Yoga and Colonization: Let’s talk about it

yoga colonization 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. Screen shot 2014-05-13 at [May 13] 10.30.50 PMIf 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.”

YogaCannibalCardFront-793x1024However, 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):

  1. 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.)
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.”
She also mentioned a couple of interesting dichotomies to reflect on:
  1. 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.)
  2. 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.

miyuki signoff

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!

SAAPYA conference video Returning Yoga to it’s South Asian Roots: An interview with Roopa Singh, the founder of SAAPYA

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

Maya Rupert’s article: An Open Letter to the White Woman Who Felt Bad for Me at Yoga

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.

#Whitepeopledoingyoga: For comic relief–a brilliant tumblr created by the brilliant Chiraag Bhakta of Pardon My Hindi 

http://earthenergyreader.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/lets-try-this-again

http://rorowritingfromwithin.blogspot.ca/2012/08/yoga-and-exclusion-of-people-of-color.html

http://darkdharma.livejournal.com/19387.html

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About Miyuki Baker

Miyuki is a resident of the place where circles overlap. As a queer, nomadic, multi-racial/lingual female mixed-media artist activist and healer, she uses common or discarded objects, personal anecdotes, public spaces and performance to make accessible art that brings non-mainstream identities and ideas into maximum visibility. After graduating from Swarthmore College in 2012, she traveled for 14 months as a Watson Fellow to fifteen countries documenting the intersections of art and activism in queer/trans communities in blog posts and self-published magazines while making performance art. The eight magazines Miyuki created on this trip (queerscribe.com) and their strong media following exemplify her illustration/graphic design, storytelling and people skills. Her work has been featured in several magazines such as Hyphen, Broken Pencil and Knik, blogs and radio shows, well-known for their interactive and eye-catching mixed media approach to activism that utilizes both online media and on-site performance and workshops. This fall she will begin the PhD program at UC Berkeley in Performance Studies. You can follow her travels at heymiyuki.wordpress.com and email her at heymiyuki@gmail.com

21 comments

  1. mickey

    So, you didn’t do yoga in India because there were too many white people? Is this not the essence of racial intolerance? Did those white people mispronounce Sanskrit? Did you give them the chance to?

    Reality check: skin color is not a criterion on which to base yoga competence.

    In this article, you fail to convince me why this colonization is a bad thing. You seem to take this for granted while giving me the impression that if you saw me doing yoga you would judge me harshly behind my back without ever having spoken to me. (i’m a white male who studied yoga in college and have maintained an almost daily practice for 3 years. I know why I say “om”.)

    Suppose someone attends a completely bastardized version of yoga complete with your worst nightmare: a white secular instructor, but during this time she reaps profound mental and physical benefits. This scenario is tragic, why, exactly? Would you prefer the hypothetical person to never have experienced these benefits?

    When you become a teacher, do you intend to stereotype and discriminate against your students the same way you did in India? I’d hope not, but after having read this, I can’t imagine you to be a teacher who would foster an inclusive environment. Am I wrong?

    • Hey Mickey,
      It sounds like many of my points offended you and I appreciate you sharing your perspective. Rather than try to argue with you, I’ll just say that the effort to decolonize isn’t an attack on any one person. In other words, we all need to work on a systemic change and that comes from us all acknowledging what’s happening here. I have many friends who are white that do yoga and I support them just as much as the next person 😉
      Hope this finds you well!
      Thanks again,
      Miyuki

  2. Mickey

    Miyuki,

    You don’t have to argue, but you ought to show me the respect of addressing my questions. I’m genuinely interested in better understanding your perspective because, like I stated earlier, I believe you simply take for granted that the colonization of Yoga is a bad thing. Can you please elucidate for me the actual harm that comes from this and the need to decolonize?

    Also, to be clear, I rarely get offended. I’m never offended when I read hate speech- it is just silly and for me inconsequential. Occasionally, I feel sad when I read it (e.g. “what’s happening to the world?”), NEVER offended.

    Mickey

  3. Mickey,

    “So, you didn’t do yoga in India because there were too many white people? Is this not the essence of racial intolerance? Did those white people mispronounce Sanskrit? Did you give them the chance to?”

    Nope, it was the lack of other types of bodies that made me feel uncomfortable. If it was their choice to not participate then that would be fine, but the fact that the room and the entire city was filled with people who were affluent or privileged in different ways that irked me.

    “Reality check: skin color is not a criterion on which to base yoga competence.”

    I don’t recall saying that. Skin color, race, gender, sexual orientation, size, health–none of these are criteria on which to base yoga competence.

    “In this article, you fail to convince me why this colonization is a bad thing. You seem to take this for granted while giving me the impression that if you saw me doing yoga you would judge me harshly behind my back without ever having spoken to me. (i’m a white male who studied yoga in college and have maintained an almost daily practice for 3 years. I know why I say “om”.)”

    I’m sorry that my article didn’t convince you that colonization is a bad thing. Many people who haven’t experienced colonization as the oppressed find it difficult to understand why colonization is a bad thing. I’m glad you know why you say “om” and that you have a daily practice 🙂 That’s great! As I said in my last comment, I support people who practice yoga regardless of their race–rather I’m urging that we talk about how yoga has been reappropriated, colonized and corporatized.

    “Suppose someone attends a completely bastardized version of yoga complete with your worst nightmare: a white secular instructor, but during this time she reaps profound mental and physical benefits. This scenario is tragic, why, exactly? Would you prefer the hypothetical person to never have experienced these benefits?”

    My worst nightmare is not a yoga class with a white secular instructor and it isn’t tragic. I myself am attracted to yoga for its ability to give me profound mental and physical benefits. And the more that experience it the better 🙂 My anecdote about the class with a white teacher was meant to show the ways in which Sanskrit and South Asian music is often used in predominantly white spaces to create a heightened sense of authenticity and feeling of spirituality, which is then highly commodified (in this equation, the yoga instructors and yoga studio owners profit and the creators of this music get the short end of the stick, contributing to economic oppression linked to racial inequality). However, it’s true that we’re all complicit in this (not just white people), especially if we fail to recognize the violence in the history of casteism and nationalism linked to yoga in South Asia.

    “When you become a teacher, do you intend to stereotype and discriminate against your students the same way you did in India? I’d hope not, but after having read this, I can’t imagine you to be a teacher who would foster an inclusive environment. Am I wrong?”

    It’s too bad that you got the impression that I’ll become a teacher who won’t foster an inclusive environment.
    Many of us who work in marginalized groups are working from places of survival where we continue to feel oppressed in many situations, thus the need for safe and closed spaces. I didn’t respond to your questions first because I want to focus my work on healing folks (and myself) who are often not heard, included, encouraged and supported because they’re not white, rich, male, able-bodied, heterosexual, cis-gendered, etc. I too have many privileges and I know how they often obscure my understanding of perspectives from folks who don’t have the privileges I do. Just because you may fit into the majority doesn’t mean that what I’m talking about is a personal attack.

    As for the “actual harm that comes from colonization” I highly recommend that you check out Kim Crosby’s prezi I linked in the list of resources 🙂

    Thanks,
    Miyuki

  4. Mickey

    Prezi link is broken.

    Depending on what you mean, in this context, I suppose I don’t fit into the majority. I’m returning now from my Yoga class in which I was the only male in a class of about 30.

    We agree that Yoga ought to be accessible to everyone, though I think you use divisive rhetoric, which seems contrary to your position. In your second paragraph are you not implying that white teachers don’t know what they’re doing?

    For clarity, is a “closed space” one which denies entry to a particular kind of person or only permits entry by a certain kind of person?

  5. http://prezi.com/g0a0hamj9p3g/examining-power-privilege-in-yoga/
    Hope that works!

    It’s true that women dominate the yoga world in the West!
    And my second paragraph does make it sound like that’s what I’m saying but that wasn’t my intent.

    Yep, that’s what a closed space is.

  6. KateH

    Hey, Miyuki. I read your article and let it mull for a few days before wading in with a comment. I hope you can read what I have to say and give me enough credibility to know that I’m coming from a place of genuine respect, genuine curiosity, and that I have a record of participating in consumer culture as little as possible.

    I have to say, I read every word here (some parts twice), and while I kind of get it, I kind of don’t. Maybe that’s because I come from a background of some kinds of privilege and I just can’t relate. Maybe it’s because your points haven’t been articulated in a way that I can wrap my head around. Or maybe, something else.

    So, to get to the heart of my confusion…You said:

    “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.” (emphasis mine)

    Could you encapsulate in a sentence or two what precisely it is we should acknowledge? Because I think I missed that. But then my question for you would be…what good, precisely, is acknowledging something going to do? I mean, I get it that there’s been and continues to be exploitation of various groups. I get it that colonization is a horribly exploitative thing. I get it that yoga is being packaged up, commodified and commercialized for the consumer hordes, and I think that’s pretty much par for the course in a vastly screwed up culture. What I don’t get is how it’s going to do anyone one lick of good when I as a white woman say, “I acknowledge [whatever].” And that, as you mention above, is your only concrete suggestion. Do I just acknowledge this to myself? Do I acknowledge it in a yoga class? Do I acknowledge it to south Asians I know? Is that really your only suggestion? Or did you pull a punch there and not say what you really wanted to say? Is there a next step after acknowledging, and if so, what is that next step?

    I’m not trying to be argumentative here. I’m trying to draw you out on your points so I can better understand them.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Kate!

      I framed this article as a space to talk about these issues, and not for me to have some profound advice as to what people should do about (neo)colonization in yoga. As you noticed, I have a lot more questions than I do answers. But that shouldn’t be a problem. Hopefully I’ll find some answers along the way as I continue to have these discussions, but if I don’t acknowledge that I have these questions, then I’m closing myself off from new ways of seeing. However, I’ll address the specific questions you had based on my current thoughts on the topic 🙂

      The bit of advice you referenced has to do with the need to acknowledge how difficult it is to parse these issues out. Claiming ownership is like a never ending tug of war and it’s just plain unproductive. And in the case of yoga, it’s complicated by the fact that yoga already has a history of oppressing those against the right wing Hindu nationalist agenda within South Asia.

      You’re right, I don’t think that simply acknowledging something is going to solve any problems. And when a privileged person can’t stop talking about how they acknowledge their privilege, it gets us absolutely nowhere. However, I think that it’d be helpful to hear an instructor explain why they say “om” or use Sanskrit in their practice. I don’t necessarily have any qualms with mispronounced words, as long as it’s stated at least once why it needs to be in Sanskrit. Is it because they think it sounds more authentic? Because it sounds cool? Because they want to respect the origins of yoga? etc. etc. I think that acknowledging a problem is the first step in making actual tangible change.

      And what follows is more transparency across the board. For example, I know a German yoga instructor who consciously chose against going to India to get her teacher training because she said that what she wanted to do was teach yoga in a German context. It sounded like she recognized and acknowledged that the kind of yoga popular in Germany was a different kind of yoga than perhaps what was being taught in the popular Indian courses. But rather than bringing up that fact at every single class she teaches, I think it’d be great if she could use that understanding to see how certain types of folks are more welcomed into those spaces. For example, I attended an event she organized where she DJ-ed live while her friend led a group of us in some very physically demanding yoga outside under a big tree. I paid 15 euros to get in because I purchased the ticket in advance, but it was 20 euros at the door which I think is pretty pricey. Inherently, the folks that came were going to be of a certain class background. I’m not saying that she shouldn’t have charged anything–she needs to make money too–but I think that there could have been a “no one turned away due to lack of funds” policy, and I think advertising could have been done to a more diverse range of audiences.

      Another event she organizes in Berlin is a big dance party every month where all of the DJs are women. She wanted to address the gender gap in the DJ scene, but interestingly she never mentioned that the DJs were only women. She simply made the party as enticing as possible and when people attended, they realized that all of the DJs were women. She also explained to me that she likes taking jobs that aren’t in all-women or all-queer spaces, the way she used to, because she felt that it’d be more productive to go and be visible than to continue to complain how there were no female DJs in mainstream clubs. I bring these examples up because it did feel like this strategy of just doing, and not talking ended up with more tangible results of a positive shift in culture. And this is a balance I’m trying to strike with my own work, between action and discussion. However, I really think we need people doing work from all angles. I think we need the folks who are having panels, conferences and closed-space group meetings.

      Anyways, I’ve seen all kinds of yoga that don’t use sanskrit, and are hybridized with movements borrowed from pilates and other practices. I don’t think any of them are doing anything wrong or unethical. I think it demonstrates how culture, as my friend Raju said, isn’t fixed and is always changing, merging, fusing, borrowing, stealing and doesn’t have a root. It would be impossible and unproductive to tell them to stop making profits off of the tradition of yoga. But I personally think it’d be great if they could acknowledge that that’s what’s happening. I think there’s a problem when it’s only marginalized folks who are talking about cultural commodification (because it Does damage marginalized folks when the representation of our cultures aren’t defined by us and commodified). That’s where I think people with privilege can be allies and talk about these issues out in the open in solidarity with marginalized people.

      Thanks again for your thoughts and questions Kate.

      Miyuki

  7. Pingback: I'm No Barbie-Girl | English Yoga Berlin

  8. Mickey

    Miyuki,

    After having viewed the prezi, which I enjoyed, I’m still struggling to discover the actual harm that comes from yoga’s colonization. Also, I wonder if colonization is really the word you’d want to use, given that the prezi defined it as something violent.

    Serious question: do you think less of and/or dislike white people?

    Mickey

    • I’m not here to convince you 🙂 So let’s agree to disagree.
      Serious answer: I’m mixed race with English and Irish ancestry and even if I wasn’t, no I don’t think less of and/or dislike white people.
      Thanks for stopping by,
      Miyuki

  9. Missy Poo

    Let me just say that I totally understand this article. What saddened me about the article was the comments from decedents of colonizers that reap a huge benefit, not understanding why taking “just one more small thing” would hurt or offend anyone. When I read the comments it further solidifies my view of how ignorant people are of all races. (And in no way am I saying that in a derogatory way….I’m simply saying people of all races have a lack of knowledge and TRUE history). When Europe set out to create the NEW WORLD and colonized sooooo many countries, not just the US….after killing, torturing, and setting up a government system to develop and maintain this colonization they would OF COURSE take the resources (which was the original purpose) and use it to further ostracize people. (If you need proof, please research the history of America, the Caribbean Islands, South Africa….most of Africa, the Abos of Australia, Diego Garcia…..the list could go on but we would stop it there). With stolen wealth and free labor they set up a system of pricing people out of stolen land, houses, neighborhoods, ……much like today, with yet the benefits of being a decedent of the colonizers, wealth is still disproportionate (in every country that was colonized). And still today with this capitalist society that was set up, wealth is the way to keep people separate. It is how urban communities full of people that can barely survive paycheck to paycheck, get kicked out of their community the moment a municipal power seek to expand the city and “redevelop” a certain side of town. The poor or low middle class have to pack bags and move. Today (luckily) they are not forced out through killings or intimidation, or lies about money being owed, or straight up Jim Crow type ignorance….but PRICED OUT. Raise the prices, they will have to move because they don’t have the resources collectively as a whole to stay. This is the point in the article with “once again” pricing people out of what was taken from them.

    Now I don’t fully expect for all readers to understand this. Often times decedents of colonizers get so offended when anyone speaks against the system that they benefit from….and that others fight tooth and nail to be a part of. Instead of getting offended, try understanding it, not from your privileged seat, but from the decedents of the oppressed who still face tremendous pressure from your privilegeness (that is totally not a word but I felt great typing it). I tried to cram soooooo much history down to a few sentences to help those that don’t understand this article. I hope this helped.

    Peace

  10. I find this post completely amazing. Thank you. I’m going to go explore the rest of your site!

    • Thank you so much! That means a lot 🙂

      • You (and Talia’s awesome emailed points) said so many things that resonated with me, and I appreciate that you’re acknowledging the complexity of talking about this big topic. I’ve added your blog to my feed reader! And I’m thinking about sharing this post in my networks… once I muster up the energy to have the conversations I’m sure it will spark 😐

  11. Riiight? Talia is super brilliant! And yeah that would be awesome if you could share this post and your thoughts on it on your blog 🙂 Keep me updated!

  12. Pingback: . sean feit . dharma, yoga, art . » Devotion and doubt: race, religion, and postmodern kirtan

  13. skip

    Hi Miyuki,

    I deeply appreciated reading your article! And, through reading your bio, I also wanted to say the work you’ve done around the world sounds so amazing and inspiring! I know most of these posts are from a year ago so, you’ve already mostly likely completed your training!

    I’m writing with a bit of personal experience/questions with yoga practice and an inquiry about your knowledge of yoga spaces/ training centers that operate from a decolonization perspective.

    I don’t know if that made sense, but here I go, in trying to further explain. To provide some context, I am a white cis-gendered queer lady whose very involved in social/environmental activist work. I used to do a lot of yoga but in the last five years, the more involved in activist work and the more aware of cultural appropriation I’ve become, I basically have lost that practice because predominantly of a discomfort with the colonization of it and my being complicit in those spaces. Obviously, the discomfort, I experience is coming from a vastly different place than you and other persons of color’s experience in the white dominant appropriating economically privileged yoga spaces.

    So, recently in life, I’ve been trying to do more yoga, as my physical and mental health do feel very supported by the practice. I live in Maine, which is super white yet as you mentioned anyways the whiteness of yoga spaces are a trend no matter where you go in the country, but since re-engaging with yoga, I again, have felt deeply uncomfortable with the normalization of appropriation in the spaces. Recently, I started thinking about what It would be like to become certified myself and have a sliding scale studio that had a very clear intention of acknowledging the cultural heritage of yoga and that talked explicitly about what,as predominantly white people, it means to do this practice in the context of colonization and stealing spirituality and culture. This led me to research for materials on decolonization and yoga. That’s how I found you! And this! I think it would be wonderful if I were to do a teacher training and to have a studio that also provided materials like this article in the class etc. and even have something like a weekly discussion group on that topic and that could extend to what addressing colonization in the local, immediate context looks like. In Maine, locally, that would mean Indigenous solidarity work, as the tribes here have been under constant attack from the state. But, back to my question, it is about teacher trainings. Do you know of any teacher training centers that train with a specific focus on decolonization? I have researched this but couldn’t find anything. I am wondering on your path in this world if you know of training centers that focus on how to do teach yoga with a decolonization focus. Obviously, that would mean something different for people of color to have a decolonization training than what that would look like for white people to have that kind of training, but I was wondering if you know about teacher trainings that have this focus? Even if you don’t know of a training that has that kind of focus for white folks, I’d still be interested and it be helpful to know of training centers that are supportive safer spaces for people of color to train in, just to have a resource to share in my networks.

    I hope that made sense and again, I appreciate your thoughtful article and your list of resources you compiled.

    best wishes,

    Skip

    • Hi Skip, My sincere apologies for not getting back to you earlier–I’ve been extremely busy since returning to the US. Thank you for your comment and questions. I’ll first point you to Jacoby Ballard’s work: http://jacobyballard.com/ He’s a queer yoga teacher who founded the Third Root Community Health Center in New York. I’m sure he’d be able to direct you to a teacher training that talks about these issues. There’s also Studio 34 in Philadelphia that is very queer/trans/poc based.

      Also my cousin Europa (http://www.europagrace.com/) was an intern at Kripalu and is also a queer woman of color who does work around these issues. She might be another person to reach out to.

      Here’s a google doc I put together during my teacher training when I led a discussion on diversity in yoga: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1wb-zBNcYVA4YfhyxdeigAReeVPvEHJ-lE7iuByePRM4/edit
      Perhaps it will help? During that conversation we talked about not trying to force people of color to come or to tokenize anyone, but to acknowledge what yoga in the US has often become.

      To comment on this statement of yours: “I started thinking about what It would be like to become certified myself and have a sliding scale studio that had a very clear intention of acknowledging the cultural heritage of yoga and that talked explicitly about what,as predominantly white people, it means to do this practice in the context of colonization and stealing spirituality and culture.”

      ^Keep going on that train of thought! Yes, by all means I think you should!

      Hope that helps!

  14. Tak Combative

    Miyuki, I’m so glad that you’re saying out loud things like this. There is a big work ahead of us to decolonize yoga and, as a kundalini teacher, I feel I have a lot of things to think, to teach and to do in order to be coherent my own ideology. I just wanted to say that I totally agree what you’re saying and that I want to contribute a little bit with this article I wrote some moths ago (in Spanish, but…).
    http://yogaparatodos.net/2015/04/30/roles-de-genero-y-yoga-carta-a-seva-siri-kaur/

  15. Pingback: Yoga y colonización: hablemos de esto – Yoga para todos

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