A More Perfect Union: Practicing Meaningful and Conscious Yoga

Photo by Senior Photo Editor Aly Kula

Yoga is growing in popularity and practice throughout the US. How can we participate in it consciously to counter the historical oppression surrounding yoga?

“For whom is yoga accessible today and how might that be a legacy of past injustices that we have the opportunity to address through our teaching practice and our lives?”

What does it mean when a religious practice is trending?

My studio is always a rainbow of legs clad in coral and electric blue. I like when it’s so packed that I can see the silver Athleta logo between the shoulder blades of the person in front of me. It’s empowering and healing to share a collective journey towards peace with a room full of people, from the opening breath to the closing bow of the head.

Despite its Hindu origin, the United States is the fastest growing center for yoga in the world. It was introduced to the west when Swami Vivekananda visited the Chicago World Fair in 1893, and has been growing in popularity ever since. In 2016, surveys recorded 36.7 million yoga practitioners in the U.S., projecting an additional 80 million that were likely to try yoga in the coming year. Behind these masses of people is a 16.8 billion dollar industry that supplies mats, gear, classes, magazines, and everything in between.

Although yoga was originally created to be a religious practice, most people are drawn to yoga for non-spiritual reasons, such as flexibility (61 percent); stress relief (56 percent); general fitness (49 percent); improve overall health (49 percent) and physical fitness (44 percent) (Yoga Alliance). The appeal of yoga is a meditative state without the religious strings attached; it is a way for people to feel connected with their body a certain number of days a week, strengthen it, and relieve tension. What many practitioners don’t realize is that when they arrive at the studio, step onto their mats, and open their practice with a mantra, they are taking part in a religion, even if they do not identify with it. Hinduism, a religion that has a complicated history with colonization, is alive, and 900 million strong. It is important for yoga practitioners to ask themselves “for whom is yoga accessible today and how might that be a legacy of past injustices that we have the opportunity to address through our teaching practice and our lives?”.

A brief history

Yoga is an ancient practice that began around 5,000 years ago in Northern India. The word first appeared in the Rig Vedas, a series of sacred texts that contained songs, mantras and rituals. Yoga continued to be refined and developed through the Brahmans and Rishis, and they recorded their spiritual journeys in scriptures called the Upanishads. The most famous of the Upanishads is the Bhagavad-Gita. These documents emphasized the sacrifice of the ego through self knowledge, action and wisdom. During the Classical Yoga period, another text presented the “eight limbed path” of yoga; yama (ethical conduct), niyama (personal practice), pranayama (working with the breath), asana (postures, pratyahara or awareness of the senses), dharana(meditation, concentration and insight), dhyana(being present with whatever arises) and samadhi, (interconnection with all that is: enlightenment). Yoga continued to grow and spread in India. It was an important aspect of Hinduism when Britain came to colonize the country in order to gain control of their spice industry. During the British Raj, yoga practitioners were persecuted, and people were forced to convert to Christianity. Hinduism and yoga were seen as inferior and savage, and the British attempted to exterminate the practice in order to maintain better control of the people. It was only through the resilience and grit of dedicated yogis that the practice of yoga survived.

Why does this history matter? For those of us from the West, it’s difficult to imagine a time or place when one would have to fight, risk their life, or be killed for practicing yoga, but we should acknowledge that many people suffered to preserve yoga, and without their sacrifices it would not be accessible to us today. Yoga went from being suppressed and deemed inferior, to becoming a huge industry from which many profit. It’s important for us as participants to think critically about how this transformation occurred, who benefits, and who is harmed.

Is your yoga colonized?

How is yoga colonized? In the context of western yoga, colonization refers to the misrepresentation of yoga’s intention, its many limbs (eight limbed path), and its aims. This misrepresentation has allowed for the commodification of yoga at the cost of losing its intended spiritual purpose, and erasing the history and cultural significance of the people who have practiced it for centuries. Susanna Barkataki, a practicing yogi and descendant of a long line of Ayurvedic healers explains, “Yoga is not now, nor has it ever been, a practice aimed at physical mastery for its own sake. Nor is it a practice aimed at “stress-reduction” so we can function as better producers and consumers in a capitalist society. Yoga was originally intended to prepare the body as a foundation for unity with the spirit… It is ironic that practice meant to free us has becoming so confining”. Barkataki addresses what happens when we remove the religious aspect of yoga: presented as a stress reliever or physical exercise, it’s complexity and depth are reduced in a way that is confining to the people that know yoga as part of a greater whole. By fragmenting yoga from its spiritual significance, we are taking the pieces that can be bought and sold, in the form of gear and classes, sending the harmful message to Hindu people that their culture is only valuable as a commodity.

The commodification and colonization of yoga currently opposes the people to whom it belongs. Many people’s ancestors were persecuted for practicing yoga, and the huge industry operates on the backs of Southeast Asian people working under harsh conditions. As citizens and participating consumers of the United States, a country with massive colonial power, we continue to facilitate a long history of oppression. Roopa Singh from the South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America (SAAPYA) describes this perfectly:

“Love yoga, but hate South Asians. . .We practice asanas and launch drones into Pakistan. We fuel a high end yoga fashion industry, loving our Lululemon, and supporting the exponential continuation of Triangle Factory style disasters in Bangladesh. We love the one Indian doctor on our fav hospital show, while hate crimes and shootings continue on Hindu temples, Patel Brothers grocery stores and South Asian cab drivers.”.

Such is the basis of cultural colonization: we enthusiastically consume an aspect of a group’s culture, like yoga, while people belonging to that group are still being oppressed. We see the value and appeal of yoga for our individual benefit without wanting to take on the responsibility to ensure an equal living standard for Southeast Asians. Colonization happens in the studio as well. Misusing Hindu symbols and sanskrit chants can marginalize people who are practicing Hindus or whose families may have been affected by the caste system. Susanna Barkataki explains what it feels like to be colonized when practicing yoga:

“...when I take a $25.00 yoga class by a well-known teacher who wants to ‘expose us to the culture by chanting Om to start class’” and her studio hangs the Om symbol in the wrong direction, my culture is being stripped of its meaning and sold back to me in forms that feel humiliating at best and dehumanizing at worst”.

It is essential, out of respect for the struggles and the culture of the people we share our world with, and whose culture we are practicing, to be conscious, respectful, and to implement cultural solidarity into yoga that is practiced in the West.

Decolonizing Yoga

This article is not meant to be discouraging. Many people take up yoga and find genuine spiritual experiences, and it can be a valuable practice towards building a more peaceful and accepting world. For this reason, yoga should not just be practiced in the studio. It is more than a series of postures to tone one’s body.

You do not have to convert to Hinduism or Buddhism to practice yoga in a culturally sensitive way. You should however, be thoughtful about your intentions and your actions. Here are some way to practice culturally conscious yoga:

-Self inquiry and education are essential. Some important questions to ask ourselves are “Why am I practicing yoga?” and “What am I buying into vs. what is yoga actually intended for?”. In this day and age, when information is so accessible, lack of knowledge is not a valid excuse for cultural appropriation, especially when it comes to using religious symbols and objects.

- Acknowledge the heck out of your privilege and history. Oppression is an ongoing historical trend of people failing to take responsibility. Acknowledging and taking responsibility are ways through which we can validate Southeast Asian people, and validating those that have been historically marginalized is an important step towards changing oppressive tendencies.

-Be conscious of our own consumerism and social practices that are dissonant with what we do on the mat. How can we hope to reach spiritual wholeness if there’s child labor stitched to the labels of our yoga pants and mats?

Seeking self improvement through yoga is valid, but only if this is paired with improving the world around us. Yoga emphasizes a connection with nature and service to others, so whether it’s from the outside in, inside out, or both at once, your journey of healing and growing should be one that’s shared with the world. After all, very meaning of the word yoga is “unity” in sanskrit. When we remove the spiritual aspect from yoga, we remove the meaning and the history as well, and the two should not be separated. Yoga practitioners need to be aware that when they roll out their mats and flow, they are participating in thousands of years of history, and it is up to the individual whether they step onto the mat as an oppressor or as a participant of yoga: unity.

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