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Honouring the roots of yoga

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The popularity of yoga continues to grow as more people look to the practice for physical and mental health benefits. In Australia, a 2018 Roy Morgan report found 2.18 million people had participated in yoga in the year prior. The proportion of Australians doing yoga more than doubled in the previous decade from 5% in 2008 to 11% in 2018.  

More people are discovering yoga and using it as a tool to cope with the increasing stress in their lives. However, are they experiencing the essence of yoga and honouring its roots? Does it even matter?

What’s with Goat Yoga? 

It’s hard not to be cynical about contemporary yoga and the shift further away from its Hindu roots. The Roy Morgan report found that almost 80% of yoga participants were women. 25 to 39-year-olds made up more than half the cohort. It found that yoga in Australia is dominated by those in the top two socio-economic groups.

Yoga is a great place to reach a consumer market of growing importance – young affluent women with cash to burn.

Roy Morgan Australia, 2018

From Goat Yoga; the image-obsessed yoga clothing industry; to the beautifully curated Instagram feeds of influencer yogis; contemporary yoga barely resembles the ancient practice.

Colonisation and cultural appropriation  

The way yoga is now expressed in the Western world can be traced back to the British colonisation of India in the 19th century. During this time there was an increasing focus on the physical practice of asana as entertainment for the British colonisers. The more subtle parts of yoga such as philosophy and meditation were neglected.  

When yoga was exported to the West in the 20th century it was mostly the physical practice that was, and still is, packaged as yoga. The history and philosophy of yoga has been either forgotten, or adopted and commercialised for a Western audience. Traditional custodians of the knowledge and practice of yoga receive no benefit from the yoga we practice today.

This is an example of cultural appropriation, and ways that this occurs in the Western yoga world include: 

  • Fetishisation of Indian culture and sacred objects in things like images, logos, tattoo 
  • Focusing purely on asana practice without acknowledging yoga’s roots, sacred texts, and philosophy 
  • Neglecting the oppression of black, Indigenous, and people of colour whilst benefitting in a personal and/or financial way from yoga

Ways that contemporary, Western yoga is not accessible and inclusive 

The colonisation and cultural appropriation of yoga has impacted on accessibility and inclusivity of yoga today.  

An emphasis on the asanas, in particular poses such as Parsva Bakasana (Side Crow Pose), gives the message that you have to look a certain way and have hypermobility to do yoga. This can lead to people feeling excluded, and hesitant to experience what yoga offers. 

For those who do ‘fit the mold’ there are still barriers that prevent them from experiencing the essence of yoga. This can be in the form of body shaming, feelings of inadequacy, and unethical practices or even abuse by yoga teachers. 

Importantly, people whose birthright it is to practice yoga traditions can experience barriers and harmful practices of exclusion. Examples of this are the cost of attending yoga classes and trainings, and no acknowledgement of the history and teachers of yoga during classes.  

How yoga can be more accessible and inclusive 

We can look to Patajali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga as starting point for yoga to be more accessible and inclusive. By referencing on these during our practice we are honouring a practice of a culture not of our own (unless it is). By focusing only on the asana practice, the dilution of yoga’s roots will continue.  

Examples of practical ways as yoga students and teachers we can model accessible and inclusive behaviour include: 

  • Commit to learning about the history/herstory of yoga. This aligns with the Niyama of Swadhaya (sacred study) 
  • Acknowledge yoga’s roots during classes 
  • Use social media thoughtfully and avoid of posting or sharing images that uphold the #yoga aesthetic
  • Use language sensitively and with respect  
  • Be curious and interested in other’s experiences of yoga
  • Consider assisting marginalised groups financially. The current COVID crisis in India is highlighting the health and economic status of people whose ancestors generously shared the practices we enjoy today.
  • Be respectful when using sacred symbolism, objects, stories, quotes and greetings

Indian-Americans Tejal and Jesal in their podcast episode Vinyasa Killed Yoga have a great discussion about accessibility and authenticity in modern yoga. Resources such as this one can help us do better.

Is any yoga better than no yoga? 

The growth in popularity of yoga is a positive thing. Slowing down and feeling good in our body is a beautiful antidote to our fast-paced, stressful way of life. Progress and change are part of the human experience, and there are benefits of yoga being part of that. 

At what point, however, does the commercialism and packaging of contemporary yoga dilute the authentic essence of yoga? According to Patanjali’s Sutra 1.2 Yogah Chitta Vritti Nirodahah this is the calming of the fluctuations of the mind. Or doesn’t it matter because the more people that experience any form of yoga and mindfulness practices, the better? By being judgmental of what attracts people to yoga and how they express it, are we disregarding the first Yama, Ahimsa – non-harming? 

For me a yoga student and teacher I commit to my yoga being more accessible and inclusive. I also commit to honouring the roots of yoga and the people who preserved and passed down this beautiful practice. 

What are your thoughts on honouring the roots of yoga? Leave a comment – I’d love to know!

Sally xx

This post is adapted from an essay I wrote as part of yoga teacher training with Eve Studio.

Related posts: 5 benefits of yoga beyond the mat