Written by Healing from White Yoga Under the direction and guidance of ForThePeople.earth and South Asian cultural stewards
Did you know that the genocide of Hindu people has been going on for a thousand years? No? Me either. Did you know that under British colonial rule, the practice of yoga that millions of western people now turn to was forbidden and meant to be eradicated in India? Temples were burned, sacred spiritual artifacts decimated, practicing Hindus slain. Did you know western yoga is cultural appropriation and Hinduphobic? Do you know what Hinduphobia is?
I practiced western yoga for seven years and taught for almost five. I stopped teaching and practicing years ago, but I will be paying restitution for the rest of my life. Why? Because that is how much harm my participation in the western yoga industrial complex; a system of oppression, colonization and cultural appropriation, has caused. It will take a life time to repair it.
We live in a time of constant interconnected crisis, with so much suffering everywhere we look, all over the world. It’s overwhelming, and impossible to keep track of all of it, and easy to feel at a loss of what to do about any of it. In almost every case the root causes are the same. The oppressive systems of colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism are depleting the earth & its life sustaining resources, and destroying our humanity as we inflict violence of every type against ourselves and others. These toxic systems are responsible for every war, every humanitarian crisis, and the earth itself struggling for breath. We must stand up to and dismantle these toxic systems, and free those who are oppressed and suffering under them. It is all interconnected; as long as the systems are in place, we all suffer. We can’t solve any one crisis without addressing the underlying causes of all of them.
All of us are so enmeshed in these systems, and made so oblivious by the privilege they give us and \ or so buried by the mass trauma they create, that we often can’t even see the ways that they operate all around us, or our participation in them. It’s not our fault, but it IS our responsibility to do the hard work, and get ourselves out of it. We have no other choice. We must de-colonize ourselves, and work for combined climate and social justice for everyone. We must dismantle white supremacy, tear down the patriarchy, and divest from capitalism. We must center those most impacted and let them lead us. We must recognize indigenous people, honor their cultures and traditions, and give back the stolen land we live on.
The social and climate justice movements generally understand that helping indigenous people, culture & wisdom to thrive is quintessential to moving forward with our goals. And, that appropriating, taking or profiting from sacred traditions that don’t belong to us is not only wrong, but it also upholds the systems that we are trying to dismantle and moves us further from collective liberation. And yet, most social & climate justice activists also participate in white \ western yoga. Yoga itself is an ancient indigenous path to liberation, but what most of us practice in the western world isn’t yoga, it just calls itself that in an ironic ode to the sacred traditions that it violates. Why do we think this is okay? Why do we not see that our participation in it undermines our own activism? Why do we not understand the harm we are causing?
We perpetuate it without even realizing it. We go to yoga class to feel better, while other people suffer. We don’t understand the spiritual practices we are taking from, or the historical context in which they were originally violated. Did you know that real authentic Yoga belongs to Hindu people and those who follow other Dharma practices, and is a rich and complex Indigenous spiritual system, full of nuanced practices and traditions, including the four traditional paths of yoga? Did you know that those four traditional paths of yoga — that we’ve been looting — have only survived colonization because of the physical sacrifice of Hindu people and other South Asian Dharma practitioners through the last one thousand years? Did you know that they were tortured, raped, beaten, starved, killed, but they still protected yoga so that their Indigenous spiritual wisdom would survive in their land? No? Me either. I was a white western yoga teacher, and I didn’t know any of those things. I didn’t know that the only reason I was able to exploit yoga in this modern age was because dedicated Indigenous ancestors have sacrificed their lives to ensure that yoga survived. We need to educate ourselves and decolonize our practices. We need to understand the roots of what we participate in.
Indigenous people everywhere have faced colonial violence and erasure for centuries, but all around the world there are pockets of indigenous resistance, where culture and tradition defies the odds and is kept alive. Every day Indigenous people are forced to put their lives on the line to protect what is sacred, what is right, what is in harmony with the earth and a sustainable way of living. The systems of oppression continuously steal from Indigenous people for a profit. They take their spring water and sell it back to us in plastic bottles. They take their traditional foods and reserve them for those that can pay the highest price. They auction off their land to oil companies. And, they strip their culture of meaning and package it according to fads and trends for us to consume. Things that were once free and pure, are now contaminated and only for those with the privilege to afford them. In this way we systematically tokenize, misinterpret and continue to erase indigenous cultures, while disrespecting and de-humanizing the people to whom the cultures belong. This includes taking Yoga out of context, and repackaging it for monetary gain.
Western Yoga is a sixteen billion dollar industry that brilliantly sells itself to us, as whatever we want it to be. If we want it to be physical exercise, it poses as that. If we want it to be a spiritual practice, it can dress up as one. We can have it on demand; as yoga therapy or as a social justice platform, at a park or in a bar, while hanging out with goats or petting dogs. It is served to us buffet style, all you can eat — all you can take — we can take as much as we want, and leave the rest. We can take this pose or that pose, this chant or that chant, and mix it all up however we want to. We, however, have never had to feel the persecution that Hindus feel every day. We can always go back for more capitalist “yoga”. As people of the global north, as a capitalistic society, as white people (or even as people of color immersed in white culture) we are taught that it is our right to take whatever we want from whoever we want, and that we should get as much as we can for ourselves without regard for the people or places that we are taking from. In this way we act as stewards of colonialism and capitalism and perpetuate the systems of violence that uphold them. Anything taken and processed in this way, is going to end up toxic, and do more harm than good, regardless of intent. Yoga is no exception.
Like many people, I was initially drawn to yoga because I wanted a holistic practice that would heal and fill a spiritual void. As a result of colonization, so many of us are disconnected from our ancestral roots and wisdom, and bereft of spiritual meaning and traditions. We are left feeling empty and urgently seek to remedy the deficit, grasping on to whatever is available to us. For a lot of us, when we reach out for something, western yoga is what we find. Those that profit from it, have made sure that it is available for us. And then they sell us all the accessories we “need” — the branded yoga pants, the yoga mat… We are not practitioners, we are consumers. And, what they sell us isn’t really to heal us, it’s just to give us a little bit more energy so that we can continue producing and consuming for our capitalistic society.
There are all different kinds of western studios selling a variety of practices and beliefs under the name of yoga. Some are just fancy exercise classes, others are branded “holistic” or “spiritual” and might include meditation, breath work, or chanting. When I first started practicing yoga, I was taught by my teacher that most studios offered a watered down version of yoga, but that my studio was one of the few places teaching the real thing — the whole practice. I believed that, without questioning it, because unlike most other studios, we read the Bhagavad Gita, used sanskrit, studied the sutras, had kirtan, and discussed yoga philosophy. We knew the four paths of yoga, and that we (we were told) studied Raja Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, and included all of the eight limbs in our practice. Our classes were “inclusive” — no lululemon branded pants required, all body sizes and physical abilities welcome, our practice was about more than the poses. Compared to other yoga studios “our yoga” seemed so much fuller. For a while it felt great, and I thought it would heal me and the world. But that was a mistake.
What I practiced, and eventually taught wasn’t real yoga of course. It was not the whole practice. The complexity and depth of yoga cannot be taught in a 200 hour teacher training, or any set amount of training hours for that matter. It can only be learned over a lifetime of dedication, under the guidance of qualified Gurus, and the people they authorize to teach. In western yoga we have shamefully replaced spiritual Gurus with Yoga Alliance (YA), and The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT), regulatory organizations that set the standards and say who can and who can’t be yoga teachers and yoga therapists. The standards set by these organizations are arbitrary, and have little to do with the spiritual system that is yoga. And yet to be considered a qualified yoga teacher or therapist, at least in the United States, you must be certified by these organizations. This means not only do you have to abide by their rules, but you must also pay them, over & over to maintain your certification.
As we start to understand the cultural appropriation of yoga, we might automatically assume that all people of Indian descent must be true yoga students and teachers and that all white people are not. But, it is not that simple. Indian people can also be western yoga teachers, if that is the system and culture that they adhere to. The systematic erasure of traditional yoga, and the ongoing colonization and western dominance of it creates many barriers to accessing authentic practices in both India and the western world. With all of us having such complex layers of internalized oppression, colonization and white supremacy, we often participate in our own people’s oppression without even knowing it. Even some Indians in India practice and teach western yoga. And yes, white people can have an authentic yoga practice, and even be non- cultural appropriation yoga teachers, if they are authorized by and accountable to spiritual elders that guide them in traditional practices. And, if they abstain from the corruption and capitalism of the colonized yoga systems. (The information in this paragraph is based on knowledge presented by authentic Hindu Yoga teachers, as guided by their spiritual elders. I myself have no authority to dictate who is and who isn’t a true yoga teacher).
I was NOT one of the authentic white teachers. I was held accountable to my teacher, but my teacher was accountable to no one. She had no teacher. We had no spiritual elders or lineage. The studio lacked even basic respect to Hindu culture with Deities in the bathrooms, and all of our feet pointing at the altar when we laid down to rest at the end of class. In true capitalistic style, my teacher made up and trade-marked her own brand of yoga and yoga therapy. And we as her teachers, were encouraged to bring our creative ideas to class. I am personally responsible for leading hundreds, if not thousands of people in corrupt and diluted practices, under the pretense of spiritual healing and growth. In western yoga practices that do include yoga philosophy, some of the first concepts that we learn are usually the Yamas (ethical guidelines), the first three of which are (in simple white yoga terms): Ahimsa — Non- harming, Satya — Truthfulness, and Asteya — non -stealing. And yet, every class I taught was inflicting spiritual violence and trauma on the world, every practice I denied this truth, and every practice was stolen.
I wish I could say that the reason I stopped teaching and practicing yoga was that I became aware enough to recognize the cultural appropriation and see the harm I was causing. But that isn’t true. I wish I could say that the reason I stopped was because someone called me out and I listened. But that isn’t true either. I wasn’t aware, and nobody called me out. The truth is I stopped practicing yoga because I too got hurt by it. Like I said, anything with a foundation in colonialism and capitalism is going to turn toxic. Anything that has been stripped of its essence is going to fall over eventually, false spirituality will collapse. And it did. With no true spiritual roots, my studio imploded, and a lot of us got hurt. When you hold something as your guiding spiritual practice and you believe it is your path to healing and liberation, it can be soul crushingly devastating when it collapses. But, I’m glad it collapsed, because only then, with the illusion wiped away, was I able to start to see the dark truths of the yoga I had been participating in.
I know what you are going to say. “But, yoga makes me feel so good.” “But, yoga saved my life.” “But, yoga is my family.” “But, yoga is how I relax.” “But yoga did _______ for me.” Me too. I felt all of those things too. Because of course it does feel good, at least at first. In a society where we are physically inactive, disconnected from each other, and spiritually lacking, even the most diluted western yoga practice can feel like something amazing. We can move our bodies, de-stress, breathe, be in community… It’s hard to let go of things that feel good, but if this superficial system of yoga feels beneficial, just imagine how incredible authentic yoga would feel, if we dismantled the western yoga industrial complex and made the space for the real thing. Imagine how profoundly we would collectively benefit if we engaged in true yogic acts of caring for the planet and all life living on it. That is the kind of yoga that can bring us lasting freedom from suffering, not sitting on a mat doing imitations of poses.
We must give yoga back to the indigenous people that we stole it from, the same way that we must give back colonized land. That doesn’t mean that all non -indigenous people must vacate the land, or vacate the practice of yoga. Of course not. It means giving back indigenous authority and regulation, power, sovereignty, and liberation. It means no white profit, no extraction, no commodification, no colonial rule. Let the people to whom it belongs and who have access to the ancient spiritual wisdom of it, direct and guide us in its use.
We must look beyond our own short term interests, and see the long term and global impact of the choices we make. We need to divest from all systems and practices that oppress, even if they superficially benefit us. We need to realize that It is in our own best interest to work for the healing and freedom of the earth and all people and living things. Because, the hard truth is that if we don’t work for collective liberation, if we don’t dismantle all of the systems of colonialism, white supremacy & patriarchy, if we don’t divest from capitalism… then our collective suffering will only grow greater and greater, and as the earth dies it will no longer sustain us.