Decolonizing Yoga: A Love Your Body Week Event

During Love Your Body Week, Landis student workers hosted a wonderful event titled The Gentrification of Yoga & Ways to Decolonize Yoga Practice. When I first read about this event, I was immediately intrigued by both its name and relevance to the yoga practices I have previously taken part in. After a breakout room in which we discussed our personal relationships to the practice, we all came together to learn a bit about the religious origins of yoga. As some may already know, yoga originated from Hinduism as a way of reaching spiritual liberation and connecting to a higher being. While there is physicality involved in the spiritual practices, the mental practice is also equally important. One part of the event was a short, guided practice where we focused on our breathing and mental awareness. I enjoyed this because not only did it carve out a moment of meditation into my day, but it also didn’t require me to be actively moving in order to feel the benefits.

Relationships to exercise can be very complicated. We are given differing messages from society that we should exercise to burn fat or to improve our mental health, that there are both physical and mental benefits to exercise. Because of this, it can be hard to find healthy motivating factors to work out. In a world where we are constantly bombarded with messages that conflate health and weight, most exercise programs market themselves as ways to “burn fat and calories” or see physical “results” in one’s body. If our exercising is so focused on changing our bodies in aggressive, oftentimes restrictive ways, how can we also focus on the mental benefits of it?

This is the issue I have found while trying to form a healthy exercise routine in college. For 14 years I took ballet classes that were so ingrained in my normal life, I wasn’t sure how to replace them when I came to college. I wasn’t interested in the extreme time commitments and rehearsals that dance required, but I missed the mental clarity I got while dancing. I did not find this clarity in the Kline, where gym culture made me feel as if I needed to be working out in a particular, cardio-intensive way. But then I went to a few of Dickinson’s group fitness classes, like the Sunday night yoga class, where I started to again feel the mental clarity and restorement that ballet used to give me. Over the summer and during winter breaks, I would then take yoga classes at the Y, and eventually summoned the courage to join a hot yoga studio.

From my experiences, hot yoga studios hold a unique place in the fitness world. The teachers are often female, and it attracts a large crowd of upper-middle class, white folks looking for the combination of inward and outward “cleansing.” Most classes I have taken start and end with a meditative group ‘om,’ use breathing to center oneself in the practice, and also encourage people to move at a pace and intensity that best suits their body. Sounds like an inclusive, healthy practice, right? For my white, straight sized self, it was.

Despite the marketed universality of yoga, it is often expensive and held in white-dominated spaces that make it difficult for all people to have access and feel comfortable doing it. There is the commodification of the practice that makes one think they need all the supplies (blocks, blankets, lights, workout clothes, etc.) to practice properly, when in reality all you need is space, your body, and possibly a mat if you want extra padding underneath you. Yoga studios are also spaces for thin, straight-sized bodies to come together and showcase physical strength and flexibility, which can alienate folks who are fat or simply unable to balance on their head for two whole minutes. As someone whose positionality makes it so that I’m not automatically estranged from these spaces, it is my job to think about whether or not they are being truly inclusive.

After the Decolonizing Yoga event, I have thought a lot about how the studio I currently take virtual classes with is not the most inclusive space. The virtual monthly membership is not cheap, so I can’t even imagine what a regular, in-person membership costs. The instructors I have had are all white, and physically fit in the conventionally thin, athletic way. And the rhetoric used in classes is frequently about pushing ourselves and going further than we’ve gone before. Since this event, I have tried avoiding the teachers who do this the most, and instead try to stick with those who make an actual effort to teach an open, mindful class. Do I enjoy the feeling I get when I hold a pose longer than I ever have before? Yes. But do I appreciate when the teacher tells us to not quit and push ourselves as far as we can go? No.

This form of exercise rhetoric is, in my opinion, the opposite of what yoga should be. It makes a traditionally spiritual practice into another form of high-intensity, body sculpting that doesn’t allow room for mental clarity. Aggressive yoga can invoke a sense of individual ineptitude and shame, that makes the practice even more exclusive. It’s as if the American, neoliberal idea of ‘anyone can do anything if they work hard enough,’ is being perpetuated in a dang yoga class. I don’t want to make all hot yoga studios sound villainous and toxic, but it is important to find a place that fits your goals and values.

So, when thinking about how to decolonize the practice in my day to day life, I will try and avoid studios that use pushy, exercise-focused teaching styles which perpetuate athletic elitism. Looking back, the free yoga in the park events that I went to in Atlanta were great ways to open up the practice to lots of people. The YMCA was also an affordable option where one was taking yoga classes with people of all different ages and backgrounds. What is really important going forward will be finding teachers that actively implement an inclusive, non-judgmental environment that focuses on the mental benefits of yoga. We all have minds and worries that can benefit from the mindfulness of yoga.

Written by Maddy Smith ’21, WGRC Student Worker

February 22, 2021