Within the serene, spare yoga studios across Europe and America, Yoga has become so assimilated into everyday language and activity, that to the predominantly Caucasian practitioners, the idea that violence and privilege have created their practice, might have never even occurred.
My own teaching practice has become a pedagogical experiment in shedding light on the continuing historical imbalances that shape our lives. In the summer of 2015, I facilitated a week long workshop titled Yoga & Whiteness: Mapping the Self Construct or Outing the Hippie Woo-Woo Colonial Crap at Impulstanz, Vienna.
When I asked participants whether anyone in the room had ever heard of the European Scramble for Africa or the Berlin Conference of 1894, only 2 of the 20 plus students raised their hands. I did something similar during a Yoga workshop at FRESH in San Francisco, where we sat in a circle and I asked participants to name the Indigenous people that preceded them in the territory where the students were born. No one in the room knew. Eerily, our ignorance allowed for the collective erasure of Native lives to be immediately visible in that unnamed space.
Without understanding the History of Imperial Occupation, students lack the means to deconstruct the colonial views inevitably internalized in the process of becoming American, or in this case European.
In Yoga & Whiteness, I showed a video titled, 13 Depressing Photographs That Will Make You Lose Your Faith In Humanity. Each photo depicts how Indigenous peoples were forced on display for the Colonial Gaze.
These human zoos occurred in both North America and Europe. One image depicts Ota Benga, a Congolese man, shown at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. He was coerced into carrying around orangutans and other apes while being exhibited right along side them. To understand the relationship between Whites and the scramble for Africa, here is an account of Belgian colonial terror in the Congo.
The 13th image in the series is that of an African girl, probably Congolese, exhibited in a human zoo in Brussels, Belgium, in the year 1958. The image also shows a white boy on the other side of the enclosure and I asked the Europeans, what does this white boy internalize about the situation? What does he come to believe about his own self-concept? About his Ethnic position in the world? About White Supremacy?
The image made me think of an orientalist postcard included in the Smithsonian Exhibit titled, The Art of Transformation: 2000 years of Yoga. The media fact sheet for the show, classifies the gallery in which this particular photo is exhibited in as, Yoga in the Transnational Image, 1850-1940.
“The Gallery explores the exoticized “yogis” that dominated public discourse and popular representations between 1850 and 1940. Highlights include an albumen print of “Yogis” staged and photographed by Collin Murray ( for Bourne and Shepherd) and Thomas Edison’s Hindoo Fakir, the first movie made of an Indian Subject.”
Here is a link to the film, it does not show an Indian subject, but rather the objectified representation of the Indian “subject” imagined by the white mind.
Image: Colonial tableaus, notice the fake grass.
The Smithsonian exhibition was curated by a white woman, whose use of the word transnational obscures the power differential that is the engine behind Colonial rule and extraction. Whether intentional or not, the effect is the same. The curator uses a word that describes something that extends beyond national boundaries, suggesting some kind of mutual participation in the construction of identity, but included in this gallery are images that have been produced solely by the gaze of whites, for their exotic entertainment, highlighting “the micro politics of desire” as proposed through the “libidinal economy.”
The libidinal investment is one of psychological gain and the psychological gain is one of superiority. A show curated by whites, mainly patronized by whites, conveniently obscures the colonial gaze by referring to the gallery as The Transnational Image. 1850-1940 spans the culmination of British Colonial rule in India. Perhaps if the exhibit had not whitewashed the colonial history in India, it could have been an invitation for Euro-American “Yogis” to gain congruency around our Colonial assumptions and entitlements in Yoga, especially with regards to “ownership”. After all, Americans own the stolen land upon which we now live…
If we could name the space where Yoga now resides, we might call this gallery 1947-2015 Yoga in the Transnational Image. Still we would have to reconcile what Champa Rao Mohan sites as ” the excruciating state of inbetweenity…where identities remain clouded in uncertainty because of the complex amalgam that constitutes them.” American “Yogis” have enjoyed an unimpeded foray into the identity and business of Yoga for over a hundred years, but alas, as with all colonial enterprises, resistance is inevitable and a new South Asian intervention “reversing the white gaze” has thrown a wrench in the North American Yoga Industrial Complex. Since 2008 the on-going debate over who “owns” Yoga, and what exactly defines Yoga has dominated the Yoga discourse. The answer depends wholly upon the subjectivity granted to the topic.
Dereck Beres is a North American self-styled, Yoga entrepreneur. He recently wrote a blog post on International Yoga Day. His thesis? Indians, or more specifically, Hindus, only want to reclaim Yoga after the West turned it a billion dollar Industry. For Dereck, International Yoga Day is about India harnessing the monetary value of Yoga for itself. I call this Colonial shaming. The “colonizer,” who extracts great profits from Yoga, chastises the “colonized” when they want to reclaim their own spiritual resources for themselves…
Dereck defines Yoga, not from an Indigenous perspective, but rather quotes another white male subject, Mircea Eliade when he writes, “If the word ‘Yoga’ means many things that is because Yoga is many things,” which is code for I am therefore not constrained by what “Hindus” think Yoga means and am justified in giving it my own meaning. But even more unnerving than the above is the following quote, “It’s hard to separate the spiritual from the physical, especially when the physical bodies traveling to India arrive with wallets. Most incredible about this claim of ownership is that for quite some time, mainstream Indian civilization wanted little to do with yoga.” Dereck presents the Westerner as being a victim of Indian greed, only seen for their wallets. How’s that for inverting the colonial dynamic?
When you look at the semantics of the divide between Indian/Desi Yoga and American Yoga, words tell an interesting story. Originally, the debate began in 2008 when Sheetal Shah, senior director at the Hindu American Foundation, asked Yoga Journal why it had never linked Yoga to Hinduism. Yoga Journal responded by saying, “because it carries baggage.” This reply prompted Ms. Shah to launch Take Back Yoga, which was intended to highlight Yoga’s roots. Where Hindu’s use language like origin or heritage, American “Yogis” revert by colonial default to ownership, so that the debate concerning cultural roots, swiftly becomes a struggle for proprietorship, especially on the part of Western Yoga Entrepreneurs desperate to maintain their investments.
From Dereck Beres and Leslie Kaminoff to Matthew Remski and Carol Horton, “Yogis” across North America will insist that no one can own Yoga, so maybe the question should be changed to whether someone can appropriate Yoga and what is the relationship between cultural appropriation and neo-colonialism? What are the entitlements that the colonizer has over the colonized subject, in this case, the colonized subject being Yoga itself?
Leslie Kaminoff also parades this colonial trope in his article Who Own’s Yoga when he asserts, “The India of 1925 had long rejected her own gift, and Yogis were held by most of society in the lowest esteem possible, associated with street beggars, fakirs, criminals and frauds. The tireless work of Krishnamacharya and his contemporaries resurrected, in decades, what it took India centuries to discard.”
One way to understand India’s relationship to Yoga is by appreciating the Ashrama system, or the four stages of Hindu life, Brahmacarya, Grhasta, Vanaspratha and Sannyasa. Certain Yoga texts and practices were only intended for the Sannyasin, the one who renounces the material condition for the sole pursuit of self-knowledge. While Yoga conceived in this way was never intended for the mainstream, the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita are replete with discussions of Yoga that have been held in the hearts of “mainstream” Hindus for thousands of years before Americans capitalized on the commodification of what it now refers to as Yoga.
Beres’ entire post is littered with imperial perversion, but perhaps the most dangerous is the assumption that mainstream Indian civilization wanted little to do with it’s own heritage. He is met in the comment section with a South Asian subjectivity that he unabashedly continues to marginalize. You can read the whole exchange here…
It is well documented that the British sought to not just undermine the Hindu, but to remake India in its own image as summarized by Thomas Macaulay: “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”
This was done by casting the English as superior and everything Indian as inferior. He also stated that he had “never found one among them, who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia…It is, no exaggeration to say, that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England,”
Writer Champa Rao Mohan describes the post-colonial effects of political subjugation as follows:
“Cultural colonization accomplished what military conquest alone could not have achieved for the colonizers. It paved it’s way into the minds of the colonized and made them complaisant victims. This colonization of the minds maimed the psyche of the colonized in a severe way. It robbed then of all originality and instead, instilled in them a dependency complex. in fact the sense of alienation that the colonized experience and their mimicking tendency have their roots in the feeling of inferiority that was methodically ingrained in the psyche of the colonized through cultural colonization. The crippling effect of this complex manifests itself in the post-independence period in the inability of the former colonized people to stand independently on their own and in their continuing dependence on the west for ideas and technology. Intellectual as well as financial dependence of the third world countries on the West has made them vulnerable to neocolonialism.”
Cultural colonization was implemented to deceive Indians out of appreciating their own rich civilization, supplanting it with the notion that noting of value emerged from India:
“Indians were to be taught that they were a deeply conservative and fatalist people – genetically predisposed to irrational superstitions and mystic belief systems. That they had no concept of nation, national feelings or a history. If they had any culture, it had been brought to them by invaders – that they themselves lacked the creative energy to achieve anything by themselves. But the British, on the other hand epitomized modernity – they were the harbingers of all that was rational and scientific in the world. With their unique organizational skills and energetic zeal, they would raise India from the morass of casteism and religious bigotry.”
This lingering colonial attitude is at the heart of the current East/West debate with respect to the origin/ownership of Yoga, and it needs to be deeply considered and deconstructed before a truly transnational conversation on the identity and meaning of Yoga can occur. When Dereck Beres or Leslie Kaminoff lash out, suggesting Indians didn’t want their own heritage, they are not forwarding the discourse, they are throwing salt on the colonial wound.
What does neocolonialism look like in American Yoga today? Susanne Barkataki in How To Decolonize Your Yoga Practice describes what its like to be South Asian in the landscape of white, American Yoga:
“To be colonized is to become a stranger in your own land. As a Desi, this is the feeling I get in most Westernized yoga spaces today. Of course, powerful practices that reduce suffering persist, despite all attempts to end them. These facts are critical to understanding the power and privilege we continue to possess or lack, to clarifying the positionalities we embody as we practice, teach and share yoga today. “
Image: Artist Chiraag Bhakta
Dereck Beres concludes his article by using the Indigenous Ontology of Samkhya Darshana to scandalize the defense of the colonized. He does this by whitesplaining Vedic concepts, “This notion of ownership, though, is rooted in the same prakrti that the purusa was to be liberated from. It’s hard to recognize that when all you desire is recognition.”
This is how passive aggression works in spiritual community. Technical terms are used to silence critique. Is he really suggesting that the desire for the world to acknowledge the historical origin of Yoga is just some kind of narcissistic ploy for attention on the part of Hindus? Has he really been so bold as to use the Sanskrit words of the very people he seeks to dominate by schooling them out of their own quest for self-determination? What is the recognition that he gains from writing the article and why is there no stated self-awareness of his own stake in the profits?
To suggest that Hinduism comes with baggage while not acknowledging the Judeo-Christian baggage that most Westerners inflict upon their interpretation of Yoga is to continue the debate and the divide by maintaining the asymmetry in “first and third world” politics. I’ll end with a quote from bell hooks, Waking Up to Racism: Dharma Diversity and Race: “We cannot separate the will of so many white comrades to journey in search of spiritual nourishment to the “third world” from the history of cultural imperialism and colonialism that has created a context where such journeying is seen as appropriate, acceptable, an expression of freedom and right.”