How to Decolonize Your Yoga Practice

Posted on in On Our Radar by Susanna Barkataki


As an Indian woman living in the US, I’ve often felt uncomfortable in yoga spaces. At times, such as in a $25 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 took me going to India to really connect with the roots I was seeking on the mat in yoga studios. It was here that I started to apprehend the true meaning of colonization. Did you know that yoga and Ayurveda were banned in India under British colonization?

The practices millions of Westerners now turn to for alternative health and wellness therapies were intentionally eradicated from parts of India to the point that lineages were broken and thousand-year old traditions lost.

To be colonized is to become a stranger in your own land. As a desi, this is the feeling I get in most Westernized yoga spaces today. Of course, powerful practices that reduce suffering persist, despite all attempts to end them. These facts are critical to understanding the power and privilege we continue to possess or lack, to clarifying the positionalities we embody as we practice, teach, and share yoga today.

Now, when so much of what the Western world sees as true yoga is beautifully achieved physical postures (accomplished, photographed, and displayed by popular yoga magazines, journals, and sites) executed by mostly young, white women and men clad in stylish yoga apparel, yoga is going through a second colonization. This colonization is the misrepresentation of yoga’s intention, its many limbs, and its aims.

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. The limb of asana aims at strengthening the body. Asana, along with dhyana, or meditation, aim to harmonize body with breath to attain deeper and deeper states of meditative awareness. The purpose of this kind of meditative awareness is to experience, practice, and live oneness of mind, body, and soul with the divine. This kind of freedom is called Samadhi, or liberation. It is ironic that practice meant to free us has becoming so confining.

The current state of yoga in the United States and elsewhere in the Western world highlights the power imbalance that remains between those who have access to wealth, an audience, and privilege in contrast to those who have been historically marginalized.

A billion-dollar industry is profiting off taking yoga out of context, branding and repackaging it for monetary gain.

People from the dominant culture completing a yoga teacher training that is primarily asana-based and remaining blissfully unaware of the complexity of yoga’s true aim or of the roots of the practices are culturally appropriating yoga. By remaining oblivious of the history, the roots of the heritage yoga springs from and the challenges it has faced under Western culture, they recolonize it by stripping its essence, eradicating the true practice, and straying further on the path of maya, or illusion.

Now, this is not to say that there can’t be some true, heartfelt, and deep liberation possible. Or that only Indians can practice or teach yoga and white people can’t. There can be authentic cultural exchange, harmony, and understanding. Clearly, since the true aim of the practice of yoga is liberation, uniting mind, body, and spirit, this form should not limit us. Liberation here is no joke.

These are a few ways to decolonize your yoga practice:

Inquire within.

One powerful way we can decolonize yoga and reunite it with its true aim and purpose is to practice Gandhian svadhyaya, or self-rule and inquiry, and to truly learn the full honest integrity of an authentic yoga practice.

Explore, learn, and cite correct cultural references.

I would love to see more of us yoga practitioners citing cultural references as we attempt to understand and connect with the complexity, culture, and history this tradition comes from. I’m not suggesting people put on a watered-down, context-removed faux Hinduism. To me that is not the answer.

Ask ourselves, and other yoga teachers, the hard questions.

This tension asks us to bring all of ourselves to the table. So for us to decolonize yoga, we need to inquire deeply. We each have our unique story and gifts to share, as do all the practitioners we teach or learn from. Let’s ask ourselves, “Who is yoga accessible to 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?”

Live, share, and practice all eight limbs of yoga, not just asana.

In addition to asana, we need to understand, practice, and teach all eight limbs of yoga: yama, or ethical conduct; niyama, or personal practice; pranayama, or working with the breath; pratyahara, awareness of the senses; dharana, meditation, concentration, and insight; dhyana, or being present with whatever arises; and Samadhi, or interconnection with all that is.

Be humble and honor your own and other people’s journeys.

When we humbly and respectfully consider yoga’s history, context, many branches and practices, we give ourselves a fighting chance of achieving yoga’s aim.

By really engaging the whole and multifaceted face of yoga, we not only liberate ourselves but we may just overthrow this second colonization, freeing ourselves as well as the practitioners of the future to experience the full, liberatory, and authentic practice of yoga. We allow our own practice to grow and our gifts to really shine.

With mutual understanding, respect, and a deep reverence and caring for the history, we can decolonize ourselves—the yoga industrial complex—and stage our own ahimsa, or nonviolent revolution of mind, body, and spirit.

Susanna Barkataki, MEd, E-YRT, is a writer, speaker, and teacher passionate about selfcare, yoga, Ayurveda, social entrepreneurship, and healing justice. She runs a pay-it-forward online meditation program called OM in 2 Bliss and cofounded, a next-level business training for yoga teachers.

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