As a yogi based in India, it is easy to assume that white supremacy in yoga does not affect us, right?
A few months ago I was teaching a private student. During our zero session, she was demonstrating the asanas that she knew and confessed that she was a self-taught yogi – self-taught from YouTube and other online free videos. Needless to say, she was a huge fan of some of the Internet’s Superstar yoga teachers and was pleased with a lot of the things she had learnt, but was missing out the human touch.
All that aside, I was busy self-managing my internal conflict. Here was an Indian student, who had never stepped out of India, looking to fine-tune & improve her practice – asanas that she had learnt from a teacher on the internet, asanas that she only knew the English names of. I’m not one to shame a student for not knowing the Sanskrit names – but I was offended… deeply offended.
Awhile later, when I was discussing teaching curriculum with another senior teacher in the yoga community, she happened to mention another popular online teacher who was ‘brilliant’! I’ll be very honest, I didn’t know who she was at the time. I had to come home and do a Google search to find a hot-pants or bikini clad, able-bodied, toned abs, blonde yogi teaching asanas all in good form…
And I thought to myself, ‘Hmmmm… These are the teachers we are studying from. What does this mean for us?’
I couldn’t quite tell what exactly I was feeling… I know brilliant teachers right here in India in various cities in India, who teach awesome classes, and I know they teach is regular tracks or yoga tights. Some keep their classes highly engaging and help their students pick up on the philosophy of yoga while others, strictly focus on asana – regardless, these were ‘homegrown’ yogis.
Now, I’m not actually being offended at the choice of yoga wear. What I am concerned about it the repackaged version of yoga that India is importing…. and in the process losing out our own heritage of traditional wisdom.
Many years ago, when I was learning a mantra for a part of my studies in the US, I had offered them feedback that one of the words on their recording was incorrectly pronounced and should be corrected. I had read the mantra is Sanskrit and knew that the recording was obviously incorrect. The response didn’t acknowledge my concern, instead, I was given an explanation that pronunciations in various parts of India differed! Which, by the way, is true for local dialects, but not true for Sanskrit and the sounding of an ending consonant. Anyway, it that wasn’t bad enough, I was told to learn it for the exam the way it was recorded and later on I could chant it however I wanted!
Back then, I knew I felt offended and dismissed when it was a part of my culture that was being dismissed. At another event, there was this couple selling mandala art that was being sold for hundreds of dollars – and I noticed that the art just had a bunch of Hindi / Sanskrit / Devnagari script letters and vowel matras just randomly thrown together. When I pointed it out to the vendor quietly, needless to say, I was rewarded with a hostile look and a clear indication to keep away from his potential customers.
Back then, I hadn’t even heard of cultural appropriation, but as I recall these incidents today, I realize that yoga has been traded off in some places where the colonization still is rampant…. and us desi teachers are either tokenized or marginalised – both in and out of our own country.
I see that I am bringing a very different conversation to India, but I am probably also at a very good position to engage in a very unique conversation outside of India too. Here are some of the ways that I can be a part of changing the narrative and this culture:
- Active engage with the larger yoga community, globally, in bringing a homegrown desi flavour and Indian yoga heritage to the conversation.
- Include Cultural Appropriation as part of the YTT curriculum discussions in India.
- Consider cultural exchange – online as well as in person – for yoga.
- Really study the roots of yoga & culture deeper.
- Encourage other yoga teachers in India to tap into their potential to be a stronger voice and face of yoga.
- Make myself available for more international engagements – offer to teach, speak, share.
This blog is a part of a very unique yoga challenge led by my dear friend and fellow yogi, Susanna Barkataki – the Dare to Discuss Yoga Challenge. Both of us feel quite deeply about cultural appropriation and bring an authentic purpose to shine through constructive discussion, dialogue and education to make people (yogis & non-yogis) aware – to ‘lessen the appropriation and up the honor’, in Susanna’s words. In support of the challenge and the work, I shall be blogging my introspection and reflection here to share the conversation and build the cumulative effect.