Confessions Of A Brown Yoga Teacher

 Photograph by Patricia Ellah

Photograph by Patricia Ellah

By Janika Oza

Cramped next to the dining table, clad in pajamas, we’d sit cross-legged, eyes closed, breathing. It took place on Sunday afternoons, when a family friend or two would come over, bringing a cassette player that leaked gentle chanting into the room. I only remember bits and pieces—feeling light-headed from rounds of kapalbhati, reading passages of the Bhagavad Gita before bed, my dad falling asleep during meditation—but the practice of yoga was firmly entrenched in my childhood.

Years later, I often find myself standing at the front of a room full of yoga mats, where fifteen lithe, white bodies look back at me, waiting for class to begin. When I press play on my phone, my Spotify playlist hums with the same chants from my memories, melting my nerves.

Since practicing with my family as a child, I have reliably come back to yoga during any stage of pain or discomfort in my life. It has been integral to my healing and growth, and my decision to become a yoga teacher felt as natural as slipping into my mother’s old clothes. I wanted to kindle the kind of healing that yoga has given me, creating space in my classes for growth and compassion. What I didn’t realize was how detached my lived experience of yoga would be from what I’d be expected to teach. 

Yoga in the Western context means predominantly white classes, taught by white instructors, in expensive yoga studios. What much of the West considers yoga is merely a fragment of the practice, which encompasses meditation, breathing, ethical standards, and spiritual observances. People of colour are consistently underrepresented in these spaces, which tends to diminish the spiritual pillars of yoga and instead present an exercise class that caters to young, thin, white bodies.

The phenomenon calls into question the accessibility of yoga and healing practices to communities of colour, and as someone who learned yoga outside of this context, I find navigating its turn towards exclusive practices is at best confusing, and at worst demeaning.

 

 Photograph by Patricia Ellah

Photograph by Patricia Ellah

During my yoga teacher training in Toronto, I quickly understood that the knowledge and practices passed down from my family were not valued. I couldn’t find my history in this yoga.  Now, as an Indian yoga teacher in white spaces, I occupy a strange place: trying to honour the yogic tradition that I grew up with and simultaneously feeling unwelcome in the space. I need to make the class palatable to Western tastes: I must ensure that my students break a sweat, limit the amount of seated meditation time, and refrain from using too many Sanskrit terms. I couldn’t wear a bindi while teaching a class, the way I have seen white counterparts do. The Western adoption of Eastern practices adds legitimacy to them: on a brown face, those traditions are ethnic; on a white face, they are exotic, and accepted. 

At the end of my first class, I put my hands together, thanked the students for practicing with me and gave them a smile. No one moved. I had not yet said the magic word that ends all yoga classes, releasing students into the blissful post-yoga state: Namaste. It was an intentional omission. Saying “Namaste” at the end of a yoga class, much like placing a Hindu idol in a studio or wearing “OM” on a T-shirt, is a kind of faux-spirituality. It’s conveniently tacked on to a practice otherwise divorced from its roots. 

The audience in my classes comes seeking a certain authenticity, but their idea of authenticity is often selective, more often to do with essential oils and quick fixes than with a desire to understand what yoga really means. But spirituality is not convenient, and yoga is more philosophic lifestyle than handstand. This selective method allows those in control—most often those with access to wealth, power and racial privilege—to reject the parts of a tradition that are too foreign or demanding, while co-opting other parts from those who are historically marginalized. It means picking and choosing pieces of yoga, Ayurvedic tradition and South Asian culture, without making space for a full appreciation of the culture or those who belong to it. It’s a classically North American approach: customizing an ancient practice and then claiming to have discovered it.

Although yoga has been branded as something that can instantly clear the mind, create inner peace and build abs in the span of a lunch hour, it is not a convenient individual fix for capitalist excess. I know of nothing that is. But yoga should be a place where we can rejuvenate and take up space. It is a place to find community, union and balance. Communities of colour need these spaces to be open to us, where our healing is not just included but prioritized. And it is the responsibility of those who want to teach yoga to pay homage to its roots and make space for those who aren’t in the room.

Wellness should not be reserved for certain bodies, and our traditions shouldn’t have to be rebranded to be taken seriously. Rather, we should examine what’s at stake and act with intention: to consider, before we consume, what we are consuming, who is benefiting from it and how it came to be. Authenticity comes from a desire to expand the margins of our understanding—to truly, humbly listen.

Janika Oza is a writer and an educator living in Toronto. Her work is published/forthcoming in Looseleaf Magazine and Homonym Journal, and she is a recipient of the VONA/Voices Fellowship.