Yoga & White Supremacy; What I learned in my YTT

Sanam graduated from our 2021-22 Yoga Teacher Training Program, and wrote this blog post as one assignment, reflecting on the aspects of our curriculum that discuss Anti-Oppression and Cultural Appropriation/Extraction. This is an aspect of our curriculum and our studio that we are always working to evolve. You can learn more about The Branches commitment to this on our Lineage Acknowledgement page.

Do you know what yoga is? where it comes from? Or are you just doing the movements and getting a workout?

“There have been some misunderstandings as to what yoga is in the West today. The problem with these misunderstandings is they dilute yogic teachings to the point where yoga is barely recognizable at all.” -From Embrace Yoga’s Roots by Susanna Barkataki, 2020, p. 30

Do you agree with the above statement?

Yoga is the the practical, structured, scientific framework and embodiment practice that helps with our social and personal life. It was practised to lessen human suffering and find liberation. It’s all about union within self – our whole body, mind, and heart in harmony with one another. However, in the West we mistake yoga for a workout routine and emphasize mostly on the asanas that we tend to miss the unity aspect of it. The most important part!! According to Shreena Gandhi and Lillie Wolff professors from Michigan State University, yoga in the West is linked to white supremacy \and I have to agree with them.

Gandhi & Wolff argue that yoga can be traced back to South Asia, where colonization happened by the British and Portuguese. Yoga was used as a tool to prove and show the British that Indians “were not backwards or primitive, but that their religion was scientific, healthy, and rational.
They were coerced into, and unfortunately reified colonial forms of knowledge ” (Gandhi & Wolff, 2017). Yoga , like other colonized systems of practice and knowledge became popular in the West due to the larger system of cultural misappropriation.

Yoga became very popular in the West due to all the yoga studios, yoga pants, and other yoga swag. Yoga contributes to the economic system and ironically advertise mostly to white petite women. When did we go from unity to selecting who should practice yoga?

“Yoga has become a practice which allows western practitioners to experience the idea of another culture while focusing on the self” (Gandi & Wolff, 2017).

Many yoga teachers tend to focus on the physical aspects of yoga , the posturers and asanas but never learn about the cultural
history. Gandhi states when “Western” yoga teachers train other practitioners to relate to yoga only on a physical level, without exploring the history, roots, complexity, and philosophy, they are perpetuating the re-colonization of it by diluting its true depth and meaning. This modern day
trend of cultural appropriation of yoga is a continuation of white supremacy and colonialism,maintaining the pattern of white people consuming the stuff of culture that is convenient and
portable, while ignoring the well-being and liberation of Indian people”.

I feel fortunate that I am able to practice and learn from a community and yoga studio that emphasizes so much on the history, roots, and philosophy of yoga. Before I was part of The Branches community, I just saw yoga as a physical asana and a workout and trying to learn “the hard poses”. However, during my YTT my eyes opened to my misconception of yoga and the lack of knowledge about it’s true meaning.

I guess I’ve never really paid attention or noticed the white supremacy associated with my practices. I have noticed that there are 1 or 2 or sometimes zero people of colour practicing in the studios I practiced in the past but never understood why. Everything makes sense to me now as I
am able to understand the history and roots of yoga.

I aspire to be the yoga teacher that breaks the cycle of white supremacy and teach from education, inclusiveness, and roots – just like The Branches.


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