Teaching Yoga As A Woman Of Colour: 'I Couldn't Use Sanskrit Or Say Namaste'

Why aren't we seeing more South Asian teachers and practitioners in yoga studios?
Jilna Shah and Puravi Joshi have experienced whitewashing in the yoga industry.
Jilna Shah/Puravi Joshi
Jilna Shah and Puravi Joshi have experienced whitewashing in the yoga industry.

Downward dog, child’s pose, warriors one, two and three – these are all yoga poses we have come to love and recognise quite easily. But behind each Anglicised name is the original Sanskrit term, which we are less likely to know off the top of our heads.

Yoga originated in India thousands of years ago and has since travelled around the world and become extremely popular in Western and European countries.

But yoga teacher Puravi Joshi, 34, says some of her experiences finding work as a British Indian instructor have been “demoralising” and “dehumanising”.

Back in October 2020 she was warned by an east London yoga studio she applied to teach at that she wouldn’t be “allowed” to use Sanskrit in her practices.

The studio told her they didn’t “want modern city workers to be left out” and said “you’re not allowed to use Sanskrit, you’re not allowed to chant Om, you’re not allowed to say namaste”.

“It made me feel really uncomfortable in my own skin,” says Joshi. “I had to educate them to tell them Sanskrit is the oldest Asian language to exist. It’s where every other Asian language comes from. Just like Latin is to the West, Sanskrit is to the East.”

The studio have since apologised on its social media channels but not to Joshi herself.

Writer Poorna Bell recently noted something similar of her experiences doing yoga online. “I started a 30 day online yoga practice with a v famous yoga person, they aren’t South Asian,” Bell wrote in her Instagram stories. “On day two of the practice, I noticed something off – none of the movements – or asanas – were referred to by their proper name in Sanskrit. Not one.”

Language matters, Bell went on to say, and “stripping out” the Sanskrit from a yoga session is, in her view, “whitewashing an entire cultural practice”.

Research by the British Medical Journal, which surveyed around 2,500 yoga professionals, shows that 91% of teachers and practitioners in the UK are white.

Joshi used to work in banking and decided to make the career change to yoga in 2017. “When I was in banking, I wasn’t known as the Indian banker. All of a sudden I’m the Indian yoga teacher and you cannot take away from that.”

Now, she mostly works for schools and nurseries teaching yoga for mental health and mindfulness.

Joshi stays clear of branded yoga studios because, in her words, she “doesn’t fit the mould”. She’s also been told in the past that she doesn’t match the “aesthetic” or “vibe” of a place. “I’m not good enough for them but they’re good enough to steal from me [and my culture].”

Puravi Joshi has found some of her yoga experiences "dehumanising" when entering less diverse studios.
Puravi Joshi
Puravi Joshi has found some of her yoga experiences "dehumanising" when entering less diverse studios.

Joshi believes there “is an element of whitewashing” when it comes to yoga, especially on platforms like Instagram, and says her experiences are an example of “cultural appropriation”.

Yoga is really inherent in so many Indian people’s lives. It’s part of what we do, it’s inherent in our bones and our blood. You can’t take that away from those people that live and breathe it.”

Jilna Shah, 34, who’s been teaching yoga for eight years, “consciously” decides to keep away from working in big studios for similar reasons to Joshi.

“There’s a lot of bypassing of issues of power and privilege. People don’t tend to look at who’s not in the room and why,” she says.

“It’s not just about coming and having a lovely experience for an hour on your yoga mat. I try and get people to see that even how we practice together and how we decide to use our funds and support each other is part of the practice because yoga never was just about feeling good.”

Jilna Shah has been teaching yoga for eight years.
Jilna Shah
Jilna Shah has been teaching yoga for eight years.

Shah believes the “whitewashing” of yoga happens “very early on” from when people start their training.

“When I did my yoga teacher training, I was the only person of colour on the course.

“The texts and things we studied, given yoga’s origins, we [South Asians] were just not represented. What’s not in the syllabus are things like issues of race, power privilege, intersectionality, this stuff just doesn’t come up.”

Like Joshi, Shah has decided to focus her work in community spaces to make yoga as accessible as possible.

I’m not looking to white institutions to get better. I’m looking for where teachers of colour can support each other and run our own thing.”

She runs classes for people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, going through the immigration process, and refugee youth groups.

Shah works on a “sliding scale” offering different rates based on what people can afford including an option for those who are wealthier to sponsor a class for someone else.

But she says her way or working hasn’t always been well received. When she first started out she received backlash for holding a class specifically for women of colour.

“Someone called it segregation and likened it to apartheid South Africa because there was a space that they couldn’t come to.

Recently, she’s glad to be seeing more yoga teachers of colour represented but believes there’s more work still to be done.

“It’s not just about programming a Black teacher. Why do we not have Black and people of colour owning studios and spaces? Actually handing over platforms and space and studios would be the most effective thing to do. We don’t need people gatekeeping.”

Both Shah and Joshi want to see representation in yoga go beyond colour of skin.

“You could get lots of middle class able-bodied South Asian women in a yoga class,” says Shah. “That’s still not the diversity and inclusion that I’d be looking for. We need to work harder and look a lot more deeply at who we are accessing.”

“When I look at diversity and inclusivity,” says Joshi. “I genuinely mean bring everyone on to the stage no matter what your skin colour, your religion, your shape.”