Decolonizing Yoga: 5 Things to Remember Before Hitting the Mat
“Metal yoga?” Really? Is this what it’s come to? Indian Sramanas would be more than a little horrified by “metal yoga” and “beer yoga.”
When I was a little girl, I began copying my mother when she did her sun salutations (Surya Namaskar) every morning; I’d stand beside her mat and do what she did. Eventually she got me a small mat of my own, and I started to do more asanas with her.
But asanas are only one part of yoga. Around the same time, I began reading the Bhagavad Gita with my grandfather. If you’ve never heard of it before, it’s often referred to as the Gita. It’s a 700-verse Hindu scripture that was originally written in Sanskrit, and it makes up part of the larger Mahabharata (one of two major Hindu epics of ancient India). I found the Gita illuminating; I understood more about the religion I’d been born into (although, full disclosure; I am now an agnostic and have been since my mid-teens), and I adored the symbolism. That, in turn, helped me understand yoga.
When I recently came across a Facebook video titled “Metal Yoga,” I clicked through with trepidation. I discovered, to my immense lack of surprise, that it was a group of white people going through the motions of a few asanas while metal music blared in the background. Some of the women stuck their tongues out in an obvious imitation of their favorite music stars, and one person held up their fingers in the all-too-familiar devil’s horn sign. I couldn’t stop myself from rolling my eyes.
“Metal yoga?” Really? Is this what it’s come to? Indian Sramanas (strivers) in the fifth century BCE seeking nirvana (not the band) and moksha (liberation) created the first template for yoga through their practices. Personally, I think they’d be more than a little horrified by “metal yoga” and “beer yoga.” As I was watching those soul-destroying videos, it became increasingly clear to me that the proponents of those practices (I will not sully yoga by referring to them as “yoga” anymore) have no idea what yoga is. They haven’t got the faintest. I’m here to change that.
1. What Yoga Is.
So. Exactly what is yoga? I’m glad you asked.
Yoga is a word that means “union.” When you attach the word “yoga” to anything, that means that you are indicating that it is a complete path. Therefore, you don’t go to yoga class; you go to do your asanas. Asanas are a part of hatha yoga, which is one of the branches of yoga. It is the branch that has to do with physical exercises and postures, and is the most popular form of yoga in the world today. Hatha yoga is a complete spiritual path by itself.
Want to “do yoga?” I challenge you to tell me what the other branches of yoga are. There are other mental and spiritual disciplines in yoga, other paths that are complete spiritual paths by themselves. This, then, should be a condition; if people want to practice yoga, they must know what they’re doing.
2. It’s Indians’ Birthright.
I have an Indian-origin friend in California whom I’m rather close to, and whom I speak with often. She called me the other day, seething. Apparently the local yoga studio (where asanas are taught by a white teacher to predominantly white students) in her neighborhood was so overpriced that young Indian women who had recently immigrated to the area could not afford to sign up for classes at the studio. “It’s our birthright,” my friend fumed. I sighed.
It is imperative to keep this in mind. Don’t deny people access to their own birthright; these are traditions that belong to us. In the spirit of yoga — this is a suggestion, but it’s a good one, I think — students of Indian origin should be asked to pay what they can.
3. Respect the Mantras.
“AAAAH-UUUUUHHHHMMMMMM,” screamed the yoga instructor in the class next door. The city? London. The place? A community center. I was at a sewing class next door, but I couldn’t help overhearing the chanting emanating from the yoga class across the hall.
It’s not “aaaah-uuuuuhhhhmmmm.” It’s “om.” Om. Two letters. One glorious syllable signifying the most sacred sound in Hinduism. It isn’t just a spiritual icon; it’s a mantra.
It’s important for the right words to be used when you teach something, but the right pronunciations are equally important. When I hear Sanskrit words mispronounced by so-called instructors who are leading a hatha yoga class, I instinctively know that they didn’t put the hard yards in. They don’t know what they’re teaching, because they themselves never learned.
Use the right words. Say them the right way. Give them that respect.
4. Know the History.
Speaking of instructors, if you presume to teach a hatha yoga class, it would be appropriate to remember the people who came before. Name yogis. Speak of their service to the practice that has brought you so much. Famous yogis aren’t necessarily the ones who did the most work. Do your homework. Read. Find out their names, and then say them. Encourage your class to give thanks to them. Tell their stories.
When I was in Rishikesh (we stopped there on the way up to Mussoorie, the hill station where we were heading to for a summer holiday in my teens), I came across many caves where yogis had meditated and lived, making these caves — where they sought salvation — a part of the story of yoga. The one that I remember best was a hole in the ground, and if you looked in from a particular angle, you could make it out. It was beautifully preserved, because the sage who had lived there had been famous in the area as an incredibly pious and wise ascetic. There was a rough bed in one corner, and a space where he had sat in meditation for days at a time without moving. He was known as Masth Baba, or the mad saint.
It’s not hard to find their names. You don’t even have to come to India to do it. But it’s important that you know their names — even just a handful — because you must give thanks where thanks is due.
5. Yoga is Everything.
Look, I’m not one of those people who will tell you — a non-Indian reading this — that you don’t have the right to practice yoga. Don’t get me wrong. It is cultural appropriation, without a shadow of a doubt. But Indian yogis (particularly Swami Vivekananda) took yoga to the West. They wanted to share it with a world that needed yoga.
Yoga itself has evolved and collaborated heavily with Buddhist, Jain, and even Sufi ascetic practices; it has been remarkably open to the idea of being influenced by other cultures throughout its long history. In the spirit of what yoga is, therefore, I would never tell you that you must not do yoga. But I do ask you to embrace the practice respectfully, with your eyes open, with your heart full and with your entire being. Remember that yoga is not just about hatha yoga, or meditation, or the asanas. Yoga is the way you are with other people; yoga is service (karma yoga) to others, without an attachment to the results; yoga is an all-surrendering devotion (bhakti yoga) that strives to see the love and divinity in every creature; yoga is the wisdom (jnana yoga) that guides you to spiritual liberation.
Yoga is everything.