March 3, 2015

Yoga & Race: Exclusion and Oneness.



As an Indian woman living in the U.S. I’ve often felt uncomfortable in many yoga spaces.

At times, such as when I take a $25 yoga class by a well-known teacher who wants to “expose us to the culture” by chanting Om to start the class and when her studio hangs the Om symbol in the wrong direction, my culture is being stripped of its meaning and sold back to me in forms that feel humiliating at best and dehumanizing at worst.

It took me going to India to really connect with the roots I was seeking on the mat in yoga studios. As I walked the streets of Shimla’s legendary markets I learned that Indians had been forbidden to tread the main thoroughfares.

It was here that I started to apprehend the true meaning of colonization. Yoga experienced a de facto annihilation and the British officially banned Ayurveda in 1835 in India under British rule and colonization.

To be colonized is to become a stranger in your own land. As a desi, this is the feeling I get in many Westernized yoga spaces today. Of course, powerful practices that reduce suffering persist, despite all attempts to end them. These facts are critical to understanding the power and privilege we continue to possess or lack, to clarifying the positionalities we embody as we practice, teach and share yoga today.

Now, when so much of what the Western world sees as true yoga is beautifully achieved physical postures, (accomplished, photographed and displayed by popular yoga magazines, journals and sites) executed by mostly young, white, stylish-yoga-apparel clad women and men, yoga is going through a second colonization. This colonization is the misrepresentation of yoga’s intention, its many limbs, and its aims.

Yoga is not now, nor has it ever been, a practice aimed at physical mastery for its own sake. Nor is it a practice aimed at “stress-reduction” so we can function as better producers and consumers in a capitalist society. True yoga is not for sale.

Yoga was originally intended to prepare the body as a foundation for unity with the spirit. The limb of asana aims at strengthening the body. Asana, along with meditation, aim to harmonize body with breath in order to attain deeper and deeper states of meditative awareness or samadhi. The purpose of this kind of meditative awareness is to experience, practice, and live oneness of mind, body and soul with the divine. This kind of freedom is called samadhi or liberation. It is ironic that a practice meant to free us has becoming so confining.

Yoga means liberation from every construct, including that of race, gender, time, space, location, identity and even history herself. However, in the current cultural context where there is a billion-dollar industry profiting off taking yoga out of context, branding and repackaging it for monetary gain we need to address this. Or else we perpetuate a second colonization, i.e., eventually eradicating the true practice, as was accomplished in many places under Britain’s occupation of India, and we stray further on the path of maya, or illusion.

Here are five ways to decolonize your yoga practice:

1. See the stories and self-reflect.

These tensions ask us to bring all of ourselves to the table. So what I am requesting is for all of us who take or teach yoga classes to inquire deeply. We each have our unique, beautiful and powerful story. Yoga is a path of embracing uniqueness and individuality as well as one of unity and universality. So if we fully embrace this, if we allow the practice to open us up, without guilt, fear or shame, we are called to intimate self-reflection.

We can ask ourselves the hard questions about who we are as well as how it fits within a social context. We take the time to inquire and notice who is sitting on the mat next to us, who is teaching the class. We ask each other for whom is yoga accessible today and how might any missing links be a legacy of past injustices that we have the opportunity to address through our teaching, practice and our lives?

2. Don’t feel guilty; act to uplift.

This isn’t a call to feel guilty or resentful about history and its litany of past oppressions. It is an invitation to focus on the present moment where we have the power to make change. To act where can we make our classes more inclusive, accessible and relevant to a more varied and multicultural audience, where can we encourage someone to practice who may not have ever thought they’d walk into a studio. Let’s think creatively and self-reflectively together about this.

3. Know the history.

As practitioners of yoga I would love to see more of us citing cultural references as we attempt to understand and connect with the complexity, culture and history from which this tradition comes. I’m not suggesting people put on a watered down, context-removed faux Hinduism. To me that is not the answer. Commitment to deep practice, questioning and learning is, perhaps, part of the answer.

4. Practice all eight limbs of yoga, not just asana.

We can also decolonize yoga by studying the depth of practice beyond the postures. In addition to asana we need to understand, practice and teach all eight limbs of yoga: yama or ethical conduct, niyama or personal practice, pranayama or working with the breath, pratyahara awareness of the senses, dharana, meditation, concentration and insight, dhyana or being present with whatever arises and samadhi, or interconnection with all that is.

5. Be humble, inclusive and honor everyone’s journey.

What can we do to make this powerful practice here to uplift and serve accessible to more people?

We can ask ourselves the sometimes uncomfortably hard questions about who is present and who is absent as well as what role we may play in that. This is part of the practice of true union and yoga.  How can we can help address inequity and bring as many as possible toward this path of inquiry, healing, love and truth.

We can be humble with these questions and our practice. I too am still working out in the beautiful tension of individuality and universality, self and oneness—holding the ideal of inter-being while addressing the reality of privilege and power.

With mutual understanding, respect, and a deep reverence and caring for the history we can decolonize ourselves, the yoga-industrial-complex, and stage our own ahimsa, or nonviolent revolution of the mind, body and spirit.

It seems to me to be about finding and living our own authentic practice while not forgetting or ignoring the time, place and context we exist in, or the truth of our interconnectedness. That experience is a taste of the true union that yoga represents.

I aspire to practice and teach yoga of liberation from every construct, including that of race, gender, class, narrow definitions of beauty, time, space, fixed identity and even history herself. I hope to practice and teach a yoga of unity and oneness while honoring each of our individual gifts, truths and while furthering the evolution of all of us towards understanding, compassion and love.



Is Asana “Real” Yoga?



Author: Susanna Barkataki

Editor: Travis May

Photo: WIkipedia

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