Updated: Sep 1, 2022
"But no one looks like me in the yoga studio.”
“I walked in and they looked me up and down, assuming that a body like mine couldn’t practice, or practice well, and that I certainly wasn’t the teacher.”
I don’t have the clothes or the “yoga look” so I figured I didn’t ever belong as a teacher. It’s just not gonna be for me.”
These are all things I’ve heard from yoga practitioners, grads and, now teachers. They are also things I’ve thought myself.
Why is a practice meant to be so liberating, causing so much restriction, judgment, and separation?
We need to go back to the roots of yoga to understand this a bit more. Yoga is a complex, organized system of personal and social change.
And yet, during colonization, yoga too was oppressed, watered down, simplified, and ultimately is often used as a tool of oppression. This is part of a system that holds some down and lifts others up.
These systems of oppression, such as ableist, capitalist, white supremacist, hetero-patriarchy (As the one and only bell hooks aptly describes it) infiltrated yoga as it migrated to the West.
So here we are. Pretending these “isms” don’t exist in yoga spaces doesn’t magically make them go away. Naming them is a step towards changing and shifting oppressive systems into liberating ones.
It is also an essential part of foundational yogic practices like Ahimsa (non-harm) and Svadhyaya, self inquiry, especially as we expand our sense of “Self” to include others and all beings.
Please resource yourself through this exploration in ways that support you. To help with that I’d love to remind you to check my book Embrace Yoga's Roots Chapter 3 part 3, and offer some healing-centered practices from the yoga tradition that support resourcing ourselves, discharge and healing as we face and acknowledge harm and oppression and work to decolonize yoga. I’ve got those for you in this free chapter from my book too, if you don’t have the book.
Yoga culture in the West is filled with Colonized White Supremacy culture. From a culture of anxiety and fear and perfectionism to individualism and normative bodies centered, it’s no wonder that so few of us feel welcome in yoga spaces in the West. These limiting systems harm all of us.
Notice where these qualities show up in your yoga spaces and in yourself. Then, explore the decolonizing remedies for healing and practice, rest, change or add more of your own.
You’ll see these 4 qualities of colonized white supremacy mindset, some examples of how this quality manifests, and finally decolonizing remedies for healing, from within authentic yoga itself.
1. A culture of anxiety and fear
How a culture of anxiety and fear shows up in yoga spaces:
Yoga culture is filled with competition and specialization.
Never enough, not good enough.
Imposter syndrome, Jealousy, fear, insecurity.
Patience, practice collaboration.
Care, compassion, love.
Fill your cup and overflow so there’s an overabundance.
Give to and support yourself and others.
Perfectionism shows up in so many places…
Focus on physical practice.
Attention on the static (end over process) and also in Asana.
Focus on form: Such as saying my “practice isn’t good enough” or in teacher cues like “Fullest extension of the pose” or “One day you’ll get to…(put your leg behind your head”
Qualifications and certifications emphasized over indigenous knowledge and experience.
Saying, “I’m not good at yoga.”
If you mess up, it’s all good, it's ok, understand the process not perfection.
Value of “Work in progress”
Value indigenous knowledge systems.
Attuning to chance, play, intuition, ancestors.
Valuing Indigenous Indian and South Asian knowledge.
A praxis of process and emergence.
Ritual and rites of passage.
How individualism shows up:
Personal practice over-emphasized.
White supremacy separates ALL OF US us from one another and ourselves
Promotes jealousy, fear, insecurity.
Social interdependence (like joint and flexible families).
Platform, center, reconnect and rebuild social economies and integrated cultural rhythms.
4. Normative bodies and experiences centered
This shows up in pretty much everything represented in media in yoga in West:
Yoga practitioners are….
Ads, copy, covers, clothes, etc.
Embracing, centering and privileging diverse experiences.
Center bodies of culture and color.
All body experiences.
All abilities honored.
Literally, you are what a yoga practitioner and teacher looks like. We all are. Naming these systems that make us feel like we don’t belong is the first step to changing them.
A few questions for reflection for you…
What qualities, ways they show up, or remedies do you experience?
How are you feeling and being as you explore this?
Can you encourage yourself or someone else to deepen in yoga as a pathway to liberation?
May these resources be of benefit to you and all beings.
With hope, honor and fire,
Analysis like this deserves many gratitudes and acknowledgments.
This work does not happen in a vacuum and all the thinking you find in this article above builds on the work of other communities of practice, individual contributions, thought leadership, inquiry, conversation and action. The teachers, students and mentors at Ignite Institute for Yogic Leadership and Social Change: Jomiryz Thomas, Sofia Rose Smith, Hien Hong, Tiger Rahman, M Camellia, Anjali Rao, Flor Barajas Tena, Sunaina Rangnekar, Linda Lopes, Naomi King, Jacoby Ballard, Jess Holt, Eric Abele, Tejal Patel, Jesal Parikh, Melissa Shah, Mx. Puja, Aarti Inamdar Landrum, Lakshmi Nair, Kelley Palmer, Amber Karnes, Tina Strawn, Jivana Heyman, Rubi Orozco, Amelia Bachtiar, Michelle Cassandra Johnson, and all the students of the teacher training programs.
I would like to thank the many teachers who have supported my learning on this path. I am grateful to Kimberle Crenshaw. Patrisse Cullors, Tema Okun, Kenneth Jones, Michelle Cassandra Johnson, Trudi LeBron, Louiza Doran, Resmaa Menakem, Dr. Joy Degruy, Dr. Gail Parker, Dr. Tara Sethia, AWARE-LA, Ariane White and other Racial Justice educators. I am grateful to the early, past and present teachers of yoga dharma. To my teachers Shankarji, Thich Nhat Hanh, Kabirji, Caitriona Reed, Michelle Benzamin- Miki, Eisha Mason, Arundhati Roy, A.T. Ariaratne, Satish Kumar, S.N. Goenka, B. R. Ambedkar, Vandana Shiva, as well as many others who have taught me—I am deeply grateful. I am grateful to all my colleagues and students and those on the path of practice with me as we co-create, innovate, disrupt and live this learning together.
This thinking and work emerges in a collective context of social justice and social change happening in a subsection of the yoga community. In 2018-2022, a collaborative group of educators in Yoga and Social Justice who have come together under the umbrella of Ignite Institute for Yogic Leadership and Social Change.* The goal is to run equity-based educational training to change the face of yoga in the West. To support yoga practitioners and teachers to live yoga and lead with yoga for social change. As we did this work, we saw how colonial mindset and white supremacy culture is the context we move and swim in within yoga spaces in the West. We utilized Tema Okun’s White Supremacy Culture analysis as a framework. This framework was helpful, and we were able to see how in a yoga context, forces of colonization dovetailed with White Supremacy Culture and interacted in different ways. As many of us were living, teaching, practicing and exploring from underestimated as well as privileged ally and accomplice. We continued the complex work of unraveling systems of oppression, noting where they show up, and doing our best to name things as we saw them. We also engage in the culture-building process of exploring and iterating antidotes. This work is cyclical, emergent and iterative so is always growing and changing.