Live Well, Do Good

Yoga an example of cultural diversity and controversy

Brandon Sun, May 28, 2018 – David McConkey

Culture continues to be a hot topic. Witness the animated debate in Westman right now over – of all things – the possible dangerous religious implications of yoga!

I am not surprised that yoga, like other aspects of culture, is controversial. Disclosure: I have occasionally attended yoga classes. Furthermore, some members of my immediate and extended family are yoga buffs. A year ago I enjoyed reading a book about yoga that I mentioned in this space, The Goddess Pose.

I find the blending and evolving of cultures fascinating. For the most part, this is a good thing. We are enriched by the world’s cultural heritage: both the classical varieties and the latest adaptations.

In my own life, for example, I enjoy rock ‘n’ roll, especially the music of my youth from a half century ago. Rock ‘n’ roll grew out of a diverse musical mix, including country, jazz, blues and folk. Also, a significant contribution was from Christian gospel music. Elvis Presley, for one, was a noted gospel singer and recording artist. Besides his Grammy for Lifetime Achievement, all of his other three Grammys were for gospel recordings. And, of course, rock music continues to evolve, branching out into pop, hip hop and more.

The evolution of a cultural form like rock music can lead to accusations of “cultural appropriation.” But I think this is a bogus concept. No artist creates entirely from their own mind. Everyone must build on and adapt from what has been developed before.

And, of course, popular music can be controversial and can be challenging: from Elvis’s swiveling hips to today’s swirling hits. Listen to Canadian singer-songwriter Alessia Cara’s tune Scars to Your Beautiful. Or watch American performer Childish Gambino’s music video This is America. (Or ignore them altogether – isn’t freedom wonderful?) 

As I learned from reading the book The Goddess Pose, yoga as practised today also has many roots. In her book, American writer Michelle Goldberg chronicles the life of Indra Devi, who had lived in India and helped to popularize yoga on this continent after moving to California in the 1950s.

Author Goldberg points out that yoga has ancient origins in Indian culture, including Hinduism. But yoga had fallen into obscurity in India; it was revived in the early 20th century. The revivers of yoga incorporated influences from all over including Indian wresting, YMCA physical education, American bodybuilding, and Danish gymnastics. So, the yoga that came to North America in the 1950s was already an amalgam of different cultures. And yoga has continued to change since then.

What about the worry that you might become exposed to a dangerous religious influence when adopting parts of another culture? Yes, this should be a concern to everyone. There are thousands of religions; new ones are created every day. Religions include more established ones as well as new religious movements, which are colloquially often called “cults.”

We need to be frank here: all cultures and all religions are not equal. Some are not as good as others at facilitating people’s well-being. And, we need to learn more about why people convert to (or stay in) a religion that leads them to a worse life.

But is there a danger that you might become a Hindu if you start practising yoga? From what I know, I doubt it. There is probably more of a danger that you might become a Christian if you start listening to rock ‘n’ roll!

And there can be problems when people are too cautious about cultural change. I think this is a problem with the conclusions of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission criticized the former Indian residential schools for attempting “cultural genocide.” But as a remedy, the Commission calls for schools and other programs for Indigenous people to be “culturally appropriate.” But doesn’t this lead to proposals to separating people by race and to prescribing an authorized “appropriate” culture? This is not just wrong-headed. It is disturbing.

Cultural diversity? Cultural controversy? As with everything, there are risks and rewards. But cultural rewards are well worth the cultural risks. We have access today to a rich global cultural bounty. And through venues like theatres, galleries, museums and libraries – plus, of course, the internet – much cultural content is available free or at low cost.
Culturally, this is a great time to be alive!

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See also:

How Do You be a Good Person?

More Than Ever, Words and Ideas Matter

What can we Learn from the New Science of Psychedelics?

More Than Ever, Words and Ideas Matter

Cultural Interaction Can Have Positive Impact

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