April 15, 2014

Decolonizing Yoga or Recolonizing Yoga? ~ Melissa Heather

Parashkev Sultanov/Pixoto

On a rainy April day about a year ago, I was scrolling through Facebook when I came across a page entitled, “Decolonizing Yoga.”

I scrolled through some of their posts—posts about the lack of diversity in yoga studios, posts about how to make yoga more welcoming for larger bodies, posts linking gender/queer and race issues with yoga. I was in love.

Someone had read my mind and created a blog voicing all the things I kept bottled up inside me every time I taught a yoga class. And it has the word “decolonize” in the title, one of my primary academic interests. What more could I possibly want from a blog?

An acknowledgement of ongoing settler colonialism in North America, aka Turtle Island, would be nice.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s been a year, and “Decolonizing Yoga” is still my favorite yoga blog out there. As a yoga teacher who firmly supports the growing yoga and diversity movement, Decolonizing Yoga is a fantastic resource.

However, it seems to me that a self-proclaimed movement called “Decolonizing Yoga” based in Turtle Island that to date has no posts on the issues specifically faced by Native American and aboriginal peoples is missing something important.

That’s not to say that “Decolonizing Yoga” doesn’t address issues of colonialism and attempt to decolonize yoga. There are multiple experiences of colonialism. People in India experienced one form of colonialism (white people came in, took over administration, screwed things up and left), while the many different African peoples who were brought to the Americas as slaves experienced another form of colonialism (white people took them away from their homelands and continues to screw them over while acting like everything is cool). “Decolonizing Yoga” does address those experiences and how they relate to the modern, North American yoga culture.

There is however, a third experience of colonialism: Settler colonialism. In settler colonialism, indigenous peoples have their land taken and occupied by settlers (who do not have to be of European descent) who create a new society on the stolen land. In order to support the project of settler colonialism, Indigenous nations must be eliminated through genocide, containment and assimilation.

The mere existence of indigenous peoples is counterproductive to the colonial project. The poverty of Indigenous peoples in Turtle Island is a deliberate part of settler colonialism.

Ongoing environmental degradation is a deliberate part of settler colonialism.

The estimated 800 plus missing and murdered indigenous women is a result of the deliberate use of patriarchy in settler colonialism. Settler colonialism in Turtle Island isn’t just a thing of the past. Settler colonialism, as one of my professors, Scott Morgenson puts it, is happening right here, right now.

In the year that I’ve been following “Decolonizing Yoga” there has only been one Facebook post that has anything to do with settler colonialism: a mix-tape on SoundCloud featuring indigenous artists. Not a single blog post or shared article appears that directly addresses settler colonialism. I have a problem with that.

As a yoga teacher in Kingston, Ontario, I have had more students identify themselves to me as being or having Indigenous heritage (which is ultimately determined by the government) than I have had of other visible minority demographics combined.

Where are my students and their experiences of racism, colonialism and oppression in “Decolonizing Yoga”?


It’s not unusual for Indigenous peoples and their experience of settler colonialism to be missing in social justice circles as Bonita Lawrence and Enakshi Dua describe:

“Settler states in the Americas are founded on, and maintained through, policies of direct extermination, displacement, or assimilation. The premise of each is to ensure that Indigenous peoples ultimately disappear as peoples, so that settler nations can seamlessly take their place. Because of the intensity of genocidal policies that Indigenous people have faced and continue to face, a common error on the part of antiracist and postcolonial theorists is to assume that genocide has been virtually complete, that Indigenous peoples, however unfortunately, have been ‘consigned to the dustbin of history” (Spivak, 1994) and no longer need to be taken into account. Yet such assumptions are scarcely different from settler nation-building myths, whereby ‘Indians’ become unreal figures, rooted in the nation’s prehistory, who died out and no longer need to be taken seriously.

Being consigned to a mythic past or ‘the dustbin of history’ means being precluded from changing and existing a real people in the present. It also means being denied even the possibility of regenerating nationhood. If Indigenous nationhood is seen as something of the past, the present becomes a site in which Indigenous peoples are reduced to small groups of racially and culturally defined and marginalized individuals drowning in a sea of settlers-— who needn’t be taken seriously.”

Decolonization in a settler colonial context, such as the one we have here in Turtle Island, cannot ignore Indigenous peoples or their experiences. Decolonization in Turtle Island cannot be reduced to a metaphor for generalized anti-oppression movements. It needs to take Indigenous nationhood seriously; it needs to be unsettling for settlers regardless of whether they’re white, black, brown or purple. Unfortunately, “Decolonizing Yoga” fails to do both.

Yoga has come into contact with multiple forms of colonialism, therefore if yoga is to be decolonized that decolonization needs to address multiple experiences of colonialism.

Stay tuned for future posts about how yoga and colonialism have influenced each other in the past and how yoga can help the decolonization process in the future.

 For more information check out:

“Decolonizing Antiracism” by Bonita Lawrence and Enakshi Dua

“In Canadaevery system of oppression is organized around settler colonialism” an interview with Harshia Walia

“The Biopolitics of Settler Colonialism: Right Here, Right Now” by Scott Morgenson

“Decolonization is not a metaphor” by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang

“Why the term ‘settler’ needs to stick” by Corey Snelgrove and Klara Woldenga

 “I am not a nation-State” by Leanne Simpson

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Photo: Parashkev Sultanov/Pixoto


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Melissa Heather