Western Yoga “Norms”


The photo I have used for this blog was sent to me by a friend who knows I am reading this book. What an amazing example of how every kind of company we can think of – from insurance to yogurt to pancake mix has appropriated yoga terms and images for its own benefit. No wonder this book needed to be written, and even more so why we need to pay attention.

Parts 4 and 5 In Chapter III continue with looking at Western Yoga through the lens of systemic racism and oppression. These forces create “norms” within our greater culture and also within the microcosm of the Western Yoga Community. If we are honest with ourselves, yoga is not untouched by inequality and representation issues that occur in society at large, no matter how much we would like to rise above. It takes conscious effort to raise yoga communities to the standard that yoga itself asks individuals to hold themselves to.

“White supremacy is a system that privileges one group over all others. The issue is, white supremacy encompasses beliefs that often are unconscious, implicit biases…Yoga today has a white supremacy culture problem.”

Embrace Yoga’s Roots – pgs 76-77

Western Yoga does have a “look” that I think would be familiar to so many of us. Companies have made millions on yoga pants, yoga tops, yoga mats, yoga mat carriers, etc…to ensure that the “monoculture” of white upper middle class women are outfitted for their practice. As Susanna Barkataki reminds us, a simple scroll through Instagram these days tells the whole story. “A sea of thin, white, cis-gendered women grace the screen. This is true in yoga magazines and in most mainstream yoga outlets in the West.” (pg 90) I love the question that Susanna asks herself at the end of section 4 on page 78 – “For a practice meant to be freeing, why are the images so confining?”

I think it is important that we all read the lists between pages 73 and 84 on oppressive norms, biases, micro-agressions, and more. There are so many points to consider and reflect for ourselves as we navigate our Western Yoga communities and spaces. Most Yoga communities tend to fall into “spiritual bypassing” (pages 85 and 86), assuming we all act in the world as if “we all are one”, when the reality is far from that truth. There are many who would prefer to think that their individual practice is “something separate” or “untouched” by systemic cultural issues, but this is impossible. The eight limbs of Yoga begin with the Yamas and Niyamas and they are a reminder that we have duties not only to our own self, but to the communities we live in and the world around us, no matter our privilege, time, or place.(Yoga Sutra II.31)

“Yoga world, if you are tired of hearing about colonization, racism and erasure, think for a breath about how tired some of us are experiencing it.”

Susanna Barkataki – pg 84 – Embrace Yoga’s Roots

Who is seen in yoga? Who is represented? Look around and ask yourself that question. It can be difficult to identify and sometimes painful to realize, but awareness is a key aspect of yoga practice that can unveil uncomfortable truths. We have to acknowledge that not everyone has had access to all that we have had access to, and it is our individual awareness that can begin to permeate our greater community. “Unity” means connection and not separation. We cannot continue to see ourselves as something separate from the society we live in.

I found the last part of Chapter III quite interesting and informative. The comparison and distinction on race and ethnicity is an important one, and for sure one that Westerners do struggle with. Yoga was “created, codified, developed and taught by Brown people for thousands of years” (pg 90), so how did we come to a place where a Brown person feels excluded from its practice? This is a complex issue, but one that can be looked at straight on, and with new clarity, new action can be taken.

This Week’s Reading – Chapter IV Reflection – Parts 1 and 2

Jennie Williford CIYT

Jennie Williford (CIYT Level 3) is a transplant to LaCrosse via Montana, Illinois, and originally Texas. Throughout her life moves and 5 trips to India, Jennie has acquired a well-rounded and multi-faceted approach to Iyengar Yoga since her start in 1998. Jennie loves the experimental and explorative nature of yoga in accessing deeper knowledge of the Self on every level. The practice of yoga can be intense and introspective, however as practitioners we can be light-hearted and open-minded in our discipline. Jennie is intrigued by the philosophy of yoga and hopes to share this depth of subject while teaching the physical and mental benefits that come from the practice of posture.