Are we doing things right or bringing yoga out of it’s original element?

Something has happened over the past few weeks that for a while couldn’t make me stop thinking “I’m a phoney”. It was a frank conversation with a student of mine, but first let me begin by introducing the fact that I discovered Yoga during the darkest time of my life. It helped me so profoundly that I decided to become a yoga teacher in order to help other people who needed to find themselves. 

I completed my first TTC in 2017 with very qualified teachers, and a year later an advanced TTC to continue growing on my yoga journey. I have had my yoga studio for two and a half years now and I honestly give thanks every single day that I’m lucky enough to do what I love and to feel good about it.

The conversation that started it all was with this student of Indian descent: I was casually commenting  on certain Instagram handles that seem to play with a mixture of English and Sanskrit. Although this seems like an innocent way of creating a profile name, the conversation slowly expanded on the misuse of Sanskrit words such as NAMASTE, which according to my student had to be used only at the beginning of a yoga session. I soon started to question my  knowledge and skills about Yoga, and after listening to Yogagirl’s podcast interview with Susana Barakataki (link here),I changed considerably a number of practices that I used on a daily basis, in my private life and at the studio.

As I was taught, the word Namaste means:” the light inside of me greets the light inside of you”, a poetic definition traditionally used as a greeting to say “hello”.

The podcast interview explains, among other things, how so many yoga teachers finish their classes using the word Namaste. I find it very appropriate too, since after every shavasana (corpse pose concluding an asana practice) we arise to a new moment.

The crossed opinions on how/when to say Namaste could go on forever if we refer to its different interpretations, each with its own lengthy definition. Traditionally seen in the Vedas (ancient Hindu texts), the Sanskrit origin of the word could be losely translated as follows: “I bow down to the divine in you”, in which case Namaste can be said at any time of the day.

My student also admitted to me that it was difficult for her to see me surrounded by so many Hindu objects at the studio. I have a drawing of Ganesha, various oum symbols as well as Pajals (silver anklets with little bells) that I wear all the time. Apparently, the use of symbols belonging to a culture that is not mine make me guilty of misappropriation….I never meant to be disrespectful, and this is the reason why I felt mortified and guilty for some kind of wrong-doing, a cultural heritage of my upbringing! I felt as though my training courses, on which I had invested quite a bit of money, time, efforts and enthusiasm, were just based on empty words, a charming castle built on quicksand.

We can’t hide the fact that yoga has changed over the centuries, too often abused, misused and misunderstood. The slogan: “Everyone can do yoga” used around the world is too inclusive, since some aspiring yoga teachers don’t even bother to study the ancient and sacred aspects of this discipline. When teaching in a gym a few years ago, I was instructed to omit the meditation because there was no time for it….

I take my profession very seriously, I prepare my classes conscientiously, keeping in mind that there is always room for improvement.

I’ve always felt very comfortable with other cultures. I lived with my family in different countries, and all I can say is that by maintaining a humble attitude, eagerness to understand and gratitude for the learning opportunity, l never had a problem. My Indian friends in the UK point out that so many Hindis fit in the Western European culture and adopt it as their own. Is that considered acceptable because of the colonization in the 1850s?

Another interesting conversation about food, with a different student, also made me think…if the Chinese food we commonly call Chinese is in fact nothing like the original version from China, how is it OK that it has been so widely accepted? The same can be said for any popular food: I’m Italian and I can guarantee you that most places that sell Italian specialties around the world are in fact cheap knock off versions….

What  Yoga and Local Cuisines have in common is that both are deep-rooted expressions of specific cultures and that both are appreciated  and practiced by individuals of different backgrounds. When does one’s love for a culture cross the line into cultural appropriation? Why is a painting of Ganesha in my studio offensive for someone? My yoga teacher gave it to me, and I treasure it not only as a gift, but also because I know the story of the deity that it represents. My father, a theologian, has a statue of Ganesh in his study: I was raised respecting all religions and their symbols.

Yoga has become such a fundamental part of my life that when I opened up my studio I chose to call it the LOVE Yoga Studio, because the whole philosophy behind everything done in the studio is that it should be done with love. Every single class was given with the intention of helping someone: maybe a student had had a bad day at work, maybe they just needed to get distracted or to be listened to. My main intention when teaching any class, whether that’s Pole Dance or Yoga, is to help and make the student feel loved.

By adapting to the Western World, Yoga has undergone a change that makes it now accessible to many, it is a fact and no one has to be blamed for it, just a consequence of globalization. The approach to any form of  culture has to be done with respect and awareness of the fact that it is  an invaluable source of knowledge and wisdom for all.

PS: My closing greeting is now Oum Shanti (Peace), which I find as vigorous and auspicious as Namaste.