURING YOGA AND ITS ROOTS - yes, I am yelling!!! LOL! Your type of dialogue is what we need to open the door. Thank you for taking part in this important subject. May I be so bold as to guide you to @yogaisdeadpodcast It will blow your mind. Peace and love, always. xo
Candice on October 24, 2019
Mandy, thank you for shining your light and helping to educate us all! Oceans of gratitude to you for bravery is stepping forward. Yes!!! I've listened to episode's of the Yoga is Dead Podcast and gained so much perspective. I've also signed up for Susanna Barkataki's most recent Honor {Don’t Appropriate} Yoga Summit–so inspiring! Lots of love to you! XO

What Do You Think?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

Cancel reply