Yoga’s 2nd Colonization & a Nonviolent Revolution of Practice

Some thoughts on cultural appropriation and the new colonization of yoga from a Desi yogi in LA.

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 $25.00 yoga class by a well-known teacher who wants to “expose us to the culture by chanting Om to start class“ and 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 walkedIMGP0275 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.
Did you know that Yoga and Ayurveda were banned in India under British rule and colonization?

The practices millions of Westerners now turn to for alternative health and wellness therapies were intentionally eradicated from parts of India to the point that lineages were broken and thousand-year old traditions lost.

To be colonized is to become a stranger in your own land. As a desi, this is the feeling I get in most 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.

IMGP1117 copy 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 dhyana or 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 practice meant to free us has becoming so confining.
The current state of yoga in the United States and elsewhere in the Western world highlights the power imbalance that remains between those who have access to wealth, an audience and privilege in contrast to those who have been historically marginalized.

If someone from the dominant culture completes a yoga teacher training that is primarily asana based, and remains blissfully unaware of the complexity of yoga’s true aim or the roots of the practices, they are culturally appropriating yoga. By remaining unaware of the history, roots, complexity and challenges of the heritage from which yoga springs and the challenges it has faced under Western culture, they perpetuate a re-colonization of it by stripping its essence away.

Now, this is not to say that there can’t be some true, heartfelt and deep liberation possible. Or that only Indians can practice or teach yoga and white people can’t. There can be authentic cultural exchange, harmony and understanding. Clearly, since the true aim of the practice of yoga is liberation, uniting mind, body and spirit, this form should not limit us. Liberation here, is no joke.

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 2nd 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.

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The only way we can decolonize yoga and reunite it with its true aim and purpose is to practice Gandhian svadhyaya, or self-rule and inquiry, and to truly learn the full honest, integrity of an authentic yoga practice.
As practitioners of yoga we need to cite cultural references and understand the complexity, culture and history from which this tradition comes. In addition to asana we need to understand, practice and teach all 8 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.

When we humbly and respectfully consider yoga’s history, context, many branches and practices we give ourselves a fighting chance at achieving yoga’s aim of enlightenment of mind, body and spirit.
So do it the right way to gain more true peace, more enlightenment, if you must. It is truly a win-win.

IMGP1071By really engaging the full, whole and multifaceted face of yoga we not only liberate ourselves but we may just overthrow this 2nd colonization of yoga, freeing ourselves as well as the yoga practitioners of the future to experience the full, liberatory, authentic and true practice of yoga.

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.
With hope, love and liberation,

Susanna Barkataki

January, 2015