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How to Decolonize your Yoga practice

By UPLIFT on Saturday June 13th, 2015

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How to Decolonize your Yoga practice

Is practicing Yoga just perpetuating Cultural Appropriation?

As an Indian woman living in the US I’ve often felt uncomfortable in many yoga spaces. At times, such as when I take a $25 yoga class by a well-known teacher who wants to “expose us to the culture by chanting Om to start class“ and her studio hangs the Om symbol in the wrong direction, my culture is being stripped of its meaning and sold back to me in forms that feel humiliating at best and dehumanizing at worst. It took me going to India to really connect with the roots I was seeking on the mat in yoga studios. As I walked the streets of Shimla’s legendary markets I learned that Indians had been forbidden to tread the main thoroughfares. It was here that I started to apprehend the true meaning of colonization. Did you know that Yoga and Ayurveda were banned in India under British rule and colonization? The practices millions of Westerners now turn to for alternative health and wellness therapies were intentionally eradicated from parts of India to the point that lineages were broken and thousand-year old traditions lost. To be colonized is to become a stranger in your own land. As a desi, this is the feeling I get in most Westernized yoga spaces today. Of course, powerful practices that reduce suffering persist, despite all attempts to end them. These facts are critical to understanding the power and privilege we continue to possess or lack, to clarifying the positionalities we embody as we practice, teach and share yoga today.

So much of what the Western world sees as true yoga is beautifully achieved physical postures

Now, when so much of what the Western world sees as true yoga is beautifully achieved physical postures, (accomplished, photographed and displayed by popular yoga magazines, journals and sites) executed by mostly young, white, stylish-yoga-apparel clad women and men, yoga is going through a second colonization. This colonization is the misrepresentation of yoga’s intention, its many limbs, and its aims. Yoga is not now, nor has it ever been, a practice aimed at physical mastery for its own sake. Nor is it a practice aimed at “stress-reduction” so we can function as better producers and consumers in a capitalist society.

The yoga-industrial complex – stripping away the essence of yoga“The yoga-industrial complex – stripping away the essence of yoga”

The foundation of freedom

Yoga was originally intended to prepare the body as a foundation for unity with the spirit. The limb of asana aims at strengthening the body. Asana, along with dhyana or meditation, aim to harmonize body with breath in order to attain deeper and deeper states of meditative awareness or samadhi. The purpose of this kind of meditative awareness is to experience, practice, and live oneness of mind, body and soul with the divine. This kind of freedom is called samadhi or liberation.It is ironic that practice meant to free us has becoming so confining. The current state of yoga in the United States and elsewhere in the Western world highlights the power imbalance that remains between those who have access to wealth, an audience and privilege in contrast to those who have been historically marginalized.

If someone from the dominant culture completes a yoga teacher training that is primarily asana based, and remains blissfully unaware of the complexity of yoga’s true aim or the roots of the practices, they are culturally appropriating yoga. By remaining unaware of the history, roots, complexity and challenges of the heritage from which yoga springs and the challenges it has faced under Western culture, they perpetuate a re-colonization of it by stripping its essence away.

Now, this is not to say that there can’t be some true, heartfelt and deep liberation possible. Or that only Indians can practice or teach yoga and white people can’t. There can be authentic cultural exchange, harmony and understanding. Clearly, since the true aim of the practice of yoga is liberation, uniting mind, body and spirit, this form should not limit us. Liberation here, is no joke. Yoga means liberation from every construct, including that of race, gender, time, space, location, identity and even history herself. However, in the current cultural context where there is a billion-dollar industry profiting off taking yoga out of context, branding and repackaging it for monetary gain we need to address this. Or else we perpetuate a second colonization, i.e., eventually eradicating the true practice, as was accomplished in many places under Britain’s occupation of India, and we stray further on the path of maya, or illusion.

Young Indian Hindu Brahmins training to be priests perform yoga on a ghat on the Ganges“Young Indian Hindu Brahmins training to be priests perform yoga on a ghat on the Ganges”

These are a few ways to decolonize your yoga practice:

1. Inquire within

One powerful way we can decolonize yoga and reunite it with its true aim and purpose is to practice Gandhian svadhyaya, or self-rule and inquiry, and to truly learn the full honest, integrity of an authentic yoga practice.

2. Explore, learn and cite correct cultural references

As practitioners of yoga I would love to see more of us citing cultural references as we attempt to understand and connect with the complexity, culture and history from which this tradition comes. I’m not suggesting people put on a watered down, context-removed faux Hinduism. To me that is not the answer.

3. Ask ourselves, and other yoga teachers, the hard questions

These tension asks us to bring all of ourselves to the table. So what I am suggesting is for us to decolonize yoga we need to inquire deeply. We each have our unique story and gifts to share as do all the practitioners we teach or learn from. Lets ask ourselves “For whom is yoga accessible today and how might that be a legacy of past injustices that we have the opportunity to address through our teaching practice and our lives?”

4. Live, know, share and practice all eight limbs of yoga, not just asana

We can also decolonize yoga by studying the depth of practice beyond the postures. In addition to asana we need to understand, practice and teach all eight limbs of yoga: yama or ethical conduct, niyama or personal practice, pranayama or working with the breath, pratyahara awareness of the senses, dharana, meditation, concentration and insight, dhyana or being present with whatever arises and samadhi, or interconnection with all that is.

5. Be humble and honor your own and other people’s journey

When we humbly and respectfully consider yoga’s history, context, many branches and practices we give ourselves a fighting chance achieving yoga’s aim of enlightenment of mind, body and spirit.

By really engaging the full, whole and multifaceted face of yoga we not only liberate ourselves but we may just overthrow this second colonization of yoga, freeing ourselves as well as the yoga practitioners of the future to experience the full, liberating, authentic and true practice of yoga. We allow our own practice to grow and our gifts to really shine.

With mutual understanding, respect, and a deep reverence and caring for the history we can decolonize ourselves, the yoga-industrial-complex, and stage our own ahimsa, or nonviolent revolution of the mind, body and spirit.

WORDS BY SUSANNA BARKATAKI

FIRST APPEARED ON DECOLONIZING YOGA

 

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comments

  • Roxanne

    I loved this!
    There is a wonderful woman where I grew up who I feels honors what you talk about. She did Yoga with us children and all I remember is her talking about the breathing with the movement and spiritual journey it was so wonderful.
    Then I moved to Calgary it was all about how you look in LuLU lemon which I can’t wear anyways since I’m a size 20 lol Really put me off the whole thing.
    Thanks for the reminder!

  • Human Bg

    I feel blessed to have read this article. Yoga is a spiritual practice. The shameless monetization of a millennials old spiritual practice by European descended people’s is just a continuation of the cultural control obtained under colonialism. Thank you for articulating my doubts and unease. I’m just fortunate that my initial exposure to yoga was in a non – monetary environment.

  • Emily Montan

    My eyes are wide open and, somehow, I was able to sense this when I looked for the perfect studio to practice yoga. The first time I practiced it (over 40 years ago) the woman who taught the class was fully trained in all aspects of the practice and tradition. When I began looking for a new home a year ago, I went to about 5 studios until I found one. No one is LuLu lemon and both teachers I practice with provide “yama or ethical conduct, niyama or personal practice, pranayama or
    working with the breath, pratyahara awareness of the senses, dharana,
    meditation, concentration and insight, dhyana or being present with
    whatever arises and samadhi, or interconnection with all that is”.

    Thank you for the clarification and for affirming what I sensed in my gut.

  • vimalakirti

    The idea of “svadhyaya” as “self-study” is itself a colonial construct. The earlier meaning of this, according to the commentators, is the study of sacred texts (specifically, one’s own oral lineage of the Vedas). Take a look at Edwin Bryant’s translation of the Yoga Sutras.

    • David Allen Kolb

      I feel that the basis of Svadhyaya in Patanjali’s Yoga Darshan is really self study. In the Vedanta Darshan, also known as Uttara Mimamsa, Svadhyaya was traditionally seen as recitation of the mantras or verses of the Vedas. but since the aim of the scriptures or Vedas was Self-realization, the study of the scriptures led to a study and discovery of our self. The Type of Swadhyaya prescribed by Patanjali would seem to be deep self reflection and observation, that may or may not be done with the aid of mantras. But in both cases the end would be to know thy self!

  • Rachel Rosten

    I’ve been mulling over the Lulu lemon phenomena myself. I felt that a studio I had entered contained sacred space… and the teachings I heard rang deep and true… and then I just found out both the owners are Lulu lemon ambassadors. I’m doing a teacher training with them and I wonder if and how to broach the topic for the purpose of discussion. I do think that the style of the brand is sharp. But the price range and who they cater to is a sorry story. So it’s a story I guess about capitalism? So confusing.

    • Chica

      This is why I won’t hire lululemon ambassadors at my yoga studio. NO THANKS!

      • Rachel Rosten

        I wish you explain why. Whom does it harm if u hire them or engage with them? And how?

        • Miguel

          It harms everyone by pulling yoga into a corporate direction. This in and of itself devalues the true purpose of yoga which is to unite mind , body, spirit. it is offensive to people from that culture. if you look at their website they emphasize athleticism. If the trend continues then yoga is just another form of exercise. If you think you need sharp styled clothing for your yoga practice then I think you should intentionally do the opposite for yourself as a spiritual practice. Do your yoga in a tshirt and some shorts. You see a similar phenomenon where westerners adorn themselves with “spiritual tattoos and clothing” like somehow if they dress the part it is a sign of enlightenment.

  • James Hendry

    1st world problems.

    • BT

      Agree!

  • EnosBurrows

    Do you really think the “British banned yoga”? That seemed suspect to me and I can find no verification other than statements that in 1773 Clive of India, in alliance with upper class Brahmins, sought to restrain wandering hathi yogins. That is rather different than the British banning modern postural yoga, which is only about 100 years old.

  • Maraea Brodrick

    I’m wondering if I’d be able to find such a school/teacher in New Zealand that teaches all limbs of yoga.

  • Mihcael

    Feeling obligated to practice in one way or another, based on what some English people did or didn’t do in the 1800’s is ridiculous. I study (and sometimes even try to live) the yoga sutras, the vedas, the Ramayana, the Gita, and indeed, practice asanas (sometimes fancy ones, like upside down ones!), for my own benefit – physical, intellectual and mental/spiritual, but if others only focus on the physical aspect, that’s great too. Yoga is awesome, and even if all you do is get fit, improve your health and feel more confident, well good for you. Not everybody is ready to jump into the deep end. “Decolonize your yoga”…sheesh. All that white guilt must be a heavy burden.

    • gail frascinella

      I felt the same when reading this article. Decolonization, cultural appropriation and other buzz words strikes me as overblown rhetoric and alienating. Life isn’t static but is constantly changing. Information and knowledge flies around the globe. It’s transformed by those who take it in and changed to fit their lives. This is a good thing, not something to complain about. Read The Unexpected Universe by Loren Eiseley. A good read…

  • Rochelle Spencer

    This article is pretentious. Yoga can be a spiritual practice, or it can be just exercise.

    • Iva Sativa

      well,anything can be anything if you want to put it that way.your child can be just a child or it can be your slave begging on the street for money..dont be a wise ass,get over yourself.

      • Antonio

        Cunt.

  • Zhanna

    as a yoga teacher, and a teacher of yoga teachers, I agree that the way most people, including a lot of teachers, view yoga, IS very concerning….BUT…..what is Yoga? It’s Union….the Union of our lower and higher selves…so, whether on or off the mat, everyone does yoga.Everyone has lower self, and higher self. Everyone is in union. The question is:what are they, or we in Union with? And since we have endless choices for what we like to connect to, the importance here is: are we connecting (creating union) with what we really want to be more about?
    So, I agree, that so much of the Western World sees yoga as practice to achieve beautiful physical poses. This is their idea of union. We can look at it in this way. But when we look at people in that way, that they only want physical, we are ourselves in union on the level of Anna Maya Kosha and Prana Maya Kosha-physical). I want to be in Union with more than that, even when people seem to come to my classes for physical only. I want to see my students on a soul level and love them that way, and I want to see how their soul is loving, and it what way.
    There were times in our existence, when people were so much more into spirituality and they loved to grow and open up as God’s vessel from the spiritual level. And if we are living in time and place were people value physicality more (at least it seems that way), well, then we take an approach to help people open up from the physical. It also works, it’s just much harder. What we don’t want to do, is to separate, unless we can find union is seeing the separation. We want to keep going and helping people grow no matter where they are right now. That will be Manomaya Kosha…..
    But, if we want to go even deeper in how we apply our yoga practice-on a Vijnana maya Kosha, and/or Ananda maya Kosha, we actually start feeling not separate, but at ONE with the very thing we are seeing….”When I look at you, who am I seeing:myself or you?” And so, on that level, to resolve some problems, instead of imposing what has to be done onto others, we go and fix the things within ourselves, to make that change.
    I DO feel that the emphasis is way too strong on the physical in yoga classes, and many don’t even have any idea that more exist…..but we gotta work with what we have now. And shine our purpose (what we want to be more about), our yoga in the way that helps people to change their lives for better, change lives of people around them: gotta keep helping people to see how much more there is about them, and that “more” is very beautiful.
    This is how I like to share 🙂
    Zhanna Prymak

  • elana

    Do you think it is possible to interact with asana as a sport without being complicit in the continuing colonization of yoga?
    For me personally, I have autism spectrum and I have recently found that Asana is very helpful to me in managing and regulating my emotions/concentration. I feel very uncomfortable in the half assed attempts that yoga studios make to incorporate Hindu tradition into their practice– it always seems to be more an exercise in orientalism than anything else. I honestly don’t feel that I would be able to delve into the traditions in a meaningful way, and I feel that if I tried it would still be exotification and orientalist.
    I’ve been looking for an alternative to yoga that would be helpful to me, but I haven’t found any. If you have either suggestions or thoughts on whether it is possible for settlers to practice yoga without continuing the colonization, let me know

    • BT

      If it feels good for you just keep doing it. Why to find something else because the yoga is supposed to be ‘something more’ than ‘just’ the asana? 🙂

  • Bhavani

    So very beautifully put in words. Many thanks! I never take the trouble to register in a website and write comments. But you article nails my feelings as an Indian and practitioner of yoga. So I am writing to you. I learnt yoga practices from teachers trained by a yogi and mystic. Yoga is more than postures or reducing stress. So aptly said. I think you will find Isha yoga one of the best places for this kind of exploration. I am only a practitioner and do not benefit from writing about them. If you are interested then please check this https://www.ishayoga.org/hata/teachertraining/

  • BT

    I feel that the asanas by themselves have the power to lead the person to the spiritual path. This if you practice with discipline no-matter-in-what-context. So here, as in everything else is, everything depends on how much of yourself are you prepare to give to the practice of yoga. If you have a good posture and breathing teacher and you practice with discipline (yoga means discipline, in spanish yugo) the practice itself leads you to the deeper levels of conscience. In the end is what the “original” Buddhism says, that there is no difference between body and soul.

    Is also the thing that, at least in my society, almost everybody (no matter the economical “possibilities” or the “social class”) can practice yoga, the important thing here is how free one is to start practising something that MANY data sources (other people experience, science, TV, radio…) says that is good for our mental and physical health. And even more, does the member of our society, in general, tend to seek for those things that could bring them harmony and health or totally the opposite… we are in a society in which the conflict and the drama are part of “being alive” and the happiness exaltation is what everybody looks for…

    But this is, of course, my experience and somebody else can have another point of view about it, as we see in this article (a little bit intelectual for my taste).

  • Catherine Vallance

    Thank you for your article. I am sorry to hear that you have felt discomfort in Western style Hatha Yoga classes. There is no doubting that yoga has been portrayed in Western capitalist society as a circusy contortionist practice for the privileged elite and that does deter many people from the practice. But this marketing ploy is not unique to Yoga and is portrayed in other fields as well to adhere to advertisers requirements. It is no secret that there is a unique and unwavering image of ‘beauty’ that is quite unattainable (even though it is encouraged that you can change your genetic makeup if you just try really hard and spend all of your money on our products) to the average person in order to diminish esteem and increase external, materialist seeking. Yoga is an easy framework for advertisers to stress this tactic.
    As a yoga teacher myself, the number one remark that I have heard from people who aren’t practicing yoga is that they aren’t flexible enough. As heartbreaking as this is, claiming that Westerner’s are culturally appropriating the practice is equally deterring.
    Although there are different interpretations on what the word yoga actually means (which should be subjective and changing to each yogi on their journey anyways), I most often refer to the translation of Union. Even if there are differing opinions on this, union seems to be the most important definition to embrace during this cultural context and time of deep illusion and separation, but once again my opinion.
    Everyone has the capacity to inquire and learn and deepen their yoga practice and assuming Westerner’s responsible for cultural appropriation when this ancient practice has only been popularized in this hemisphere for a little over half a century, is like holding a toddler responsible for its ignorance. Now if people were to have awareness of all of the limbs and self-inquiries that you have recommended and willingly chose to dismiss these aspects, then yes, I would agree that this is cultural appropriation, but this isn’t a trend that I have seen in contemporary yoga communities. There are now many karma classes that aim to make yoga more accessible for people financially as well as a sharp increase in mindfulness studies (at all levels of educational institutes) as well as yoga study groups.
    As yoga becomes an increasingly significant part of Western culture, the practice has evolved, shaping to fit Western culture and it’s needs in order to make sense in this cultural context and has in consequence bridged the gap between cultures so that we can better achieve the goal of union.
    These circusy portrayals, in my opinion, add more meaning and challenge to the path of a yogi to see past these intense veils (maya) which are so ever-present in Western life. I honour the roots of yoga and the tradition that has made it accessible to us, and I recognize that I still have a lot to learn.
    But may be careful with the language we use to raise awareness of these traditions and choose words from a place of love and acceptance that welcome and guide people in a gentle and compassionate manner instead speaking through a lens of hostility and fear, we have enough of that in Western society already. White privilege stretches much further than the practice of Yoga and is a social issue that needs to be explored in a more holistic manner. This perpetuates the ‘us vs them’ mentality and moves us further away from the roots of yoga than anything else.

    Here are a couple of sources that show how yoga in the west is flourishing and no longer confined to a certain age group, body type, or race:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1n1GtOaL7XU
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0TsO5u4c5s

    Namaste.

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