Teaching Yoga as a Woman of Color: “I couldn’t use Sanskrit or say namaste”
Downward dog, child pose, warriors 1, 2 and 3, these are all yoga poses that we love and recognize quite easily.
But behind every anglicized name is the original Sanskrit term, which we’re less likely to know by head.
Yoga originated in India thousands of years ago and has since traveled all over the world and has become extremely popular in Western and European countries.
But yoga teacher Puravi Joshi, 34, says some of her experiences of finding work as a British Indian instructor have been “demoralizing” and “dehumanizing”.
In September, she was warned by an east London yoga studio that she had asked to teach that she would not be “allowed” to use Sanskrit in her practices.
The studio told him that they “don’t want the workers of the modern city to be left out” so “you are not allowed to use Sanskrit, you are not allowed to sing Om, you don’t are not allowed to say “namaste”.
âIt made me really uncomfortable in my own skin. “
A study from the British Medical Journal, which surveyed around 2,500 yoga professionals, shows that 91% of teachers and practitioners in the UK are white.
âI had to educate them to tell them that Sanskrit is the oldest Asian language in existence. This is where all other Asian languages ââcome from. Just as Latin is in the west, Sanskrit is in the east.
The studio has since apologized on its social media, but not to Joshi herself.
Joshi worked in the banking industry and decided to change careers in 2017.
âWhen I was in banking, I was not known as the Indian banker. All of a sudden I am the Indian yoga teacher and there is nothing you can do about it. “
Today, she works primarily for schools and nurseries teaching yoga for mental health and mindfulness.
Joshi stays away from branded yoga studios because, in her own words, she “doesn’t fit the mold.” It has also been told in the past that it does not match the “aesthetic” or “feel” of a place. “I’m not good enough for them but they are good enough to steal from me [and my culture]. “
She believes there is “a whitening element” to yoga, especially on platforms like Instagram, and says her experiences are an example of “cultural appropriation.”
“Yoga is truly inherent in the lives of so many Indians. It’s part of what we do, it’s inherent in our bones and our blood. You can’t take that away from these people who live it and breathe it.
Jilna Shah, 34, who has been teaching yoga for eight years, “consciously” decides not to work in big studios for reasons similar to Joshi’s.
âThere is a lot of work around the issues of power and privilege. People don’t tend to watch who’s not in the room and why, âshe says.
âIt’s not just about coming in and having a great experience for an hour on your yoga mat. I try to make people understand that even the way we practice together and how we decide to use our funds and support each other is part of the practice, because yoga has never been just about doing well- to be.
Shah believes that the “whitening” of yoga happens “very early” from the time people start their training.
âWhen I did my yoga teacher training, I was the only person of color in the class.
âThe texts and things that we have studied, given the origins of yoga, we [South Asians] were simply not represented. What’s not on the agenda are things like issues of race, power privilege, intersectionality, that stuff just isn’t addressed.
Like Joshi, Shah decided to focus his work in community spaces to make yoga as accessible as possible.
“I don’t rely on white institutions to improve myself. I’m looking for where teachers of color can help each other and run our own thing.
She leads courses for people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, the immigration process and refugee youth groups.
Shah is working on a “sliding scale” offering different rates depending on what people can afford, including an option for those who are richer to sponsor a course for someone else.
But she says the way she works hasn’t always been well received. When she first started, she received a backlash for organizing a class specifically for women of color.
“SSomeone called it segregation and compared it to apartheid South Africa because there was a space they couldn’t access.“
Recently, she is happy to see more colored yoga teachers pictured, but believes there is still work to be done.
âIt’s not just about programming a black teacher. Why don’t we have blacks and people of color who own studios and spaces? In fact, handing over platforms, space, and studios would be the most efficient thing to do. We don’t need guards.
Shah and Joshi want to see the representation in yoga go beyond the color of the skin.
âYou could have a lot of able-bodied, middle-class South Asian women in a yoga class,â Shah explains. âIt’s still not diversity and inclusion that I would be looking for. We need to work harder and take a much deeper look at who we have access to. “
âWhen I look at diversity and inclusiveness,â Joshi says, âI really mean bringing everyone on stage, regardless of your skin color, your religion, your shape.â