The Blog

Colonial Flavoured Yoga

Yoga is not a pick-n-mix, you cannot take the fitness aspect,, and ignore the aspect of, self knowledge, or, doing selfless service for others. We cannot afford to pay no heed to how our daily consumerism, and lack of resistance toward consumerism, propels the impoverishment of brown bodies in the East

'I hate it when people protest things', 'It's selfish and childish when people block roads... people just need to elevate to the 7th dimension' - all this from a lead meditation instructor at a prestigious yoga centre in London. I could pen three articles with tales of spiritual practitioners whose limitless compassion apparently comes with brakes and blinkers.

Yoga has become complimentary to the spiritual whitewash over the gritty reality of lived life and the need to, in privileged undertones, ascend over the struggles of day-to-day life. There's something deeply patriarchal about the whole 'domineer over the worldly space of emotions' mentality, especially when it suggests to instead strive for a perfect body and mind. Forgetting that the lotus, as Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, comes from the mud; the chaos, confusion and suffering in the world - it is not overcome, but embraces and transformed.

How did a personal pursuit, a daily practice that simply utilizes breath, body and intention, become a multi billion-dollar industry? Why is it that yoga has become synonymous with fitness and colonial-consumerist standards of beauty? To put it simply, the cultural appropriation of yoga, by savvy 'lineage saviours', is an insult.

Serious questions of personal culpability need to be posed when industrial forces that capitalize on the yoga craze, are often not-too distant relatives of those forces who wreak havoc over the global south, calling it 'negative externalities'. Colonial flavoured yoga is blind practice; it is a blinkered form that abstracts context, that takes the priceless practice, vacuum wraps it and sells it for £50 a day, with accessories available.

As a person of part South-Indian ancestry who came to learn yoga by personal exploration from age 15, it rubs a sore spot when a yoga-mat carrier gives my hoodied head side-looks on public transport. It rubs an especially sore spot when spiritual practitioners are extremely happy to take the culture, strip it off, use it to improve themselves but pay no mind to those whose culture is being benefited from. The ransacking of resources isn't always material.

The first rule of 'spiritual club' is we have only one enemy: forgetfulness. Religious practices in India were outlawed and punishable offenses under British corporate rule in India. Lineages were destroyed, massacres were carried out on black and brown bodies and an ancient part of the culture was thrown into chaos, including but not limited to yoga. This is not days gone by - neo-colonial India still lives with the legacy of corporate colonialism, as Arundhati Roy explained in 'Capitalism: a ghost story';

"In India, the 300 million of us who belong to the new, post-IMF 'reforms'... side by side with the spirits of the nether world, the poltergeists of dead rivers, dry wells, bald mountains and denuded forests; the ghosts of 250,000 debt-ridden farmers who have killed themselves, and the 800 million who have been impoverished and dispossessed to make way for us. And who survive on less than half a dollar, which is 20 Indian rupees, a day."

It is from this beautiful and ravaged land that our yoga studios find their spiritual home. One of the legacies of our imperialism is the spiritual decline, the frenzied behaviour of the moral compass. There are many appropriated cultural phenomena, but none affront a land and people quite as deeply as the spiritual. It is often the spiritual values that are undermined first in the colonial experience.

The spiritual tradition, of all indigenous cultures, contains a strong element of dispelling the spell of illusions. Oftentimes the tales would recount stories of a heroine/hero confronting those who reap power from dispensing the spell, namely those consumed by greed. Wise spiritual practitioners humbly follow this path.

Brigit spoke truth to power. Amma speaks truth to power. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks truth to power. Malcolm X spoke truth to power. Audre Lorde spoke truth to power, and the empire whose legitimacy he constantly threw into question famously crucified Jesus Christ.

How yoga practitioners and spiritual adherents can simply miss the mark when it comes to the hard work of fixing the world, is beyond me. There is no finger clicking moment of enlightenment, for anybody, instead there is practice and implementation. Implementation means putting your practice to work - it means compassion in action, which means protest, personal efforts to end poverty and a commitment to manifest peace.

Yoga is not a pick-n-mix, you cannot take the fitness aspect, asana, and ignore the aspect of jnani, self knowledge, or bhakti, doing selfless service for others. We cannot afford to pay no heed to how our daily consumerism, and lack of resistance toward consumerism, propels the impoverishment of brown bodies in the East. Don't be afraid to bat for the poor in the face of privileged spirituality. If the middle-class mystical folk actually dug a little deeper and took their empathy beyond Kensington, then systemic change might arrive that tiny bit faster.