April 20, 2024
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Article Features/Columns

MINIMISING HARM

A friend of mine, who identifies as a Black Caribbean woman, texted me from Thailand. She is there on a wellness retreat and decided to take my book, Yoga as Resistance: Equity and Inclusion On and Of the Mat, as her vacation read. Sitting on a lounger, she looked up from the book to notice a white man teaching a yoga class to a group of white women. After witnessing the scene, she thought to herself “this is why she had to write the book, and this is why I must read it cover to cover”. My friend is an academic and an expert in her field of employee engagement. She understands the importance of cultivating a culture in which people of all backgrounds can thrive. I felt gratitude that she recognised the opportunity to transfer the book’s teachings into other environments beyond yoga and wellness. Especially because there are still so many yoga and wellness professionals who do not yet see this work as a priority. In the summer of 2020, many yoga studios, teacher training schools, and other yoga and wellness brands
sought to work with me, as global protests shined a spotlight on racial inequality. I often heard clients say things along the lines of not knowing that it wasn’t enough to be kind. “In yoga we’re kind; we’re nice.” Without wanting to dispute that, I urged my clients to recognise that the experience of kindness is subjective and requires one to know what a person’s needs are. Further, the experience of kindness is not even a possibility for the people who have yet to walk through the door. Another common argument, or defence tactic, is to claim that [insert any social identity] is not in the area and, thus, that is the reason for their absence from physical spaces. This argument misses the fact that all members of society benefit when we create spaces that are open and welcoming to people of all backgrounds. If it only mattered when particular groups were present, then our actions would simply be performative. They wouldn’t lead to change. Moreover, the pandemic has opened up spaces to more people through virtual and hybrid offerings.

BUT LET’S ZOOM OUT BEFORE ZOOMING BIM IN.


Yoga was among the few essential Indian philosophies and pre-dates colonial India. It was referred to as a philosophy, or system of thought, first. Later, and accelerated through British colonialism, it became known more as a spiritual, wisdom, and faith tradition. Only at the beginning of the 20th century did yoga become predominantly known for the physical practice (asana) that the West now associates with it.

What is taught across yoga studios in the West does not encompass the fullness of what yoga is. Diluted down to 60-minute workouts completely disconnected from wider teachings is appropriation. The high-profit commercialisation of a fraction of a wider wisdom tradition devoid of its South Asian roots is appropriation. Teaching a cultural practice that has a history over 5,000 years old and claiming to have discovered or created something new is appropriation. Colonialism set the stage for human capture as well as spiritual and cultural practices being first destroyed, suppressed, and forbidden. After forbidding such practices, they were then extracted, repackaged, and sold as something exotic. To commit to minimising harm, the first step is to acknowledge the oppressive and violent history of colonialism on the subcontinent of India, where yoga originated, and to become more familiar with the ramifications of colonialism on the subcontinent, as a whole, as well as how those events informed the evolution of yoga, the philosophy, to yoga (asana), the practice of movement. Ahimsa, the principle of nonviolence, is included in the first limb of Patarijali’s eight limbs of yoga. The first limb, yamas (self-restraints), together with the second limb, niyamas (positive duties / observances), make up the ethical code of yoga philosophy. The first yama is ahimsa and refers to all living beings. Practicing ahimsa as a yoga professional must include an acknowledgment and honouring of this history.

Let’s turn to a few other key ways in which we as yoga teachers and professionals can ensure we are appreciating rather than appropriating:

Be aware of the power dynamics: If you belong to the majority or dominant culture and profit from all the privileges that include, then it is imperative you acknowledge the power in that. The power, for example, to be praised when you wear yoga clothes and a bindi while a person of South Asian descent may be ridiculed and humiliated.

Honour the origins: No matter how short or long your classes are, ensure that you are teaching more than postures. It only takes one short reading of a poem or quote to root the practice back to its origins.

Recognise impact: Often, people become defensive when they are made aware of the harm that they have caused. It is important to acknowledge that intention does not absolve us from our responsibilities as teachers or other professionals in positions that hold power.

Don’t buy in to appearances: There can be a lot of pressure to present in a certain way as a yoga teacher to indicate wisdom and expertise. Be true to yourself and don’t fall into the trappings of wearing jewellery and clothing to propagate an image that has nothing to do with yoga philosophy.

Uplift South Asian voices: If you teach in studios or on teacher training programs where there are no South Asian faculty, raise the issue. If you have a social media following, be sure to centre South Asian voices when addressing cultural appropriation vs. appreciation.

Remain humble:The greatest teachers recognise the importance of humility. You are never above feedback. Receive any feedback you are offered — whether positive or negative — with humility. Another culturally relevant form of humility is to honour your teachers, their teachers, and their lineage at the beginning of every class.

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