Yoga instructors take stances on cultural understanding

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Sara Neff, center, participates with other attendees at the morning yoga session held at the camp site during Week 2 of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on Saturday, April 18, 2015, in Indio, Calif. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

By Dan Corry

Alisa Zhou, student in psychology and business major, has been doing yoga for almost nine years.

She started the practicing yoga with her mom, using a DVD at home;now Zhou works at Amara Yoga and Arts. She said that the community in Urbana inspired her to teach yoga and educate others on the specific type of yoga she practices known as Ashtanga yoga.

The widely popular exercise became an issue earlier this year when the University of Ottawa in Ontario canceled a yoga class after students mentioned that the course could be seen as a form of cultural appropriation. The university offered to rebrand the class as a “mindful stretching” class, but the idea of yoga using different culture’s rituals without the backstory or beliefs behind them has sparked controversies on university campuses.

“Personally, I think that the mainstream view of yoga is sometimes disrespectful to the culture and the lack of awareness and understanding of where yoga and yoga philosophy comes from,” she said.

While training to become a yoga teacher, Zhou learned about the tradition and history which concentrates on “respecting the lineage” of the different positions and lifestyle.

“It’s quite upsetting to me and the people around me when we see people around us who are not of southern Indian background or do not practice Hindu wearing a bindi or mesh [two separate cultures] together,” Zhou said.

The same philosophy applies to some of the chants used while doing yoga. She said if someone doesn’t understand the background of the chant, there is a big difference from what the chants mean to the specific culture. Similarly, she said tying religion to yoga can also be perceived as offensive.

Zhou said it is helpful to know how people define yoga for example, she said, viewing yoga as simple physical meditation could be used in any context.

“When cultural appropriation comes into play is when you make statements about deities that you don’t understand or clothing that you don’t understand, where you’re trying to perceive a culture or religion that you’re not a part of,” she said. “Its one thing to admire, it’s a whole other thing to identify yourself as a culture that’s not your own.”

However, Zhou said there are still ways to respectfully learn and practice yoga.

“You should definitely view yoga as more than just a physical practice.” she said “I think the most important part is the benefits that you get, outside of changes you see in your body, because there’s physical health, and there’s also mental, emotional, spiritual health.”

Katherine Williams, yoga instructor at the ARC and student in Dance, said she views yoga as cultural appropriation if instructors don’t inform student on how the practice came to be or what traditions they are based on.

Williams said she has no ties to Hindu practices but her training taught her about yoga philosophy and history.

“I think that there are a lot of benefits of yoga and people should always practice yoga, but they need to be informed of where these practices came,” Williams said.

Williams offers to answer questions about the history and culture behind yoga at the end of every class, but her students are generally not interested, she said.

Williams said that whenever her students approach her, the questions are less about what certain traditions mean or where they come from, and more about physical postures or strengthening physical things.

That statement could truly be the root of this problem. Students participate in yoga for the physical or material gains, but seem to ignore the history and beliefs that go into the actual practice of yoga. Champaign’s Iyengar Yoga center Director, Lois Steinberg, has been studying yoga for 40 years. She taught as a teaching assistant in the department of kinesiology for nine years and is currently studying at an Iyengar yoga institute in India.

“Yoga is not a religion,” she said. “All religious/non-religious groups, races, and gender, can practice and study yoga.”

Steinberg explained that her class begins by chanting “ohm.” This chanting, Steinberg says, is used to get in touch with your own sound vibrations.

“When you’re living in this modern day life,” Steinberg said. “Your surrounded by technology, computers, cars, electricity, and you are no longer balanced with your own natural bodies bio-rhythms and vibrations. Yoga is about bringing stillness to the ever fluctuating consciousness and helping you to come to your own true form.”

Steinberg is focused on expanding her consciousness and not about being flexible. She said that what she is seeing in society today is less of a true form of yoga and more aerobics, and while she is glad people use this to help them, she hopes that if students really like is, they search for something deeper and more meaningful in terms of the study of true Iyengar yoga.

“If there is a controversy with this, that’s just a form of ignorance,” she said. “I would ask people to look at the philosophy, art, and science of yoga and understand that it is simply a practice to help one develop themselves.”

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