Pictured: Simran Pasricha

Reclaiming Yoga: Navigating Decolonization in a Spiritual Tradition

Earlier this year, Melbourne-based journalist Simran Pasricha jumped on the chance to complete her Yoga teacher training in India. She was unnerved to find that the course was predominantly filled with white students, many of whom even grumbled at the need to learn Sanskrit as part of their training. Here, she explores the effects of colonisation on her journey with Yoga.

Growing up, I was lucky enough to be brought up with Yoga as a pretty regular part of my life. We did yoga classes with my cousins throughout school, sometimes we’d go to meditation camps with our family friends, and we’d chant Om together as a family, in our pyjamas, often.

I was 17 when I first learned that I’d been “doing Yoga wrong” after attending a class at a local studio in the Gold Coast where I was living at the time. I knew that going to a studio would be different from my casual Yoga settings, but I never thought it would feel like I was stepping into a different universe — think crystals, blinding incense and 12 stares filled with love, light and judgement, all wearing some form of Namastay In Bed T-shirts. My first mistake: I wore loose-fitting pants and a kurti top in a room full of white women dressed in Lululemon. I was then told I couldn’t reach my toes when in a forward fold (Uttanasana) so “maybe I should try practising with YouTube videos before coming to a real class”. I have never claimed to be a flexible or an athletic person for that matter, but I had never realised touching my toes was a prerequisite to practise Yoga.

If you’re thinking that’s a secluded incident and that it isn’t a bad thing Yoga has come into the mainstream, you’re not wrong. The widespread embrace of yoga is positive – Pantanjali (known as the father of Yoga) and his crew surely would have loved to see this excitement over the practice around the world. However, the genuine spiritual essence of yoga, centered on introspective exploration, has been altered and thoroughly rebranded in the Western world. A 5000-year-old practice has been reduced to shallow "live, love, light” catchphrases and corporate mutations (like wine-yoga, goat yoga) that exclude many individuals. This includes its literal creators – people of colour, low-income communities, as well as older individuals, children, individuals without thin, flexible bodies, those with disabilities, the unwell, and the injured. In fact, Yoga is no longer a practice, it’s an industry – one analyst has claimed that in 2022, the yoga industry was worth $105.9 billion, with North America claiming the largest share of this global market. The commodification of a spiritual practice is disconcerting in itself, but the additional layer of irony here is that the practice's country of origin is not reaping the financial benefits from Yoga’s burgeoning popularity, which adds another layer of bizarreness to the situation. White Yogis get to hide under a protective cloak of Namastay Away From Bad Vibes slogans and light and bright aesthetics, without having to engage with deeper issues within the community and the problematic roles they play to appropriate and dishonour an entire culture.

Yoga Teacher-Training In India With A Bunch Of White People

After years of being upset with the industry and wanting to increase the number of POC teachers that promoted an inclusive space, I looked into training courses in Australia, but felt detered when seeing the $6,000–$10,000 price tags. I knew I wanted to do my training in Yoga in my own motherland and when visiting family in India this year, I unexpectedly found an opportunity to get my 200-hour yoga teacher training certificate in Rishikesh. After I arrived, I learned that I was the only Indian student in the entire cohort and one of four people of colour. I had later discovered that only foreigners were allowed to apply for this course. While I’m unsure of the reason why – maybe financial reasons, maybe internalised racism reasons  — I was sure that it made me feel icky. When I told this to a fellow classmate, she said that it made sense because locals would probably have an unfair advantage. It was clear that my hopes of having a decolonised experience would need some help to come true. 

After listening to complaints from fellow students upset that they had to learn complicated Sanskrit words, I finally went up to one of the teachers to beg for some help as I was starting to feel like the token Indian-encyclopedia or frankly unpaid staff. After an uncomfortable conversation with my teacher, he finally agreed to integrate greater explanations. He said, “Sanskrit is a language that emphasises sound, vibrations and intonation. The vibrations of the words add to the practice.” He also explained that Sanskrit names communicate meaning that is much deeper than a simple translation. For example, the simple translation of Namaste is “I bow to you”’. Looking deeper into the word, what it tries to convey is that “The Divine within me bows to the same Divine within you.” Some even say that this one word encompasses the teachings of Hinduism. So no, saying goodbye or I bow to you, doesn’t really have the same effect as Namaste. Using Sanskrit is part of what differentiates Yoga from an athletic activity. Believe it or not, it also makes the class more accessible. Having one universal language in the practice allows for students who may not all speak the same language or be from the same place to participate. Eventually my cohort in Rishikesh understood the importance of honouring Yoga’s heritage and the whole experience was incredibly enriching. 

Expectations versus reality: challenges in becoming the teacher I thought I’d be

After finishing my Yoga teacher training, I came home to Australia. Since then, I have caught myself slipping into some pretty embarrassing tendencies, to accommodate my white students and to quiet down my internalised racism and subconscious shame. I thought of all people I would be the one to deliver classes in an ‘authentic way’ — the whole reason I decided to do my training was to decolonise spiritual practices. I’ve started teaching free lessons at a park in my neighbourhood and the response has been great from people in the suburb, all rejoicing in the fact that a Yoga class should not cost you $30. Things were going amazing, I was using and developing my new skills to share Yoga the way I grew up with it - focusing on the spirituality and the inner work. 

It was the third lesson where I realised I hadn’t said a single Sanskrit word the entire class, I hadn’t given out any modifications for different levels, I skipped out on breathing techniques and an explanation of what yoga is altogether. Part of me explained it away – “I’m a new teacher,” “There are so many Sanskrit words to remember,” “The students love a challenge.” These were all excuses to hide the fact that I was indeed ashamed – I had failed to be the example I had set out to be. 

To someone taking my class, it would have seemed fine, but to me it felt like I was betraying my practice and my culture to make it easier for my white students and frankly easier for me. One thing I've learned when living or entering colonised, white spaces is that it can often seem easier to fully assimilate rather than maintain one's personal or cultural practices and beliefs in order to ease the transition into society. It’s me unlearning my foreign accent to fit in at school or changing out of my Salwar Khameez after Gurdwara to go to the shops so that I don’t get told to ‘go back to where I came from’ or worse. Assimilation is engrained in me as a form of survival in a place that I cannot call my own. Sadly, even Yoga, a practice deeply rooted in my ancestry, now feels like a space that I cannot call my own. But the only way to beat the effects of colonialism is continued resistance — embracing our heritage, reclaiming our traditions, and refusing to be silenced.

Teaching has made me realise how easy it is to ignore the culture and spiritual significance within Yoga as a practice – for convenience, for survival. But it’s also reminded me that as practitioners and teachers, we have a responsibility to engage in critical self-reflection, educate ourselves on the history and cultural significance of yoga, and actively work towards dismantling the colonial legacy that has shaped its global narrative. That includes me – even as a teacher of Indian descent, who sets out to decolonise the practice but doesn’t always succeed.

By centering diverse voices, amplifying the teachings of Indian yogis and scholars, and fostering a deeper understanding of yoga as a spiritual path, anyone who engages in Yoga can begin the important work of decolonising yoga and reclaiming its authentic essence. Only then can we honour the profound wisdom and heritage of this ancient practice and ensure its integrity for generations to come. This is not just a personal mission, it can’t be. It must be a collective commitment to persistently honour the roots of Yoga in order to pave the way for a more inclusive and culturally respectful practice.