I have spent the last month absorbing the abundance of information that was shared as part of the Honor (Don't Appropriate) Yoga Summit held by Susanna Barkataki. Barkataki is a yoga teacher, inclusivity promoter and yoga culture advocate. She comes from an Indian and British background and is based in the United States, working to promote inclusion and diversity in the wellness and yoga community. The Honor Yoga Summit was a free online series held over two weeks with hour long presentations from two speakers each day. Speakers talked not only about the appropriation of yoga but also about the need to create a more welcoming and diverse yoga community in the West. For me, it was a powerful conversation with a mountain of notes to go through from each presentation. It left me with a lot of questions about my own motivations behind practising yoga, my own ignorance of the colonisation and appropriation of yoga and it made me wonder how I could as a teacher and student ensure that I was honouring this ancient practice.
The question in the forefront of my mind over the past few weeks has been why I choose to practise yoga and to lead yoga classes. I do think that you can be white and Western and still honour yoga, however, I do think that intention is very important. I also believe that it is important to recognise that the Western arrival to yoga will be from the physical movement class and therefore, it is the role of the teacher to highlight that yoga is an ancient practice that did not originate in the West and is essentially a philosophical way of living your life, extending far beyond the yoga mat.
For me, I arrived on the mat over 10 years ago at an Ashtanga yoga class in Edinburgh. I was looking for an activity that would strengthen and stretch my body and help me find balance physically. I loved it immediately but it was only until a few years later that I began to notice the benefits to my overall well-being. From this point, it began to be not simply a physical movement of the body but rather a form of moving meditation, a tool for stress relief and a practice to help me manage my mind. Yoga has brought me greater clarity with my thoughts, greater meaning to my life and a greater appreciation and understanding of life. All these reasons are why I want to share this practice with students. I really believe that it could have a positive impact on anyone's life!
As well as asking myself why I choose to practise yoga, I also found myself questioning why I have chosen Vinyasa Yoga and Restorative Yoga. The physical movement of yoga was originally designed to prepare the body for meditation and it is only within the last 100 years that the more spectacular yoga poses of Ashtanga and Vinyasa have become popular. I enjoy the powerful nature of Vinyasa Yoga and the creativity that you can explore when sequencing a class. When sequenced effectively, a Vinyasa Flow class can be an agent to combat the physical issues of our 21st century lifestyle. In the past, I worked 9 to 5 and I would spend my days sat down, hunched over and in front of a computer screen while cycling to and from work. Yoga has helped me deal with a very sensitive lower back and especially hunched shoulders. I want to be strong mentally and physically and find that Vinyasa is especially effective for this. Most of all, I find that the dynamic movement allows me to immerse myself in the practice and it becomes very meditative. As is the way with yoga, I am also always looking for balance and this is where Restorative Yoga comes in. I like to practise it as I find it a complete contrast to Vinyasa but equally as powerful and effective. Again, it is very meditative for me and very good at restoring my body and mind especially since teaching is very physically demanding. I believe that Restorative or any other Yin style yoga is probably the hardest to practise as it demands great amounts of focus, attention and stillness, something that is hard to find in our productivity and busy-ness focused society. I also believe that Restorative Yoga can be as powerful a spiritual practice as any flow class.
Why you practise yoga is a deeply personal question and it might take a great deal of self-enquiry to find out what initially drew you to yoga and why you continue to practise. For me, this quote from Jon Kabat Zinn perfectly encapsulates one of the reasons I choose to practise:
"Being mindful means that we suspend judgement for a time, set aside our immediate goals for the future, and take in the present moment as it is rather than as we would like it to be."
By becoming more intentional as to why I choose to lead yoga classes and to be a student of yoga, I hope that I am can create a more inclusive environment in my classes as well as ensuring that I am honouring those who have practised yoga before me and communicating that yoga is far more than a movement class. Also, over the years I often wondered what drew my teachers to yoga and in what way did they feel connected to the practise so I hope that if you are someone who comes to my classes or practises with me online and is reading this then you are now more aware of my intentions and I hope that this helps you with your own yoga practise.
I know that many more questions will arise as a result of the summit and I plan to share more on my Instagram and on this blog. However, one thing that became immediately clear for me is that the most important thing to do is to listen. The more you listen, the more aware you can become of the issues that affect people of colour (especially people from Southern Asia) within the yoga world and overall wellness industry. By being more aware, you can empathise more. It isn't supposed to be a comfortable journey but as someone who is white and Western, I can still be involved and my learning, sharing and awareness can have a positive impact.
Thank you for reading, thank you to Susanna Barkataki for sharing this generous resource and thank you to everyone who has practised yoga before me! If you have any thoughts on this subject, I would love to hear from you, either in the comments or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).