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.
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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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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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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.”
It was early this week that I came across a heart wrenching video on TikTok. The video in question was a repost of an original one filmed by a member of the Fisherman and Friends of the Sea (FFOS), an environmental conservation organisation based in Trinidad and Tobago. The repost on TikTok, from an anonymous account, has now gained over 1 million views. The footage, filmed on 8 August 2021 on a small boat by Gary Aboud—the Corporate Secretary of FFOS and first uploaded to his Facebook—showcased a terrible oil spill that occurred on that date in the Gulf of Paria, Trinidad. The spill is the latest in a long list of similar cases that have devastated the country’s waters.
While Aboud was describing the scene it appeared as if he was wearing gloves, on closer inspection those were not gloves but thick black oil. Crude oil. It was horrifying. What was even more horrifying was how the oil company responsible appeared to be getting rid of the issue. Aboud stated in the footage, “Please share this video. We have a massive oil spill in the gulf of Paria right now.” Pointing to a boat nearby, Aboud continued, “They are not collecting it all.”
Aboud stated that the FFOS had notified the needed authorities about the spill—specifically the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) and the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA), “They’re driving around and chopping it up rather than putting booms around it to collect it.” The boat is seen rotating and driving around in circles, “All day long we have been calling IMA, EMA, the administration of energy—no response. The oil continues to flow.” Rather than collecting the oil, it appeared that the company was breaking it up with the boat—by doing so the oil would sink to the ocean bed, thus further contaminating the food chain.
The Trinidad and Tobago Guardian reported that the FFOS were demanding full transparency from the relevant agencies on the oil—stating that the country’s authorities must urgently enforce the National Oil Spill Contingency Plan (NOSCP) as “every drop of hydrogen” from the crude oil will have “an ever-lasting impact on our marine system.” Aboud continued in the footage by saying, “It’s so irresponsible. The oil causes cancer. It contaminates the fishery. It kills all people. Why aren’t they putting out booms?…I’m damn angry. Look at this shit. I could cry, I’m real angry.” So, how did this terrible oil spill happen?
Lisa Premchand—Programme Director of FFOS—told Screen Shot that Trinidad’s century-long history in the oil extractive sector has resulted in a poorly-maintained infrastructure. Premchand stated that “In November of 2018, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago (GORTT) took a decision to close down our national oil company Petrotrin. With its closure, the GORTT created two State-owned companies: Heritage Petroleum Ltd and Paria Fuel Trading Co. Ltd and vested them with control of Petrotrin’s assets.” Petrotrin’s closure has left many of the company’s remaining old pipelines in terrible conditions.
Premchand believes that this poor maintenance of the pipes is what caused the spill, “This led to persistent ruptures which cause oil spills within our waters—as the corrosive environment in which these pipelines are situated necessitates their constant maintenance. We believe that this present oil spill was a consequence of a poorly maintained pipeline.” So, who is directly responsible for the spill?
According to Premchand, FFOS believes, “The state-owned Paria Fuel Trading Company appears to be the company responsible for the spill.” She continued, “As is customary with oil companies operating in the developing world, the company’s bottom line is always going to be of more significance than the protection of the environment. It is more economically feasible to “cover up” an oil spill as opposed to cleaning it up.”
On 9 August 2021, the day after FFOS released their footage, the leak along the 12-inch crude pipeline that caused the spill was repaired, as reported by the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian. Paria Fuel Trading released a statement that “requisite repair works were undertaken, and the line was isolated at approximately 11:35 a.m. yesterday.” The press release by the company stated as follows:
“A leak along a 12-inch crude pipeline on land was identified as the source for the spill. The requisite repair works were undertaken, and the line was isolated at approximately 11.35 a.m. yesterday (Sunday August 08, 2021). Assurance checks conducted today (Monday August 09, 2021) by Paria Fuel Trading Company Limited (Paria) revealed that there are no additional leaks along the pipeline. The spill is contained, and residual clean-up is ongoing. All relevant regulatory authorities continue to be updated periodically.”
Premchand told the Guardian earlier today, however, that there appears to be no evidence that shows booms actually being used by Paria Fuel, “Through our drone imagery, there are no booms in the Gulf of Paria around this spill to contain the oil from spreading even further.” Some of the satellite images, released by SkyTruth, also depicted chilling visuals of the oil spill.
Although this appears as if the company has rectified the problem it caused, Premchand pointed out certain concerns to Screen Shot. According to Premchand, had the FFOS and other local fishermen not filmed this “cover up” of the spill and continuously highlighted it, the situation may never have been resolved. “Had we not shot our video or brought attention to the matter, the public would still be under the impression that it was a ‘sheen’ of oil. Transparency and accountability from those engaged in the extractive industry is of paramount importance to every hydrocarbon producing country. If the GORTT does not wish to hold the oil industry accountable, we will.”
The responsibility doesn’t just lie with the oil companies that are wreaking havoc on Trinidad’s marine environment—part of the blame is put on the government by the FFOS. Premchand stated that although Paria Fuel Trading is ultimately responsible for the spill, the GORTT (Government of Trinidad and Tobago) has facilitated these situations through its inability to enforce the environmental laws—thus giving these oil companies free reign on the country’s waters. The government has “failed to maintain Petrotrin’s old assets which have been the root cause of many of the oil spills which we have been experiencing recently.” She explained that when the volume of an oil spill exceeds one gallon, it should be immediately reported to the Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries who should act by enforcing the emergency protocol of the NOSCP.
Unfortunately, it appears that Trinidad and Tobago has a devastating history with oil spills and has been a frequent disaster for the islands. Premchand revealed to Screen Shot that in a Freedom of Information Request obtained by the FFOS revealed that “between 2018 and 2021 there have been 498 oil spills in Trinidad and Tobago.” The report confirmed to the FFOS that many of those responsible for the spills were neither fined or punished. She stated that “While many of the reported quantities of these spills are minimal, every drop of hydrocarbon spilled into our marine environment accumulates and magnifies and has an everlasting effect on our fishery.”
Although the oil leak has reportedly been fixed, the impact is still ongoing and is greatly affecting the wildlife in the area. Aboud shared more footage yesterday that showed a magnificent frigatebird smothered in black oil. Premchand explained that “Hydrocarbons are [incredibly] detrimental to our fishery and marine birds and mammals that reside in the Gulf of Paria. So far, we have recovered numerous birds affected by the hydrocarbons and placed them in the care of a local NGO that does animal rehabilitation.”
Not only does this oil spill have terrible consequences on the wildlife, it creates great health risks to the citizens of the islands. Premchand provided details from a recent peer-reviewed study conducted by the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) on the link between the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) contamination in fish from the Gulf of Paria and the risk of cancer. The FFOS stated that the comprehensive study concluded that there is a greater risk of cancer due to these and hydrocarbons and that even “14 per cent of our citizens who eat fish from our national food basket of the Gulf of Paria have an ‘adverse risk’ of acquiring non-cancerous diseases such as the breaking down of red blood cells, cataracts, kidney and liver damage, jaundice and redness and inflammation of the skin.”
Premchand also highlighted the incredibly high levels of mercury that was discovered in the islands’ waters as a result of trying to become a signatory in the Minamata Convention on Mercury. The Minamata Convention is an international treaty—created in 2013 with 128 signatories—for the protection of human health and the environment at the hands of mercury and its released compounds.
Premchand declared to Screen Shot that “As Trinidad and Tobago is not a signatory to the Minamata Convention, our country was required to conduct a Mercury Initial Assessment (MIA) in order to assist with the preparations for the ratification and implementation of the Convention. The results of this MIA concluded that out of the 17 commercially viable fish species sampled, 5 had mercury concentrations up to 5 times greater than the World Health Organization (WHO) consumption guidelines.”
Not only does this oil have a detrimental impact on our environment as a whole but it also devastates the livelihoods of local fishermen. Premchand stated that, “fishermen in affected areas have not been able to fish since last Sunday (8 August 2021). On the sea, everyday spent not fishing is money lost and in these times of economic uncertainty, many fishermen are hoping they can resume regular activities.” She continued by saying that the FFOS has received a number of complaints citing that a lot of fishermen’s equipment have been damaged by the crude oil and is now rendered useless. The crude oil gets everywhere and is near impossible to remove. The destruction of the said equipment could destroy a person’s livelihood.
“In Trinidad and Tobago many of our fishermen make substantial investments ($40,000 TTD) to purchase nets and other equipment used for commercial fishing. If destroyed, in many instances their livelihood is ruined,” Premchand explained. The FFOS received reports that local fishers from Marabella, Claxton Bay, Carli Bay, Orange Valley and Waterloo had nets damaged by the oil spill.
When asked who the environmental organisation wanted this message to reach, the FFOS replied that they wanted the footage captured to be seen by the people of Trinidad and Tobago as well as the wider Caribbean. Premchand summed up by stating that “This should be a lesson to those countries and to our government, that a mismanaged hydrocarbon industry is a recipe for environmental disaster.”