127 Let’s Talk About Yoga & [British] Colonialism (Through a Secondary Colonialist Lens)
Illustration by: Ben Passmore
Colleges host yoga classes all of the time. People incorporate the ritual of exercise classes into their routines and say, “I’m going to a yoga class tonight at eight, you should come!” Fitness is a lifestyle, Students on Plymouth State’s campus take a Wellness Connection course, or go to the yoga classes offered at the gym. During my Stress Management course last night, our professor announced that she had invited a yoga instructor to teach us how to do yoga. People often say, “You’ll be more flexible!” or, “You’ll tone your body!” If you think about the origins of yoga, the Western definition of yoga has been significantly altered through a fitness-centered capitalist mindset.
This transferal of perspectives leads me to my yoga class yesterday evening. My Stress Management professor lead us to the aerobics room on the fourth floor of the D&M building, where we found an energetic woman whose legs were wrapped in bright, patterned yoga pants. She was barefoot, and told us we didn’t need to take our socks off. The class was an hour and ten minutes long, and our yoga teacher was disgruntled by the lack of energy all of us had at 6:30pm on a Tuesday. She told us that she taught many different styles and practices of yoga, which got no response. The yoga instructor did not preface the class with information about yoga, and no one asked. The majority of us had taken a yoga class before, only one student said he had never done yoga in his life.
With this in mind, we began the yoga practice for the next hour and ten minutes. At the end of the class, our yoga teacher told us all to put our hands together and say, “namaste”. She then said a few words in another language, Sanskrit, which was originally used to communicate with the Hindu Gods. I approached the teacher afterward and asked her what language she spoke, and she assured me that she always translated the words into English so people understood what she meant. This is a woman who is not a P.O.C. and teaches in the predominantly white region of northern New Hampshire. Much to my dismay, she was not aware of the historical significance her words carried, nor did she transfer contextual knowledge to the students in my class.
By attending a yoga class, Western students are essentially consuming the Indian culture. This represents, to me, a form of secondary colonialism in that the narrative of yoga practice is changed entirely, and subtly filtered through the premise of a fitness class. The Indian culture is overshadowed by a capitalist enterprise, and thus yoga begins to reflect Western values. My mind immediately connected back to one specific sentence in Jamaica Kincaid’s essay, A Small Place:
The water — have you ever seen anything like it? Far out, to the horizon, the color of the water is navy-blue; nearer, the water is the color of the North American sky. (Rivkin & Ryan, p1227)
Reflecting our own norms and values submerges the practice of yoga in the water of capitalism, and drowns the possibility of accessing the core of Indian culture. People are told that they will feel connected to others through yoga, and more in touch with themselves. Our yoga teacher glossed over where yoga came from, and I’m not sure if this is entirely detrimental and unavoidable. I suppose one way to avoid secondary colonialism is at the very least acknowledging the culture of origin as a sort of salute. Colonial residue is not temporary, though secondary colonialism requires a temporary experience that is not consciously embedded within the umbrella of colonialism.
Yoga becomes a constructed object that is passively instructed in a college aerobics room, and there is no representation of the Indian culture. Growing up with Indian families in Belgium, I realize that each yoga pose holds significance, but my classmates cannot draw from that experience. Whose responsibility is it, then, to explain the cultural narrative that yoga communicates? Does a non-Indian have the authority to do so?