Written by Healing from White Yoga Under the direction and guidance of For the People and South Asian Cultural Stewards.
As western yoga students and teachers some of the first philosophy that we learn, if we learn any at all, is usually the Yama and Niyama. Yama and Niyama are part of the philosophy of Ashtanga Yoga (also known as Raja yoga), which is taught in Patanjali’s yoga sutras and is one of the four traditional paths of yoga that come from Hinduism. Yama and Niyama are the first two limbs from Patanjali’s eightfold yoga path, and are meant to be the ethical precepts and moral compass that guide our practice. Western yoga studios and teachers who promote their teachings as ‘holistic’ or ‘spiritual’ often reference Yama and Niyama to give lessons in personal growth as they teach their students to navigate the asana (the poses).
Ironically, most western yoga teachers fail to utilize the wisdom of these lessons to reflect on their own teaching practices. The system of western yoga as a whole has erased the fact that Yama and Niyama were meant to be practiced before ever attempting to learn asana. Western yoga starts with the poses, taking them out of the context they were meant for, and neglects these important foundational spiritual and moral lessons. As western yoga teachers we need to go back to these foundations. We must take a hard look at how we and the western yoga system are defying the very principles that we claim to be teaching.
Yama: The five Yama are restraints; things that we should be working towards dismantling and eliminating. If we aren’t actively doing this within our own yoga teaching then we aren’t practicing yoga. If we aren’t practicing yoga then we shouldn’t be teaching it.
Ahimsa — Non-violence: This very first principle of Yama means that we should be working to reduce the harm caused by our thoughts, words and actions. Western yoga teachers like to talk about love and peace and self-care, but what we should be talking about is the harm caused by the cultural appropriation of yoga, and our participation in it. We should be looking at the historical context of the violent white colonization of Indigenous people of India, Hinduism, and yoga. We should examine the ways that the that western yoga continues to cause harm to Indigenous people. The western yoga system continues to perpetuate spiritual violence and real tangible harm to Indigenous people (for more information on the harm caused see our article How White Yoga Harms Hindu People). We need to ask ourselves this: Do I understand the historical context of the system that I am participating in? What are the ways that western yoga continues to cause harm to Indigenous people? How does my teaching perpetuate this harm? Knowing western yoga directly causes harm, how do we reconcile that with using it to teach non-violence? Looking at a larger global perspective (not just at our own or our students experience) does the harm caused outweigh the benefits of the practice? How do we mitigate and repair the harm caused?
Satya — Truth: The truth we don’t want to acknowledge or speak is that western yoga is cultural appropriation and by participating in it we are perpetuating systems of oppression such as racism, colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. We need to start by acknowledging this truth for ourselves and sit with the discomfort of it. To practice Satya we must be transparent and honest with our yoga students. Truthfulness is making an acknowledgement at the beginning of every class you teach that this is a stolen practice, naming the people and culture this is stolen from which is Indigenous people who spent thousands of years developing yoga. It is disclaimers on your website, advertisements and student release forms. It is educating your students and community. Truthfulness is fully taking responsibility for your participation in western yoga, and the harm that it causes. (Go here to read one former western yoga teachers confession.) Truth is asking yourself why you think it’s acceptable to profit from another culture’s wisdom. Truth is asking yourself why you haven’t stopped causing this harm and then asking yourself what you’re going to do to stop the harm.
Asteya — Non-stealing: How can we say we’re teaching non-stealing when western yoga itself is stolen sacred Indigenous culture? We must stop stealing it, profiting from it, diluting and corrupting it. We must give it back to the people it belongs to. We can’t teach Asteya using stolen yoga. Ask yourself: Why do you think you are entitled to these practices? How do you profit from them? Who do they belong to? Can you genuinely guide people in practicing Asteya when you yourself are a thief? You wouldn’t be okay with stealing material objects from white people, why are you okay with stealing intellectual and spiritual property from Indigenous people?
Brahmacharya — Non-excess/Austerity. To live without excess, we should practice taking only what we need and live simply. The western yoga industrial complex, however, is a $16 billion industry that has convinced millions of people that practicing yoga requires expensive branded yoga pants, fancy yoga mats, trendy t-shirts, special water bottles, and whatever else the latest yoga fad is selling. Most western yoga classes and workshops cost exorbitant amounts which makes them inaccessible to many people, and of course we are also told we need a special yoga space with certain aesthetics in order to practice. This is a business model that, not only has nothing to do with real yoga, but in fact goes against its foundational principles. How are you participating in this excess? How are you profiting from it? Brahmacharya is also sometimes translated as celibacy and restraint from desires, which we can also apply to our yoga teaching, in the sense of overriding our desires for personal short term satisfaction and pleasure (making more money, getting more likes on social media, having our name known, getting more students, etc.). Instead of following our desires for short term pleasure, we can conserve our energy for true spiritual growth and genuine connection. That is true yoga. Meanwhile, western yoga is rampant with blatant misinterpretation of scriptures and sub paths of Hinduism (including Tantra) by using sex and sexual innuendos to sell yoga. It doesn’t take much time or effort to find classes on naked yoga, sex yoga, classes on tantra for good sex etc. Propriety of path has always been an important facet in Hinduism and yoga. Ancient yogis followed Brahmacharya to such an intense level that they would avoid contact with others to avoid falling into lust. The irony of the situation is that now we see western yoga teachers distorting the yoga to find excuses for unmitigated sex, even sexually abusing others in some cases. Sex itself is not a problem but using a deeply revered path to justify our own desires is. Western yoga is the opposite of Brahmacharya.
Aparigraha — Non-greed/Non-possessiveness: In the global north and in the west, we have a culture of greed. We like to brand and trademark “our” yoga styles and classes, we have yoga franchises, and empires. We always want more — more students, more studios, more fame, more money, more praise. More, however, is not better. More is just a capitalistic commodification of yoga. We think of yoga as something we own and possess. But yoga doesn’t belong to us. We are not entitled to bastardize and make it “ours”. When we do that it isn’t yoga anymore. To practice Aparigraha we need to stop extracting from people and planet. We must stop thinking we are entitled to take whatever we want, stop profiting from stolen practices, stop trademarking and branding yoga as “ours”. Recently a South Asian (SA) woman brought to our attention a podcast where a white woman was being called “The First Lady of Yoga”. This kind of ownership for a tradition that white people have systematically oppressed for over a century is indicative of how colonization of India and Indian traditions is not over. When SA people call out white appropriators, they are gaslit and accused of divisiveness. The commonly used gaslighting phrase “yoga is what you want it to be” is not only factually incorrect, its use seeks to colonize the practice and rob SA people of their sacred spiritual path. To truly practice Aparigraha, we must step away from our egos and our greed and tell ourselves the truth; yoga is not ours and never has been.
Niyama: The five Niyama are virtues we aspire to and what we should be cultivating within ourselves. If we haven’t cultivated these within our personal practice, then we won’t be teaching them to our students?
Saucha — Purity: We seek to purify and cleanse ourselves in order to move towards greater health and spiritual liberation. Western yoga, however, is not pure, because it has been polluted by capitalism and white supremacy. It is not authentic. Purity in yoga comes from ancient traditional wisdom and practices handed through generations from guru to disciple. Gurus and teachers are held accountable to their own gurus and the community of their lineage keeps the original wisdom intact. When we deviate from the original lineages and teach diluted and corrupt versions of yoga we are not only teaching impurity but we are also contributing to further contamination and degradation of traditionally pure systems.
Santosha — Contentment: Santosha is not about getting everything you want, it is about finding contentment with what you have. Be content to be a yoga student. Be content with staying a beginner. Be content with the idea that you will likely never be authorized to teach yoga in this lifetime. Western yoga, however, profits by keeping us spiritually unfulfilled and never content. Like all systems rooted in capitalism, western yoga actually wants us to stay discontented so that we will always want more because then we will keep buying and consuming. At the same time, a false idea of contentment is used to lull us into passivity as well as be our excuse to spiritually bypass. Ancient Hindu scriptures talk about living in a state of bearable material discomfort when everything is not perfect, every sense is not satisfied and there is empty space to feel beyond the material to the spiritual. That state is the state of a yogi. That is why ancient yogis lived in caves, smeared ash on their bodies, only ate food they could forage from the forest. Even today’s authentic yoga masters live in states of bearable discomfort to practice Santosha. Meanwhile, the western yoga industrial complex grabs onto every possible material enjoyment without ever understanding the true meaning of spiritual fulfillment that is yoga.
Tapas — Self-discipline: Tapas teaches us discipline, hard work, determination. We must be willing to dig deep and challenge ourselves. True yogic practice is hard and it is supposed to be hard. If it feels easy then it is probably not authentic. If you can become a yoga teacher in just two hundred hours then you are very likely not an authentic teacher. Ancient yogis dedicated their lives to the practice of yoga and still did not consider themselves to be masters. Western yoga, on the other hand, offers an easy road to spiritually bypass. As inauthentic teachers with two hundred hours training, we teach ‘love and light’ while bypassing all of the difficult questions. Western yoga profits ($16 billion in the USA alone) from thousands of years of Tapas of the Indigenous people, while simultaneously erasing and gaslighting their descendants when they speak out to defend yoga. How can we teach Tapas when we are betraying every aspect of this Niyama? How can your students possibly understand the discipline that is required when you have never disciplined yourself? Search your soul and be publicly accountable for this harm. Call out injustices, dismantle corrupt systems. Look beneath the surface level of the systems that you operate in and put in the effort to find true teachers and real yoga. Do not settle for a diluted version just because it’s easier to find and easier to do.
Svadhyaya — Self-study: Study the practices you engage in. Look really hard, and see the full truth. If you don’t feel uncomfortable about teaching western yoga, then you aren’t looking deep enough. Look again. Are you uncomfortable yet? Look at your teachers. Look at your community. Look at your students. What is authentic and honest about your relationship with any of them? How much is your relationships is transactional and how much is rooted in deep spiritual connection? Study Yama and Niyama and use them to propel a deep personal inquiry into your own ethics and morals. Go beyond the surface level. Search your heart and soul. See through mainstream propaganda to the corrupt reality beneath. Question yourself. Question your teachers. Look at the historical context. See yourself within that global historical colonizing context. Be ready and willing to hold yourself accountable for the ways you’ve participated in systems of oppression. Ask yourself if you are reacting with fragility to such difficult questions. Be ready and willing to confess out loud what you are feeling and what you have perpetrated. It is good to be uncomfortable. That is when character growth happens.
Ishvara Pranidhana — Surrender: Western yoga likes to teach this as a simple and generalized idea of surrendering but Ishvara means God. It actually means surrendering TO GOD. Pranidhana means surrendering everything, including your life. You can’t just teach a vague sense of surrender, and leave out everything else. Yoga is meant to be a pathway to spiritual liberation, otherwise known as God. That means surrendering our life, creativity, hard work, devotion — everything! — to that path. We can’t do that when we’re worrying about our yoga brands and profit margins. That’s why we’re not supposed to have yoga brands and profit margins. We’re not supposed to sell yoga. We’re not supposed to hanker for material gain. We’re supposed to focus on our path to God. If you aren’t leading people to God, where are you leading them? And why are you leading? What qualifies you to lead? Why do you think you have a right to lead? When you have no surrendered relationship with God, and make no effort to develop such a relationship, how are you qualified to teach Ishvara Pranidhana? How can you teach this Niyama when you ignore the real meaning of the word?. If you can’t even surrender to the meaning of the word, how can you ever actually surrender to God?
Looking at Yama and Niyama, if we really utilize them to study the system of western yoga and our practices within it, we will see that the truth (Satya) is that western yoga is a system that perpetuates violence, dishonesty, theft, excess, greed, impurity, discontentment, and spiritual bypass, all while erasing God. Therefore, we cannot actually adhere to the ethical and moral standards of Yama and Niyama from within western yoga. It’s not true yoga. It’s the opposite of yoga. An act of true yoga would be to admit the hard truths and divest from the violence and theft that we are profiting from. (Go here to read a step-by-step guide of how to divest from western yoga.) We can stop this harm. We can stop polluting this practice, and surrender it back to its true lineage descendants and God.
*** Disclaimer — This article is intended to be information and contemplation for western yoga teachers, written under the guidance of SA dharma practitioners from authentic yoga lineages. As allies to such authentic SA dharma practitioners, we do not claim any authority to transmit traditional spiritual wisdom of true yoga but we do claim to learn from and share what our SA dharma mentors have taught us, according to their wishes.