“There is no yoga without justice. There is no peace without yoga. No justice, no peace.”Susanna Barkataki, Embrace Yoga’s Roots
I doubt that many associate it with social movements, protests, resistance, or social justice. In fact, these references may even directly oppose the view that many hold of yoga and yogis.
Partly due to my status as a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied woman and partly due to my initially limited knowledge of yoga, I first came to classes, like many, with little awareness of how they can be centered around whiteness, ableism, and the erasure of Indigenous culture.
As Tria Blu Wakpa states, “yoga is an Indigenous practice grounded in Indigenous ways of knowing”, but the focus on asana and aesthetics has led instead to the devaluation and commercialization of this precious, ancient knowledge.
Although it has been watered down and oversimplified in recent decades, yoga is a deeply complex system of ethics that addresses big questions about life and morality.
The truth is that yoga and social justice, though seemingly irrelevant to one another, are intimately connected. Any philosophy or way of life that supports individuals on a personal transformation journey also sparks the transformation of the collective for the better.
This is social justice in action.
Here’s an overview of what this article will explore:
- The History Of Yoga As a Social Movement
- The Colonization Of Yoga
- 5 Ways To Incorporate Social Justice Into Your Practice
History of yoga as a social movement
“If the system that you’re living in doesn’t respect your basic human rights, then protesting that system is ethical.In other words, supporting oppressive systems is unethical, and it’s our job as yoga practitioners to speak up against suffering wherever we see it. That’s the heart of ahimsa, non-harm.” Jivana Heyman, Yoga Revolution: Building a Practice of Courage and Compassion
The Gita takes place on a battlefield and tells us of the conversations between Arjuna, a prince who learns he must go into battle against his cousin, and Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer and guru.
This is a story that touches on many aspects of Hinduism and yogic philosophy, but central to the Gita is the concept of dharma – the idea that we all have a responsibility to live out the path that is destined for us in accordance with the laws of the universe.
Famously, Krishna says to Arjuna ‘armed with yoga, O Bharata, stand and fight‘ (BG 4.42). Arjuna is encouraged to take refuge in karma yoga, the path of selfless action and compassion.
Fight for the sake of duty, treating alike happiness and distress, loss and gain, victory and defeat. Fulfilling your responsibility in this way, you will never incur sin.BG 2.38
Ghandi, the leader of India’s nonviolent independence movement, studied the Gita and it had a huge influence on his teachings. It became one of his most ‘dependable‘ spiritual guides and a ‘constant companion through all the trials and tribulations’.
He called the Gita his ‘Eternal Mother’ for the wisdom, comfort, and light that it imparted on him. As well as a spiritual guide, it became his ethical guide for living and fighting against the colonial British rule of India.
Bhakti yogis in the 8th century were revolutionaries, too. They used their voice to speak out against India’s caste hierarchy and discrimination and create a movement of peaceful resistance.
Historically, Bhakti Yoga became a path for the marginalized who were blocked from both the path of Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga by oppression from the patriarchy, the caste system and capitalistic structures.
We only need to look to the Yamas and Niyamas, such as the concepts of Ahimsa (non-harming) and Satya (truthfulness), as a moral basis to live our lives as yogis and how therefore, that is innately tied to social justice.
Yoga is a path that equips us with everything that we need to protest with peace as well as fire and determination; the teachings show us that there is truly no separation in life.
The intrinsic interconnectedness of our lived experience requires social justice to be not just a future goal or desire, but a duty and necessity that we all must take on for society to thrive.
Just as Arjuna did, we have a duty to fight for what is good and right in an unjust world. Indeed, ‘no one of us can be free until everybody is free‘.
Colonization of Yoga
If we don’t begin to work collectively and in solidarity with one another, we will perish. The journey of discovering that our dharma is connected to the greater good is challenging but we must do it anyway.
We must skillfully take collective and radical action to create a world that allows us to breathe, be, live, be seen, and validated.Michelle Cassandra Johnson, Skill in Action: Radicalizing Your Yoga Practice to Create a Just World
We can take the colonization of yoga all the way back to the British rule of India, which began in 1757 when Britain began to amp up its control through the East India Company.
From 1858, this became official when India was put under the direct rule of the British Crown, the British Raj.
Under colonial rule, Britain associated yogis with ‘black magic’, austerity and extreme sexuality.
As well as condemning the practice, the British government went so far as to ban yoga, which had a profound impact on the breaking of lineages and loss of important traditions. Like many other Hindu practices under British colonization, yoga became abhorred.
In the 19th century, Britain decided to pursue the appeasement of South Asia and encourage a new, ‘modern’ India. This led to the re-appropriation of Hatha Yoga into a modern, postural practice.
As yoga began to make its way into North American and European cultures from this period onwards, along with it came a huge focus on the physical aspect of yoga, or the use of asana for ‘fitness’ purposes, and minimization of its philosophy and history.
Thus, it became co-opted and commercialized by non-Indian teachers with an ever-increasing price tag of classes, workshops, mats, and other ‘yoga gear’, as well as the whitewashing of yoga studios and magazines.
As we know, the commodification of and increase in cost for yoga results in the practice becoming inaccessible for huge groups of people, and accessed by only a privileged few – and so begins the narrative of what a ‘yogi’ looks like.
In the US, 77% of yoga teachers identify as White, compared to only 10% who identify as Hispanic or Latino, 5.7% as Black or African American, and just 4.1% as Asian.
Just from these statistics alone, it’s clear to see who has been left out of and denied access to yoga in the west. Then the question becomes, who are the gatekeepers of yoga if not the ancestors of people who originally systematized and codified it?
Puravi Joshi, a South Asian Yoga Teacher living in the UK, was told by a studio in London that she wasn’t allowed to ‘use Sanskrit’, ‘chant Om’, or ‘say namaste’ as they didn’t want ‘modern city workers to be left out’.
I hope from the discussion of the British colonization of India at the beginning of this section, it’s clear to see how white control of brown and black spaces continues to exist and cause barriers for non-privileged groups.
And, of course, this does not just apply to the yoga industry; yoga is merely a microcosm that reflects the overarching neocolonial, patriarchal and capitalistic structure of the world in which we live.
If we participate in this system of deducing yoga to ‘just’ a way to stay flexible or practice mindfulness, we play an active role in the colonization of yoga and of South Asian people, as Susanna Barkataki puts it, becoming a stranger in their ‘own land and culture’.
Not only this, but we also completely miss the opportunity for this beautiful practice and way of life to fulfill its potential in becoming the radical liberator of all.
5 ways to Incorporate Social Justice into your practice
“This service [yoga] to the body and heart isn’t just about the individual, it is tied to coming back home to the self to then be able to expand out in service of the larger collective.”Michelle Cassandra Johnson, Skill in Action: Radicalizing Your Yoga Practice to Create a Just World
1. Ask ‘How Am I Contributing To Oppressive Structures?’
We need to look at ourselves and ask, ‘how am I upholding structures of oppression in my practice, class, or community?’. Are we replicating old barriers or creating ones that prevent people from practicing or engaging with yoga?
If you are a studio owner or a teacher, who are you hiring to teach in your studio? Who is in your class? Importantly, who is not in your class? Why might that be? And, importantly, how can you change it?
Privileged people can perpetuate oppression in these spaces, consciously or not, at the expense of other groups.
Think about barriers and characteristics like race, income level, disability, sexuality, and gender. Representation directly impacts perception and the narrative of who fits in yoga and who doesn’t.
2. Use Sanskrit
Use the Sanskrit name for asanas, and say the English translation afterward if you need to.
Make an effort to learn the pronunciation and know the meaning behind what you’re saying. For example, are you just chanting ‘Om Shanti’ because you’ve heard another teacher say it, or are you respecting its sacrality by understanding its meaning?
When we miss out Sanskrit references, mispronounce them, or brush over their significance, we are feeding into the sanitization and cultural appropriation of yoga.
3. Support Diverse & Inclusive Teachers
Follow them online, buy their work, read and share their posts, follow their Youtube accounts, go to their classes, and support them in any other ways that you can think of!
I have mentioned just a few quoted in this article; all three of these teachers have written amazing books that dive deep into the issues that this piece has barely scratched the surface on.
Here are some other suggestions to start you off:
4. Educate, Re-educate, and Question
This is the fourth Niyama, Svadhyaya, or self-study. It’s a continuous, life-long process of committing to learning and unlearning.
Educate yourself on these issues, then reflect and question. Question yourself, your teachers, and the people around you. Use this knowledge to hold yourself and others to account.
You can move through your asana practice in this way too, from a place of love, contemplation, openness, and self-reflection.
To engage with this, you might want to start by thinking about questions like:
- Should I use Namaste at the end of a yoga class? How might I be misusing it?
- Am I treating yoga like a commodity? For example, do I have any clothing that has any sacred Sanskrit symbols or words on it?
- Do I prioritize asana over the other limbs of yoga? If so, why, and is there anything I need to unlearn?
- Where does my knowledge of yoga come from? Could this be a sanitization or appropriation of yogic philosophy/history? How can I deepen my study?
5. Utilise Yoga As A Self-Care Practice
Angela Davis states ‘anyone who is interested in making change in the world also has to take care of herself, himself, theirselves‘.
Creating change is important work, but it’s hard. Taking care of yourself is really important and, luckily, yoga is a great place to start.
As I mentioned earlier, any of these books are a powerful way to begin your yogic social justice journey:
- Susanna Barkataki, Embrace Yoga’s Roots
- Jivana Heyman, Yoga Revolution
- Michelle Cassandra Johnson, Skill In Action
Justice and peace are reciprocal requirements; if yoga has the tools to cultivate peace, unity, and self-knowledge, then as yogis we certainly have the capability to fight for justice too.