How I’m Working to Decolonize My Yoga Practice.

I am learning to decolonize my yoga practice. This process began with the difficult first step of admitting that when I taught and practiced yoga, I was doing so in an appropriative way. My cultural appropriation meant that not only was I ignoring the South Asian cultures which cultivated yoga, I was also missing out on the richness that comes from a holistic, more culturally aware yoga practice.

My cultural appropriation meant that not only was I ignoring the South Asian cultures which cultivated yoga, I was also missing out on the richness that comes from a holistic, more culturally aware yoga practice.

As a yoga teacher, I rarely acknowledged yoga’s roots in my classes: I didn’t use Sanskrit words to describe yoga poses (in fact, I never even learned the Sanskrit names for most poses); I flaunted the tradition of silent yoga classes by blasting heart-pumping music; and, though I grew to include moments of mindfulness in my classes, I never connected these practices to yogic principles like pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) and dharana (concentration) for my students.

I taught yoga this way because I thought yoga was a plastic concept that could be molded into any shape I desired. This is probably because many American yoga classes draw from multiple traditions: yoga from South Asia; songs and sage burning from Native American cultures; pop music and hip hop from the U.S.; movements from Pilates, barre, dance, and calisthenics.

Taking what you want from any culture you want and calling the result whatever you want – no matter the feelings of the cultures you’re taking from – is the very essence of colonialism and privilege.

On the face of it, this blending of traditions and practices feels very inclusive, like an American melting pot. But this choose-your-own-adventure yoga is problematic because it transforms ethnically specific practices into a whiter, Americanized package to make yoga more palatable for Americans looking for a good workout with a sprinkle of spirituality. And while this version of yoga felt fun and inclusive for me, many South Asian yoga teachers have expressed frustration with this buffet-style approach to an ancient practice.

Taking What You Want and Calling It “Yoga”

Taking what you want from any culture you want and calling the result whatever you want – no matter the feelings of the cultures you’re taking from – is the very essence of colonialism and privilege. In American yoga classes, this colonial approach can be seen when we wear “Namas-cray” shirts, burn sage and palo santo without understanding the Native American traditions that originated these practices, and wax philosophical about “the ancient yogis” without actually reading texts from said yogis.

This colonial approach can also be seen in the way American yoga over-spiritualized the greeting “namaste” and de-spiritualized the word “yogi”, which we often use to describe anyone who shows up in a yoga class, but which has historically been associated with deeply spiritual people who have dedicated their life to the principles of yoga.

For a long time, I was resistant to the idea that I was participating in cultural appropriation because I see myself as open-minded and well-intentioned. Also, because I’m Black and am part of a culture that has seen its own share of appropriation, on some level, I felt that even if I were appropriating, it couldn’t have been that bad.

But now, I can see that, as an American, I have privileges not afforded to every country and culture. This allows me to take from certain cultures without consequence. Take for, example, the practice of smudging. I once bought a sage smudge bundle after hearing that Native Americans used the herb to clear negativity from a space. But what I didn’t think about was the fact that smudging, a traditional practice once frowned upon and criminalized by dominant white Western culture, is now a trendy way to feel spiritually “clean.” And I often thought about this practice as coming from a monolithic “Native American” culture, rather than taking time to research specific tribes, like the Lakota or Huron-Wendat, that practiced smudging.

I started to wrestle with some of these ideas just as I was considering closing my yoga business in 2019. With yoga serving as my livelihood, I felt it was too risky to buck the idea of what I thought the buying public wanted in their yoga class: an hour-long experience that makes you feel physically better and vaguely spiritual, but not specifically adherent to a particular philosophy. I tried to buck some mainstream beliefs by teaching chair yoga and by designing classes that de-emphasized fancy yoga poses in favor of intentionality through simple movements.

But I did start to wonder. Because I didn’t have a firm grounding of yoga philosophy, I wondered if the criticisms I was beginning to hear from a few South Asian teachers in the U.S. were widespread. When it turned out they were, I began to wonder whether I should even call what I taught yoga, or whether I should refer to my classes as “yoga-inspired movement”, or simply, “movement.” I wondered whether I could teach a yoga pose without also mentioning the yoga tradition that birthed it. I wondered whether I should drop the “namaste” at the end of class because of the faux-spiritual meaning I and other Western yoga practitioners have placed on a word that can be translated as “bow to you.”

But before I could come to a definitive answer to any of these questions, I closed the business and shifted to a different career path. In my last yoga classes, I was still ending classes with namaste, referring to yoga poses using English instead of Sanskrit, and teaching a primarily physical practice that largely eschewed yogic philosophy.

Today, I wonder whether I will ever go back to teaching yoga. In many ways, I don’t feel qualified. Yes, I can lead people through an anatomy-informed physical practice. But I don’t feel qualified to teach a yoga class – that is, one that acknowledges yoga’s roots and that draws from a deep understanding of yoga philosophy. I need more learning, more training, more time to fully digest these teachings before I can teach a class and feel comfortable calling it “yoga.” Even then, I have no idea what my yoga classes would look like. Would I play music? Would I chant om? Would I say namaste?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I do know this: I needed to learn to practice yoga in a non-culturally appropriative way.

Three Ways I’m Decolonizing My Yoga Practice.

Although I’m not teaching, I feel a responsibility to decolonize my own practice to better understand yoga traditions. Here are a few steps I’m taking to do so:

1. I’m educating myself on yoga’s roots.

I’m coming to a better understanding of yoga’s roots in the East and in the West. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali have provided a good foundational text (although, I must confess, I need to reread these texts), Susanna Barkataki’s book Embrace Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice offers practical tips for teachers and practitioners alike, and Stefanie Syman’s The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America provides an interesting, and sometimes weird, history of the practice of yoga in the U.S.

2. I’m learning from South Asian teachers.

In my first decade or so of practicing yoga, I never encountered a nonwhite yoga teacher and rarely encountered another person of color in class – including someone from a South Asian background. Thankfully, the internet makes it possible to connect to teachers from more diverse racial, ethnic, and physical backgrounds than may be found in many studios. I have found that learning from South Asian teachers in particular has helped me better understand the importance of acknowledging yogic tradition, as well as how some practices in Western yoga exclude people from the very cultures that originated the practice.

In particular, I appreciate the work of Divya Balakrishnan (@divyabala), who provides short overviews of the mythology undergirding many yoga poses; Arundhati Baitmangalkar (@Arundhati_baitmangalkar on Instagram) whose Let’s Talk Yoga podcast offers insights into the practice through interviews and a deep reverence for yoga; and Tejal Patel (@tejalyoga) and Jesal Parikh (@yogawalla), two yoga teachers who created the incisive Yoga is Dead podcast, which should be required listening for anyone who teaches or loves yoga.

3. I’m making yoga less about the body.

I used to frown on yoga teachers who talked about getting “beach bodies” or “great abs” during a yoga class. I knew intuitively that yoga wasn’t about looking sexy or thin. However, in many ways, my yoga practice was very much about the physical – getting stronger or more flexible or working toward a yoga pose. While there is nothing bad about this, I was missing the point of asana (or, yoga poses), which serve to allow the body to be still enough for concentration, meditation, and ultimately, connecting to the divine. Instead of these spiritual goals, I was using yoga primarily as my workout.

Lately, I have been looking to other physical practices, like running and lifting weights, to help me gain strength, endurance, and flexibility. This has made it much easier for yoga to be more than a physical experience. Lately, my asana practice is short – maybe 15-30 minutes, and involves a lot of slow movement and quiet. This helps me unwind from a day of sitting and stressing, to still my mind, and to reconnect back to myself.

To deepen the spiritual aspect of my practice, I try to include a short meditation or yoga nidra exercise (I recently interviewed yoga nidra teacher Tracee Stanley about this transformative practice). When I do practice the physical poses, I try to refer to them by their Sanskrit names, rather than just the English terms I have used for the last 15 years.

Listen to voices that hail from the cultures you’re borrowing from. Listen to the voices of those who have for years done the work of understanding yoga’s roots. Listen to the words of ancient yogis whose wisdom has been passed along for years.  And listen to your own inner voice.

Words for the Journey Ahead

I am very much still on my journey – which means I can only offer you my personal experience and not my guidance. If you are looking for a guide to whether you should say namaste, how to teach a yoga class that honors yoga’s roots, or whether you can smudge and honor the Indigenous tribes from which the ritual comes, the only guide I can give you is this: listen.

Listen to voices that hail from the cultures you’re borrowing from. Listen to the voices of those who have for years done the work of understanding yoga’s roots. Listen to the words of ancient yogis whose wisdom has been passed along for years.  And listen to your own inner voice.

When I listened, I knew it was time to acknowledge the culturally harmful practices I’ve participated in and work to do better. I didn’t do this from a place of guilt or reluctance, but instead from a place of curiosity and a genuine desire to reduce harm. As a result, my practice has become richer, fuller, and more transformative than I ever could have imagined.

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