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The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Yoga Journal: Roots, Reverence, Representation and Reparations

Updated: Dec 9, 2019

"If you want the moon, do not hide from the night. If you want a rose do not run away from the thorns. If you want to love do not hide from yourself."

- Rumi

Here's what could have been. And here's what was.

Representation matters.

The truth is four South Asian women were pictured together in an issue where 5 of us wrote about cultural appropriation and we DIDN'T EVEN MAKE IT INTO THE MARKETING SURVEY to be considered for the cover.

Can you tell me - why is that?

Let me just say for myself, that it feels like a survey like that just reinforces normativity. Every thought my middle school self both heard and repeated runs through my head.

"You are not enough. No one will ever love you because you are not white. Too frumpy. Not thin enough. Too brown. Too boring. Too ethnic. Too ugly."

Every single internalized oppressive thought I've spent my adult life teaching myself isn't true.

Validated. Affirmed. Apparently true when it comes to Yoga Journal covers.

Take our knowledge. Exploit our wisdom. Displace us from a seat of power or leadership.

Does this sound familiar?

It should if you follow my early writing from 2015 or recent work or any work on cultural appropriation. There are 2 criteria for cultural appropriation to be happening.

1. Power imbalance

2. Harm

Prophetic is the chosen image.

Instead of us, a headless white women's hands in Añjali Mudrā, a reverent hand position, with her hands entwined with mālā beads seemingly as decoration along with other jewelry.

This could be the poster for what cultural appropriation looks like.

And we, the Desi women from across the far reaches of the Indian subcontinent living in diaspora across the West, writing, speaking and teaching, sharing our indigenous knowledge, were never even put in the running for a cover.

Historically BIPOC and other marginalized folks are excluded from yoga spaces and representations.

"Racism is so implicit that you never even notice that it's a white girl on the cover every single time," says Amy Champ, a PhD scholar from UC Davis who wrote her dissertation on American yoga. "When you begin to ask yourself, 'What does yoga have to do with my community?', then you begin to question all these inequities."

Just google Yoga Journal covers yourself, or even just "yoga" and you'll see a sea of centering whiteness.

And when this dislocation and misrepresentation happens consistently, as in around ALL the recent covers with BIPOC - 1. Marshawn Feltus. 2. Jessamyn Stanley 3. Us 5 South Asians and now 4. Nicole Cardoza we have an unmistakable trend.

And let's be clear. Each of these incredible folks deserves celebration. This is an intersectional issue and struggle. We are in it together and will not be divided nor conquered.

General statistics from a diversity report in TheFashionSpot showed that in “2016 just 29 percent of cover models in 2016 were non-white. That’s a measly 196 women of color out of 678 cover appearances.”

Keep in mind, this was touted as a vast improvement on years before. When it comes to top read yoga magazines, however, it’s hard to get the data.

And my suspicion is that Yoga Journal and other yoga related publications are far below that 29% in terms of representation.

Marshawn, Jessamyn, Nicole and many other underrepresented folks deserve their own covers. Rina, Hemalayaa, Rumya, Sangeeta and I, we or others like us, should have been on the cover also. But we knew better than to expect it or even dream of it. And that's kind of heartbreaking.

South Asian / Desi folks are excluded even more. It's not an accident.

This exclusion makes our indigenous knowledge and cultural wisdom that much easier to exploit in a system of colonial supremacy.

More than Just Vanity

I want to pause here to also mention why it’s not just frivolity or vanity but is so critically important that we address issues of representation.

When we don’t see people who look like us, it's hard to feel like we have access to or belong in wellness and yoga spaces. Despite horrific health disparities that people of color face, including those in my own Indian family when we don't see folks like us doing healthy things, it’s hard to learn, get well, stay well, or heal. I speak about this constantly and also wrote about this here.

In order to reduce repeating hundreds of years of colonial harm already done, representing, talking and teaching in yoga spaces has to include South Asian and Desi voices or else harm and erasure is painfully replicated.

We aren’t just talking about representation, we are talking about reparations.

Why reparations? Well, colonial rule, and those who it benefits, have profited extensively from the wealth of indigenous resources, labor and knowledge. And I want to be clear that this isn't just for folks of Indian descent but reparations for all the folks of color who are harmed by unjust systems of institutional power.

Yoga Journal, and many other power-brokers, culture brokers and businesses in yoga in the west could take a. close look and not hide from themselves, their power and harm in these equations.

Not only did Indian trades, labor, jewels and goods go to filling British coffers, Indian soldiers fought in the British army, furthering the empire.

Data recently released by renowned economist Utsa Patnaik sifted through immense amounts, nearly 2 centuries of data on taxes and trade to determine that Britain “drained a total of nearly $45 trillion from India during 1765 and 1938.”

Along with the economic and labor impacts we must also consider the cultural, social, and spiritual impacts of colonization.

Dehumanization, undermining of tradition, practices, looting of indigenous ways and beliefs are all the inheritance of modern yoga culture. Many of the current divisive issues politically in various countries, including India, are a result of colonial impacts.

I don’t know what reparations should look like. That is a discussion for many folks to come to the table and create. But I do know that rather than continued erasure or being satisfied with mere breadcrumbs, repair for moral injury and reparations are called for in cases like this.

But, some say, “shouldn't you take what you get and be happy with it? If you are silent you get benefits, you get to be the model minority.”

To me, this approach simply isn’t an option. It continues to center whiteness and white supremacy. I’m not just about changing the face of colonization, but changing the entire game to one that honors yoga that is very much alive, it's roots and diversity.

But know that It's hard to speak up about this. Its awkward and even embarrassing. Perhaps this is still the internalized colonial shame or fear arising. I don't know.

But speak we must, for change to occur. I want to know and see myself completely, no part left out. I want that for my culture, for everyone.

This is part of why I created the Honor {Don't Appropriate} Yoga Summit in Feb 2019 so no more could there be a yoga event or festival or summit that didn't have large numbers of South Asian / Desi and BIPOC represented. We are here. We've been here.

I believe in changing systems by working on many levels - iteratively, collaboratively, emergently - organizing from without, creating our own media, negotiating and working within systems, honoring the roots and creating our own shoots and branches.

We must speak up so the history of colonial cultural appropriation can shift and change. So we can really honor the roots of yoga.

We must see people like us represented and celebrated.

Because yoga is unity.

And we don't get to unity by erasing diversity.

This is the future of yoga that I want to see. South Asian, Desi, Black, brown, queer, trans, disabled folks all ages and sizes and experiences on covers and in magazines.

Roots, reverence, representation, reparations and intersectionality.

We can honor the roots of this practice while celebrating forward to increased liberation and freedom for all.

As Rumi says, in so many words, we cannot run from yoga or from ourselves.

If we want yoga, we cannot run from what it means to truly practice yoga.

Yoga is union. If we can breathe we can do yoga.

If we can feel we represent liberation.

And when we breathe together like this, we all get a little more free.

Breathe in this future with me.

Breathe out and let's make it happen together.


This is a compilation of ideas I've been ruminating, writing and speaking about for quite a while. I write because I care. And I want us all to do better. Please share and uplift this work if you feel inspired. Your thoughts, experiences and insights help move this work forward.

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