A tough conversation about cultural appropriation and yoga.
For those of you who know me personally, you may know that I’m a first generation daughter of Pakistani immigrants. My childhood is too complex to go into detail here, but basically I was raised in a conservative and patriarchal household. Islam was the foundation of my upbringing. I was raised in a culture and religion that believes boys are allowed certain rights and privileges over girls. I also learned that certain people get preferential treatment, but it didn’t just stop at gender. It extended to class, skin color, religion, language, education, profession, and ethnicity. I was taught this in the most subtle ways, as my parents had a wide range of friends and acquaintances in Houston. They were seemingly kind and tolerant towards all. But there were clear boundaries drawn when it came to decisions like what subject I would study, what genre of music I can listen to, and who I could marry.
English was my second language, and as early as I can remember- I hated school. I hated feeling like I was different from everyone else, and that I didn’t belong anywhere. Even the two times I went to visit Pakistan, I felt like I was an outsider. I was stuck in between two cultures.
In school I had the privilege to be around other races and religions, and I quickly learned that each group had their own biases and preferential treatments towards certain groups of people. I wasn’t allowed to date, wear shorts or sleeveless shirts, go to the mall or the movies unchaperoned, or even go to prom. The other kids thought it was weird how strict my parents were, but I realized that although most girls weren’t as restricted as me - most were also treated as the inferior gender. It was engrained in almost all cultures in some way. I always noticed it, and it always bothered me.
Why are women less important?
Why must there be a hierarchy of worthiness, if we all came from the same source?
Every single group claims to be superior.
Every religion, every race, every nationality has their pride.
And I called BS.
I was tired of being bullied and oppressed, and tired of people dehumanizing one another based on nothing but egotistical opinions and their brainwashed beliefs.
I got married at the age of 22... I said yes only 2 month after meeting my husband, and we truly did fall in love. I am blessed that I was lucky enough to find a good guy who empowered me and encouraged me to question everything. But when my parents started asking if we were ready to make a decision after our first dinner together, I couldn’t wait to get the hell out. I was desperate to have freedom, so the decision became easy. I had always felt like a liability in my parents home, whereas my brother was an asset.
In college I was drawn to psychology, and topics like philosophy, anthropology, sociology and religious studies. As my mind expanded, I abandoned religion altogether and became agnostic -leaning towards atheist. I was taught that all non-believers would be banished to eternal hellfire, and that questioning Islam was a sin. But I knew that other religions also taught their followers the same thing- so how do I know which one is right?
I truly felt like a lost and tortured soul.
Abandoning my birth religion was one of the most painful things I had to go through in my life. It was the only group I identified with... but even there, I felt like a fraud. I stayed in a place of uncertainty and surrendered to the unknown for 13 years, until I found myself in my first yoga class in 2013.
I felt it instantly.
It was a strange feeling of recognition and comfort. I felt as if I had been an orphan for all my life, and I had somehow accidentally found my way home. I had finally discovered the lost language of my soul.
And now, I could finally begin to understand life.
Life seemed to speed up quickly after that, and just two short years later I found myself enrolled in YTT. Through my natural thirst for understanding human behavior and the nature of our existence, I found yoga philosophy fascinating. It was the only thing that made sense to my logical/rational mind, as well my intuition. It echoed the teachings of Mother Teresa, Gandhi, MLK, the Dalai Lama and even Rumi... they all came from different faiths, but they were people I was always drawn to and admired- because their message promoted peace, love and compassion for ALL. There was never a faith or philosophy in the world that I had come across until I found yoga, that embodied UNITY as the foundation of life.
As I dove deeper into my yoga studies, I began to learn how to heal my own unresolved traumas. I learned about the cycle of generational trauma, and I learned how to let go of resentment and how to forgive. I learned about the divine feminine, and I learned about my own inherent power and worthiness.
And I also learned about yoga’s origins... I learned that the ancient yoga texts were discovered on the land that is now known as Pakistan.
The land of my ancestors.
My mom had always told me that I came from Aryan lineages, and I would just roll my eyes and think “whoop di do”. Another excuse to have bragging rights about our bloodline’s supposed superiority.
I didn’t think it mattered, because I was fed up with humanity’s superiority complex. This egotism is the source of all the suffering in this world. The sense of righteousness that comes along with identifying with a group of people is what perpetuates division. It takes us away from our true nature. It takes us away from unity.
But I am beginning to realize the complexity of it all. It’s really not as simple as abandoning all labels and associations for the sake of unity. If we want to heal our traumas and end the cycle of suffering - we must acknowledge the history and trauma of our ancestors. We must acknowledge all the ways we have oppressed, and have been oppressed. This trauma gets passed down in our genes until it is healed.
Pakistan and India used to be one country. In 1947, India and Pakistan were divided under British rule. There was a lot of animosity between Hindus and Muslims, and unfortunately the division was ill-planned and not thought out at all. The division led to the largest mass human migration in history, where an estimated 15-20 million Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were displaced. An estimated 2 million people were killed. If you can stomach the gruesome details, here’s a brief history lesson: "The Great Divide" -https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/06/29/the-great-divide-books-dalrymple
This was not that long ago. It happened 73 years ago, when my grandparents were kids. I grew up sheltered from most of the horrific stories and details, but the few that I’ve heard have scarred me for life.
I can understand why there is still a deep hatred between the two countries. There is way too much unprocessed trauma. Over what though? Land?? Religious beliefs?
Is it worth all the bloodshed?
My heart aches and my tears flow even now, as I type this...
It is so fucking complex. And I'm tired.
But I cannot rest until I finish what I was sent here to do.
The gut wrenching reality is almost unbearable, but it needs to be remembered in order for us to heal.
And then, we need to learn how to forgive.
Thank goodness for yoga.
This practice brings us back to unity. But the 8 limbs of yoga and the 8 fold path also teach us to do no harm with our actions and words, they teach us not to steal, and they teach us that attachment is the root of all suffering.
They teach us how to let go.
And this is what brings me back to the topic of cultural appropriation.
Yoga was first discovered on the land of my ancestors. The Muslim prayer that is practiced 5 times a day on a prayer mat - it has uncanny similarities to the Surya Namaskar. I was doing balasana, tadasana, and uttanasana since I was 5 years old - only then, I knew it as “namaz”.
Even the word namaz, namaskar and namaste originate from the same Sanskrit word “namah” - meaning “to bow” in adoration. I immediately noticed the uncanny similarities, and I was intrigued.
Upon digging deeper, I realized that the ritualistic practices that yoga and namaz have in common are wide ranging, and encompass many other religions and cultures from that region. “Religions do not spring into practice fully formed, and because they are the product of human action and thought, they are necessarily a union of human experiences, knowledge and inspiration. As discussed in the section on terms and concepts, syncretism in this study is defined as the use by a religion of a religious practice previously employed in one or more traditions in a different way. Put another way, while the ritual practices discussed in this study may have been similar to those practiced elsewhere in the region, they were distinctly Islamic once incorporated into Muslim worship. Locating practices that meet the criteria for syncretic influence – similarity in action, contact and the extent of contact – is a means of determining syncretism at work.” - "The Origins of Muslim Prayer" : http://almuslih.org/Library/Hienz,%20J%20-%20The%20Origins.pdf
The whole point of this being brought up is that I’m realizing the importance of recognizing our origins. It is important for us to understand that where we came from and who we are, is a result of syncretism.
Yoga doesn’t belong to just one people, one religion or one country.
Neither does anything else.
The language we speak, the numbers we count, this land we live on, the air we breathe, even the blood running through our veins - it is all a product of the collective. By remembering and honoring the diverse origins of everything around us, we can finally let go of egotism and superiority.
By honoring the importance of this world’s diversity and ALL of humanity's contributions, we can finally return to unity.
But first we must be willing to acknowledge our past... and then, forgive.
“Maybe I’m here to pray for all those who have lost hope along the way.”
- We Shall Overcome by Nakho and Medicine for the People