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A touch therapist's perspective on cultural appropriation

Updated: Apr 8

For a while I have intended to articulate my thoughts on the cultural appropriation of indigenous knowledge, practices and beliefs in the wellness world and, more specifically, at Olive Tree Therapies in a little corner of Edinburgh on North Junction Street. My name is André and I am a cis white queer man born in Portugal and living in the UK since 2009.

Sometimes I look around my therapy room and feel a sense of unease at the sight of Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Hindu Gods as well as Japanese characters derived from Zen Buddhism. Once, when looking at my gold statue of the Goddess Isis, a client asked me why I owned such a statue. I felt a sense of wrongness and the urge to explain it wasn't just a decoration. I tried but I'm not sure he was convinced it wasn't so (it isn't).

When soft bossanova plays through my speakers during a massage, I wonder about what cultural appropriation means and the implications of this for us therapists treating clients with a variety of techniques that have arisen from a range of cultures around the globe. Truthfully, I have in the past discreetly pressed skip when Spotify suddenly started playing 'native American-like' drumming through my speakers. This is not to say there's a problem with either of these things but simply an illustration that I am aware that sometimes I notice my own sense of inadequacy, justified or not. I note the urgent need to explain to people why I do what I do. This piece of writing is both that and not that explanation.

The focus of this piece of writing is neither to criticise the actions of others nor to excuse or justify my actions or (sometimes poor) choices. Instead, I am intending to reflect on the impact of cultural appropriation as well as to articulate how I've navigated cultural appropriation within the world of holistic therapies and hopefully to encourage debate both online and offline. I welcome other practioners' views as well as the views of clients and people everywhere as it's my ethos as a therapist that everyone should have an opportunity to voice their opinion, even - or especially - when that isn't convenient or comfortable for either party involved in the discussion. I ask that if you do engage, you do so kindly.

Those who know me will know I went to India in February 2023 to learn Ayurveda and Yoga Therapy in Kannur at a school founded and managed by Dr. Sapna Rajesh and Dr. Rajesh Devan, with whom I continue to study and work. I studied alongside other mostly white people from all over the world who were privileged enough to be able to travel to India to learn for one month ancient systems of health, healing and spirituality. Even though this was the first time I delved into Yoga and Ayurveda in a more formal and focussed manner, I wasn't new to Yoga. By that point I had practiced Western 'Yoga' for well over 10 years in a completely decontextualized way, severed from its spiritual elements and roots. Yet, mysteriously, my body-mind still seemed to reap the benefits of asanas.

For a good chunk of those 10 years, I 'Namastay-ed' at the beginning and end of every Yoga class, like everyone else, without ever being told why or what it meant. I almost never chanted and always skipped Savasana because I was too busy. For a long time I made little attempt to decolonise multiple aspects of my existence, including my spiritual practice. By the time the Covid-19 pandemic came, and after becoming frustrated with the limitations of Western medicine, psychology and psychotherapy (which I had been engaged with for around two decades), I decided to explore Ayurveda in a last ditch attempt to heal from old trauma.

This wasn't the first time I took an interest in Indigenous knowledge however. I received my initiation into Reiki at 17 years of age from a Reiki master living in a small town on the outskirts of Lisbon. Said white practitioner was neither Japanese nor had she any Japanese descent. Nor she had been initiated herself by a Japanese master (note I am not implying here that only Japanese people or their descendants are capable of channeling Reiki energy; I'm merely acknowledging what I believe is an important fact). Around the same time, I developed a life-long interest in neo-pagan spirituality as well as Portugal specific pagan practices which were and continue to be passed down to me from matriarchs who kindly share their knowledge and ancestral histories with me.

With this whistlestop tour I intend to paint a picture of a personal spiritual trajectory that is as genuine as it is complex and problematic. It is a trajectory that is not absent of the white supremacist and capitalist foundations of our world that often erased Indigenous people as I went along on my mind-body-spirit healing journey. As a holistic therapist, it became natural for me to slowly integrate what had been useful for me over the years when attempting to recover my wellness. Some of these were skills and tools I learned in massage courses as well as at university and work experience in the field of mental health. Other skills were indigenous knowledge such as Reiki, Ayurveda and Yoga (although arguably the mindfulness based exercises I learned within the mental health field had too been problematically appropriated from Buddhist religion). So, as a white cis male, is it ok then, to offer Yoga, Ayurveda and Reiki at Olive Tree Therapies? Some of my fellow therapists might (or not) have wondered the same question and searched for guiding answers to satisfy the inner decoloniser.

There was a time when I had a hard time undestanding how colonised spirituality can be. I also had a hard time realizing my role in perpetuating the misrepresentation and simplification of certain cultures, erasure of indigenous people and the uneven distribution of power that accrues in the wellness industry. After all, I did return from Brazil over a decade ago with a statue of Yemanja that I thought looked nice but knew very little about. But, this isn't all there is to it. It is, in my opinion, rather lazy to reduce cultural appropriation to ridding oneself of 'Namastes', removing the Yemanja statue from your bedroom or stop wearing cornrows. Decolonising the wellness industry (or your own thinking for that matter) is much harder work than this and to think otherwise would be somewhat naive. The term cultural appropriation is almost always used out of context (especially on social media), often to express indignation over the fact we supposedly can no longer wear braids or wear a Namaste t-shirt (although you probably shouldn't). In reality, things are almost always more complex and require more effort and more thinking beyond the obvious and tangible.

Cultural appropriation can be defined as "...the theft of sacred items or practices, while simultaneously profiting from their misuse" (Meade et al. 2022) and "(cultural appropriation) occurs when members of a dominant group take elements and symbols of another culture for their own economic or social gain while simultaneously devaluing and silencing the bodies, opinions and voices of the oppressed culture" (Asghar, 2015).

As mentioned at the beginning of this text, I am not intending to justify the therapies I offer at Olive Tree Therapies or create any kind of guide around what is or isn't ok to do. But perhaps I do intend to throw the question out there (as well as throw the question inside my therapy room), of who is it that is being silenced and erased? Whose knowledge has been extracted and profited from without credit or repect? What's our role in all of this? Why do we do what we do?

In the end, it can be deeply troubling (it is for me) to wonder if you can or can't do something or worry that you might offend or harm people with your actions. While I was in India, I spent a long time deciding the shape and form Ayurveda would take back on North Junction Street. I discussed this at length with my teachers in India. Would I offer 'Ayurvedic massage' as a shiny new thing on the menu that people could try out and pay more for like an exotic novelty massage brought back by the coloniser? Or would I honour what I had been taught? And if so, what shape would that take? I am not attempting to be prescriptive here or to state I got it right (although I'd hope so), but it quickly became apparent to me that to decontextualise and extract an age old technique I learned in Kerala and then profit from it, would indeed be cultural appropriation and not appreciation. This didn't sit right with me. This is why you cannot book an Ayurvedic treatment at Olive Tree Therapies without going through an Ayurvedic consultation. To do so would not only be nonsensical as it would be a blunt extraction of a millenial healing system to distil it into a 60 minute treatment for 55 pounds.

From where I'm standing, I am sure I will never get everything right all of the time. I can, however, be willing to listen and engage in respecful conversations just as much as I am willing to learn, educate myself and credit the knowledge imparted onto me. If told that my actions are hurtful towards a group of people, I will listen and always acknowledge that I am sorry I created such offence and I will create change, where I can. I will strive to educate myself as it continues to be my responsability to decolonise myself, my thinking, my business. I am certain the work isn't done yet (probably never will be ) just as much as I am certain of the incredible amount of privilege I have had in my professional journey. Not because I have to apologise for it, but because it makes me aware of the different ways in which power accrues and how when someone wins, someone else always loses, although arguably, with time, effort and accountability, it doesn't have to be that way.

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