Decolonising Yoga

ayebainemi ese
9 min readMar 9, 2021

--

Reflecting on colonialism’s impact on modern yoga.

Two Nath yogis

Before you begin reading this, I invite you to take some deep breaths and bring your attention to any feelings that may arise in your body when thinking of the loss of sacred indigenous knowledge enacted by the violence of settler colonialism. Breathing in we honour our ancestors; those who came before us to impart their wisdom, love and strength nurturing us in to existence. Breathing out we feel into our sacred gifts, we remember our true selves and cultivate present moment awareness of our unity with the universe. Allow your body settle in to its innate knowledge that exists beyond language and theory.

Painting of Frantz Fanon by me

It is profoundly important to notice how the ramifications of colonialism presents itself in our everyday lives. Frantz Fanon beautifully quotes that “the colonial world is a world divided in to compartments.” Whether those compartments are gender, sex, sexuality, race, ability, disability, class, nationality, institutions or the phenomenon of the nuclear family — we are all affected by the violence of our current system which is fuelled by western capitalism, extraction from the earth and the loss of our indigenous ways of knowing. One of the most harmful effects of colonialism is the removal of our native mother tongues in place of the English language that limits our cognition and how we understand our identities, soul path, spirituality, as well as how we relate to each other in the wider world. As we know, yoga is not exempt from this violence and has been the target of ruthless extraction, degradation and appropriation by white-bodied people for centuries. In this essay, I will be exploring the roots of yoga, European settler colonialism’s effect on yoga as we know it and cultural appropriation from a critical lens.

In the circles of most yoga practitioners, it is seldom known that yoga has its origins in Africa. Smai Tawi (meaning union), often referred to as Kemetic Yoga referring to the native African people of Kemet which is now known as Egypt, is the ancient African practice of uniting our personal lower and higher selves to reconnect with the divine or the universal. Sound familiar? It is the same concept that we see in the South Asian roots of yoga that we now know today as Hatha, Iyengar and many other forms of physical practices in the West. Smai Tawi has its origins in Egypt, it is more than 7000 years old and consists of its own philosophical system referring to the ’42 laws of Maat’ including various meditation practices. With the unrelenting subjugation of Africa’s indigenous practices, spiritual systems and ways of existing, it is no surprise that the practice of Smai Tawi has been lost and seemingly forgotten. However, with the proliferation of technology perpetuating globalisation, Smai Tawi is being practiced by a growing number of yoga teachers / students and also seeing its practices being taken to countries such as the UK, US, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Togo, Egypt and Tanzania with retreats and teacher trainings in Uganda to engage the youth through the Afrikan Yoga literacy project.

Left to right: Smai Tawi Egyptian Yoga symbol, Plate 3 of the Papyrus of Ani.

“…we can’t understand where we are now if we don’t look back and see where we’ve been, where we come from and how we are at this point with modern yoga and yoga in the west.” — Kallie Schut

Colonisation has a way of wiping out sacred indigenous spiritual practices such as Smai Tawi and creating a hierarchy in the spiritual practices that we come to be aware of. In an Instagram live discussion about cultural appropriation in yoga featuring the yoga teachers, Kallie Schut of Rebel Yoga Tribe and Jonelle of Jonelle Yoga, Kallie notes that “we know that yoga originates in India but we also know there were traditions in North Africa around Kemetic yoga. So, there is this very ancient roots of yoga that come together…we can’t understand where we are now if we don’t look back and see where we’ve been, where we come from and how we are at this point with modern yoga and yoga in the west.” Yoga as we now are more familiar with is derived from Africa. This does make sense considering that the first traces of humanity are rooted in Africa. It is very important to decolonise our yoga practice by acknowledging where South Asian yogic practices have evolved from and how European interference with indigenous spiritual systems have created a biased hierarchy of knowledge.

Yoga in India is said to have been set in motion by the Adiyogi (first yogi / guru) Shiva in 5000 BCE who was a person of untamed passion but was brought in to balance by his marriage with Parvati which allowed him to be both an ascetic and lover within the bounds of marriage. Wandering ascetic yogis followed the way of Shiva and withdrew completely from the physical world to reflect on their spiritual practices which could be Yoga, Buddhism, Jainism or any practice that entails the complete renunciation of physical desires to achieve spiritual awakening. When the colonists arrived in the 18th century, they “did not differentiate between yogis, Sufi fakirs, Hindu sannyasis or other ascetics. The terms ascetic, yogi and fakir began to be used interchangeably to describe a stereotypical wandering ascetic, notorious for his wild behaviour, begging and extreme practices.” This generalisation of the term ‘ascetics’ highlights the importance of recognising the bias in information we now know today that is enforced by the domination of the English language and erasure of indigenous voices.

Two Ascetic Yogis

Yoga has its roots in philosophy which is comprised of the yoga sutras (sutra meaning thread) by the sage Patanjali, as well as many other texts such as the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita. According to the sutras, it is within our yogic practice to follow the eight limbed path of yoga (also referred to as Ashtanga), with a specific interest in integrating the first two limbs; Yamas and Niyamas, which are ethical codes of conduct for navigating our asana (posture) practice as well as everyday lives and relationship to the physical world. Practice of the first two limbs also further evolve our practice of the following 6 limbs (Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi). Unlike the posture-heavy rendition of yoga that we see today in the West, the origins of yoga are rooted in meditation, non-harming, the calming of the fluctuations of the mind and so much more. The yoga sutras of Patanjali barely mention asana, and asana is referred to in its literal sense which is as a ‘seat’ of meditation. However, there is a reason for this strong focus in postures that we now see in modern yoga practices and — you guessed it — it’s got something to do with colonialism.

In Melissa Heather’s piece about ‘Yoga in the British Empire’ she states that “the modern hatha yoga that was exported from India to Turtle Island in the 20th century came into being during British colonial rule in India, and in many ways modern hatha yoga was a response to British colonization.” It is also of high importance to note the impact of European colonial language on what we now know today as ‘Hindus’. Heather cites Richard King’s book ‘Orientalism and the Modern Myth of “Hinduism”’ stating that there was no such concept of Hindus before European colonisation. Infact, “Hindu was the Persion name for the Indus Valley region (located in present day Pakistan) as well as the people living there.” It was in the 18th century that Europeans created the term of ‘Hindus’ “to refer to non-Europeans; members of non-Abrahamic religions were termed heathens. Eventually Hindu and heathen merged to refer to anyone who wasn’t Muslim, Christian or Jewish.”

So, it is with this knowledge of the violent effects of imposed European language and ideals that we can understand the subsequent uprising of Swami Vivekananda (who is credited with bringing yoga to the West), Ram Mohan Roy and Mohandas K. Gandhi who adapted a Hinduist stance against the “years of political, cultural and religious humiliation”, culminating in the rise of bodybuilding practices such as Suryanamaskar (sun salutations) “as a way for Indian individuals and society to rise up out of their cultural and political slump and vanquish their European colonizers.” This can be very much adapted in to our current political climate. With colonisation, white supremacy and capitalism still rife, it is of profound importance for oppressed individuals living in the West or the Global South to implement these physical and philosophical practices for ourselves and our communities to cultivate a clearer mind and stronger body. It can definitely be said that yoga is a practice that is changing and evolving to the needs of our time, drawing upon the political resistance of the past.

Left to right: Swami Vivekananda, Mohandas K. Ghandi, Ram Mohan Roy

“The way we practice yoga now is a legacy of colonialism” — Kallie Schut

Cultural appropriation as another form of colonialism has been around for as long as settler colonialism itself. In a discussion about decolonising yoga with Iman Bukhari of the Canadian Cultural Mosaic Foundation featuring guest lecturer Sachin Sudra they talk about how Indra Devi, the white woman who forced Sri Krishnamacharya to teach her yoga under the British Raj, brought yoga to America in 1947 “by taking out the spiritual aspect and attracting Hollywood actors”. This is while the partition of India is taking place resulting in the division of British India in to two independent dominion states, India and Pakistan, culminating in the deaths of more than 2 million people and the displacement of more than 20 million. The relentless acts of cultural appropriation or ‘steya’, meaning stealing in Sanskrit, is still in full force in those whose white bodied ancestors benefited from this theft of indigenous spiritual knowledge. It is very crucial to consider the socio-political context of the East and West in order to understand the kind of yoga we are practicing now. As Kallie Schut rightfully says, “the way we practice yoga now is a legacy of colonialism.”

In 1965 the immigration act was set up in America and yoga was beginning to take off. This is a harrowing example of the blatant extraction of indigenous spiritual systems in India that were being used in the West, yet restricting the entry of the very bearers of that knowledge in to the land of those extractors. Thus, in the 1990s yoga started gaining even more popularity and accessibility amongst the white-bodied population of America with the formulation of Western yoga magazines such as Yoga Journal that began commodifying the very essence of yoga, reducing it to a postural based practice. This is an extension of colonialism where corporations and advertising companies are mining this yogic culture for their resources and information. Sudra also mentions in this discussion about decolonising yoga that “the owner of Lululemon came up with this name because he thought it was funny how Japanese people said ‘Lulu’.” It is clear to see how most white-owned yoga companies are embedded in racism and colonialism.

Left to right: Yoga Journal issue 1979, Yoga Journal Issue 1999

Finally, it is important to realise that “yoga can do more harm where there isn’t harm reduction. The pain in the body isn’t just personal but collective.” It is clear to see that there is a lot of indigenous magic, wisdom and collective ways of knowing how to grieve. As a yogi who is descended from the forbearers of this ancient knowledge, I find it important to pay homage to them by practicing Ahimsa (non-harming) by looking deep into the wisdom that our ancestors gave us and by using my voice to speak the Satya (truth) about what has led to the current state of modern yoga and how more awareness of the socio-political context can be shared with those who enjoy practicing yoga. As Kallie Schut perfectly puts it, “yoga helps us to look at the power within and the power we have to affect change…we are caretakers of this tradition. We have been failing in the West to look after this tradition, wonderful spirituality and technology of yoga.” There is definitely more information that can be gathered regarding the deep, pre-colonial roots of yoga, but this essay serves as an ample introductory resource for exploring the rich history of yoga that predates colonial contact.

Together, let us unite with each other’s innate wisdom and build a more truthful yoga practice; rooted in philosophy, accountability and a decolonial perspective that is critical to the evolution of yoga that honours our ancestors and reduces harm.

àṣẹ

--

--