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One New Year’s resolution should be at the top of your list, to decolonise your yoga practice

By Monica Athnasious

Dec 30, 2021

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In just a few days, a new year will soon dawn on us—hello, hello, 2022—and often with that comes the ever-present need to revamp, reinvent and reintroduce ourselves to the world. Usually, this can incite positive growth through change and the commitment to new, more healthy habits. One hallmark of the new year that typically finds itself on the list of New Year’s resolutions is yoga—a colonised version of yoga that is.

In recent years, practising yoga became as common as any other physical exercise but that perception of the practice couldn’t be more wrong. That’s why, as we (hopefully) continue to improve and unlearn the institutional racism that holds up society, it is imperative moving forward into 2022 that we truly look at  ‘innocent’ New Year’s resolutions. If you, like me, wish to participate in this sacred practice, let’s do so in a decolonised way.

To accurately unpack the necessity of its decolonisation, Screen Shot sat down with UK-based South Asian yoga instructor, educator and studio owner of Arya Yoga Studio, Nikita Desai.

 

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Yoga is not just physical exercise

A large contributing factor to the popularity of yoga in the New Year is the west’s successful marketing that has branded the practice as just another form of easy at-home physical exercise. According to Desai, it is this limiting misconception that ignores the vital importance of the spiritually healing elements at its foundation—ripping away key components at the heart of native yoga practices. “I know the New Year is often an opportunity to reset one’s self and yoga can be quite an instrumental part of this journey of self,” she stated, “However, where it takes away from the authenticity of yoga is when it is seen as a fitness regime or just exercise of the physical body rather than a practice to heal and reach an elevated state of consciousness.”

Desai explained that as colonial rule went on, the infinite benefits of differing yoga practices were noticed, sharply leading to its theft and repackaging as colonial discovery. “The appropriation of this then commenced where the Western colonists wanted to be seen as the discoverer of something ‘new’, but didn’t want any native connotations to the practice. Therefore, [they] started to remove any sign of the original practices, such as the use of Sanskrit terminology, and on the occasion they wanted cultural association, it was done with extreme stereotyping,” she elucidated.

This Western method that overlooks crucial pillars of yoga practice without a doubt continues today. In fact, colonised Western forms of yoga heavily dominate the field and industry without mercy. It platforms white, co-opted and appropriated forms of the practice while simultaneously silencing the voices of those who are native to the many practices of yoga. When such people, like those of the South Asian community, speak up on the insulting injustices perpetrated by those in the west, they are shunned.

“Authentic teachers are now being looked at as ‘weird’ when they teach ancient yogic philosophy, as this hasn’t been incorporated in Western yoga classes, because of fear of people feeling uncomfortable or offended (don’t worry about the people whose practice this belongs to being offended!),” Desai shared. She asked people to not move blindly into appropriated forms of the practice but to dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to the necessary commitments in understanding the true systems of yoga. For those new to navigating this minefield, Desai detailed the necessary steps to find and practice decolonised, ethical yoga—sign us up.

@nikyyoga

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Colonised versus decolonised yoga

One quick internet search of the word ‘yoga’ will saturate your results page with inauthenticity. On it, you’ll find your screen littered with white able-bodied yoga instructors, commercialised and appropriated spiritual symbol t-shirts and pastel yoga mats at skyrocketing prices. It depicts the pilfered performativity of the modern-day yoga world in the west, one that pedestals those not native to the sacred practices—feeding into the ever-dominating ‘gym rat’ aesthetic. That’s all Westernised yoga is for traditional practitioners like Desai—an aesthetic.

“The glamourisation of yoga through commercialism has made people think that it is only for skinny white women wearing branded sports attire and performing gymnastics. If you are visiting spaces and attending classes where people of colour aren’t seen, or only able-bodied people are welcomed, it’s likely that the practice will not be taught in its entirety,” she revealed. Steer clear of teachers that form such privileged surface-level spaces, is the studio owner’s kernel of wisdom to pass on.

It’s a teacher’s moral obligation to create a space that is true to what yoga is really about, Desai continued. “Making yoga approachable, inclusive and non-divisive should be a foundation of every teacher and studio’s ethics. Spirituality has been erased in Western colonised versions of yoga to make people feel more ‘comfortable’ when in actual fact yoga is a spiritual practice, the two cannot be divorced,” she clarified.

For such practices, it is imperative to begin with the basics like Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga—which include the yamas and niyamas—in order to truly get to grips with its expansive spiritual reach beyond downward dog and tree pose, Desai suggested. “Appreciating the practice means really acknowledging and honouring the roots of yoga and knowing that a quick 200-hour training [course] doesn’t give you a free pass to make it all about acrobatics.”

@nikyyoga

Taking yoga back to it’s roots #decolonizeyourmind #decolonizeyoga #indianyogis #southasiantiktok #fyp #foryoupage #foryou

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“Being prepared to learn, educate and go in-depth into the ancient wisdom that has been left behind by our ancestors is key to representing yoga in its entirety. Learning Sanskrit terms also plays a large part in yogic practices. The Veda teaches us that each word is encoded with consciousness and words vibrate at different frequencies. Therefore, using the correct terminology ensures that you are getting the most out of your practice. The word ‘yoga’ is a Sanskrit word and if we are able to pronounce this correctly, taking time to refine your learning of other Sanskrit terms is possible,” Desai passionately shared.

Practitioners who dedicate their teaching methods and practice to the above is one of the ways in which it is appreciated, those that choose to bypass this ancient knowledge at the core of yoga undoubtedly add to its appropriation. That is the clear line in the sand for Desai—you can practice yoga, just do it ethically and support the voices and teachings of those at the core of the sacred discipline.

Why Asian, South Asian and Native yoga representation is important

Desai, who owns and runs her own studio along with her own decolonising workshops, believes that those who wish to participate in yoga practice henceforth should do so by supporting Asian and Native instructors. It is these voices that need to be uplifted, and it’s not because they don’t exist or there are too few, it’s because the still-present saturation of white privilege and supremacy in society centralises white voices that drown out the rest.

“We have felt isolated and alienated in our own practice for years while teachers from non-marginalised backgrounds get put at the front of every big yoga campaign, festival or studio. Many studios and teachers fail to consider the history of the ancient Indian practice and mould their classes to adapt to western palettes. As a result, yoga has hugely lost its essence and the importance of self-discovery and self-awareness has also faded into the background,” Desai told Screen Shot.

It is therefore vital for the yoga teacher that open and honest conversations pertaining to the decolonisation of yoga are had. By doing so, awareness can be raised on the appropriation that plagues the industry. “Through my workshops, I aim to provide the tools to be able to understand the practice of yoga beyond asana (physical postures) and educate on how to appreciate the practice rather than appropriating it,” she stated.

@nikyyoga

LINKS IN BIO 🙏🏼 #decolonizeyourmind #decolonizeyoga #indianyoga #JamieMovie #fyp #foryoupagee #foryouu

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It was Desai’s upbringing with Hinduism and her South Asian background that nurtured an interest in yoga despite not directly growing up with the practice. Her relationship with the spiritual discipline came to the forefront of her life around six years ago when she experienced a disastrous incident that left her terribly injured. As part of a charity skydive, Desai fractured her spine and was told the only way to improve her condition was the placement of metal screws in the area. As a result, she suffered the deepening of the depression and anxiety she had at the time.

After being recommended yoga, Desai felt her mental health issues and physical symptoms begin to subside. Filled with a new sense of strength and incredible determination, she travelled to Thailand to qualify as a yoga instructor and never looked back. From there, a wondrous drive was born to help heal others through her decolonised teachings and thus, she opened her own studio, “Decolonising the practice for me and for many South Asian/Indian teachers means making yoga inclusive and accessible again so that the practice is open and approachable for all.”

“I have experienced a lot of exclusion from brands, studios and even teachers and this is the opposite of what the practice teaches. This is also part of the reason that I decided to open up my own yoga studio; to create an authentic and inclusive space. I wanted to help people heal their minds and bodies through the practice of yoga while at the same time reminding them that our human journey doesn’t have to be based on external circumstances, purifying the body and its elements helps us to cultivate kindness and compassion towards others,” Desai continued.

 

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The benefits of decolonised yoga

For Desai, the benefits of practising authentic forms of yoga are endless—something which, if conducted ethically, is open to everyone. It is a deeply beautiful, sacred and spiritual method that helps us answer the big questions about ourselves, “Yoga off the mat includes but isn’t limited to Pranayama, Kriyas and Meditation. I feel like yoga explains all the unanswered questions that we ask ourselves throughout life on a mental and spiritual level and as we delve deeper into the practice, we find out more and more about ourselves and others. It’s a huge journey of self-discovery, self-awareness and consciousness and I love this about the practice.”

Still want to dedicate 2022 to your yoga journey? Well, dear budding yogi,  listen up because Desai has some parting words of advice for you, “For those who are beginning their journey, my best piece of advice would be to be prepared to open your mind to tonnes of ancient knowledge that will change you mentally and physically. Also, start your journey with South Asian/Indian teachers, or authentic teachers at the very least.”