Spirituality & The Politics of Cultural Appropriation


I find it sad when individuals legitimate stripping spiritual practices away from a particular culture because white people find it useful or interesting. And then try to pass it off as ´spiritual enlightenment´ or wisdom. What is ironic is that spirituality itself – as a concept – got popularized in the West through engagement with Eastern mystics and the traditions that supported them. And then got appropriated.

For those who have studied the history of colonial rule, and the ways in which indigenous cultures were suppressed – or in some cases – entirely re-written by their oppressors – this is basically the same old wine, in a sparkly new, rainbow-chakra coloured bottle.

The debates that inflame people on facebook have truly been read, researched, assessed to an incredible depth by a whole body of international scholarship. The wheel doesn´t need to be re-invented here – it just needs to be acknowledged.

Trying to assume that a lay understanding of history and politics surpasses the need the engage with the work and life-worlds of indigenous scholars is yet another form of colonial appropriation.

Trying to erase away the history of these practices (and the politics of appropriation) using the rhetoric of being ´enlightened´ or ´at Oneness´ has its own costs.

And yes – of course some indigenous practitioners do fleece innocent seekers who go in search of answers – left, right and center. That´s the other side of the equation. But so much of that can be averted by making the effort to be informed.

Ask the tough questions.

Pick up that really heavy book on the origins of your tradition and read it.

If you can, look for the marginalized voices that the tradition itself chose to ignore or suppress (and that creates so much growth).

Make sure the source actually has the credentials to know what they claim to know.

Ask the tough questions.

Remember your roots, and remember the traditions you engage in.

It takes work to do so, but it´s work that is well worth doing.

It shows respect and honors the lifeblood of the civilization that created it. And if that´s not worth doing – one really has to ask what kind of ´spirituality´ is being practiced here.


I see people leaving my page over this – and you know what – I´m glad. I´m not going to, through my efforts (free or otherwise) support the development of spiritual practices that are disconnected from their roots. By now, one would think that it´s pretty clear I don´t do what I do to score brownie points or likeability.

My spiritual path has never been divorced from my politics. It´s easy to claim that politics exists in elections, institutions, officials – and so on. But that´s just the starting point. The surface level.

Politics exists and permeates through every decision we make in our lives. There is a political dimension that operates in the smallest detail that makes up the picture of ´normality´. It creates the framework for what we accept as the status quo, and what we think does not need to be questioned. It sets up the parameters of what is seen as dominant, hegemonic or mainstream – and ´others´ all that exist outside of it.

Spirituality is, like politics, something that permeates and suffuses itself through all dimensions of one´s life. They are both fundamental layers, or perspectives on reality that intimately re-inforce one another.

What we take as the accepted domain of ´the spiritual´ is itself a political choice. Who is allowed to regulate and commodify spiritual practice is – again – a political choice. Be it one that was made thousands of years ago in the midst of cultural and economic change – or one that takes place in the present, shaped by the needs of a market-based economy in a digital world.

As a spiritualist, I have found my academic understanding of politics to enhance my work and help me locate myself with greater authenticity. And to raise my voice in support of spiritual practices that do not repeat historical injustices.

I didn´t realize it at first, but I get people to think about things they normally wouldn´t. That´s worth doing.

As a Tamil (South Indian) woman with a PhD in Political Science, I have found the discernment and analytical tools of academia make me question the wool that others have sought to put over my eyes in the name of ´the spiritual´. Or to know when the name of Spirit is used to perpetuate greater violence and separation.

In my life at least, the two are intimately interconnected. It would be hollow for me to have one and not the other.

Here´s a couple of useful articles that – at least on the topic of yoga and Hinduism – provide a decent general introduction.



https://postyoga.wordpress.com/…/yoga-as-the-colonized-sub…/ – a beautiful piece by Sri Louise. I admire someone willing to stand up to members of her own ethnic grouping because of her love for another. And who backs it up with research.


Also look at South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America – Saapya

Seriously, the idea of India – as a nation – and the dominant narrative of Hinduism came about only with colonial rule. I´d highly recommend looking into the works of the ´subaltern studies´ branch of Indian sociology / historiography. A lot of what is ´sold´ as an idea, practice or concept has strong Brahmanical roots – that came at the cost of excluding other indigenous traditions.

In the video, I also address why these distinctions need to be made, and why it is so telling that indigenous practitioners are shamed for wanting to assert their own cultural boundaries. (Using watered-down spiritual terms that came from their own lineages, no less) .

Dr. Bairavee Balasubramaniam PhD
The Sky Priestess


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Post, linked Video © Bairavee Balasubramaniam, 2018. All rights reserved.

20 thoughts on “Spirituality & The Politics of Cultural Appropriation

  1. American Natives have the same problems regarding their cultural heritage here in the United States. Someday, perhaps, we will be mature enough as a people (humanity) to celebrate unity in diversity, and humbly honor the roots and cultures that exist here in such magnificent abundance.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bam! You hit the nail on the head with eveyrthing you have written here and that you spoke about in your video. Wish we’d had a chance to meet in person while you were in New York! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yhis is a brilliant video on her thoughts about cultural appropriation and what she sees as she tours the US. I want to acknowledge for others that what she is talking about does not come easily to US Education. Subaltern, cultural appropriation, The other, is not yet mainstream in coursework and I only fell into it with a number of degrees when doing my doctorate work. I heard there was a great teacher over in Women’s Studies and was like Alice who fell down the rabbit-hole in 2000. The language, the histories of the indigenous populations,etc were common among this age group. It was right up there with Henry Giroux and Cultural literacy. I had never encountered this academic work, so I do think it is harder than just reading an article on appropriation. We are not to be excused in America, and need a revamped system that provides us an entirely new way of thinking that embraces this trajectory that is as old as the hills and positions us to understand colonialism and our roll in it. I was excited that within that age group there was an understanding that had been underpinned through readings and current academics. I appreciate you anger Dr. B! Keep up the good work and report on your travels but I also think if you were educated a few decades ago, you are really behind the curve.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Well as I see it, it all boils down into that old we/they dichotomy of all aspects of all humans that prevail across politics, spirituality, etc., etc. the base of all racists, and alive in all human beings. I, being a past life person I have come to learn the foolishness of it all by realizing I have existed in all life forms. I am neither this or that because I have experienced being this or that. For me, in the end of days, the surviving each day is to remember it all comes from a place of knowledge and love. Life is a many faced journey

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Right on to you dear Dr. Bairavee, regarding your http://bairaveebalasubramaniam.com/2018/02/07/spirituality-the-politics-of-cultural-appropriation/ post!

    Being a religious & spiritual enquirer at an early age (4 or 5 or most likely earlier), yoga professional & yoga practitioner for over 41 years, I really appreciate your information (May I say: expose?), & this conversation. I will definitely read more of your links on yoga referenced in this post. And watch your video too!

    What I also see, in the U.S., is how so much past information is being super rebranded and marketed with no acknowledgment to the source.

    Now, although I do understand that this also is part of a state of evolving consciousness, and free speech, I find at times it is disturbing and out of integrity.

    Thank you for your intelligence, boldness, authenticity & actions you have taken to be who you are for the world.

    In appreciation,
    ✌️Peace,💖 Love, ✨Light


  6. I agree with everything you are saying. It’s one of the primary blind spots in American culture: we chase after every new shiny bauble, overlooking and discarding structural, fundamental truths and ethics in favor of novelty and status. Sad, but true. We need help (an intervention?) and leadership to make a permanent change. I’ve struggled with this since my teens, when I read about yoga, liked what I read, taught myself some poses, and took a class at the Young Women’s Christian Association (irony there?!). I wasn’t a Christian, but that’s where they taught interesting classes in my town. The teacher, an American hippy, gave me the creeps, touching me and positioning me, so I never went back. I still have respect for the practice, but sadly have never taken another yoga class. I’ve experienced the same pattern with Tai Chi and Tibetan Buddhism: teachers who aren’t spiritually grounded in the practice. Sad.

    Love to you and thanks, Anne in Idaho (formerly Washington state)

    On Feb 7, 2018 12:17 PM, “Dr. Bairavee Balasubramaniam PhD” wrote:

    > Dr. Bairavee Balasubramaniam PhD posted: “https://youtu.be/tONWYDXVVjk > I find it sad when individuals legitimate stripping spiritual practices > away from a particular culture because white people find it useful or > interesting. And then try to pass it off as ´spiritual enlightenment´ or > wi” >


  7. There’s an evolutionary process that’s undergoing collectively. Being born of a Mayan descent, having European ties on my fathers’ side along being a practitioner of Chinese medicine, there are dramatic changes that I see. In addition, I am a practitioner in Chinese medicine, which I have been for many years. To be so fixed in the past doesn’t work for many individuals that are on a spiritual journey. People have to find their own way. Also what you have mentioned in the past about ego. And just to get back to a previous video you have done where you mentioned ego. Ego causes separation and has precipitated wars. Ego creates illusions of separation and causes much unhappiness that I find in the culture of the United States. There are many faults that I do find here; especially with raping the land for profit and the racism that is being pursued. And yes, America’s toward the American Natives had been filled with broken promises and lies. The European stole their land. But to pigeonhole and to become condescending towards people who are on their spiritual path is not helpful. We all have our unique journey towards enlightenment. Instead of looking without, we need to look within.


    1. Hundreds of practitioners have responded to this video message without feeling that way, in fact they have felt more empowered, bolder and braver in raising these issues (as practitioners of Caucasian descent). But you are entitled to see it the way you want to. I have been accused of white bashing, but truth be told this is simply a restatement of history that others want to sweep under the carpet. Healing is not going to happen when we hide from the lessons of the past, or try to police people of colour of who want these discussions raised. These are uncomfortable discussions, and that´s exactly what we need in this time. Ego will not be erased unless we look to the underbelly.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Those who raise the call will get projected on, and that is why it is absolutely important to keep doing it. When women of colour raise their voices, they are immediately labelled as ´arrogant´, ´condescending´, ´angry, –
        and that in itself is a colonial strategy –
        still being reproduced. It is important to do this work fearlessly, and being able and willing to show up – and to challenge these strategies of silencing. I agree with you with respect to the wider evolutionary changes on this planet, and being conscious of our past heritage – is a key, and vital part of the process.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Brilliant! You articulated what I have been thinking but haven’t found the right words to express it. So so true.
    I read about Ngangkari recently & was asked what did I learn from the book. My answer – we need to look to our indigenous people not to USA (for example) for healing-spirituality etc, . We have wisdom here. My research is happening & loving what I am learning.
    “White-washing” so appropriate in many ways. I’m a whitey that is early on the learning path. I am questioning, researching, observing more. So grateful I came across your blog. You have helped my confidence that I am not the only one questioning the “norm”. I have made more progress looking at my shadows/darkness than sitting in the light & expecting my unicorn to fart rainbows and glitter.


  9. This is a really helpful and important discussion, both the post and the comments! I have been practicing and teaching yoga since 1985 and have an affection for India going back to my early childhood. One of the most important things my teachers have taught me is that lineage matters, including cultural lineage, not just individual teachers’ lineages. When we don’t acknowledge where we have received our teachings and where they come from, it’s as good as theft. The craziness in the yoga world today emphasising branded “styles” and wacko new age mixes of ideas has made me take a step back from teaching earlier this year, as I no longer fully relate to what it means to the wider population. In trying to find a new way forward I’m also questioning my own motives and this conversation is a useful part of that.


  10. The level of balance in this post is just amazing. You got your message across with the convoluted, fingerpointing mess that usually dominates these type of discussions. Thank you for sharing.


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