I’ve been mulling over the topic of yoga and colonization for a long time, but it wasn’t until I called my friend Talia Young* to do a direct ask for my yoga teacher training campaign that I realized how I actually needed to write my thoughts down and share them in public. Talia raised a lot of questions about yoga’s popularity in the West and expressed her ambivalence towards ‘feeding more people into the “yoga machine”’, hence her initial hesitation with contributing to my campaign. In many ways, I had felt a similar confusion whenever yoga teachers required me to say “om” before and after our practice, when I was the only woman of color in classes, or when fellow yoga practitioners from around the world were all raving about Lululemon yoga clothes. (The last example took me back to my middle school days when I begged my mom to buy me a Bebe T-shirt because everyone at school had one. She didn’t buy me the shirt and instead told me to get one of my old t-shirts and a sharpie so that she could hand write “Bebe” on it! You go mom!)
In my year of traveling around the world, I also met many folks of color, especially South Asian folks, who refused to or weren’t interested in yoga because they felt that their bodies were colonized enough already; they didn’t need a white teacher (because let’s be honest, most yoga teachers are white) teaching them how to move their bodies using a misappropriated technique and philosophy that was originally from South Asia and Africa using mispronounced Sanskrit.
As a community artist and activist who hasn’t had a so-called “real” job** or association with any institutions for the past year, most yoga classes are unaffordable or inaccessible, and when I do find donation based classes, there are almost always too many people, making it difficult for the instructor to focus on each individual student. Fortunately, I took many yoga classes in college which were attended by my classmates and professors of various shades, shapes, sizes and ages. As a result, I left school with a daily yoga practice that I felt I could continue without going to expensive studios, and that’s mostly what I did and still do to this day. When I visited South Asia in January of 2013 (after being on the road for seven months), I was excited to practice yoga in one of the homes and birthplaces of yoga. But my first glimpse at a yoga studio in Udaipur revealed that there was only one brown body (the guru) and dozens of young, white, slim and presumably–if they could afford the ticket there–financially privileged bodies. I shouldn’t have been surprised, since I had met many people in other Western countries who had either already been to or were planning trips to India for the purpose of attending yoga retreats. It wasn’t a particularly new trend that I was just stumbling upon for the first time there in Udaipur. But my feelings of resentment were compounded a few weeks later, when a South Asian friend sent me New Delhi news article advising (wealthy) housewives which items to purchase to look fabulous for their next yoga class. Ultimately, I didn’t take a single yoga class during my entire three month stay in India.
Certainly, I’m not the first person to state that yoga is in need of some serious decolonization, and there are already many incredible conversations and discussions around this issue (see below for resources and more reading material), but I hope you’ll hear out my personal perspective. I also asked a few friends of color, some of who practice yoga, to chime in to the conversation. First of all, as a vegan, I’ve seen how practices and philosophies are quickly co-opted and turned into commercial and capitalism-driven enterprises. I’ve seen how “vegan” now often means “expensive” or “white” because it’s trendy among rich and/or white audiences. This is utterly depressing to me since I save a lot of money by cooking and eating vegan foods, and know that my Japanese food history proves that prior to colonization, many indigenous POC communities subsisted on predominantly vegan diets. But today I want to talk about yoga, so refer to my post back in January about Dr. Breeze Harper’s book Sistah Vegan on thoughts I have about being a vegan woman of color if you’re interested in that discussion. Nonetheless, I bring up veganism because in my mind, yoga, veganism and meditation all go hand in hand in this process of corporatization, colonization and misappropriation/cultural appropriation.
These are all obviously really big concepts to tackle and I don’t intend to give anyone an extensive history lesson or to claim any expertise. I’m here to share some thoughts and questions I’ve had around yoga for a while based on personal experiences and conversations, and I hope that you’ll contribute to the discussion, or at least start to ask your own questions after reading this.
Roopa Singh, the founder of South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America (SAAPYA) puts the contradiction of yoga in the West beautifully: “Love yoga, but hate South Asians. . .We practice asanas and launch drones into Pakistan. We fuel a high end yoga fashion industry, loving our Lululemon, and supporting the exponential continuation of Triangle Factory style disasters in Bangladesh. We love the one Indian doctor on our fav hospital show, while hate crimes and shootings continue on Hindu temples, Patel Brothers grocery stores and South Asian cab drivers. We idolize spiritual South Asians like Deepak Chopra but effectively weed out all but the most right wing South Asian elected officials.”
As you can see, the problem isn’t so much the fact that non-POCs are practicing and teaching yoga, but that they have turned yoga into an exotic money-making scheme that will help us achieve enlightenment albeit only if we happen to be rich, white, slim, and female-presenting. If you’ve ever practiced yoga in any mainstream yoga studios, seen yoga studio ads or observed people on the streets carrying yoga mats, you’ll most likely agree with me that current yoga trends uphold certain types of bodies as being more beautiful than others. This is true of most body-based activities, but I’ve found that yoga is particularly keen on idolizing the young, slim and flexible white woman as the model yogi(ni). If you’ve ever googled ‘yoga’, you know that the first page of images is saturated with such women silhouetted against sunsets on beaches that are probably being taken over by tourists at resorts. As Qui Alexander from Philly’s Studio 34 queer and trans yoga classes said, I too “want to Google “yoga” and see beautiful brown faces, queer bodies, masculine surrender and awareness in any and every size and shape.”
Let me share a personal story to bring this issue some dimensionality. The other day, I was at a popular yoga studio in Oakland on their 2-weeks unlimited newbie special for $25. I had gone nearly every day and was feeling pretty darn good about how I had gotten the most out of my money. I was trying not to think too much about the lack of marginalized bodies in attendance because frankly, I was getting such a great deal and I hadn’t gone to a formal class in a really long time. Plus, one of the teachers had told me that since they don’t check IDs for the special newbie deal, I should tell my friends to come and take classes for free with my name. On their website, I even saw that they employed several instructors of color. Still, the students didn’t reflect the instructor diversity or the studio’s seeming willingness to work with lower-income folks like myself. The women around me were mostly white, on expensive yoga mats and in brand-named yoga clothes in a part of Oakland that is heavily POC despite recent years of gentrification. I remember hearing one of the songs that played on my yoga teacher’s playlist with a (most likely) white man singing “Om, shakti ommmm shakti shakti ommm” and telling myself to breathe through it and stop overanalyzing everything. But we do have to ask these questions don’t we?: 1) Do people know why they’re saying Om? 2) Do they have a connection or a relationship to it? 3) What is sacred to you? and 4) How do you treat things that are sacred to other people? (From Kim Crosby‘s prezi: Examining Power and Privilege in Yoga)
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Before I started asking friends to help me contextualize my place in the movement to decolonize yoga as a woman of color, I had this notion that my non-South Asian background made me less qualified to speak loudly about these issues. But as my good friend and fierce artist/activist of color Misster Raju Rage said, “yoga is also very casteist and many forget about that aspect and reclaim it like it belonged to all of us (South Asian POC in the first place but then many North American Desis are upper caste…so)” and that they’d like to see “a more complex decolonisation that queries the fact that colonisation created a caste divide that looks more like a class divide that yoga is complicit in.” They also brought up the tricky question of whether “diasporics are self-appropriating” though they said they understand anger towards white Western cultural commodification. To me, Raju’s comment was a wake-up call that reminded me of how our own POC communities are inadvertently implicated into the process of appropriation and colonization.
On a similar note, Juli Saragosa, a non-South Asian, POC friend teaching yoga in Berlin explained that they’re “wary of rendering “authentic” the voices of people who may appear to have a cultural background from where yoga comes because that just leads to stereotyping and making uninformed assumptions–someone of south asian background may or may not have experience with yoga, just like someone of east asian background, or northern european, or first nations, etc.”
However, they said that they “follow the lead of people with south asian background because they experience other people making assumptions about them and being stereotyped with regards to yoga.” Obviously, what we’re talking about here exists in a murky grey area where we need to address things on a case by case basis. But as healer and artist friend Nisha Ahuja, who has lead many successful workshops and discussions on decolonizing yoga, says that while “there are no easy answers or solutions to shifting some of these painful and harmful dynamics, practitioners can collectively begin to better honour and acknowledge this practice, loved by many, by learning more about and acknowledging Yoga’s cultural roots, histories, current conditions, and meanings.” YES! Furthermore, Karishma Kripalani, another South Asian healer told me that it isn’t that she thinks “white people shouldn’t teach yoga – this is too simplistic for me. The yoga ‘community’/ industry is problematic. All of us participating need to acknowledge its complex dynamics, need to be self-reflexive about the ways in which we engage, and ultimately be accountable.”
Another thing Juli said which really resonated with me was that they “really like how [their] body (brown, hairy, queer, short, muscly and chubby) can act as a enabling tool for others to practice yoga, as they see themselves reflected.”*** They shared a story about how when they were attending their teacher training in Mexico, which was run by white people but hired local Mexicans, their invitation to one of the workers to attend one of their classes inspired the worker to eventually become a yoga teacher herself, despite never having ever considered it possible for (someone who looked like) her to practice yoga. Roopa Singh’s (founder of SAAPYA) statement in an interview on the Huffington Post:
I know that when I call myself a yoga teacher, I am far more a student of yoga than I will ever be a teacher of yoga. That’s a major difference between how SAAPYA rolls and how the yoga industrial complex operates. Calling ourselves yoga teachers doesn’t translate easily within our South Asian diaspora families. It’s a concession we make to the system of certification in the U.S., to market ourselves as yoga teachers or instructors, but the truth remains unshaken.
What this tells me is that while we have to participate in the system of certification, we can and should try to make meaningful changes based on our lived physical experiences if we acknowledge the complicated nature of the process of decolonization. And lots of amazing folks in the margins are doing that! Juli for example said that at their collective (which is a worker’s run communist-modeled collective), they try to show a diversity of different approaches to yoga as opposed to the more common streamlined yoga varieties that are packaged into body-fitness and weight loss plans. Juli’s classes are more focused on moving and resting the body in connection with breath – with Vinyasa / flowing-posture and restorative classes. Plus, they have an active blog where they attempt to address things like accessibility, terminology, paths of yoga, decolonizing westernized yoga, and how it’s a constant process of learning, listening and actively working on it. They take time to discuss these things together and during the month of March organized a community feedback project, where they invited people to attend classes in exchange for critical feedback. So Awesome!
Phew. Are you still with me? I know that this has already become a lengthy essay rather than my usual shorter articles, but I just received an email from Talia–the one who prompted this post in the first place–with her thoughts on the matter that are so articulate and on point that I feel it necessary to share them without too much tampering (italics denote my comments):
- Tools can be both useful and complicated. I believe in using and sharing tools that are helpful to us. I think that your comparison between yoga and martial arts is apt (this is in reference to a question I asked her about martial arts classes that are taught and practiced by a lot of non-Asians). Another comparison that has come up in these conversations is acupuncture, and to some extent, cuisine. Sometimes using tools involves participating in a colonialist or otherwise problematic dynamic. I don’t think that participation rules out the possibility of using those tools, but it does make their use more complicated. (And sometimes that increased complication makes it not worth it to me personally to use the tool. Apparently it’s not worth it to me personally to do yoga, but it is worth it to me to eat and make Indian food.)
- Culture is popular, people are not. My friend Kim has a line that she says: “Black culture is popular, black people are not.” I’m not exactly sure how, but that phrase seems relevant here (See Roopa’s comment I quoted earlier).
- Looking outside for answers. Another pattern that yoga taps into for me is that I think it often seems easier to look to other cultures for answers to our problems than to our own. I think this deflection is at the root of much of (white, but not exclusively so) American appropriation of other cultures (including but not limited to many non-western spiritual, health, and fashion practices). (Kim says that the reason that white people are obsessed with other cultures is because they have not come to terms with their past.) I think it’s important to keep in mind that POC are not excused from this dynamic. I do think it’s often different for us than for white people; it’s often hard for us to access our histories and cultures because we have been involuntarily severed from our pasts, and exoticization and assimilation can also make it difficult to access our histories. But even so, I think it’s still important to be conscientious about where we look for and find answers to our problems.
- Good individual choices but disturbing trends. In my mind, yoga falls into another, large category of things in which one’s individual choice is totally reasonable, but the trend of larger choices is disturbing. (The big example here for me is that of straight women changing their name to their husband’s name when they get married, and straight couples giving children the husband’s name rather than the wife’s name. Likely you have not yet observed this behavior among your friends, but I was and continue to be surprised at its prevalence among my self-described feminist friend group.) Each individual decision is well reasoned and makes sense, but the larger trend is undeniably disturbing. Each time I talk to someone who does yoga or is becoming a yoga teacher, it makes enormous sense on an individual level. But why are SO MANY people obsessed with yoga or becoming yoga teachers? It’s partly because yoga is really useful for a lot of people, but I don’t think it’s just the utility of yoga; I think there is something else going on. I don’t think being part of a disturbing trend is not a reason not to do a thing, but I think it’s then important to own that one is part of such a trend.
- Acknowledge the shit out of it. Which leads me to my next point, my only actual concrete suggestion, which is that I think perhaps the most critical thing is constant and up-front acknowledgment of the complicated nature of this endeavor. I don’t actually think it’s possible to entirely avoid a colonialist dynamic here. But, as I keep saying, I don’t think that’s a reason not to do it! It’s just important to be clear at all times that that is what is going on. I think humor and self-deprecation can be useful tools here. As in “Yeah, I am totally participating in this colonialist dynamic. But since I’m doing that, let’s make the most of it.”
- User vs. practitioner. It seems like there is some difference between being a user and a practitioner. Someone who eats Indian food vs. becoming trained as an Indian chef. Someone who goes to a yoga class vs. becoming a yoga teacher. (This reminds me of my good mixed-race Chinese friend Joe, an excellent Japanese taiko player (and speaker of the Japanese language) that trained with Japan’s leading taiko troupe, Kodo, but was told either directly or indirectly by Japanese taiko players that he wasn’t good enough because he wasn’t Japanese. I find it problematic when committed and respectful practitioners are denied solely based on their race.)
- Spiritual vs. health. Almost all of the recreational yoga users I talked with said the spiritual components of yoga made them feel uncomfortable, because they aren’t trained in or aren’t part of the spiritual traditions, and it therefore doesn’t feel appropriate for them to engage with them. But I can also see that teaching (and certainly, learning!) about this practice absent of its spiritual traditions might also be problematic. (The first thought that comes to mind when I read this is of how many religious missionaries validate their proselytizing by claiming that they want to save non-practitioners from going to hell…history shows that religion and colonization go hand in hand and so it’s always ironic for me to see people with privilege to pick and choose spiritual practices that will ‘lead them to enlightenment’.
I’m going to stop here before I write another few thousand words… As I prepare for my yoga teacher training in July, I hope to continue engaging with these conversations so that when I arrive, I don’t feel alienated and closed off by the diluted and neatly packaged nature of such a short training in a high-profit yoga industry. As Juli said to me, there are ways of making a yoga practice that doesn’t completely comply with commercialization and capitalism. We can practice yoga without a mat, without fashionable clothing, without green smoothies, and without the hardcore sweaty and bendy asanas. As “teachers” we can work towards creating an intentional environment where we attract people who are interested in the healing benefits as well as the community-building and decolonizing revolutionary aspects, or encourage participants in this way. Amen!
Thanks to everyone who contributed their thoughts and opinions as I was writing this article. I look forward to continuing this conversation with you all ❤ I’m sure there’ll be follow-up articles so be sure to subscribe if you want to stay in the loop.
This is the fourth of an ongoing series of posts for the yoga teacher training fundraiser I launched a couple of weeks ago 🙂 Read the first, second and third as well! I’ve already raised $2120 out of my $3500 goal and you can help me get closer 🙂 As a queer woman of color community artist and activist, I hope to be a part of the change to make yoga more accessible for marginalized bodies. Please visit my campaign page igg.me/at/miyukiyoga to watch the video I made and to see all of the original art you get in exchange for donating! Thanks so much!
*You can email Talia at talia.young (at) gmail (dot) com if you want to comment on her thoughts too!
**”The notion of productivity is rooted in capitalist (and, it follows, ableist) ideas about an individual’s value” (From Kim’s prezi, Examining Power and Privilege in Yoga). Within this structure, any discussion about finding ways outside of paying for food and housing, working a lot and enjoying life without consuming things financially is deemed as irresponsible and unpatriotic. For more discussion on this topic, see one of my favorite zines of all times: How to have an amazingly adventurous life for zero dollars a day
***In my own work as a queer Asian American artist and activist, I’ve always emphasized the need for our community’s visibility and went from creating the website Asian, Gay and Proud to making zines about queer art and activist communities around the world. Works by fellow artist activist Mia Nakano who photographs members of the queer Asian community or Nia King who interviews queer and trans artists of color on her show, We Want the Airwaves, are great examples of the power of visibility.
Resources and extra reading:
Yoga and Diversity by Global Mind Body: A powerful series of short films that were created in Toronto
Examining Power and Privilege in Yoga: A really comprehensive prezi by Kim Crosby–highly recommended
Exploring Yoga and the Impacts of Cultural Appropriation: A site created by the wonderful Nisha Ahuja with an informative video
South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America (SAAPYA): SUPER incredible collective of South Asian yoga instructors!
Ghosts of Yogas Past and Present An excellent piece by Prachi Patankar that gives a South Asian context and history of yoga and its relation to Hindu nationalism! (And SAAPYA’s response to it here and here)
Reclaim: Decolonize Yoga: A piece by Yasha, a queer south asian yoga instructor
Cultural Appropriation and Yoga: A blogpost written about a workshop Nisha ran in Toronto
Decolonizing Yoga: A website edited and run by a white trans-woman, which contains a lot of interesting and engaging articles by different practitioners around North America with their different approaches to decolonizing contemporary yoga.