What is the practice of non-stealing (for yoga teachers?)
A look at intellectual theft and cultural appropriation
We live in an interconnected, interdependent world. It’s impossible not to take from one another. It’s impossible not to give. At one point humans may have lived in separate and unintegrated societies, but in our current world we are all, always intermixing. We are constantly responding to one another’s influences and inspirations. Through curiosity and sharing we evolve and develop our wisdom, and our cultures grow and become richer.
Throughout your life you will learn and be inspired by many different teachers and people. How you synthesize the vast array of your influences to develop your authentic voice and teaching style will be an ongoing process. It will do you a great disservice if you think you have to be “the one” who comes up with new ideas, or somehow creates an entirely original form. This kind of thinking not only sets you up for competitiveness and disappointment, but it also sets a foundation for unethical behavior.
The status quo of Western culture is individualism. There has been a standard ideal of capitalist principles that encourage us to pursue gain, success and achievement at all costs. Many of us were not taught or encouraged to be truly collaborative, or to understand that our successes will eventually only bring suffering if they are not ultimately in service to the happiness and wellbeing of others and the planet we share. This kind of thinking and these core beliefs set us up to treat our environment, animals and other people as expendable.
In your teaching you will have experiences where your instinct is to claim ownership over ideas, information or principles that were taught to you by someone else, maybe even by your students. To practice Asteya as a teacher is to be aware of these instincts so that you can avoid acting on them. Ultimately it will only do you harm to claim ownership over anything that is not yours, but you will find that your life and community get healthier when you seek to celebrate and include those who inspire you.
As a teacher you can make it your practice to be both confident and humble: Be confident in your ability to learn and to synthesize your influences so that you can teach from your unique perspective. Trust that your view is valuable and that your particular combination of interests and inspiration brings value to the world. Practice humility by always honoring your teachers and students. If you have been inspired by someone else, promote them! Sing others’ praises and you will find yourself loved and appreciated in turn.
It’s important that we don’t conflate the ideas of natural evolutionary processes that include co-inspiration and co-creation with cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is not simply an issue of political correctness. It’s taking without consent and then acting as if it was yours all along. It’s profiting from someone else’s identity while simultaneously abusing them or turning a blind eye to their abuse. This kind of theft is a real and tangible choice that has lasting effects upon the health, happiness and ongoing welfare of not only other cultures, but our global culture and community as a whole.
As yoga and meditation teachers we need to be particularly aware of cultural appropriation and the responsibilities we have towards our teachers, and our teachers teachers. Many of us have benefitted greatly from wisdom and practices that have originated from other cultures. For those of us who have been born without a strong sense of cultural identity or tradition, or who have been born into cultures and traditions we want to escape from, it can be particularly alluring to re-identify ourselves in alignment with people who we perceive to have a stronger sense of connection to spirituality and healing.
If we’re inspired by another culture’s tradition and knowledge, it’s important that we do not take this inspiration in a reductive or simplistic way. Investing time and attention to learn about the complexity, nuance and origin of these traditions is important. It’s also crucial that we resist laying claim on what we have learned by renaming it as a new style of our own invention. We must not put ourselves forward as experts or masters of traditions or techniques without the express consent and ongoing agreement of those who originated the teachings, or carry them forward from their lineage.
When we benefit from others we should strive to be aware of how they are perceived and treated in totality. As part of our ongoing practice we must make concerted and continuous efforts to respect and advocate for the rights, autonomy and equity of the people and places we are benefitting from. Indigenous peoples and their descendants, and people of color in general here in the U.S., are often faced with threats to their sovereignty, identity, safety, economic well-being and their access to resources.
Therefore it’s important to consider whether our use of someone else’s content, customs or information promotes our own financial or social benefit without also contributing to theirs. If we use what we have taken from them and don’t acknowledge the source of our information or our status as students, if we do not give back, or if we choose not to pay attention to their ongoing struggle and mistreatment, then the work we do does not have integrity and becomes a tool of racism and oppression.
A Conversation on Nonstealing with Lisa Jarrett
Lisa Jarrett is a big inspiration of mine. Artist, educator, activist and all-around awesome human, I was thrilled to be able to approach the topic of nonstealing through a discussion with her on identity, blackness and cultural narrative.
Here are some links for a few references from our conversation in case you're curious
- Laylah Ali and her project on John Brown
- Kaneeza Schaal
Resources and Reading
"For Asian American Buddhists, particularly those of us who were raised Buddhist, the systemic causes that effect anger are omnipresent in the very foundations of what often gets labeled as “American Buddhism.” "
"People who practice yoga in England and America often neglect to consider the years of British colonial rule in India, and the role that these years necessarily play in making the West’s relationship with yoga not a friendly cultural exchange, but a violent process of colonisation."
"Where do we draw the line between “appropriate” forms of cultural exchange and more damaging patterns of cultural appropriation?"
"Like so many other systemic problems — police brutality, say, or a lack of diversity in film and television — cultural appropriation is a symptom, not the cause, of an oppressive and exploitative world order."