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  • Writer's pictureSavira Gupta

When (or) was Yoga ever colonised?

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

The South Asia region consists of Afghanistan in the north-west till Bangladesh in the east, and from Nepal in the north to Sri Lanka in the south. The Indian Subcontinent consists of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh (British Rule) and till 1936, Burma (now Myanmar) part of British India, but was not considered part of the subcontinent.

The term South Asian originated in 1950’s as a replacement for the term Indian Subcontinent after 1947 (BR) to avoid confusion and the focus being on India. The term South Asian was adopted widely in Western countries including the USA.

While many Desi in the West relate to the term South Asians, Indians from India connect to the phrase Indian Subcontinent (to me either or is fine). Which brings me to an important question.

When (or) was Yoga ever colonised? (when I typed in the question, I received how to decolonize and no information of when and by whom) If you look at it from a colonial mindset then you will see the signs but if you look at it from India's history which goes way back then it reveals that Hindus were never permitted to openly practice their faith and yoga even then. They had to take their practices indoors hence indoor temples and home practices began.

Yoga was brought to the West by Swami Vivekananda in the late 1800s and with time its popularity grew but the essence or core aspect of this philosophy was slowly being replaced with a more physical and whiter washed version of yoga.

Along with growth and demand comes Capitalism (an economic system) and when something is being capitalised there is bound to be greed, loss of integrity, control, lack of representations and misinformation of knowledge. But what is even more surprising is when yoga activists become the controlling voices and share their ideas of history, philosophy and culture without any ethical research. There is a rise of courses and trainings centred around what IS yoga, cultural appropriation, decolonisation,… is this not capitalising on the current situation and are we as ‘yoga teachers’ really qualified or have the authority to speak on all things related to culture, scriptures, history, politics, religion, and to teach these without any formal training qualifications?

Food for thought..

While I do believe it is important to take the necessary steps and work towards changing the way yoga is being portrayed and taught in the west, it is also important to include marginal voices. It is vital to read up on our history which dates back to the Greeks and ends with the British Raj. I mention this because it is relevant in putting things into context and NOT pick and choose what suits the present narratives. For change to happen, it is vital for all platforms to include and learn from all voices even those with a different point of view…. it’s called Inclusivity!

I am not alone in saying “I struggle to understand why many are so focused on creating boundaries, divisions, rules and proclaiming what IS being appropriated and what should be taught.” Sounds like divide and conquer!

India, a diverse country with 28 states, 8 union territories (federal territories governed by the Central Government of India) and 23 recognised languages. Each state has their own unique culture. So how is it possible to set strict boundaries or guidelines? Something to think about?

The term Cultural Appropriation is not only foreign to many but was first used and nurtured within the western academia (a long read, written by Kenneth Coutts Smith in 1976). It referred to Western Colonialism and its relationships between European and other global cultures.

Humans beings by nature are always hungry, the more we have the more we want. The difference between animals and us is that one knows when their belly is full while the other… will crave for more! The complexity of our mind is the root for all sufferings. To control our ‘vrittis’ (mind chatter or monkey mind) requires deep understanding and this comes from practicing yoga in its true entirety. Through learning and understanding comes respect for the practice, culture and its people.

When a movement excludes voices that have a different say or outlook in the matter, or when history/philosophy is taken out of context to promote a personal/movement's agenda, then there is lack of credibility and with this comes harm.You end up with an unbalanced and unfair representation of Yoga and Cultural Appropriation. History books did just that; putting forth views that suited a dominate party/voice.

Yoga will remain universal but it is also a subjective and personal in nature. What requires changing is the manner and way in which yoga is being taught in trainings and in studios. Visibility of SA/Indian teachers are key as without our voices, this practice would remain void, inauthentic and inaccessible. What do you think will happen, if one takes on the role of being the gate keeper to control narratives and shame others for having a view that is different from the controlled views ?

I shudder at the thought!

When we cling to our opinions, views, rights and boundaries then we are in adharma, encouraging ahmkara (ego) to rise and in the process, we move further away from the focused goal of creating change which leaves me with..... Is yoga really being decolonized or recolonized?.

Art Work: A.K Mundra

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