Decolonizing Yoga in the West – Annenberg Media

“Yoga is a discipline that opens the door to inner freedom.” -Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

Growing up in California, I was often restless in yoga studios where white, fit instructors guided us through elaborate poses while twisting the word “Ohm.” It was as if this opportunity to align my body and spirit required an open mind and, more importantly, an open wallet. My limited knowledge of yoga at the time led me to see the whole process as a simple trend representing a small group of people I knew I definitely didn’t belong to. Hearing familiar words made me predict that my Indian culture had something to do with the origins of this practice, but I didn’t want to break the bank and endure being “others” to figure out why.

However, my trip to India when I was 18 changed that. This journey was a bridge that connected me to my South Asian heritage, a part I always felt remote from growing up. I was able to see yoga as a beautifully reflective and multifaceted discipline involving limbs, knowledge, wisdom, breath and meditation. I’m starting to realize that it’s not just about posture. It’s a way of life.

I realized that it was important to see people like me immersed in tradition through the use of Sanskrit terminology, tracing the lineage back to the Patanjali Yoga Sutra, and practicing pranayama (breath work), asana ( practice) and meditation. Sitting on the lake in Udaipur, I felt oneness, completely immersed in self-examination – the gateway to true healing. After the trip, I am ready to bring my newfound knowledge back to California and use it in all aspects of student life.

Returning home, however, exposes where whitewashed yoga practice has grown considerably. It’s easy to spot its absence after dipping my toes into the culture of my hometown. As I was about to start my first semester at Miramar Community College in San Diego, I was in the midst of a severe yoga drought. I need holistic practice more than ever.

I got on YouTube and a simple search led me to a diluted stream of predominantly white creators. I don’t see myself being represented. I don’t see a representation of holistic yoga. I can’t forget how markedly different these practices are. Where are the breathing, meditation and deeper dimensions that I am experiencing? Where is the language and culture that I felt before? What is a yoga pose? Goat Yoga? Hot yoga? These puzzling questions eventually drove me to want to make a change.

Yoga, when practiced holistically, brings my body and my mind together. By diluting practice into simple physics, we lose the aspect that goes beyond the pad and into the real world.

For example, when I’m stressed about work, I know I can reach for a toolbox, find “Bhastrika”, the cleansing breath mentioned in the ancient text “Hatha Yoga Pradipika”, and feel a sense of clarity. Between classes, I can also sit down, close my eyes, and meditate.

I started reading ancient scriptures and relearning practical histories dating back thousands of years. I practice Vedic breathing techniques, asanas and meditation twice a day and weave them into my daily activities. The summer before I transferred to USC, I earned a 200-hour yoga certification through Sri Sri School of Yoga, a multidimensional yoga education program in Bangalore, India.

My new title and legacy exposure have ignited my deep passion and connection to the craft. I want more people to experience a practice that goes beyond sun salutations and expensive yoga pants. I want to remove the barriers to entry that have historically prevented marginalized groups from practicing.

I made a proposal to YogaUSC and SKY to start a free weekly yoga class centered on cultural awareness embedded in the practice. Without hesitation, I got the green light and real yoga education was underway.

Looking back on nearly a year of teaching now, I can say with certainty that seeing people from all walks of life entering URC Fishbowl and being exposed to this life-changing discipline has been a highlight of my USC experience. This is intentional. Seeing my peers pick themselves up from the “Savasana” (resting pose), smiling while sharing peace during mid-term and final exams, reminds me why I do what I do. Most importantly, spreading the ancient wisdom was like an homage to my South Asian roots, a love letter to the culture that raised me.

I learned to practice yoga consciously and to be wary of those who practice faces on our behalf. Yoga makes me proud to be South Asian American. It’s part of my identity that I can’t live without. We cannot let that mirror merge into the physical world.

Asking each other and ourselves hard questions about accessibility, learning more about yoga’s lineage and ultimately making people aware of the holistic celebration of ancient traditions for the next generation is crucial.

Shreya Ranganath is a yoga instructor specializing in Sri Sri Yoga.She is there every Wednesday from 6-7pm URC fish tank. Find more information here.


Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: