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Decolonizing Yoga

Yoga in the west may not be yoga at all. What can be found across the U.S. is often a colonized appropriation of yoga. People use the term yoga to market all kinds of beautiful offerings encouraging connection and deep relationship, but they may not necessarily be Yoga practices. Many famous yogis have branded a style of yoga that they made up. Some of it follows the thread of yoga in a way, some of it is radically different from yoga. So, what is Yoga really and where has the conditioning of colonization infiltrated this ancient science? First, we need to understand the foundational philosophies and how they differ from each other. Yogic philosophy when jammed into a Cartesian belief system is misrepresented. Yogic practices when crammed into reductionist science cuts off the cells from their cosmic connection. When a westerner says, “mind and body” they have already separated, what in the east is a unified field with distinction. The states of consciousness we operate from matter. So how do we bridge Modern Scientism and Monotheism with, Animism and Pantheism, or can we bridge them at all? And how is it decolonizing yoga?

Let’s begin with some clear definitions. In the Webster Dictionary there are several definitions of ‘colonization’ one is,  “subjugation of a people or area especially as an extension of state power,” another definition, “ the act or practice of appropriating something that one does not own or have a right to”. In this definition we can see how colonization is two fold. It goes beyond conquering, colonization seeks to subjugate and force the people (usually indigenous, or people of color) under the colonizers control, to speak, think and believe, the same way as the colonizers. It then also takes pieces of that typically indigenous culture and claims it as its own separating it from the culture. There is a way to borrow something and appreciate a culture too and this is respectfully honoring its roots. Now think of a few examples of this for yourself and build a relationship with the word colonization so you can see how it has infiltrated our world view.  

In the History of Yoga coming to the United States it is often credited to Swami Vivikananda who arrived in the U.S. in 1893. After him there were many others, Yogi Paramahansa (1920), B.K.S. Iyengar (1956), Swami Satchitanada (1966), Yogi Bajan (1968), to name a few. From 1924-1965 the US immigration set a quota on Indian immigration leading to many Westerners traveling to the East to learn more about yoga. It is important to know the United States did not colonize India, but Britain did from 1757 - 1858. In their colonization they formed the term Hinduism, but there is no one Hinduism. Hindu traditions are very pluralistic and vary greatly from region to region. This means that after British colonization and westernization of India the people of the U.S. began to learn more about Yoga. This means mistranslations, missionaries, and monetary influence had already infiltrated the grounds. 

When the ground that we have learned from is poisoned we need to be careful where we plant our seeds. 

In the passing of the baton that is the teachings of yoga that have been passed down from master to student for centuries there are of course variations, different styles, and a natural evolution. Colonization is a part of this evolution and it is a poison we can weed out of our own minds and the collective consciousness. It is a problem, not just because it has a tragic track record of indigenous genocide, but also because it perpetuates a narrative of mass slavery. Colonization keeps us from being free. The other day I learned that the Polenisians did not have a word for work, when colonizers came and tried to subjugate them, they had a hard time because they could not tell them to ‘work’. 

We have all used the idiom “lost in translation,” before or at least heard it. Some things get lost in translation, it is so common, but it is not the source of the issue. When it comes to language, the concepts behind the words and grammar vary vastly from English to Sanskrit. English is not a contextual language like Sanskrit. For example in English a word has one meaning unless it is a homonym. In Sanskrit a context-ual language, context matters and can change the meaning of any word. Yoga alone has at least seven translations that I know of: union, to bind, to yoke, connection, addition, accession, junction, (“Sanskrit - Dictionary”). Yoga can also be the goal of certain yogic practices, or it can describe the practice itself. Context determines the meaning. This is why there are so few Chinese, Japanese, and Hindi speakers from Indo-European languages. It takes a lot of word knowledge to make sense of it all. But if this isn’t the root issue then what is… When it comes to mindfulness and yoga practice in the west it may be the grammar in Mind & Body. 

When parts get segmented and the teachings and practice of Yoga are out of context much is lost. In turn the tradition is spun into the colonizers web of philosophies and applied to their own context. In part this is the evolution of Yoga itself and in honor of a tradition that connects and binds opposites we must find the bridge here to mindfully keep Yoga intact while it continues to grow in the West. One of the foundational philosophies in colonization since the 1700’s is René Descates, “I think therefore I am.” This is a huge difference from the Animism of ancient indigenous cultures around the world. When one believes, “I think therefore I am.” It is the thoughts that give value to existence, a tree, a rock, a lizard, a dog, a fish, and even a human who may have a different mode of thought is considered nonexistent. This devaluing of other life forms and anthropocentric views has larger implications. It holds the roots of colonization intact, because if one thinks they are of more value than something or someone else on this planet then they may easily take over and subjugate by force. In these roots there is little compassion for other beings on the planet. When this meets yoga it leads to hollow practices without strong connection to the roots of Yoga itself.  

The sciences that come out of this thinking mainly, biomechanics and reductionism have studied yoga in a way that makes it appear that the body is separate from the mind. Placing the brain at the top of the hierarchical order and devaluing the rest of the body that may not ‘think’. This belief was not shared with the ancient Eastern cultures. The entire body and all of life is permeated with a unified field of consciousness according to the Ancient Southeast Asian Mystics, Sages, and Yogis. When this understanding from the East met the West it had led to great developments in our understanding of consciousness. Animism is Normative consciousness: 99% of human history was lived in this state of consciousness, it was not an -ism. It just was what is, and it is a very different paradigm from modern Scientism. 

When we partake in Yoga practice it is important to be able to tell when we are learning a Westernized derivative and when we are getting a taste for the real thing. This is where practitioners and teachers can step into the process of decolonizing yoga and mindfulness. There are many branded yoga practices that are very popular and authoritative in being the best or most direct path. Truthfully I have not seen many enlightened masters come from these programs and each individual will benefit greatly from following their own unique path forth. No one can walk your path, but you. 

The first step is in dissolving the colonized paradigm and telling a story of holistic awareness. To even say mind and body suggests that they are separate. Transforming language and thoughtforms is imperative in weeding out the poison. Teaching and experiencing the body as a living process rather than a static object run by the mind is the next step. To keep it simple the third step is to embody the insight that everything is radically interdependent and be compassionate towards all beings. Whether they think the same or not, whether they think at all, doesn’t matter. This will pave the way for a consciousness of understanding and connection which is truly what Yoga is all about.


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