Yoga is an indigenous practice that has origins in Egypt and the Indus Valley — two ancient civilizations that date back over 5,000 years. As a desi (an Indian woman living in the diaspora) yoga teacher and activist, I educate folks on how yoga practices from India have been appropriated, and what I wish to see for a decolonized future of yoga.
One of the most harmful myths that creates erasure of the essence yoga is that it’s simply a workout. Yoga is a holistic philosophy that gifts us a set of tenets, which teach us how we can navigate life in a spiritually aligned way.
The Yoga Sutras outline these principals in an eight-limb system.
Yoga has always been a philosophy by which to conduct life. Its aim is to be practiced with discipline so that a person is ultimately led to enlightenment: a state of being in which you transcend the endless cycle of karma.
Karma is another concept that has been misconstrued due to misappropriation of Sanskrit (the language in which yogic theory was originally written).
Karma refers to a cycle in which one is reborn over and over on Earth until they can break the cycle and return to the divine source from which we are all birthed.
Essentially, yoga is a practice that reminds us of the greater cosmic dance we are all part of — a very different description than “yoga for a flat tummy.”
So when and how did this transition from cosmic philosophy to “girly” workout occur?
Yoga in the Western world
A few gurus, namely Tirumalai Krishnamacharya and Paramahansa Yogananda, brought the knowledge of yoga from India to the United States (2). It remained a fringe practice for Westerners until facets of yogic philosophy and Hindu symbology were adopted into the mainstream American consciousness during the hippie movement in the 1960s.
Ever heard of a little band called The Beatles (3)? It wasn’t too long after the band traveled to India that yoga found itself deep in the capitalist-industrial-complex, where American corporations saw how much money could be made off of yoga being branded as “chic.”
This is when yoga was repackaged as a luxury workout rather than a spiritual belief system.
Today when we think of yoga, images of thin, non-disabled white women in tight brand-name yoga pants are what come to mind. Yoga as a workout is problematic because it’s harmful for those of us who live outside India to see our heritage being sold, watered down, and used for only aesthetics.
However, it’s arguably even worse that yoga is being used as a tool within a colonial agenda.
Yoga studios owned by, and created for, rich white folks often move into neighborhoods that are being gentrified as a symbol that they’re “up and coming.” This often displaces the Black and Brown residents who have lived in those spaces for many generations.
Lastly, yoga studios tend to enforce many harmful ideas, such as diet culture, ableism, queer erasure, classism, and cultural appropriation.
So how do we combat all this? We must start by vowing to learn the history of yoga and adopt a practice that aids in liberation for all people. A good start is to learn the eight limbs of the Yoga Sutras and apply them to our lives in real time.
The eight limbs of the Yoga Sutras are meant to be learned in the order they’re listed here. A person must master each step before they continue to the next one.
Yamas are the principles that teach us how to treat others and the world around us. These include:
This principle refers to behaving in a way that nourishes growth and contributes to the life force around us. Yoga and activism are interlinking mindsets in this way. Social justice seeks to uplift and liberate all people from harm, which is ahimsa at work within the collective.
This tenet is about treating and caring for others as an extension of us.
On a side note, Western yogis sometimes preach that in order to be a yogi, one must be vegan. However, Indian diet almost always consists of dairy products, which are revered for their health benefits. Being a vegan is a valid choice, but it isn’t necessary to embody yoga and its values.
We all wear masks, or different personalities, depending on who we’re interacting with. Yoga asks us to drop the mask and find our true, authentic self — and to act from this self.
When we’re able to show this true self to the world, we live more closely with reality and not within maya (illusion). Speaking the truth isn’t always the easiest path, but it is the noble one.
When we use our voice to speak against injustice in a system that seeks to silence it, we are practicing Satya.
This principal is not as literal as simply “do not take material items from others.” It’s about respecting other folks’ energy, time, and resources.
In order to practice Asteya in personal relationships, we must create and honor boundaries.
This can also be applied to our Earth. When we take from the land without giving back, we’re creating an imbalance, which isn’t the middle path of balance that yoga asks us to walk.
In addition, to appropriate yoga — to take yoga from its original space in the world and use it in a way that serves the individual rather than honor its roots — is to go against this piece of yoga itself.
This may be applied as total celibacy, but it can also be performed by simply treating our primal life force as sacred. We carry sexual energy within us, and yoga asks that rather than spreading it in many directions without thought, we mindfully use it in ways that align with the rest of yoga philosophy.
(I want to note that the word “Brahma” may trigger certain folks. This word is often referred to in Vedic texts that enforce the caste system. This system in itself goes against all postulations of yoga, which ask us to treat one another in a mindful and kind way. It is important that we abolish the caste system in order to apply yoga principals to society at large).
It has been said that greed is the root of all evil. Greed stems from a scarcity mentality. This results in individuals holding on too tightly to wealth, material items, and people, which perpetuates harm.
In order to live in a spiritually aligned way, we must trust that we always have enough, allowing money, items, and other blessings to flow in and out of our lives with ease. It’s imperative we continue to demand that our societal systems operate from a place of Aparigraha as well.
We can see how resource disparity and poverty are a direct result of greed and hoarding. This can be helped by building systems based on a foundation of mutual aid and sustainability.
Niyamas are the standards by which we should practice self-discipline.
Although gurus and yoga scripture do recommend bathing regularly, eating clean, and keeping one’s space clean, this tenet also refers to having pure and positive thoughts about yourself and others. When we are clean in the mind, we become clear channels for the divine to enter us.
We must practice the ability to feel completely content with the way everything is right now in this very moment. We live in a capitalistic system in which we’re told to always strive for and want more, which means we’re never satisfied with what we already have.
When we can just sit and feel complete with how things are in the present, we are practicing yoga.
The saying is that practice makes perfect, and the reason for this is because repeated effort yields mastery of that which we are attempting to learn.
Tapasya reminds us that sometimes the process of mastery can be painful, but this pain (or heat) can be used to fuel our practice, and allow us to grow and learn from it.
The Bhagavad Gita says, “Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.” Yoga is meant to be a process of direct inquiry into our internal world. The more we dive inward, the more we can learn about the infinite nature of our consciousness.
This yogic tenet is often forgotten in the Western view of yoga as a workout because so much of it is externalized: We wonder how we look in a posture, if we are thin enough, or feel the need to compete with others in class. True yoga is a personal process that has nothing to do with the outside world or how we’re perceived.
Ishvarapranidhana (full surrender to the divine)
Many folks who suffer from addiction are helped by a 12-step program. The first step to recovery is to surrender to a higher power.
The reason this is so medicinal is because it allows us to let go of the need to control everything. When we realize that there are greater forces at play in our lives, we begin to navigate life with humility and awe.
Yoga asks us to seek a supreme divine being (whatever that means to us personally), and allow ourselves to connect with them through our practice.
As you can see, the first two limbs of yoga (which are to be mastered first) are more about how we live than how we exercise. The rest of the limbs teach us how to practice yoga in our physical bodies and minds.
Asana is the practice of the yoga postures.
Pantajali taught the physical practice of yoga as movements that are meant to be done with ease and joy. He taught that it’s important to take your time with each pose, and move from posture to posture fully present by focusing the mind on the breath.
Yoga as a workout can be harmful because it can push students past their limitations, and it often leads to injury. The sutras tell us that yoga is meant to be done in a relaxed state that aims to connect one with their body and combat duality in the mind.
Daily asana results in increased wellness in the body and mind.
Pranayama is breath control.
Yoga theory states that breath is the way we take in and interact with the subtle life force energy that surrounds us. When we’re able to make breathing a mindful practice, we’re able to invigorate our bodies with this life force and change the way that our central nervous system reacts to stress.
The original formula for breath control is a 1:4:2 ratio. Inhale (Purak, in Sanskrit) for 1 second, retain the breath in the body for4 seconds (Kumbhak, in Sanskrit) and exhale for 2 seconds (Rechak, in Sanksrit).
Advanced breath work also incorporates different bandhas (binds) in the body. If you seek to learn more about these binds, please do so with a professional yoga teacher who is well versed in this type of instruction.
Pratyahara is sense withdrawal. This technique teaches us the way to journey inward and find ultimate peacefulness.
The Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu scripture, says our senses are likened to a boat on water. Each time the five senses are enraptured with external objects, the boat is swayed by the tumultuous waves of sense perception.
When we cut our senses off from the external world, we are able to dive within ourselves to the vast universe that lies inside.
I find this practice to be another revolutionary act in the world we live in today. Each time we sit with ourselves and curiously inquire within, we combat the harmfulness of constant externalization of the mind via social media, the news, and consumerism.
The easiest way to practice pratyahara is to close your eyes while practicing asana.
Dharana means concentration. Single, pointed focus of the mind aids in deep meditation.
You may choose to look at a candle, a deity statue, or another unmoving object during meditation in order to train the mind in this way. Once the mind has learned focus during meditation, we can take this type of concentration into our daily lives.
When we are able to do a task and focus all of our energy on it, we’re able to perform it well and with care. Media today trains the mind to only focus for short stints of time, and to be constantly multitasking. It’s important to practice dharana to live in a mindful way.
Dhyana is meditation.
Many folks are nervous to begin meditating. They believe that a person can be good or bad at it. However, meditation is more a state that overcomes us, rather than something that we do.
There have probably been times you were riding a bicycle or reading a book and you felt an immense sense of peace, clarity, and stillness. The truth is, you were meditating. You were fully engrossed in the present moment. Dhyana simply asks us to set aside time each day to invite meditation into our minds and hearts.
We can improve our chances of experiencing meditation by sitting in a quiet space and using pranayama, pratyahara, and dharana in unison.
Finally, samadhi is enlightenment.
The journey of the eight limbs of yoga is meant to take us from doing-ness to being-ness. Once we have mastered all the former steps in the sutras, we are able to accomplish the most important facet of life that propels our spiritual journey forward: the ability to stay in the present moment indefinitely.
This does not mean that yogis are meant to stay stagnant. However, yogis who have reached samadhi are detached from the past and future. When they perform an action, they do not dwell on the outcome. All is done with love, and all is done with full presence.