What does decolonising yoga actually mean?

7 mins
20 May 2022
What does decolonising yoga actually mean?

The modern wellness industry has ripped yoga from its cultural roots, but there's a movement to reclaim the traditional practice back

words Ruchira Sharma

Heard of hot yoga? Puppy yoga? Even beer yoga? There’s a gimmicky, stereotypical image forming around modern yoga in recent years: it centres willowy, Lululemon-wearing women in bright white LA studios clutching $10 green juices. But yoga was first developed by the Indus-Sarasvati civilization in Northern India over 5,000 years ago and focused on religion, philosophy, and exercise. Stories from Indian yoga practitioners and the experiences they've had in modern yoga studios are pretty startling – $25 yoga classes with teachers who wants to “expose us to the culture by chanting Om to start class”, but where the studio hangs the Om symbol (a sacred spiritual symbol in Indic religions) in the wrong direction. The global industry is currently worth over $88bn (£71bn) and expected to reach $215bn (174) by 2025.

How did a practice with roots in community and the collective become so individual and capitalist? When did it become stripped of its meanings and ancient culture? Today, the movement to ‘decolonise yoga’ is growing stronger and stronger.

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Yoga lessons from teacher and anti-racist activist Kallie Schut, of Rebel Yoga Tribe, are driving this conversation. A British-born yoga teacher for over 35 years who descends from the Sansi tribe in India, she offers 10-week courses on how to ‘decolonise yoga practice’. She says that modern yoga – as many of us would know it – is “dis-eased” by cultural extractor, erasure, and exploitation. Is yoga beyond saving or can it bend back into its original shape?

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In an online video, she sits with her legs perfectly crossed, on a dusky pink carpet. Her grey-white hair is loosely tied behind her. Her voice is serene and she wears a neutral, warm expression. “Our practice today is a practice of activation and a response to the call for freedom and liberation. So our practice will be a strong practice,” Schut says to a camera. “Our mantra today is ‘muksha hum’ – an affirmation of our true self. The true, liberated, free self.”

“(I want to) honour the wisdom traditions of yoga, bringing cultural awareness to the practice and developing understanding of the colonial legacy and racial inequity in it,” she tells Woo.

First – let’s rewind a little and start with the history and context:

The earliest transcriptions of yoga can be found in Vedic literature, which were religious texts written in Sanskrit, an ancient Indo-European language. ‘Veda’ translates as ‘knowledge’, while ‘yoga’ translates as ‘yoke’ or ‘union’ which highlights the fundamental core of yoga: community and thought. One of the most famous Hindu texts, a 700-verse poem Bhagavad Gita, discusses the key principles of yoga to reach spiritual enlightenment, also known as ‘rishi’. It reiterates the importance of selflessness, which is another key part of practicing yoga.

“British occultist and poet Aleister Crowley and the Theosophical Society helped translate and publicise yoga texts, and see India as a beacon of hope and light for the New Age in the early 1900s,” Dr Suzanne Newcombe explains, an academic of the modern history of yoga at the Open University. She tells Woo that Crowley mixed yoga with his own brand of Western magic. The Theosophical Society moved their base from New York to India, and collaborated extensively with Indians. They also had a role in encouraging Indian Independence from British rule. Essentially, a place of meaningful cultural exchange and help.

Hatha yoga is an umbrella term for most of the yoga being taught in the West today. While no data exists for the number of hatha studios, as of 2022, there are 4,276 pilates and yoga studios businesses in the UK - an increase of 0.8 per cent from 2021. Essentially, it’s different strains of yoga that use asanas (physical poses) paired with specific breathing techniques – the most familiar probably include ashtanga, vinyasa, and restorative yoga. It arrived in the US in the 1920s and 1930s, though the physical techniques we know today can be traced as far back as the 11th century in India and Nepal. It gained more popularity through the 60s with the hippy and new age movements, and the Beatles helped to drive a counter-culture support of yoga after visiting Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram in India. With these movements in the West it moved further away from the mental and spiritual beginnings, into more exercise and physicality.

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So yoga might have moved far from its original meaning and purpose, but what actually does ‘decolonising’ yoga even mean?

Dr Newcombe tells Woo that the movement to decolonise yoga comes from a “great frustration with how many presentations of yoga have been commercialised and subjected to commercial neoliberal forces.”

“The pervasiveness of yoga teacher training programmes over the past three decades is seen by critics as enabling people to 'buy' a yoga qualification to make money, rather than engaging more profoundly in the Indian traditions,” Newcombe says.

Decolonising yoga also means bringing it back to its original intentions to respond to modern life – for example, “trauma-informed yoga” for people who have experienced sexual abuse, and marginalised groups. “Yoga techniques were used by Black people in the United States as forms of self care, in opposition to their unique histories of oppression,” Newcombe explains. There’s also a movement for practices that are more inclusive of all bodies – think about it, the modern image of a yogi is a skinny, white woman – like Alicia Fergusion, the co-founder of Bk yoga Club, the first body-positive yoga studio in the US.

“Sometimes people come into my class, and they think I’m not going to mention politics, or the war in Ukraine, or Black Lives Matter. That is absolutely fundamentally part of my class, because we live in this world”
Kallie Schut

Schut began teaching decolonised yoga after attending yoga classes and feeling alienated from the tradition she saw before her and the one she grew up with. “I felt it wasn't reflecting the depth or the richness of yoga, or honouring the practice,” she says. “It felt like something Bohemian, ethnic and ‘cool’. Very devoid of any connection to India at all.”

In her Yoga Alliance-registered, 35-hour course titled ‘The Warrior Path to Sacred Activism’, Schut explores our understanding of the history of colonialism, and its impact on India. Only through understanding this can people tackle the “cultural disintegration” of Indian tradition through modern yoga, she says.

And while mainstream yoga has become about ‘good vibes’ and individualism, Schut’s classes instead ask her students to consider how they take the feelings of empowerment and liberation they get from yoga to help others. “Sometimes people come into my class, and they think I'm not going to mention politics, or I'm not going to mention the war in Ukraine, or I'm not going to mention Black Lives Matter,” she says, “and that is absolutely fundamentally part of my class, because we live in this world.”

“Traditional yoga isn't about individualism,” she continues. “South Asian culture is about collectivism. So, what is your shared vision for your community? There's this gap between understanding that your individual liberation is dependent on collective liberation.”

The yoga we see around us is so devoid of politics or activism that Schut’s approach feels truly radical. That the most modern approaches to yoga and spirituality centre on anyone who can afford £20 for a class is quite depressing.

For yoga lovers and the curious – where do we begin to decolonise our practice?

Take your time and study the breadth of yoga practices, beyond the physical postures. Practice and learn all eight 'limbs' of yoga, not just asana (the physical) – yama (ethical conduct), niyama (personal practice), pranayama (working with the breath), pratyahara (awareness of the senses), dharana (meditation, concentration and insight), dhyana (being present with whatever arises) and samadhi (interconnection with all that is). Schut says to try find a South Asian teacher, and ask studios if they have done anti-racist, decolonised work. “There is enough room for people to teach and practice yoga, but we have to agree what it is that we're teaching,” she says. “We have to commit to teaching decolonised practices that are anti-racist, equitable at their very nature, body positive, and don’t adopt gender binaries”.

After learning about the movement to decolonise such a ubiquitous practice, there’s more work to be done than turning up and contorting on a mat.

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