A scholar of critical race theory and a yoga teacher explore the problematic ways Westerners describe their travels to India.
Last year, Yoga Journal ran a travel essay by a US-based yoga teacher who had visited India with his family. His account was not unlike many Western accounts of India and in the vein of what we call “poverty-porn.” In these stories, India is consistently described as a place where those from North America or Europe can “find themselves,” “surrender,” “find grace in poverty,” “learn tolerance,” “experience culture,” or “withstand an assault on the senses.”
In other words, for all too many white yoga practitioners, India is the other. It is the “dirty” escapist fantasy that leads to a “life-changing, transformational” experience for travelers.
Most tourists, even educated yoga practitioners, may not realize that this attitude perpetuates colonial and structural forms of racism. Structural racism, also known as white supremacy in the US context today, is not about individual acts. Instead, it is about the institutional, taken-for-granted privilege that makes it possible for a US citizen to easily acquire a tourist visa to India, when the inverse is next to impossible for the average Indian. In other words, structural racism determines who gets to go where and how. So, before you plan a trip, reflect on why you want to travel to India and consider the broader history and implications.
See also What’s the Difference Between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Appreciation?
Many people see travel as the antidote to racism. Travel can allow us to see cultural differences—this is true—but when “difference” becomes a source of self-affirmation, travel is reduced to a form of virtue-signaling, or self-congratulation, which only leads to more re-centering of the white experience. Many travel to places black and brown folks come from to experience personal “transformation” in the face of devastating inequity and call this gratitude. We have all seen this type of social media post: the “simple happiness of the locals, despite the fact that most live in poverty, made me realize how fortunate I am, and how easy it is to be happy.” This is a normalized form of racism, like referring to African-American music as “ghetto” or the everyday racist question brown folks know all too well: “But where are you FROM?”
The challenging aspect of this, for most of the white people who teach and practice yoga (about 85 percent of yoga participants in the US are white, according to the National Institutes of Health), is that you must confront and deprogram the attitude that prioritizes intentions over impact. Ask yourself honestly, “Am I going to India to make myself feel better about my place in the world?” Or worse, “Am I posting about it on social media so I can pat myself on the back for it?”
See also What It’s Like Being an Indian-American Yoga Teacher
Put another way, traveling to a place—where locals cannot easily travel to where you are from—to “bring back” something you can then market or sell isn’t dharmic or yogic. It’s not even appropriative. The word for that kind of transaction is imperialism. If you are a white yoga teacher, you may go to India to better understand and learn something, and when you come back you feel that it adds value to your teaching, which you essentially sell. Is this wrong? Well, yes. Someone who lives in North America is taking intellectual property from India and turning around to teach it and sell it at a profit while nothing is going back to the country of origin. This leads to the erasure of indigenous knowledge, and more importantly, this is exactly how white supremacy endures in 2019.
It’s hard for many to hear this, but commercial yoga does not have a pretty story, and, as with many aspects of our culture in 2019, we are long overdue for an honest conversation about how race, capitalism, and colonialism have played and continue to play a role in shaping what we think belongs to us. The question then becomes, what do we do with this knowledge, not only as individuals but on a structural level? How do we proceed in a manner that leads to justice and equity? Ultimately, the question more yoga practitioners need to ask themselves before they travel to previously colonized areas is not “How can I do what I want” but “Why do I think I have a right to what I want?” This isn’t just about you or your intentions, however “good” they may be.
And finally, if you still want to travel to previously colonized areas for yoga tourism, we encourage you to consider these questions before you go:
Would you still go if you weren’t taking pictures or couldn’t post about your trip on social media?
- Would you still go if you weren’t taking pictures or couldn’t post about your trip on social media?
- Would you still go if you couldn’t buy anything to bring back (souvenirs for yourself or to sell) or leverage your time in India for financial gain?
Books to Read on Colonialism
For more information about structural racism and how colonialism shaped global racism and injustice, check out these resources:
- A Theory of Imperialism by Utsa & Prabhat Patnaik
- Orientalism by Edward W. Said
- Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor
- White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
About our authors
Rumya S. Putcha, PhD, is a scholar of postcolonial, critical race, and gender studies. She’s the author of the forthcoming book Mythical Courtesan / Modern Wife: Performance and Feminist Praxis in South Asia, and her next project is titled Namaste Nation: Commercial Yoga Industries and American Imperialism.
Sangeeta Vallabhan has been studying movement for more than 30 years, first through dance and then yoga. She has been teaching yoga in New York City for over 15 years. As the creator of solemarch, Sangeeta encourages students to use the practices of yoga to continually seek out their own voice and their true sense of self. Learn more at sangeetavallabhan.com.
Yoga Helped Clare Cui Find Peace In Her Body
Weightlifting was wreaking havoc on my body and spirit—until I found yoga.
I couldn’t see much in the darkness, but I could smell the tanning oil that covered the toned bodies of women who were nervously clustered together in lines waiting to take the stage. As I stood there in my group, my number pinned to my bikini, I looked down at my body, which I had beat into peak physical condition, and I still didn’t like what I saw. I’m sure I looked confident in my own skin, but what I really wanted to do was to crawl out of it.
I know there are countless women who feel self-conscious about a little squish on their belly or thighs—wondering what new workout or crash diet to try—constantly worrying about making “healthy” decisions around food and exercise. For a long time, I was no different. I was insecure and constantly pursuing the “perfect” body. It was a race that I was never going to win. I was inundated by negative messages in a culture where validation, praise, and value relied on placing in competition. I couldn’t get out of the get-up-and-grind mentality. This chiseled body that kept garnering praise became an addiction.
That is exactly why—despite the three first-place fitness titles I had earned that year—I was left waging a secret war against myself and my body. In that moment in the darkness backstage, my soul was sending out an SOS. I knew something was wrong.
See also Is Social Media Wrecking Your Body Image?
I left that competition and tried to go back to my life as the head strength and conditioning coach at a Denver public high school. I vowed to let go of superficial goals, obsessive negative self-talk, counting calories, incessant workouts, and all-consuming anxiety about what I looked like on stage. This spaciousness in my thoughts was a welcome breath of fresh air, but it also felt strange and empty. Without competition, I craved focus, so I threw myself into fostering strength in others, helping students to rid themselves of pain and reach their physical goals.
My students had restricted movement from ailments such as torn ACLs and back problems. I grew fascinated by how the body moves and how rigidity causes all sorts of problems. Health wasn’t just about strength. I was discovering another piece of the puzzle: Flexibility—both physically and mentally—was critical. Bulldozing my way through competitions on shear strength and willpower like I had been was killing me because I didn’t have the flexibility of mind to take days off and let my body recover.
I could see that my clients’ mindsets were determining their recoveries. Some of them were stubborn, stuck on one way of doing things, forcing the same approach over and over again with few results. I saw them like a mirror, exposing my own flaws. Rigidity wasn’t working, for them or for me. We need strength to overcome our challenges, but also flexibility to pivot when things aren’t working the way we want them to.
See also Kat Fowler on Embracing Yoga and Conquering Self-Doubt
Fueled by a desire to learn more about increasing flexibility, I walked into a power yoga teacher training having never taken a yoga class. Halfway through class, covered in sweat, I was falling on my face attempting Bakasana. My inner strength coach had been beaten into submission by how much I had underestimated the whole “yoga thing,” and something unexpected happened: I found myself deeply in love with asana practice.
I’d huff and puff my way through vinyasa classes, where each pose got me closer to answering the aching question: How do I stop fighting with my body? I had long approached my fitness routine as a tool to punish myself into a better body—one that mirrored the standardized images I saw in the media. Through yoga, this armor slowly started to come off. Each time I attempted to slow down and soften into a pose, using my strength to support my body rather than demand a result from it, I could feel myself deeply listening to what was going to heal instead of hurt me. I began to witness the compassion and kindness toward myself that I had been missing for years.
Yes, the intelligent placement of my bones and muscles in space supported my strength. But this magical organization of my walking meat sack got me in tune with so much more than any fad diet ever had. Instead of regarding my body as an obstacle in the way of a shiny new trophy, through yoga I realized that this awareness in my body meant that I was the trophy.
See also The Avoidance Mechanisms We Have to Face In Order To Heal
I no longer saw my shoulders as something that needed more shaping, but a beloved elevator to lift me higher in Handstands and inspire courage and confidence. Now, I absolutely won’t deny that yoga and strength training have toned my backside. But what I flex (no pun intended) regularly with my yoga tools is not a physical muscle, but an internal one. The skills of softening, deep listening, and presence were dormant and weak before I found yoga. These mind muscles allow me to see the shapes my body makes without focusing on what it looks like externally. I can now focus on what it feels like from the inside of the pose.
I’ve become more in tune with a source of joy and wholeness that doesn’t come from a judge or a medal. It comes from deep within. Real confidence comes from an internal knowing that we are worthy, beautiful, and whole—no matter what shape we take.
See also Jessamyn Stanley on Moving Beyond Body Positivity
About the author
Clare Cui is a Denver-based yoga teacher with more than 12 years of experience in strength training. Her passion is supporting career women and business leaders to create the strength in their bodies and minds to show up confidently in their own skin. Find her at theyogathlete.com and @clare_cui on Instagram.
The Avoidance Mechanisms We Have to Face In Order To Heal
This new awareness made me realize that if you don’t pull out tension by the roots, it just migrates elsewhere—that boiling water has to let off steam somewhere.
I learned about “release valves” in a teacher training a couple of years ago. We were working in groups, observing other students’ mobility and looking for dysfunctional movement patterns. For example, when one of my classmates shifted into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold), you could see that her hips were excessively rotating while her spine seemed awkwardly rigid. She was able to reach her toes because, instead of sharing the load, her flexible hips were doing the work for her stiff back. I quickly started to notice how my own body was compensating for areas that were too tight, too lax, or uncomfortable.
The teacher of that particular training, Gary Kraftsow—a yoga therapist and founder of the American Viniyoga Institute—calls these compensatory release valves “avoidance mechanisms.” They help us understand which parts of us we’ve been neglecting—out of pain, weakness, injury, numbness, shame, or fear.
See also Yoga Therapy: Need to Know
All of a sudden, I started to pay attention to all of the things I had been evading in my life. I noticed I had release valves at the office. I would sit through a meeting, quietly stewing about a decision I didn’t agree with, then head to my desk, venting ungracefully to anyone I ran into. I’m not proud. I was avoiding confrontation and compensating for it with toxic negativity. At home, I kept conversations about money at arm’s length. Ashamed about my debt, I preferred to hide expenses and not ask for help.
This new awareness made me realize that if you don’t pull out tension by the roots, it just migrates elsewhere—that boiling water has to let off steam.
See also 30 Yoga Sequences to Reduce Stress
This issue of the 2019 July/August magazine is steeped in yoga therapy and the myriad ways the practice can help us identify, confront, and heal our wounds so they don’t get infected and derail our lives. The term “yoga therapy” has an official definition: According to the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT), it is “the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the teachings and practices of yoga.” Here, we’ve collaborated with both IAYT-certified and non-IAYT-certified teachers to share asana, mantra, meditation, and pranayama that can help you beat addiction (yes, your iPhone habits count), manage pain, face fears, calm your nervous system, protect your lower back, and connect to your true Self. We tap Ayurvedic psychology, medical research, and the wisdom of therapists and senior teachers for guidance on how to feel healthy and whole.
See also Why More Western Doctors Are Now Prescribing Yoga Therapy
Prescribed reading also includes a look at how the yoga program at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego is helping kids and their families cope with cancer; inquiry into whether your health insurance covers yoga; transformative reader-submitted stories about yoga’s power to ease depression, trauma, and anxiety; advice for navigating big change; thoughts on how restorative yoga can help heal race-related wounds; and the importance of vulnerability.
As soon as I started to recognize release valves, or coping mechanisms, everywhere—on my mat, in my day-to-day behavior, and in other people—curiosity and contemplation became constant companions. Sometimes my experiments and homemade remedies fail and I can’t figure out how to dissolve my headaches, quell anxious thoughts, or recover from clumsy conversations, but I feel better for trying. Yoga, particularly breathwork, has become the salve I need to persevere. The relief that comes from embodying balance, creating space to feel my feelings, and finding the courage to speak my truth has started to heal me from the inside out.
See also 5 Yogis Using Their Practice to Heal On The Mat
Yoga for Diabetes: 12 Poses and a Meditation to Mitigate Stress
Use this sequence to find refuge from the clutches of chronic illness.
Resting is hard for me. I would rather be on the go, overcoming hurdles or realizing my life vision. However, it’s difficult to achieve creative goals without rest, introspection, and relaxation. The same is true in diabetes care. If you have diabetes, like me, you’re constantly connected to your continuous glucose monitor, personal diabetes manager, or insulin pump. People with this condition are plugged into a monitor to stay alive, and blood glucose readings get mixed up with who we think we are and we lose our sense of self. Every arrow on the screen, every deviation up or down leaves a residue of subtle negative emotion in the landscape of the body and mind, making it impossible to relax, because every misstep can have potentially deadly consequences.
Any person facing modern technological advances suffers a great deal from similar mind spin; diabetes is just the microcosm of the macrocosm. The disease simply accentuates the detrimental distractions that people face without diabetes. Mental fluctuations are influenced by external and internal factors. For instance, a blood glucose reading of 400 mg/dL (very high!) can be a catalyst for thoughts that can spiral out of control because of past negative experiences—any number outside of normal range may cause you to remember the last time your glucose was too high and how awful you felt. Even more subtle than the thought is the impression left by the event. You may carry judgmental guilt, stew in the past, fret about what you should have done, worry about the long-term effects, or whatever the story may be. When the mind spins, we often react instead of respond. On a physiological level, the nervous system is in overdrive. A heightened state of arousal (being on guard) sends internal alarms into hyper-mode. Our brains tell our bodies that there’s an emergency, pumping stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and glycogen into the bloodstream. The unintentional effect is insulin resistance (resulting in increased blood sugar), making diabetes much harder to manage. The cumulative result of this vicious cycle is distress, anxiety, and depression.
See also Why More Western Doctors Are Now Prescribing Yoga Therapy
There is a saying in the diabetes community that we are greater than the sum of the highs and lows. What this means is that although you may have diabetes, you are not diabetes. This may make sense on a cognitive level; however, it cannot be fully understood and integrated into your life until it is realized directly through practice. The sage Patanjali writes about mind chatter in the Yoga Sutra as chitta vritti—fluctuations of consciousness. A goal of yoga is to nullify these fluctuations so that you can rest in your own self-essence, free of all conditions. Yoga intervention practices can stop the spinning cycle, calming the mind and promoting your natural ability to regenerate, heal, and process unwanted emotion. I have type 1 diabetes, and although, as a yoga therapist, I prescribe different exercises for different types of diabetes, the yoga therapy practice on the following pages will benefit anyone who is living with a chronic illness. It promotes an exciting mix of energies—some stimulating and some pacifying—to help you self regulate and balance out the highs and lows.
People with type 1 diabetes cannot produce insulin, a hormone secreted by the pancreas that transports energy from food into the body’s cells. They need to take insulin to avoid complications from hyper-glycemia. Insulin can be administered with a pump or an injection pen.
Sequence – Mitigate Your Response to Stress
See also A 5-Minute Meditation to Release Anxiety
About our author
Teacher and Model Evan Soroka is a yoga therapist living with type I diabetes in Aspen, Colorado. She is the owner of Evan Soroka Yoga Therapy, founder of the Rise Above Diabetes Program, and a contributor to Yoga Journal and Yoga International. She received her extensive credentials from Gary Kraftsow and the American Viniyoga Institute. Evan continues to study under the guidance and mentorship of Yogarupa Rod Stryker. Learn more at evansoroka.com.
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