Decolonizing Yoga

Normative whiteness. Dominant European Beauty Standards. It’s everywhere, especially where I live and practice yoga. Southern California is filled with hip peeps exotifying and trying to demystify the experience of colonization. Colonization seeps into the fabric of our society. Yoga is a constant reminder of that colonization and oppression. It represents classicism, ableism and exclusionary practice. It accentuates ‘otherness.’ As Martinez frames it, ‘otherness’ is the ability to objectify a part of self, another person, and/or a group of people that results in an imbalance of power. Yoga often erases the South Asian roots or even appropriates South Asian, Indigenous and African culture [1]. A study done in 2016 showed that Indigenous scholars have asserted that the authority to speak for or teach the knowledge belongs to its own knowledge keepers and scholars, and not to outsiders [2]. Oppressed groups are usually placed on the level of being listened to only if we frame our ideas in the language that is familiar to and comfortable for a dominant group [4]. This is how yoga has been translated into a form of a whiteness. The narrative of yoga has been co-opted by an erotic desire to control the oppressed. Yoga has turned into a site of systemic oppression. This post will go into the YOGA INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX. Sound similar to something? Prison Industrial Complex.

So, how do we practice yoga without it being marred from it’s actuality? This is through intentional and deep understanding of the practice. We have to challenge the power dynamics involved in this practice by uprooting the violence involved in doing yoga in such a superficial manner. Westernized yoga is a tool for oppression if not challenged. I asked someone who was working with me at a yoga studio what *this: Lord Ganesha* statue means and their response was, “Peace.” Nope. You’re all wrong. This is where the lines blur of respecting the authenticity behind yoga and the classicist undertones involved in appropriating it. Usually, it’s just a ton of white people leading the classes and owning the studio. Now lets mirror this onto the prison industrial complex.

The prison industrial complex accentuates the presence of racism, colonialism and slavery. Anyone deviant from the norm -white cis male, able-bodied – is a risk to normalcy. Anyone presenting deviancy from the norm is thrown into prison. Thus, instead of understanding the issues at the roots, the system further perpetuates the racism and locks them behind bars. I mean, nothing really can speak against these facts from 2016, “…people of color make up 37% of the U.S. population but 67% of the prison population. Overall, African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences.” Furthermore, Angela Davis states, “imprisonment has become the response of first resort to far too many of the social problems that burden people who are ensconced in poverty. These problems often are veiled by being conveniently grouped together under the category “crime” and by the automatic attribution of criminal behavior to people of color” [5].

Westernized yoga is forming the yoga industrial complex. Have any of you heard of the Caron case that happened? To give you some background, here is a summary: Caron wrote a post on her experience as a white woman teaching a class with one black woman. “She imagines her yoga classroom not to be a space for that body or Black bodies, as she specifically states that Black students were few and far between, as were African American instructors, though she notes the “sizeable number of Asian students.”
Her description of the Black female student shifts in the post from ‘fairly heavy’ to
‘heavyset’. She felt that the African American woman’s (unspoken) “despair and resentment and then contempt” must have been directed at her presumably for being thin, white, and a regular yoga practitioner. Moreover, she describes this Black woman as hostile and understands that she, the author, would be the recipient of “racially charged anger.”’ This is abhorrent. It’s so painful to read and even more painful to visualize. This is only one instance of yoga industrial complex. It’s a form of imprisonment, not the freedom we expect to see in the landscape of yoga. Yoga industrial complex isolates anyone who does not ‘fit’ into the category of the norm. The prisoner is the one who no longer adheres to the common ground.

If challenged, yoga can turn into a landscape for revolutionary change. It can be a site to find true authenticity ONLY if it is practiced with meaning, intention, and understanding. It can be the start to seeing embodied change within folks of color, which can lead to social change. When we see folks of color transforming their healing into forms of resistance – we will see social change. For this reason, we should start pushing to understanding the way we practice yoga. Yoga is revolutionary. It begins in our body and guides us towards social change, a new kind of yoga: Feminist Yoga.

Before ending this article, I will leave you all with a quote from Pedagogy of the Oppressed: “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world” [3].

[1] Bowers, H., & Cheer, J. M. (2017). Yoga tourism: Commodification and western embracement of eastern spiritual practice. Tourism Management Perspectives, 24, 208–216. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tmp.2017.07.013

[2] Vats, A. (2016). (Dis)owning Bikram: Decolonizing vernacular and dewesternizing restructuring in the yoga wars. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 13(4), 325–345. https://doi.org/10.1080/14791420.2016.1151536

[3] Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972. Print.

[4] Collins, P. H. (2015). Black feminist thought. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-203-90005-7

[5]https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/e7da/e879f3b3eddbe6232ae596cf2df4489ea3d9.pdf

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