It’s our annual YogaDork’s State of the Yoga Union. We’ve asked a few select leaders and thinkers to share their reflections, predictions and perspectives on the year of yoga that was, 2015, the year of yoga that will be in 2016, and the state of the (yoga) union.
by Susanna Barkataki
We are at a time, as Sri Aurobindo foreshadowed, where “the practice of Yoga brings us face to face with the extraordinary complexity of our own being.”
We are in the heart of a big sea change in Western yoga. Change is rarely smooth. And this moment is no different. Where we are now in yoga, and perhaps also in ourselves, is more divided than we’ve been. Some of us are noticing things we’ve never noticed before. Such as the lack of diversity in our yoga classes. Many of us are finally being heard on things we’ve been saying a long time, such as, “we need more diversity in our yoga classes.”
2015 was the year yoga in the west got rocked. The sign went up, brakes squealed noisily on wanton cultural appropriation in yoga.
We’ve heard heated debates over yoga’s roots and over whether it is religious or secular. We’ve publicly begun a celebration of yoga in varied sizes, forms and abilities as well as embraced more possibilities for yoga and social change. We’ve seen, in a disturbing line that continues, one of the biggest names in Western Yoga, Bikram Choudhury, accused of misusing his position, sexual assault and rape. We saw a safe space POC yoga class in Seattle get shut down through disturbing threats and mob mentality. We saw many people ask and create safe spaces in response. We saw huge, complex controversy over the University of Ottawa yoga class shutdown connected to claims of cultural appropriation — as well as a huge backlash against this claim.
Where we are now is awakening to the perspectives and stories that haven’t been told. We are also in an exciting time. Through the breakdown comes breakthrough.
Many movements to bring more unity in yoga emerged. The movement of embracing yoga for all bodies exploded across Instagram and the web. The work of folks like the Yoga and Body Image Coalition proliferated, as the call resonated, and more people started to feel comfortable practicing, despite stereotype threats that may keep them out of a yoga space.
We saw the movement of folks to share yoga and service and yoga and social justice spring up far and wide. The goal of making yoga accessible caught on. In today’s culture, the cost to practice is very expensive and that is a real barrier for many communities, especially for working class communities of color. These areas financial barriers and there is a perception of belonging or exclusion in that kind of yoga space that makes it exclusive. There are many organizations working to change this, and many forms of community yoga. The Yoga Service Council is one who is doing all they can to share yoga to as many communities as possible, making it accessible.
There’s a movement of safe space in yoga studios, where more and more teachers are seeking to be trauma-informed. More and more spaces are acknowledging the need for specific classes for different community groups.
We are also witnessing a movement of massive visibility and leadership of people of color in yoga today. If you visited a studio class in most cities, or did an internet search, you wouldn’t know it. But this is about to change. Powerful leaders of color are speaking up about their practice, sharing their words, ideas, teachings with the world.
Yoga is learning to dance with the rough waves and not so graceful changes. So, at this time of sea-change, as yogis, we need to ask ourselves: where do we as a yoga community, need to go?
At its roots, yoga has always been syncretic and inclusive. Yoga’s culture is changing and we are a crucial part of that. So how do we move forward? None of us are neutral on this flowing vinyasa of history.
As teachers, and leaders of our classes or a yoga movement, we need to operate on the level of full transparency. How we behave in our personal life matters. What we say at the beginning of class, matters.
In the west, we live a consumer culture. If we engage with yoga only in this way, to see what we can get, take, have, or make money from, we are appropriating it just like the colonial powers did in centuries before this one. Instead of land, its just cultural objects, ideas and practices.
The practice of yoga itself never belonged to any religion, though it may have emerged alongside a few. It isn’t a practice anyone can lay claim to. And, at the same time, it is really important to honor and appreciate where a practice comes from.
If, at the beginning of class, say, we engage with heart and humility, share a bit about who we are, why we do what we do, how we learned yoga we share our reverence for the practice. With an attitude of inquiry, cultural responsiveness, where we are still learning, still growing, we go a long way towards undermining the appropriative. By living as much according to the ethical codes and sharing all limbs of practice we deepen the cultural understanding of yoga as well as our own journeys.
We yogis are part of the awakening in our culture to mind, body and spiritual integration. To deeper understandings of wellness. To a culture that asks questions about what is actually important, relevant. To people understanding their unity with one another.
We are called to take our practice far beyond our mats, home to family, friends, expanding to community, business practices and beyond.
We will see and encourage, more diversity of voices, more practitioners from all walks of life; all shapes, shades, genders, colors and ages. Householder yogis who practice in sincerity and depth, integration and syncretism.
We need to look for who isn’t at the table, in the studio, on the cover the magazine and ask for more collaborators and more voices. This gets us unique perspectives in yoga and allows people to speak to the issue in a way not spoke to for larger community.
The practice of yoga in the west would ideally evolve and change to acknowledge yoga’s roots, where it came from, and practice the fullness it has to offer. It has so much to include. Practicing all 8 limbs as much as possible, as practicing, studying, and teaching those could take a lifetime! It could include diet, lifestyle, meditation, mindfulness these and other practices. Teachers could live the morals more fully. And share them, in non-dogmatic ways, so even in a studio or gym class, people would come to understand the far reaching benefits, and learn that yoga is not necessarily just something done for fitness or for physical health. Yoga is something that is for the well being of all: mental, emotional, physical, spiritual growth and well-being.
Taking this inclusive exploration of the “extraordinary complexity of our being” we can, perhaps, come closer to the unity that yoga offers us both as individuals and as society.
Susanna Barkataki, M.Ed. E-RYT 500, is a writer, speaker and educator working at the intersection of self-care, yoga, Ayurveda, socially informed entrepreneurship, and healing. She is a viral Wellness and Yoga Blogger, regular columnist for Huffington Post Healthy Living, and has been featured in Elephant Journal and Everyday Feminism magazine. She’s honored to be a member of the core community of mindfulness with Thich Nhat Hanh as well as serve on the board of the Yoga Service Council making yoga and mindfulness equally accessible to all. Find out more about Susanna at www.susannabarkataki.com
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