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DECOLONIZING FAR AND NEAR NO.4

FAR-NEAR senior editor Ariana here. Thanks for reading this week's newsletter! 
With the summer coming to a close, we're winding down the streak of sports-themed issues and transitioning to the next chapter. When I first began practicing yoga, the omnipresence, even dominance, of white yoga teachers surprised me. I understood that yoga was rooted in Indian spiritual philosophy, but it wasn't until a Bengali friend noted that the practice comes from a Hindu religious text that I came to question just how much of yoga's roots have been erased by Western practice. At the outset, I'd like to say that this newsletter is not intended to discourage anyone from enjoying yoga, nor is it to educate about yoga itself (as such a discussion would take more than one newsletter and ought to come from a true yogi, preferably with cultural ties to the practice). Rather, we aim to suggest that any cultural practice that has gone through a Western capitalist filter should be revisited with critical thought. And finally, many thanks to Lulu for making sure all bases were covered and for adding resources for mindful yoga practice.

COLONIZATION, COMMODIFICATION, AND THE RISE OF YOGA™
September 2, 2020 · Curated by Ariana King, Edited by Lulu Yao Gioiello

Photo by Maria Kanevskaya (@musiy)

The Origins of Yoga

The word "yoga" comes from the Sanskrit root verb yuj, to yoke, join or unite. It means divine union. Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati defines yoga as “a state where nothing is missing.” It is not a religion, but rather a discipline and a part of an ancient philosophy dating back 5000 years. Yoga is practiced across Buddhist, Hindu and Jain traditions. Although there is no written record of the inventor of yoga, the earliest written record comes from Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written 2,000 years ago. Prior to this account, students and teachers passed the philosophy through spoken word. 

Medical News Today succinctly lays out the six branches of yoga,

  • Hatha yoga: This is the physical and mental branch designed to prime the body and mind. 
  • Raja yoga: This branch involves meditation and strict adherence to a series of disciplinary steps known as the “eight limbs” of yoga.
  • Karma yoga: This is a path of service that aims to create a future free from negativity and selfishness. Gandhi is known to have practiced this form.
  • Bhakti yoga: This aims to establish the path of devotion, a positive way to channel emotions and cultivate acceptance and tolerance.
  • Jnana yoga: This branch of yoga is about wisdom, the path of the scholar, and developing the intellect through study.
  • Tantra yoga: This is the pathway of ritual, ceremony, or consummation of a relationship.

Medical News Today claims "the tradition began to gain popularity in the West at the end of the 19th century. An explosion of interest in postural yoga occurred in the 1920s and 1930s, first in India and later in the West." 

The Commodification of Yoga

Yoga is so ingrained in Western popular culture today that a Western "yogi" might spend hours of their life in Downward-Facing Dog and never pause to consider the history or context of the practice. Most practitioners understand that yoga comes from India and have some consciousness of its spiritual and religious roots. Yet, the average yogi is more familiar with Lululemon, Bikram and Adriene Mishler than the Rig Veda. So how has yoga come to be associated with tight pants and health-conscious white women? 

According to a 2019 Eventbrite blog post catered to yoga instructors in the U.S., “The average yogi spends $62,640 over their lifetime on classes, workshops, and accessories — or nearly $90 per month.” The global yoga industry was worth $80bn in 2017, according to The Guardian. This year, the U.S. yoga industry alone is projected to earn around $11.5bn in revenue, according to Statista. It’s more than a bit ironic that a highly spiritual practice should be such a prolific money-maker. And yet, since its introduction to the capitalist West, yoga has grown into a multibillion dollar industry, exploding in popularity in tandem with the wellness market. 

This commercialization of yoga is at the heart of a 2014 project by Indian American artist Chiraag Bhakta, which was hosted by San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum in collaboration with the Smithsonian for the traveling exhibition “Yoga: The Art of Transformation.” In Bhakta’s words, “Yoga has been put in an ironic position: Colonized and commodified, a tradition rooted in detachment and equanimity has been hijacked by a grasping possessiveness. I titled my work #WhitePeopleDoingYoga.”

In an artist statement, Bhakta writes of his inspiration for the exhibit: 

“I became interested in how yogic practice was being mined and commercialized; in how the South Asian face of the discipline was being removed in the branding and portrayal of the practice and culture. Now, an image search for ‘Yoga’ mainly returns images of white people in various poses, followed by images of dogs and cats doing the same.”

“...the South Asian face and voice is relegated to an exotic caricature — cartoons, adoption of South Asian names by white Westerners, mystical creatures, Hindu gods. One archival study of seminal health and wellness magazine, Yoga Journal, found that over the course of two years ‘there was never a South Asian person on the cover, and less than 1% of content contributors were South Asian.’”

Bhakta’s aim is not necessarily to criticize white people for doing yoga, but to address the West’s commodification of yoga and ignorance of colonial history that has resulted, time and again, in white people disproportionately profiting from the resources provided by people of color. Yoga is just one example. What makes yoga particularly interesting to Bhakta is the consistent positive association with it. In an interview with FAR—NEAR, Bhakta shared his thoughts.

“I’m fine with conscious white people with a good understanding of colonial history practicing yoga, but I still want to make sure they understand what they're contributing to” he said, adding that there’s a bonus if the platform is being used to elevate and empower POC communities. “But there are people that make a living off of yoga who don’t know the history. If you really knew the history, you would slow that shit down.”

A sample of yoga paraphernalia featured in Bhakta's 2014 exhibit, "#WhitePeopleDoingYoga" (Photo by Chiraag Bhakta)

"Since white people have cornered the market, what ways can people practice yoga without going through white supremacy? In most cases, if you want to consume it, It’s forced through a white lens.

The culture of white supremacy is so in your face with its aggressive marketing as a cultural norm those who don’t want to participate in the culture of aggressive marketing will also be overshadowed. So since you can’t separate capitalism from white supremacy, that competitive nature is always going to seek to dominate. Colonialism is an example of how that’s shown in the world. It’s the only way that capitalism really relates to anything. When capitalism encounters something that is not trying to relate through competition and domination, for example a cultural object or spiritual practice, it then colonizes that thing. Ironically this is the opposite of what yoga is based on, so it’s not only co-opting it, it’s perverting it.

So with that said, is there really a way for even a conscious white person to practice yoga without contributing to colonization?"

“If yoga helps you, do it. But you don’t need to fall into the marketing of it, I'm all about sharing cultures” Bhakta said. “Once there’s a money exchange to a completely oblivious company or individual — it’s a hard line, and you’re contributing. You are part of the problem.”

Bhakta's "#WhitePeopleDoingYoga" exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco (Photo by Chiraag Bhakta)

Hindutva, Another Voice of White Supremacy

The link between yoga and white supremacy goes beyond bourgeois yoga studios, Bhakta noted. Yoga is being used as a tool of Hindutva — Hindu nationalism — another voice of white supremacy, which is being codified through the policies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Bhakta suggested. Modi has used yoga’s soft power strength to promote Indian culture and his agenda internationally through various events and campaigns. On June 21 of this year, the United Nations celebrated the sixth International Day of Yoga, an unofficial holiday that was established via a General Assembly resolution during Modi’s first year in office. 

Ultimately, Bhakta says, it’s critical to be mindful of the systems and structures you might be contributing to, even when what you’re doing appears as benign or “positive” as yoga. He draws a parallel to the Jain philosophy that his parents follow, which suggests that all living things have a soul, including bacteria. “[My parents] try to be conscious of each step they take and avoid killing shit as much as they can,” he explained. 

With racism so embedded in our structures and institutions, this philosophy contains wisdom for all of us. As Bhakta suggests, whenever you’re engaging with the system, consider taking a moment to reflect: “What the fuck are you stepping on?”

Quote, Think, Read, Listen

Confronting the Capitalist and Casteist Appropriations of Yoga

"Somewhere between the insulting kitschy 'beer yoga' and 'hip hop yoga' trends, it quickly became evident how Western capitalism has violently stripped away the very essence of yoga and what it represents at its core. Western capitalism has robbed yoga of its Saucha (purity) by breaking a core philosophical principle of Asteya (non-stealing)." Indian-American yoga teacher Neha Sharma addresses the forgotten South Asian roots of yoga in an interview with Studio Ānanda producer Prinita Thevarajah.

Read the interview here
 

On Institutional Racism in the Arts: A conversation with Chiraag Bhakta

In 2019, Indian American artist Chiraag Bhakta penned an article for Mother Jones about his experience working on his 2014 installation, “#WhitePeopleDoingYoga,” with The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. In the article, he reveals the condescension he faced from a mostly white group of curators for daring to put together a show that commented on the commodification and appropriation of yoga. FAR–NEAR spoke with Bhakta, an outspoken antiracist, about racism in the American art world, and the personal experiences that shaped his work.

Read the interview here

Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America

Author Vivek Bald tells the story of Indian Muslim immigrants to America, beginning in the late 19th century and in the decades that followed. Bald "reveals a lost history of South Asian sojourning and life-making in the United States. At a time when Asian immigrants were vilified and criminalized, Bengali Muslims quietly became part of some of America’s most iconic neighborhoods of color." A documentary, "In Search of Bengali Harlem," is slated to appear on PBS in 2021. (Recommended by Chiraag Bhakta.)

Read the book and preview the documentary

Hindu Nationalism and White Supremacy — One and the Same

In a Medium article, Aparna Priyadarshi highlights the intersections between the ideologies of Hindu Nationalism and White Supremacy. In particular, she notes shared strategies of fear-mongering, bigotry against ethnic/religious minorities and an obsession with preserving "religious and racial relics and symbols."

Read the article here

 

Reflections
  1. When engaging in an activity strongly associated with another culture (such as yoga or martial arts), consider: how much of the cultural context and history do you know?
  2. When buying yoga apparel or mats, do you know who or where the money is going to?
  3. Do you push back when someone challenges a positive impression you have about a cultural practice, (i.e. yoga, meditation)? Is this a gut reaction, or an informed response?
  4. What ways can people practice yoga without going through white supremacy?

We are currently working to develop an online forum for discussion. In the meantime, we encourage you to share your responses to these questions, thoughts and feedback with info@far-near.media. We may request permission to post your response on social media.

A Little Joy – How and Where to Practice Mindful Yoga

Studio Ānanda's new monthly newsletter takes a look at "being well" through interviews and delightful graphics to remind us how to tackle each day a bit more mindfully. (Ānanda also means "joy" in Bangla!)

Read past issues and sign up here

"Autobiography of a Yogi" is an autobiography of Paramahansa Yogananda, globally considered a spiritual master, first published in 1946. It's a recommended read for anyone who's interested in Indian philosophy, especially Yoga meditation.

Read it for free online

Yogawalla offers a list of POC yoga instructors to practice with, providing detailed bios and styles of each teacher.

See the list here
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