Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Dear White yoga teacher,
You may love yoga. Maybe yoga has even saved your life or healed your soul. Perhaps you may go to yoga class to leave feeling relaxed, as well as to deal with daily anxieties you face. Maybe as a yoga teacher or practitioner, you aim to create a safe or comfortable space (in person or online) for all your students and promote a calming environment. This is all real, profound and powerful.
You want the soothing AUM, the strong focus, the beautiful mehndi or bindi, the enlightened equanimity.
And Yoga all seems so peaceful, so powerful. So exotic. However, just because something benefits you does not mean it's yours to exploit or own.
"I want to share the practice with everyone", you might say. Well, this goal sometimes fails in the reality of creating an INCLUSIVE and HONORING space for all students and for embracing the roots of yoga itself.
How we fail to create safe spaces and the role of cultural appropriation
As you’re reading this, you may be thinking “Yoga has done so much for me. I just want to share that with others." Or, "I don't discriminate, I think I do my best in creating a safe environment for my students.”
These are common thoughts. I've heard them many times. But here's the thing - just because you've benefitted from something doesn't make it yours to do whatever you want with.
And just because you don't intend to discriminate doesn't mean discrimination isn't happening.
It might be time you dig deeper and see the white supremacy, racism, and cultural appropriation that surrounds normative Western yoga and holistic, healing practices.
Though yoga has been practiced for thousands of years by People of Color, people, primarily from the Indian subcontinent, and also Africa, if you look around at any marketing for yoga classes, practices or clothing, you’ll primarily see thin, white, cisgender women. To the point that today, there are so many people who don’t know the origins of the practice. The origins of the practice of yoga, from India, have been violently erased. This is not a surprise, its a neo-colonial continuation of hundreds of years of colonial rule. Under British colonization, Indians were punished, ridiculed and even jailed for practicing yoga.
Now, South Asians and other BIPOC are erased in dominant culture yoga spaces today - to the point that many people don’t even know or realize that yoga actually comes from and was developed and codified in India or respect the roots of the practice.
So, my dear yoga practitioner, or teacher - I need to ask you something important.
When you want our peace-and-power-inducing practices, are you willing to stand up for our pain and our suffering?
Or will you continue to"love and light" us into oblivion?
You see, erasure is real. Yoga has been so westernized to that at a glance when you look around, even at stock images on yoga you’ll likely see primarily white folks, spandex clad, engaging in a yoga pose. Where and why did the West go so wrong in this?!
Now you may be thinking, “Well, I'm sorry for you, but how does this create a negative environment for my students?”
It’s simple. It's not just on magazines or on websites or ancient history. Erasure pervades right now, everyday experience. There has been so much cultural appropriation that marginalized folks, BIPOC, and people of South Asian, Desi, or Indian culture may feel uncomfortable walking into a classroom of primarily white folks taking our culture and selling it back to us.
It's the humiliation of seeing the sacred profaned in deities on phone cases and booty shorts, wearing “Om” symbols on shirts and socks, and blasting pop music before class. No mantras, no mudras, no traditional music… just a sea of normative white bodies wearing Lululemon, who paid $20 to take the popular teacher's class.
Let's be real. When you are culturally appropriating, you make parts of indigenous and BIPOC culture into cool "fads" or "new trends." This is, in essence, minimizing and also exploiting someone else’s culture. If you take the parts that work for you, leave the ones that don’t, you essentially steal and exploit for your profit at someone else's expense.
Because what is a trend for dominant culture can be deadly for those of us from the culture.
I have been called dot-head while leaving a traditional puja, or ceremony, threatened with physical violence for the bindi I wear, fought in the streets while being called a "dirty Indian". Would you join me then?
I've had people chant AUM to me as a taunt while mocking my color and culture. Would you mock along with them or stand with me or simply walk away?
My Desi siblings and I've been profiled more times than we can count, called terrorist, told to "go home." Do you speak up against racial profiling, or look the other way, drishti (gaze) peacefully bent upon your mono-culture dominant, exclusive comfort and safety?
Can you imagine, if someone was glamorizing, exotifying, or sterilizing and minimizing your culture, your traditions, that you would feel uncomfortable in those spaces?
Even if you aren’t doing it intentionally, are you aware that you are excluding students who should feel validated and welcome in their practice.
Yoga is more than just a destress practice or go-to, feel-good moment for those of us who have yoga in our culture. To us, yoga is sacred. Though It's not without it's complexities, and those too are here to be understood and explored.
As yoga teachers, I ask you, please learn more, do better, understand, and strive to respect the sanctity in this powerful practice.
How to do better as a white yoga teacher
Yoga and wellness shouldn’t be accessible to only certain budgets, body types or races. It should be available to ANYONE, and teachers need to find ways to truly honor the roots of the practice.
Consistently learn about the history of yoga (here’s a link to a list of resources to help jumpstart your search of knowledge).
The more we inform ourselves and become aware of the roots of our practices, the more appreciation and respect we can gain for them.
Learn from, support, and uplift teachers of Indian and South Asian descent and other BIPOC and marginalized teachers. If they want to share their insight, make space for this to combat rampant erasure. Not in a tokenizing way, but lovingly and truly. By building relationships.
Do not rebrand the traditions of yoga. Stick to sacred text, language and most of all the truth of yoga. Communicate to your students that this is not just a work out for your body, but rather a sacred and ancient healing practice for the mind and soul as well.
Politely and respectfully keep colleagues in check if you feel they are culturally appropriating. They may not even know they are doing so. However, you can spark a useful conversation while doing so about the history of yoga, and it will start to inform them in ways where they can acknowledge their appropriation on their own. Consider sharing resources like this blog on cultural appreciation vs appropriation or 60+ Alternatives to Saying Namaste.
Keep practicing, keep honoring your svadhyaya (self inquiry). It can take a lot of digging deep to check yourself and ensure you are honoring and creating equity. It's not important to be perfect, but it is important to try.
Intention (and impact) is everything
Ultimately, we are all human, and with being human comes many, many pitfalls and mistakes that we will make. However, it is important to keep ourselves informed and promote continuing education in order to protect the sanctity of yoga.
By doing so we are embracing the roots of yoga and creating the most welcoming and respectful environment for all our students. Our future of moving towards true unity, and of yoga itself, might depend upon it.
For more information on how to deepen your understanding of the roots of yoga for personal and social change, while avoiding appropriation, if you would like, explore more in my new book Embrace Yoga's Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice
"For those who long to practice or teach yoga from a place of awareness and intention, this book offers a set of much deeper and necessary tools. A must have for any teacher or practitioner of yoga wishing to honor its lineage." ~ Kathryn Budig, Founder Aim True
"I absolutely recommend this book to all sincere students and teachers as a necessary step on the path of awakening." ~ Kino MacGregor, Bestselling author of The Yogi Assignment
"As a Black woman Yoga Teacher I find the work of Susanna Barkataki's book essential to understand how we share yoga with the world. Required reading for anyone who teaches yoga, works as a healer or is interested in equity and equality on the mat." ~ Dianne Bondy, Bestselling author of Yoga for Everyone
"Susanna Barkataki's new book Embrace Yoga's Roots should become a curricular text in all yoga teacher training programs. We have an opportunity to change the tide and Susanna Barataki is uniquely qualified to act as our guide." ~ Donna Farhi, Bestselling author of Yoga, Mind, Body and Spirit: A Return to Wholeness
"Embrace Yoga's Roots is a crucial addition to every yoga practitioner's bookshelf." ~ Jessamyn Stanley, Author of Every Body Yoga, Founder of The Underbelly Yoga