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Cultural Appropriation: Why NamaSlay is Not Okay

by | Oct 21, 2019 | 0 comments

Cultural Appropriation

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


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