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How the white yoga industry appropriates – and why it’s a problem

I’ve practiced yoga for years. Getting on my mat each day saved me during a deeply stressful time in my life, and it’s been a part of my mental & spiritual survival kit ever since.

But as a white woman I often feel conflicted, unsure how to practice in a way which doesn’t culturally appropriate this rich, living spiritual tradition. I’ve been asking myself how I can practice yoga in a way which honours its roots. Is it even possible?

Understanding the roots of yoga

When it comes to understanding yoga’s roots, I’m very much a beginner, but I did have the privilege of studying it from an academic perspective during my Theology degree.

Yoga is a living Indian spiritual tradition with roots that may go as far back as the Indus Valley Civilisation, one of the earliest and most sophisticated civilisations in the world (I’m an ancient history nerd and got really obsessed with the IVC.)

Yoga grew out of the philosophy of meditation and the quest to connect deeply with our truest nature – the real ‘Self’ which exists beneath and behind our limited sense of identity and which is one shard of the mirror that is universal consciousness. The sage Patanjali is quoted in his much-translated Yoga Sutras as saying ‘when the mind is settled, we are established in our own essential state, which is unbounded consciousness’. Over millennia, yoga developed as a rich art and spiritual form which builds upon these core truths.

Yoga was practiced for life by dedicated yogis who learnt at the feet of teachers who shaped and adapted and grew the body of yoga. This organic evolution helps to explain yoga’s breadth and diversity as a tradition. But this form of learning also enabled a true depth of understanding in yoga students, and the application of the principles of yoga to every aspect of the student’s life, in aid of the goal of liberation.

Yoga’s arrival in the US and Europe

Yoga has been introduced to international audiences several times since the 19th century, with European and American audiences taking to it in particular. While many of these early pioneers of international yoga were themselves Indian and built distinguished careers and great fame from their enterprising decision to bring yoga to the masses, since then non-Indian yoga teachers and advocates have built careers, studios, clothing companies, music careers and more and profited billions of pounds from its popularity.

In comparison, a fraction of the economic value of yoga has found its way into the hands of those to whom the spiritual tradition belongs. This is known as economic dis-patriation (thanks to Susanna Barkataki for this definition).

Meanwhile, I’ve read from yogis and yoga teachers of colour, including Indian and Indian diaspora teachers, that they have often felt unwelcome in the yoga space, and are offered fewer opportunities. And because the yoga studios – which are overwhelmingly white-owned – often control who is given teaching slots and a platform to build their career, Indian and diaspora Indian yoga teachers can fear repercussions if they challenge the appropriation of their own culture.

Stripped of its origins

Taking a look at the way yoga is taught in studios and gyms that I’ve been to, I’ve found much of it is divorced from its spiritual context as a meditative practice of liberation. The principles from the spiritual tradition which are used – such as pranayama (breathwork) and use of mantras such as the sacred sound ‘om/aum’ are not always clearly explained, making it hard for practitioners to understanding the significance.

Yoga should be accessible to all

Another element, I’ve learned, is that yoga is generally an expensive activity, making its powerful liberative work accessible only to the few who can afford to pay as much as £25 per class.

There’s also a more insidious accessibility problem. Yoga has become very closely associated with a certain aesthetic – that of thin white women who can do all the gymnastics of the more advanced postures – that many would-be yoga students find excluding and intimidating. While many teachers may teach that yoga is ‘not about the pose’, 60-minute classes with up to thirty students are not the best environment to provide real adjustments for all physical abilities. The majority of classes I’ve been to would certainly struggle to accommodate practitioners with disabilities, such as wheelchair users.

What can I as a white yogi do about it?

Here’s what I’ve landed on so far:

  1. Learn more about yoga history and theory and mindfully consider how you personally engage with it.
  2. Money speaks – so give your hard-earned coins a voice
    If you pay to go to classes or for a membership, hold studios and gyms accountable for the kinds of yoga they offer and the breadth of teachers they offer opportunities to. We must uses our voices to make sure that yoga teachers of colour, especially those from within the tradition, get the opportunities they deserve.
  3. Invest in and amplify teachers of colour
    Invest in and seek out instruction from teachers of colour that you connect with, and especially Indian and diaspora Indian teachers. If this feels tokenistic to you, consider what layers of unconscious or conscious bias may have led you to select predominantly white teachers in the past without a thought. This unpicking of your biases can be painful work – do it with the support of other white yogis who are committed to the same decolonising work.
  4. Call out obvious appropriation – no one needs a pyjama set which says ‘nama-stay in bed’. We should use our white privilege to call out appropriation when we see it, and be prepared to have challenging conversations in the process.
  5. Invest in understanding your own ancestral spiritual traditions
    This may seem unrelated, but many white communities have lost our connection to all of our ancestral embodied and spiritual practices, in part because we have historically considered all the world’s cultural traditions as a buffet we are free to pick and choose from. Consider how you can explore the traditions of your own heritage, whatever that is. Many cultures have some form of embodied practice. If we as white people returned to and cultivated the traditions of their own heritage, we might stop extracting and appropriating the traditions of others.
  6. Keep doing the work
    Feeling defensive or called out? I get it. I’ve found it painful to confront the idea that something which is so healing to me could be harmful to others in the way that it is practiced. But let us sit with this discomfort. It means we’re exploring the way these truths relate to us as white practitioners of yoga. The dismantling of appropriation within yoga is truly a work of ahimsa (non-violence – one of the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga). Keep learning and exploring. And please let me know what I’ve missed out or what I’ve not got quite right – I’m on this journey with you.

Who to read next (a very non-exhaustive list):

  1. Susanna Barkataki @susannabarkataki, yoga teacher and trainer in yoga that honours its roots. I’ve learned a lot from her and am grateful for her work.
  2. Dinah Akua @dinah.akua, yoga teacher and founder of BIPOC wellness space Wanakame
  3. Aditi Subbiah @aditisubbiah, Indian yoga teacher with a very beautiful asana practice
  4. A really nice outline of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
  5. Dianne Bondy Yoga, @diannebodyyogaofficial yoga teacher and advocate for yoga for all.
  6. Curvesome yoga @curvesomeyoga – ‘making yoga and wellbeing accessible, inclusive and diverse for everyBODY!’
  7. This excellent summary from a white yoga teacher who was asking herself, for the first time, whether white people should teacher yoga, or this essay from a white yoga teacher whose exploration of these ideas led to her deciding she needed to quit teaching
  8. A lot of this work has roots in understanding our own relationship to white supremacy. Layla F. Saad’s searing letter I need to talk to spiritual white women about white supremacy, parts I and II, should be canon for all white spiritual women on this journey.

Grateful thanks to @conscious_design for the image.

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