It’s time to decolonize yoga

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To my white friends who wish to continue practicing yoga, I encourage visiting the site DecolonizingYoga.com to learn specific methods on how to decolonize your yoga.

When I tell you I have grown up doing yoga, what image pops into your head? What do you think of when you think of yoga? Probably the image of someone doing a warrior pose, strong and elegant. To go even further, maybe the person you imagined is a young thin white woman, chanting “Om” or saying “namaste.” This image is a common representation of yoga and it is in fact a very colonized image.

When I say I have grown up doing yoga, I did not practice the typical version of yoga western society is prone to thinking about. The yoga I did growing up was taught to me by my Nanaji, and it focused a lot more on meditation and connecting to Babaji.

When I got to college, my yoga world changed. I was thrust into YouTube videos and classes led by an archetypal white woman saying “namaste” without mentioning traditional ties throughout the whole class. I have watched as teachers say “Om” without an aspect of spiritual liberation, and instead use it to assist them in their physical activity. I have been in classes where there was no mediation whatsoever, surrounded by white women who use this activity as a physical sport. This is cultural appropriation of yoga.

Graphic by Kieron Kessler.

Cambridge dictionary defines cultural appropriation as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” Cultural appropriation also involves taking things from marginalized communities to make them benefit the majority. This often takes place through capitalism, which takes things from marginalized and colonized populations, strips them of their original meaning and uses it to benefit the white capitalist majority, all of which is happening regarding yoga.

When India was colonized, the British East India Company initially banned yoga practices. Thus, ancestral traditions were lost in the process. Hatha yogis were actually seen by both the British and other Western countries as practitioners of black magic.

When colonization of India shifted from the British East India Company to the actual government of Britain, there was a change in the views of traditional Indian culture. The British began fetishizing Indian culture, which spurred liking of yoga in Western cultures.

The British had a colonial filter when it came to understanding the true meaning of different traditions in India. That filter includes the understanding of yoga. Westerners began only focusing on the physical aspect of yoga and not the mental or spiritual parts. The west turned yoga into something that needs to be mastered or dominated.

White people also took yoga and manipulated it to fit a certain body type. The skinny white woman should not be the ideal image of yoga. Yoga at its core traditional values was meant for all body types, all shapes and sizes. This image goes back to colonization, and how the filtered understanding of yoga led to westerners only focusing on the physical aspect rather than the mental and spiritual.

The idea that poses and reducing work anxieties are the primary goals of yoga is ridiculous and reduces the practice’s capitalistic function. Thus, there are people within the yoga community advocating to decolonize yoga, and to revert back to the traditional meaning.

Yoga should be more meditation-based and should be linked more to the eight limbs of yoga. DecolonizeYoga.com defines the eight limbs of yoga as ethical conduct, personal practice, working with breath, awareness of the senses, meditation, concentration, being present and being interconnected with all that is in existence.

These traditional practices were meant to align the spirit with the body and without the understanding of traditional practices, one is abandoning the true meaning of yoga. This lack of meaning pushed by white westerners leads to cultural appropriation of the practice.

The goal is to reach spiritual freedom, otherwise known as samadhi. Spiritual freedom requires more meditational practices.

Samadhi can be achieved regardless of your body type, which is why I scoff every time the image of a skinny white woman comes up as an advertisement for yoga. This is an unrealistic, capitalistic image of yoga that focuses too much on the physical and not at all on the mental.

To my white friends who wish to continue practicing yoga, I encourage visiting the site DecolonizingYoga.com to learn specific methods on how to decolonize your yoga. Stop promoting false images of what yoga is supposed to be. And please, think next time before you engage in the words “Om” or “namaste,” recognize your capitalistic usage of such words and how it glosses over the erasure of our culture.

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Kieron Kessler
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