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Lessons Learned from Honor Don’t Appropriate Yoga: Part II

This article reviews my biggest takeaways from Season 2 of “Honor Don’t Appropriate Yoga.”

Honoring Yoga sounds like a seemingly simple task. However, it's not so straightforward when we live in a capitalist society that has normalized oppression, racism, and legacies of colonization. Most yoga practitioners don’t dwell on this dark subject. After all, yoga is supposed to be a practice to “relax” in the West, not one to get fired up about the nuances of historical trauma. Yet, in reality, Yoga is meant to be a practice of learning to sit with discomfort and of awakening to the world that exists within us and around us.

In the wake of our collective awareness of yoga’s colonial roots, Susanna Barkataki created “Honor Don’t Appropriate Yoga”, a free online series created to “ignite your integrity, challenge norms, celebrate diversity, and embody yogic leadership.” This virtual summit highlighted the importance of diversity within the Western yoga world and encouraged critical reflection to challenge us to learn, grow, and take action toward social justice in tangible ways.

In the first season of “Honor Don’t Appropriate”, Susanna featured 21 influential voices on diversity and inclusion in yoga spaces, including Kino MacGregor, Rachel Brathen (aka “Yoga Girl”), and Jessamyn Stanley. Please read my review of Season 1 HERE if you missed it.

This second season, Susanna focused on uplifting South Asian voices by interviewing 12 individuals who have worked in the arena of yoga, health, wellness, and activism. Read on for my greatest takeaways from the summit.

Learn from the source

The take-home message from this summit was undoubtedly to learn from the source of Yogic knowledge. So often in the Western world, white women dominate the conversation on yoga and wellness. This is not to say that we white women are all unknowledgeable, ill-intentioned, or sellers of snake oil, but it is essential to acknowledge that Yoga is not ours to sell. Susanna intentionally chose South Asian voices in this summit to bring their ancestral wisdom to the table.

In learning from the source, it is necessary to engage with a range of South Asian teachers. RANGE is the keyword here, not just one token teacher. As Tejal Patel and Jesal Parikh adamantly agreed in this summit, “you have no excuse” when it comes to interacting with people of color (POC). In the 21st century globalized world, POC experts are out there and they have a variety of perspectives and sources of knowledge.

Tejal and Jesal's creation, the Yoga Is Dead podcast, was born out of the understanding that South Asian women have differing opinions on controversial topics in yoga. The podcast takes a debate-style approach to tackle complex issues, like how white women, gurus, and Vinyasa branding may have contributed to the demise of Yoga.

Learning from white Western yoga teachers is never enough. Neither is learning from white-made Western sources. The summit also stressed the importance of devoting ourselves to the yogic texts, digesting their messages, and sitting with the knowledge before teaching it.

Key to authentic Yogic knowledge is the language. Lakshmi Nair, founder of the Satya Yoga Cooperative, stressed that Sanskrit is a sacred, vibrational language that is often mispronounced by yoga teachers in the West. What’s worse, some studios don’t even allow yoga teachers to say shapes in Sanskrit for fear that it will be inaccessible. Yet, as discussed in the summit, stripping away Sanskrit removes a potent reminder of yoga’s Indian roots.

Yoga is not a workout

Several of the summit's interviewees admitted that they felt inadequate when they began teaching in the West because the Yoga that they grew up with was very different from the athletic practice that is marketed here. Yoga, for many of the interviewees, was a lifestyle during their upbringing – a philosophy, a culture, a moral code, a way of treating guests, a way of using Ayurvedic foods as medicine, a collection of myths that were told as bedtime stories. Reducing yoga to a workout in the West may get more people in the door, but it is generally not genuine to the true nature of the practice.

Understand the importance of decolonization

Decolonization is a buzzword that has perhaps been overused, but it remains nonetheless essential in understanding yoga. Originally, decolonization denoted the formal process of a state withdrawing from a former colony. Now, we have come to recognize that decolonization is never as simple as a formal agreement when potentially centuries of collective colonial trauma have been endured by indigenous individuals. Thus, decolonization has shifted to signify the long-term divestment of colonial power while reclaiming indigenous culture, language, community structures, and perspectives of history.

So why is decolonization important to yoga? Simran Uppal, a Yoga teacher, teacher trainer, activist, kirtan leader, Barbican Young Poet spoke up about this topic on the summit, citing their efforts in decolonization community education. In an announcement for a decolonization workshop, Simran states, “Modern postural yoga was created to provide physical and spiritual strength for the anti-colonial freedom movement, but now is used to prop up Hindu fascism in India and has become a huge, very white, and often exploitative industry in the West.”

Simran argues that through collective decolonization of yoga, we can: 1) stop unintentionally reproducing violence in yoga; 2) transform yoga into a practice that actively resists race, class, and other systems of oppression; and 3) use activism to make anger a source of energy and joy to reinforce community-building and collective energy.

Become an accomplice, not just an ally

The summit discussed the inadequacies of allyship in decolonizing yoga, arguing that being an ally is not enough. White women who are allies may engage in activism by standing with a marginalized community, whereas accomplices focus on working with marginalized groups to dismantle the power structures that oppress them. While allies may support marginalized groups from their positions of privilege, accomplices may risk losing elements of their privilege by fighting in solidarity with marginalized groups to undo the upstream factors that prevent them from having agency.

In yoga, allyship can be an important start. For example, in their resources, Jesal and Tejal list seven action items for white teachers to become allies to people of color (POC), including learning names of POC students, requesting feedback from POC students, and co-teaching with POC teachers. Yet to be accomplices, teachers can go farther by using their platforms to support decolonization efforts of South Asian teachers. Being an accomplice also requires us to overcome the fear of speaking out and standing up for what we believe in (and refraining from being defensive if we realize our actions were out of line or our beliefs no longer hold).

Ignorance is NOT honoring culture

It’s apparent that there are a million ways we can say the wrong thing, mispronounce a Sanskrit word, or teach in a way that unintentionally offends others. Does that mean we should simply ignore Indian elements of culture for fear of getting it wrong? Simply put, ignorance is NOT honoring culture.

Often, I hear that yoga can be made more accessible by leaving its cultural roots out of the equation. For example, Susanna cited an article in Scientific American that announced cardiac coherence breathing as a scientifically validated way to soothe the nervous system. Yet there was no mention in the article that this practice is identical to Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing). Does calling the practice a Western medicalized name make it more approachable and seemingly legitimate to a general health-interested audience in the U.S.? But does it dilute the meaning of the original practice and discredit thousands of years of anecdotal experience with the ancient technique?

As another example, in school settings, kid’s yoga has become a popular stress management tool in recent years. Yet school teachers can get into trouble with administration for teaching students anything that resembles religious or spiritual elements of yoga. That means Sanskrit language, mythical references, OM’s, mantras, and even the word “meditation” are often out. Can teachers still honor yoga when they are required to make it secular? I think this is where creativity can come into play.

One of my favorite teachers a Laughing Lotus once told my group during a training that she used to teach yoga for school children in New York. She said with an infectious laugh, “I wasn’t allowed to teach them to ‘meditate’, but we could sit still and breathe!”

Ask ourselves THESE key questions when we teach

More from the Yoga is Dead girls (can you tell I’m excited to listen to their podcast?). In the summit, Jesal and Tejal recommended asking ourselves these four questions when we are teaching yoga:

· Is it safe?

· Is it mindful?

· Is it authentic to yoga’s roots?

· Is it authentic to me?

If the answer to each of these is YES, then we’re on the right path. If we answer NO to any of these, then it’s time to reflect, relearn, go deeper, iterate, and/or leave teaching yoga to someone else if we realize it’s not true to our heart.

Honor Don’t Appropriate Yoga makes it crystal clear that understanding the true meaning of Yoga is a lifelong journey. Learning to teach, speak, live, and lead from a place of truth and authenticity doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it occur as a result of simply participating in the summit. Yet rather than shying away from the challenge, the summit encourages us to start here and now from where we are.



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