Story at a glance
- South Asian yoga practitioners say that the practice has strayed from its roots due to mass Westernization.
- Online yoga classes have been dominated by white instructors, especially on video platforms such as YouTube.
- South Asian instructors are now focused on building out more inclusive communities devoted to moving yoga away from performance and toward health.
It’s a common misconception that one must be “flexible” or exceptionally fit to take part in the practice of yoga. In reality — these misconceptions derive from what experts are saying has been a co-opting of the practice by Western practitioners.
In a recent interview with NBC, yogi Melissa Shah shared that her practice looks very different from the handstands and crow poses one might find on Instagram. Growing up in Queens, N.Y., Shah recalls the deep-breathing exercises she utilized to keep her childhood asthma in check and the deeply spiritual, unfiltered yoga that she practiced with others in her South Asian community.
It wasn’t until Shah stepped into white-dominated studios that she quickly began to feel "othered," and that new, uneasy feeling is what drew her to start her very own practice.
Industry professionals, Sakshi Venkatraman writes for NBC, “say yoga in the U.S. has long been branded with a white face, and white influencers have reaped the most benefit from the boom of online yoga during the pandemic.”
She cites YouTube searches that yield the mainly white faces of yoga practitioners such as the popular channel Yoga with Adrienne. These channels are what YouTube lists as “most relevant” when viewers search for yoga videos on the platform.
“The algorithm favors certain qualities,” said Sean Feit Oakes, a yoga instructor and industry expert. White people who already had a following were the most likely to thrive over quarantine. “So a brown-skinned person is going to have a hill to climb.”
“Decolonizing” the industry
For more than a decade now, South Asian yoga experts and instructors have been working to “decolonize” the yoga industry and bring the widespread use of the practice closer to the roots of its original purpose, which had much less to do with performance and much more to do with physical and mental health.
The pandemic, which has kept yogis out of studio classes and back onto their home mats, has provided an opportunity for South Asian instructors to attempt to level the playing field, where they are able to harness online tools to connect with one another and build coalitions. The issue, experts say, is just how deeply entrenched cultural appropriation is within the practice of yoga.
"Yoga has become homogenized, secularized, and commercialized and now favors physical fitness over spiritual," Kallie Schut, a yoga teacher, told Insider. "In terms of cultural appropriation, it's harmful, because it's been built upon this legacy of colonialism and the ideology of racial hierarchy."
While the reclamation of yoga may have a long journey ahead of it, instructors like Tejal Patel are working to make it happen. Patel launched her own website, Tejal Yoga, during the pandemic, where she focuses on not only instructing but incorporating and funding other South Asian yoga instructors. Patel says that she doesn’t want to gatekeep yoga, but rather re-center it.
“There has been such a separation of yoga from its roots,” Patel said. “It's not about keeping yoga the same, but it's about not calling something new when it just clearly isn't.”
Many South Asian yogis have been using the past year to tap into their own spiritual practices and build their communities online, where they are able to shine a spotlight onto other instructors of color and work to make yoga more accessible and inclusive.
"Teachers need to go back to the source and honor the iconography of yoga, learn about South Asian culture from the inside out by building relationships with people who come from that culture, to create real acknowledgment that in the west, if you are white embodied, you are acting as a guardian of a sacred gift that has journeyed through pain, suffering, and loss," Schut said.
Other people of color have also been leaning into spiritual practices like yoga to aid in their healing journey following the traumatic events of the previous year, including the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police officers.
One instructor, Kendra Blackett-Dibinga, launched the “I Come to Breathe” campaign last fall at her studio in Washington, D.C., which encourages its members to bring a friend or family member to live and virtual classes with free seven-day passes.
Industry professionals also say that an important aspect of yoga is the recognition of its history and roots.
“The practice of yoga is ancient,” Antonio McDonald, a Black man who has been on a yoga journey since his teens, said recently in an interview. “Like the practice of yoga goes back to ancient Egypt. They use bending and stretching and exercise to get closer to God.”
“There is a benefit to having a big following,” says Patel. “But there's also a benefit to doing the work that you want to be doing authentically in the world and attracting the people that are going to come to you, support you and learn from you.”
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