Honoring Yoga's Roots: The History of Yoga and Colonization

Honoring Yoga's Roots: The History of Yoga and Colonization

Yoga and Colonization Yoga History

Yoga is a spiritual and cherished practice for most of us, and we understand that the practice comes from sacred roots in India.  Yet, yoga has also grown into a billion-dollar industry, and it seems to be increasing in popularity even more over time. With the rise of yoga in the Western world, there has also been an increasing confusion about what yoga really is. Yoga practice has moved quite far from its roots in India, and some say it has become almost unrecognizable from what the yogis of thousands of years ago practiced. 

It is the responsibility of yoga educators and practitioners in the western world to understand and honor the true roots of this practice. The first step to understanding the complexity of this situation is to explore the history of yoga and colonization in India, put this practice in the proper context, and investigate the deeper philosophical traditions of yoga. 

A Brief History of Yoga 

Before diving into this deeper, it is essential to mention that the history of yoga is debated. There is no clear consensus on the chronology and details of this history. But described below is the most common version of these events. 

The ancient Hindu text of the Rig Veda contains the first mention of the word yoga. But the meaning of yoga in this context was not quite the same, and it was not until approximately the 5th century BCE in the Katha Upanishad that the word yoga was used with its modern meaning. Yoga has continued to develop over time, with many different branches, lineages, or traditions arising. 

The first formal text on yoga practice was the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written around 200 BCE to 200 CE. Traditional yoga practice was primarily a practice for ascetics or renunciates, mainly consisting of meditation and breathing techniques to achieve enlightenment. 

Since then, yoga has continued to change and grow with new texts created, such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gherenda Samhita, and Shiva Samhita. Yoga is also not exclusive to Hinduism, with other religions such as Jainism and Buddhism containing mentions and practices of yoga in their classical texts.

But the one common thread among all of these ancient texts is the notable lack of asanas, our yoga postures. Some postures are mentioned in these texts, but there are not more than 84 yoga poses listed. It was not until later in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that yoga postures became the primary practice of yoga, growing to thousands of different postures. 

Yoga became popularized in the western world when Swami Vivekananda came to lecture around Europe and the United States in the 1890s. But the version of yoga that Swami Vivekananda talked about still had its ancient origins in philosophy and spiritual practice. 

Years later, in the early 20th century, Shri Yogendra and Swami Kuvalayananda blended hatha yoga with western gymnastics practices, inspiring the Krishnamacharya lineage, including B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar, and Pattabhi Jois to teach modern postural yoga in the United States. Since then, yoga has continued to grow and change over time, spreading almost worldwide. 

Yoga and Colonization 

Throughout this history, it is also important to remember that between the time of the proliferation of traditional yogic texts and the dissemination of modern postural yoga in the western world was a crucial incident: the colonization of India by the British. 

During the period of colonization, Indians were forbidden from engaging in their traditional yoga practices as they were essentially banned. This led to a catastrophic loss of knowledge and the breaking of lineages that are essential in passing down the essence of yogic wisdom. 

This may be in part why during this exact same period of time, yoga transformed from its traditional form and became infiltrated by Western gymnastics into something entirely different and mostly detached from its spiritual and philosophical origins. 

In modern times, it is far less common than one might expect to walk into a yoga studio and find a yoga teacher of Indian origin in the United States or Europe. Many teachers and scholars argue that yoga is going through a second colonization through the misrepresentation of the true depth of yoga practice. Yoga is a complex and deep philosophical tradition, and when we can understand and bring this depth into our yoga practice, it can have a profound impact on us and the world at large. 

The Importance of Yoga Philosophy 

Yoga goes so much deeper than a downward-facing dog. Many yoga students, and even some yoga teachers, don't realize that yoga is more of a philosophy than anything else. Yoga provides us with a systematic path to reaching awakening or enlightenment, which some argue is the ultimate goal of human life. 

Originally, yoga was never a physical practice aimed at weight loss or stress relief. Yoga poses were intended to prepare the body for the more profound meditation practices and merely served as the vehicle for understanding and practicing yoga philosophy. 

Yoga is a beautiful and vastly complex philosophical system. As you begin to explore these teachings, you may discover for yourself how it has the potential to transform your life. Ultimately, in this process, yoga teaches us that we can unify mind, body, and spirit with the divine through a deep understanding of our ultimate oneness with ourselves and everything around us. 

What is Cultural Appropriation? 

The main hotly debated topic in yoga circles today is whether or not modern yoga practice is a form of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is often defined as the inappropriate use of another culture's practices or elements of that culture by a person who is not a member of the original culture. So, the critical question here is whether or not the use of yoga practices is inappropriate. 

There are certainly many examples of globalization, cross-cultural communication, and the adoption of another culture's practices worldwide. But the element that makes the difference between appropriation and appreciation in these situations is respect and honor for the original culture. 

Some yoga scholars argue that the hyperfocus on asana or yoga poses is an act of cultural appropriation because it strips away the true spiritual essence of yoga. There are certainly many different ways to approach this topic. But the most important thing is to remain aware of yoga's historical roots, deep complexity, and philosophical origins. 

Additionally, this absolutely does not mean that only Indians can or should teach and practice yoga. The importance is to remember the origins of yoga with respect, appreciate the beauty of this practice, and try and honor that in any way that feels right to you. 

How Can We Practice Decolonized Yoga? 

There are many different opinions on exactly how to practice decolonized yoga. Still, again at the end of the day, it is all about honoring the roots of yoga, practicing with respect and appreciation, and continuing to dive deep into the true essence of yoga teachings. 

Here is a brief list of some ways that you might consider trying to decolonize your yoga practice: 

1. Ask yourself what the intention is of each practice you add to your yoga classes or personal practice, and inquire within yourself whether it is respectful and appreciative or not. 

2. Consider reading the original yoga texts or consulting advanced yoga teachers of South Asian descent.

3. Don't be afraid to ask hard questions both of yourself and of others. 

4. Seek out accurate cultural references. 

5. Embody and share the full eight limbs of yoga. 

6. Dive deeper into the wisdom of yoga philosophy. 

7. Recognize the limitations of your own knowledge. 

8. Be humble and never stop learning or growing. 

Additionally, making yoga spaces more accessible and diverse is a critical step to take. When you search yoga on Google, Instagram, or Facebook, you will primarily be greeted with images of thin, young, white women contorting their bodies into difficult positions inaccessible to most. Yoga is now mainly for the wealthy or privileged in many areas. But historically, this was not the case. 

By creating more welcoming atmospheres for different individuals and all populations, offering sliding scale payment options, affordable yoga, or even inviting guest teachers of South Asian descent, we can begin to break down this barrier. What are some ways that you can think of to honor yoga's roots? There is no one right way to approach this topic, so I encourage you to take this as an exciting learning opportunity and get creative! 

Learn How to Honor Yoga's Roots in Your Yoga Practice 

Understanding the depths of yoga is a lifelong journey, but it can genuinely provide transformation and awakening when done with this intention. At Online Yoga School, we do our best to honor the roots of yoga in all of our trainings to provide a strong foundation for each budding yoga teacher that steps through our doors. 

To assist in this process, we offer a yoga philosophy continuing education course. Additionally, our unique 250-hour yoga teacher training program has a deeper emphasis on yoga philosophy, providing much more than what you will find in the average yoga teacher training. We strive to keep yoga accessible, affordable and authentic with our tuition rates and payment plans.  Reach out to us today to get more information on how you can truly begin to honor yoga's roots in your yoga practice and as a skilled yoga teacher.


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