So, after teaching it since 2011 and practising it since 2000, I’ve decided to stop teaching and practising ‘yoga’.
Well, the reasons are complex including a wish to focus more on writing, and sharing nature spirituality and meditation for creative vision.
But one of the underlying reasons is that, arguably, I wasn’t really teaching yoga in the first place.
And I can no longer look myself in the mirror and say I strive to be anti-racist as long as I continue to say I’m teaching yoga. (And for clarity’s sake: when I look in that mirror I see a white, British, cisgender woman.)
What is ‘yoga’?
Which brings us face-to-face with the question: “what is yoga then?”.
This is not a question that I, as a white Westerner, am qualified to provide a definite answer to (which underpins the point as to why I’m no longer going to be teaching it).
However, for the sake of some kind of clarity let me try to encapsulate what yoga can be seen as. I don’t pretend this to be an absolute definition. But to try and explain why I’m no longer teaching yoga I need to provide a working definition as a counterpoint to my reasons.
So, yoga could be described as a spiritual practice underpinned by complex, ancient philosophy. It involves body, mind and spirit. It could be considered a technology of liberation – psycho-physical techniques to transcend the individualized self and realize your true Self, as one with the divine or a state of being as consciousness aware of itself. Its roots are in South Asia and Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism as well as perhaps in Africa (see Kemetic yoga).
Yet, here in the UK and in the United States (and across the culturally-westernized globe) it’s practised largely as a form of exercise and self-care – with lots of pop psychology and perhaps a smattering of philosophy thrown in.
Yoga could be said to be something that is lived. Yet the majority of yoga in the global west and north involves donning some leggings and practising it on a yoga mat.
There’s a lot of emphasis on self-actualization, making yourself a better person, and counterbalancing the stresses of modern life. It’s said it will make you fitter, more relaxed, more focused, more energised. Optimized. I can’t help but feel this feeds into the consumerist self-interest of capitalism. Yoga is used as a resource to be utilized to help us to win at life. You may want that. But I’d argue it’s not the aim of yoga.
I freely acknowledge that I’ve been practising and teaching yoga as a form of de-stressing and relaxing and easing out tension and being kind and accepting to yourself – a way of ameliorating the toxic stresses we live amidst.
Techniques which are sorely needed in this age of anxiety.
But is this yoga? Does this lead to Moksha (liberation)?
No, I wouldn’t say that it does.
Does any white Westerner have the right to teach this spiritual and physical practice which originates from a different culture from the Indian subcontinent?
Why do we, as white Westerners, think we have any right to contribute to any discussion about defining what yoga is? (Yes, yes I know, I just did…)
Why do we think we get to decide that “intention” makes a pose or movement yoga?
Why do we white Brits think we have a right to teach and make profit from a sacred, spiritual practice which was oppressed by the British Raj when it colonised India?
Why do we think we have the right to say we’re teaching “yoga” when what we are likely to be teaching is a vastly simplified practice, largely, if not entirely, stripped of its complex philosophy and spirituality? A McYoga that’s been re-packaged, often with added acrobatics, and marketed as a feel-good antidote to Western stress-culture.
And, what’s worse, through our blind white-centredness and privilege, we’ve effectively excluded from yoga spaces people from the culture from which we stole it, and then have the arrogance to turn around and tell them what yoga is.
Here are a few reasons why we think we have this right: centuries of entitlement, privilege and colonialism.
Dominant cultures used to colonise the land and property of indigenous peoples. Now we steal and colonise their culture and spiritual traditions.
We white people don’t like to admit this to ourselves.
The history of white violence against Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) has left a toxic legacy that has instilled in us white people an assumption that the rest of the world is there as a resource from which we can plunder whatever we want and utilize in whichever way we see fit, without any consequences … for us.
Let’s look at yoga through this lens.
White people (the British) violently colonised yoga’s country of origin (India) and banned practices of yoga and Ayurveda (yoga’s sister science).
Then, a century or so down the line, white Westerners though “ooh that stuff looks cool. I’m going to steal that, strip out most of what makes it sacred, brand it, and sell it back at a very high price to privileged (white) people, and make lots of money on it. And that original culture we stole it from? We’ll exclude its peoples from this practice and tell them what yoga is and refuse to listen to them when they tell us we’re doing harm.”
OK, that’s a very simplified version of how yoga was appropriated, but the essence is true. (Yes, Swami Vivekenanda introduced yoga to the West in the late 19th century at the World Fair in Chicago, and yes BKS Iyengar popularized a form of postural Hatha Yoga. But a handful of men do not represent a whole culture or history – it wasn’t their gift to give away.)
There’s a clear pattern over the last 500 years of white, patriarchal European countries colonising (aka stealing) lands from their indigenous populations. (So Christopher Columbus “discovered” America? How can you discover a country which is already inhabited?)
They violently oppressed people, stole their land and resources, imposed their religion, laws and moralities, and banned indigenous spiritual and healing practices. All through murderous force.
An uncomfortable truth
So, when we’re practising traditions which do not originate from our country of origin / the place we’re living in, we need to ask: where does this practice come from? Was its place of origin colonised? Is what I’m practising true to the origins of the tradition, as far as can be known, or is it white-washed, simplified version that’s desecrated the original tradition and stripped it bare, re-packaged it and sold to on as an easy fix for the ills of modern life, so as to keep us docile and unquestioning of what’s behind these ills? Am I benefiting at the expense of people whose culture this is?
This is the uncomfortable truth I can no longer use my white privilege to ignore.
Look, I see the irony of me, a white woman, writing about this issue. Of saying what yoga is and what it isn’t.
But I am listening to what many people from the South Asian diaspora are telling us about how we’re appropriating, simplifying and even destroying the sacred practice of yoga.
If we white people ignore or keep silent about these issues, then we’re complicit in perpetuating racism.
Because to refuse to even consider how our yoga practice is a colonised, westernised and watered-down version of an ancient spiritual practice; to ignore the perspectives and opinions of desi people on this matter; to insist on privileging our own experience and opinion and perceived right to carry on doing whatever we want to, is racism in action.
I understand that this love of yoga arises, at least in part, from the fact that we no longer have access to the European indigenous wisdom, healing and spiritual traditions of our own lands and ancestors – the Roman Empire and Christianity saw to that.
I totally understand the hunger for spiritual and healing practices.
But that does not mean we have a right to steal them from other peoples and cultures who our ancestors oppressed and destroyed.
So this is why I can no longer teach yoga.
What I’m doing instead
What will I do instead?
If you’re interested to know, here’s what I’m doing.
My personal embodied practices now centre around walking, mindful movement which include some of the sequences I learned in Dru Yoga (I just won’t call it yoga anymore) and intuitive movement of my body. I tune into the moon and the elements and the seasons. Through meditation practices I rest, connect to my imagination and my soul-self, and the energies and messages of Goddess Brighid, whose Priestess I became after a two-year course of practice and study. And I am now studying Druidry at the Bardic grade with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids as part of my continued commitment to connect to my own indigenous wisdom and practices – those of the British Isles. I’m also studying the mythic imagination and Western wisdom traditions with Sharon Blackie.
My approach to spiritual practice seeks embodiment. I am a soul in a human body. I am a human body with a soul.
From what I have studied, I see that the philosophy underpinning yoga concerns transcendence. This is a philosophically-based reason why I’m no longer practising yoga. I don’t wish to liberate myself from this worldly, human experience. To me this Earth and my body is sacred. This worldly, sensual experience is a blessing.
This is what I seek, what I have found and what I will be sharing through my work going forward.
With peaceful blessings,
A few afterwords
This issue is deep and wide-ranging and I do not pretend to have covered all of the arguments as to why the western yoga industrial complex is so deeply problematic and racist.
I am not open to discussion around whether or not westernized yoga is culturally appropriated or not. It is and I won’t indulge in that conversation with white teachers* anymore. [* Amended 6/9/20, previously read ‘white people’. I specifically mean white teachers who are unwilling or unable to engage with the issues of cultural appropriation.]
If you need a definition of cultural appropriation then here’s one:
Cultural appropriation “is the adoption of an element or elements of one culture by members of another culture. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures … When cultural elements are copied from a minority culture by members of a dominant culture, these elements are used outside of their original cultural context—sometimes even against the expressly stated wishes of members of the originating culture.” [Wikipedia].
Am I saying that white people should not practise or teach yoga? No I am not. My hope is that white people teaching yoga will open their minds and hearts to the uncomfortable truths around how yoga has been adopted, adapted and commercialized in the global west and north and to consider if and how the way they teach it is problematic. My hope is that they seek out and listen to the many and increasing voices who are telling us of their marginalization and the harm that is being perpetuated. And then I would hope these white yoga teachers make any changes they deem necessary to strive to be anti-racist, if that is the lifelong journey they wish to embark upon. Perhaps some may choose to continue to teach yoga but strive to do so in a way which sincerely honours its roots in a truly inclusive way. I wish them well. Others will doubtless continue on as they are regardless of the issues.
Am I suggesting that you can only take part in the practices and ways of your indigenous ancestors? (Some comments on social media have suggested this is what I am saying.) No, I am not saying this. I am suggesting that if we strive to be anti-racist that we educate ourselves to be aware of the origin of practices in which we take part. And perhaps we may reflect whether what we’re being taught or sold, and how we’re practising, honours their roots. And then to make an informed decision as to whether or how we wish to carry on participating.
If you hold the privilege to practise whatever you want, how and when you want to, then I humbly ask you to acknowledge this (probably white) privilege, and to accept that not all people have that same privilege – now or in the past (and yes, those people may live in the same country as you). And to acknowledge that historically white colonisers have oppressed indigenous practices sacred to the peoples of the lands they have stolen and settled, perhaps some of the very same practices you now hold dear.
How to Decolonize Your Yoga Practice by Susanna Barkataki – Yoga Culture Advocate
Racism in Spiritual and Wellbeing Communities by Gabriella Evangeline
Yoga and The Roots of Cultural Appropriation by Shreena Gandhi and Lillie Wolff
What is the Difference Between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Appreciation? by Susanna Barkataki
Last night Namaste Destroyed My Life by Nadia Gilani
Cultural Appropriation in Yoga: Video interview with Jonelle Lewis and Kallie Schut
Hi, I’m Stella – and I’m an ex-yoga teacher 😉
I’m an author, Priestess and meditation guide, helping sensitive, intuitive women answer the call of your soul and live a life in alignment with your values and dreams.
My work blends the wisdom of nature with restful dream meditation and simple ritual for emotional healing, soul vision and creative inspiration.