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What is the Difference Between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Appreciation?

Updated: Nov 14, 2020

What’s the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation?

Sometimes, we can be unclear as to what the difference is between these two important concepts.

Imagine gazing up at a gorgeous, roaring waterfall feeding into a rushing river running through your town. It provides sustenance and life to villages, cities, forests, fields, animals and ecosystems, and to your home.

As you look at the river, you realize that though you don't even fully know its source, you benefit from its watershed immensely.

Your whole city, town, life, the food you eat is nourished by it. Some dump waste into it. Some want to dam it, alter it, bottle it, sell it, regardless of harm caused. Some wish to care for it, advocate, leave its sacred powers be.

Whatever your position, can you possibly understand, know or presume to own the river or its source?

The main difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is connected to

1. Power

2 Harm

So much depends on the intent, awareness and, most importantly, the impact behind connecting to and partaking in another culture. For example, did you know that in India, the source culture of yoga, the term yogi is a highly aspired to state of being and not as easily thrown around as in the West. I use it to refer to people who identify this way, but I speak of myself as a devoted student of yoga.

Cultural appropriation is when someone uses someone else's culture, including practices, symbols, rituals, fashion, or other elements from a target or "minority" culture, without considering the source, origins or people of that culture.

They may be using another culture for various reasons such as:

* to make a profit

* to "make a new trend"

* to look cool or be fashionable

* to be a cultural tourist or explore the "exotic"

* or for some other self-serving purpose without respecting or caring for the original culture or context.

Cultural appropriation happens when a dominant group adopts, benefits from, shares and even exploits the customs, practices, ideas, social and spiritual knowledge of another, usually target or subordinate, society or people.

Cultural appropriation clearly harms the source culture in a variety of ways

1. Material harm

2. Disrespect or disregard to the values, practices, social, religious or cultural norms

Often that harm can span social institutions and political, economic, social, spiritual, cultural worlds.

But, I didn’t mean to!

Saying "I didn't mean to cause harm" doesn't erase the impact of the harm caused. Ignorance doesn't reduce the impact of cultural appropriation.

Address the impact, don't stay focused on the intention.

So what is Cultural Appreciation and how can I do it?

Cultural appreciation is very different than cultural appropriation. To start, cultural appreciation seeks to connect with cultures different from one's own from “the inside out.”

It respects the codes, mores, values, and practices of the culture. Cultural appreciation can happen when one enjoys or respects the culture of origin and, instead of harming or taking, gives back and uplifts the source culture.

To be very clear, let’s lay out two criteria for cultural appreciation. Cultural appreciation involves power balancing and ahimsa (non-harm or harm reduction.)

1. Power balancing: sharing power or using privilege or advantage to uplift or support an under resourced groups or people.

2. Non-harm (ahimsa) Reducing or mitigating harm, or actively uplifting the source culture and its people. Consideration, care and respect that comes from learning about and uplifting the source culture and those who often don't receive support. This can include financial, social, political, emotional and cultural care and support.

So how to practice without appropriating then?

Coming towards a tradition with openness, willingness to listen, respect and humility are wonderful ways to engage mutual exchange. And we need to avoid harm and address power imbalances.

  • First and foremost, address your impact not just your intention. Consider whether your actions may be causing harm and try to reduce that harm.

  • Another powerful way to avoid appropriation is to honor yoga’s roots. Learn about the culture from the inside out. Explore the lineages. Explore the expanse of this practice far beyond just the physical. Read the sutras and cite sources of these wisdom teachings.

  • If you are a yoga practitioner — ask your teachers for more than asana. Go deeper. Ask and take the time to learn and practice more.

  • Practice and teach as many of the limbs and other aspects of yoga as possible so we can experience and the full range that yoga has to offer.

  • Own our positionality. And honor our lineage. Imagine if at the beginning of a yoga class teachers shared, “This is Who I am, this is how I learned, I have a lot of respect for the lineage...”

  • Actively uplift. Centralize those who have been left out. Consider yoga’s legacy and the tradition. And what we may be missing by historical and present day omission. We South Asians, Indians and desi’s are here. Include us. Centralize us. Ask us. Invite us in. Lift us up. Historical oppression and omission has often decentralized us from a voice that should be ours to share. Include us and know there's room for you in the circle and in the practice.

  • Really be committed to studentship. Practicing and teaching as we are always a student of this practice. Acting as if we could study it for our whole lives and always be learning, because, of course, we can. A little humility, a little reverence, goes a long way.

  • Honor symbols and iconography. Make sure, if we are using images of deities or regalia such as statues, malas or bindis, that we know where they came from, what they mean, how to relate to them respectfully and have a sincere intention at heart. Deepening our relationship is often so key.

  • Avoid exploitation. Show that we really care about the aim of uplift, about other’s well being. This is not just a thing we are doing. Consider if you are profiting off another culture's wisdom and practices how you might make material reparations.

  • Engage in courageous conversations in yoga sites.These are conversations that aren’t always comfortable but deal with the real. We need to make space lean into hard conversations, like these. We need to reach for each other. As we change ourselves and the world. We are all connected.

The beauty of yoga is key to distinguishing between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation can often be found within the practice itself.

Appreciation involves awe, respect, reverence and humility. Just like you'd look at that raging river delivering sustenance to old growth forests and cities for centuries knowing It's been here before you. Knowing it's going to continue long and strong and beautiful after you. Its power and significance invites awe and humility, not ownership and control.

Identify and reflect on your power.

And practice ahimsa.

Keep learning and keep exploring and visiting the wellspring of awe deep in this practice.

- Susanna


It's been 1 year since I launched the Honor {Don't Appropriate} Yoga Summit. I was aiming to help shake up and disrupt the rampant appropriation and white centering happening in the yoga world. And it certainly has. I do this because I care. And I want us all to do better. Please share and uplift this work if you feel inspired. Your thoughts, experiences and insights help move this work forward.

I am the author of Embrace Yoga's Roots Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice and a yoga unity and diversity activist. I've been practicing the traditions of my ancestors my whole life and educating around yoga and social justice for 2 decades.

If you'd like to stay in touch then you can download the Yoga Equity Manifesto and subscribe to my email list. I send out yoga, diversity, equity and wellness notes about once or twice a month.

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I co-admin the Facebook page of my town's Human Relations Committee and am constantly on the lookout for relevant articles to post. This one hits many points that I'd like to present on our page, but I'd like to open the wording up to include non-practitioners. Would you be able to point me to any source material you have or allow me to edit and post this (with attribution, of course)?

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