April 25, 2014

Yoga: Settled and Colonized. ~ Melissa Heather


*Disclaimer: The below represents the personal opinion, view or experience, of the author, and can not reflect elephant journal as a whole.

The following exploration of modern yoga’s relationship with the settler colonial State discusses settler colonialism’s relation with patriarchy, the devaluation of indigenous women’s bodies and the subsequent violence that indigenous women face.

I recognize that, I, as a white, Canadian settler am implicit in that violence. I argue that recent developments in North American yoga culture further entrench that system.

Colonialism used—and continues to use—racism as a means of creating a biologized (and therefore natural) Other that the colonizers needed to defend themselves against. It then follows that the death and disappearance of the body of the racialized Other will improve our (the colonizers) everyday lives.

In a settler colonial context such as the one we have in North America, (aka Turtle Island), indigenous peoples are the ultimate Other that must be erased in order for the colonizers to settle the land and claim all its resources. Indigenous bodies become a sort of pollution that the settler colonial society must cleanse itself of.

However, since outright genocide isn’t particularly acceptable, a mass extermination of indigenous bodies isn’t an option that the settler colonial State can consider.

Cleansing in seemingly isolated incidents, especially those that often go unreported (rape), remains a viable possibility. If it sounds absurd it’s because these stories are routinely brushed under the rug, and even when the story does make it into the media there are various racist narratives that settlers can employ to dismiss the case as an isolated incident, such as the recent case of Loretta Saunders’ murder (one of over 800 missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada).

How is this even possible?

Settlers—and I include myself in this label—have been taught that the time of indigenous ways of living are over, and any lasting remnants have no hope of survival.

And why bother trying to reverse years of social conditioning to devalue Indigeneity when the whole situation seems hopeless and we as settlers benefit from the violence against indigenous peoples everyday?

Because as Darryl Leroux—Loretta’s thesis supervisor—points out this is a pattern of violence that has been going on for far too long: Loretta was dumped in a ditch on the side of a highway in a province that use to pay European settlers for the scalps of Mi’kmaq women, children and men.

The 800+ missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada are not isolated incidents; they’re part of a larger story that settlers play a direct role in. Settler society needs to change or this pattern will continue. The problem does not lie with the Indigenous peoples, although they certainly experience the effects of settler colonialism, the problem lies with the settlers who continue to support this system of violence.

So what does yoga have to do with all of this?

In the last 15 years yoga has become increasingly absorbed into the mainstream settler colonial culture, while simultaneously beginning to reflect the toxic values and norms of settler colonial society, including the devaluation of certain bodies in favor of others. Bodies that conform to the image that has become associated with modern hatha yoga are valued: young, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, unusually flexible women.

These are the bodies that are featured in yoga publications, advertisements, art and viral videos. Anyone who does not fit into this narrowly constructed mould does not belong in this exclusive club, regardless of whether or not they would benefit from this practice.

The new image of yoga that has internalized the value system of settler colonialism also perpetuates this system by branding yoga as a product that if bought will make one feel happy and peaceful, and be a better, more likeable person (in addition to skinnier, flexible and more beautiful). As such, yoga has become a willing accomplice in perpetuating the capitalist consumer culture that is dependent on extracting resources from stolen indigenous land.

Furthermore, this yoga brand completely excludes any conceptualization of yoga as a practice that can be emotionally difficult, that challenges practitioners to think about death and deal with emotional baggage. No, this yoga brand is a sanitized version of modern hatha yoga, itself a product of British colonialism in India, that contains only the aspects that are nonthreatening to settler colonial narratives. While texts going back as far as the Yoga Sutras acknowledge that the physical body internalizes experiences of trauma and violence, that teaching is ignored by the commercial yoga brand.

Some Indigenous women can pass for white women, and may be skinny and cis-gendered and especially flexible and wear Lululemon pants; I have had these women in my classes (and had they not self-identified to me I would not have known their status). However, an externally focused conceptualization of race is an outdated and superficial one that degrades the significance of community ties. Loretta Saunders may look white in the pictures, but she was still an Inuit woman, and the violence she experienced as an Inuit woman is not unusual.

So, even the Indigenous women who can pass as bodies to be valued in yoga classes will not necessarily find a safe space there. While some teachers are aware of the potential for survivors of trauma to attend their classes, the responses are varied. Some teachers ask for permission before touching their students’ bodies, others don’t. Some acknowledge that certain poses can stimulate a lot of emotions, others focus entirely on making poses look right.

A decolonized yoga practice cannot be all about what that practice looks like on the outside. The emphasis has to be on what that practice feels like. Alignment is important in order ensure students’ safety in challenging poses, but equally important is supporting the internal practice, and that practice is for anyone regardless of whether or not settler colonial society values their body or not.

 For more information see:

“On Denial and Distraction: Common Responses to Colonial Violence” by Darryl Leroux

“How Yoga Makes You Pretty: The Beauty Myth, Yoga and Me” by Melanie Klein in 21st Century Yoga

“Questioning the ‘Body Beautiful’: Yoga, Commercialism and Discernment” by Frank Jude Boccio in 21st Century Yoga

“Retailers like Lululemon know how to make money: make women feel bad” by Heidi Moore

Yoga PH.D by Carol Horton

Yoga and Diversity” documentary series by Global Mind Body

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Melissa Heather