Western culture stretches Eastern traditions

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By Tania Pereira

The customs and cultures of the East are the latest fads to hit North America. Things like mehndi, yoga and meditation, which are all the rage among celebrities, aren’t meant to make you look good. But sometimes things get lost in the translation.

Mehndi, also known as henna, is an ancient form of body art that originated in India, North Africa and the Middle East. In Indian culture, women have their hands and feet stained with dye from henna plants to celebrate their wedding or other special occasions. SOmetimes a groom has his bride’s initials stained on his skin.
Deborah Lewington, a buyer for Indigo books, says mehndi and yoga books are hot sellers.

“Body decoration is in high demand in urban areas, especially in the summer,” Lewington says. “Publishers are publishing more of these [books] because of the increased demand i the last few years.”

Ryerson’s RAC has offered yoga classes for the last 12 years. Eight yoga classes are $45.

“Yoga is a great way to increase your flexibility and stamina,” says yoga instructor Caroline Owen, who has been teaching yoga for seven years, two at the RAC. “I give the Sanskrit names when I remember them, but sometimes it just gets too confusing [for the class].”

Owen teaches a type of yoga known as Hatha, or physical yoga. Other types of yoga include Bhakti, devotional yoga, Karma, service-oriented yoga, Karma, service-oriented yoga and Raja, meditational yoga. The practice began as a way to purify and prepare the body and mind before meditating.

Johanna Edwards, a first-year technical theatre production student, started attending yoga classes in September.

“When I’m stressed out I’ve learned what I can do at home to  relax,” Edwards says. She says the cultural aspects of yoga intrigue her. “It’s interesting when the instructor explains what the different positions mean.”

“Yoga can be a spiritual practice,” OWen says. She admits it’s altered from its original spiritual form. “The concept of aerobic yoga is Western and not descended from traditional yoga.”

This is only one Eastern custom that has been altered to fit Western culture. The bindi, a dot that adorns the foreheads of married Hindu women, has lost its religious significance. Gwen Stefani, lead singer of No Doubt, sports a bindi. Le Chateau sells them as fashion accessories and many young girls wear several on their foreheads, faces and bellies.

Kush Sharma, president of the Hindu Students’ Association (HSA) at Ryerson, likes seeing his culture’s influence spread to the mainstream.

“It’s a good thing as long as it’s not used negatively,” he says. “I think it’s excellent to see our way of life reflected in Western society.”

But not everyone agrees.

Kam Kaler, a second-year fashion student and secretary of the Ryerson Indo-Canadian Students’ Association (RICSA), says traditional customs have lost their meaning and many traditionalists are taking offence.

“I think it’s cool that India is finally being recognized,” Kaler says. “But I think customs are just being played out.” As a member of RICSA, Kaler recognizes the need to educate others about customs that have become part of the mainstream. “I don’t mind if it’s an Indian person who does it, but other people don’t understand.”

The cheapening of these customs’ has the potential to alienate traditionalists, says Janet Salaff, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto. “Their cultural artifacts are in context and when these are wrested from them, they feel a sense of loss.”

Salaff says the popularity of these customs in Western culture is a sign of a spiritually bankrupt society. “We’re looking for some spiritual injection and Asia is seen as natural, spiritual and untrammelled. Western society is looking for a new market to edge competition and be first on the block to exploit this market.

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