You’ve been hearing the term “decolonizing” as it pertains to most industries, but what does that mean for wellness? Fitness, spirituality, and other forms of well-being have been so whitewashed and commodified that they bar many people from participating at all, and rob the culture and traditions from so many others. But there are individuals trying to change that, and make all of us reexamine what it means to be well.
Below, Constanza Eliana Chinea, a Latinx certified Sivananda Yoga instructor who has over 10 years of experience in the industry and over 300 hours of training in yoga, trauma, and anti-racism talks discusses how the obsession with the yoga poses in the United States has created a snowball effect of commodifying a holistic practice, and making it an exclusive one. She is also currently the Founder of Embody Inclusivity, Co-Director of Yoga Teachers of Color, and Project Manager of Legacy Trips.
If you Google “yoga near me” within the United States, the majority of your search results will bring up studios offering classes of the physical poses (called asanas) of yoga. The underlying idea here is that—in the West at least—your 60 minutes of vinyasa or power yoga or ashtanga makes you a yogi. Constanza Eliana Chinea disagrees: Narrowing your view to exclude the breathwork, traditions, and ethics of yoga (the “yamas and niyamas“) doesn’t make you a devout practitioner—it makes you complicit in the colonization of the practice.
“When we talk about yoga and wellness in the West, it is almost all appropriated,” says Chinea. “It comes from the East, it comes from South Asia, it comes from Native American culture. So wellness in its roots is Indigenous, but when it is stripped away from those Indigenous ideologies and becomes something that is a luxury, or a commodification, or something that you can profit from without fully understanding the essence of what that wellness is meant to do—that’s colonization.”
Yoga may have its origins in the Indus-Sarasvati civilization in Northern India, but the $9 billion-dollar industry mostly benefits white Americans who have stripped the many-faceted practice down, slapped a price tag on it, and sold the idea that spiritual bypassing (“Love and light!”) excuses this appropriation. It doesn’t—and Chinea says that white-centric wellness world is long, long overdue for a complete overhaul that re-centers yogic ideology—starting in your local studio. “I think a lot of people are actively avoiding having anti-racism or decolonization conversations in the yoga space because it’s deemed as ‘negative’ and we only want to talk about ‘positive’ things. In order for our yoga to become progressive, and in order for our yoga to include social justice, we have to touch on the biases and the blind spots and the racism that we perpetuate ourselves,” says Chinea. “I lump ‘us’ all into that because even people of color can perpetuate white supremacy in a multitude of ways.”
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A reminder: SOME OF US HAVE BEEN DECOLONIZING WELLNESS AND YOGA FOR A MINUTE AND YOU’RE JUST NOW NOTICING. . . Please support the Brown and Black folks who have been about this work and not being opportunists simply because everyone is paying attention. . We are over here like ok -when we spoke up about racism in the yoga studio you retaliated against us, you wouldn’t let us in your establishments, you blacklisted us, and told others not to support our work. NOW you’ve seen the light and are all about us but wait…. you’re still only supporting as long as another white person is vouching for us?! . No no no no that’s not how this dismantling white supremacy shit works guys. This work means NOT supporting another white savior, but divesting from that narrative and supporting BIPOC. . So we over here laughing like are they for real?! Cause y’all are something else. We see you, you’re not listening to us, you’re just doing the same old same old and calling it progress. . . Here’s your call to action: Support BIPOC who have been decolonizing for a while. Mute all white saviors and white social justice warriors. Buy our workshops, trainings, etc. Invite us to your studio (virtual or in person) and let us do OUR work without question. . Comment below that you’re committed to doing this. I wanna see some action items. And go to the link in my bio and purchase seasons 1+2 of my Decolonizing Yoga & Wellness web series. . Picture: @navigillwellness and I teaching our Decolonizing Wellness LA workshop February 2020
The ways in which the yoga community has been whitewashed and commercialized in America are as numerous as the physical poses themselves. However, as Chinea sees it, the aspects of the industry that perpetuates the cycle the most are teacher trainings, of which there are thousands in the U.S. that often treat Sanskrit (the ancient Indo-European language of India and yoga) and tradition as an afterthought, and are often $1,000 and up, effectively making yoga “mastery” a privilege. “There’s definitely way too many teacher trainings that aren’t rooted in the Indigenous culture, and continue to perpetuate both white supremacy and appropriation. That means that there’s a lot of teachers who are not really teaching yoga, they’re teaching something else and passing it off as yoga,” says Chinea.
A 2019 New York Times article revealed that Core Power Yoga—the largest studio chain in the U.S. with more than 200 studios nationwide—incentivized its existing teachers to sell their teacher training program in exchange for a bonus. This model, prominent among many other studios (not just Core Power Yoga), acts as just one example for how white people—which make up four-fifths of all yoga practitioners in the U.S.—are encouraged to become yoga teachers before they’re even fully students of anything that goes beyond asana. (Many popular U.S. studios opt not to offer classes in yoga philosophy, meditation, and many of the other modalities that encompass a 360-degree yoga lifestyle.) “Yoga’s not just something that you go out and do for an hour and then come back to your life and live it the way that you’ve been living it; yoga is an entire lifestyle. It is a system of wellness, and not many people are practicing it or teaching it as a system of wellness. They’re teaching it as a part of wellness, or as a part of your healthy routine,” says Chinea.
“That’s why I chose to take a teacher training from an actual lineage which for me, was Sivananda Yoga—because I didn’t want to learn an appropriated form. I wanted to learn and live the yoga that I was practicing,” continues Chinea. “I graduated in 2012 or 2013, and so it’s been about eight to nine years—and I still sometimes feel like, ‘You know what, I really shouldn’t be teaching because I still have so much to learn.’ Not too many yoga teachers are there. A lot of yoga teachers think after five years, ‘I’m pretty much a master at this.’ What they’re a master of is this [particular] movement.” The asana-focused practice that’s most popular and easily packaged in the United States is only one, albeit important, slice of the yoga system at large—and right now, in the U.S., it has been yielded as a tool for racism, white-centering, and privilege.
“We need to incorporate anti-racism and social justice work into the yoga studio model.” —Constanza Eliana Chinea, yoga instructor
This raises the question of how the future of teacher training programs could evolve to be more diverse, inclusive, and rooted in tradition. And Chinea’s calling for nothing short of a revolution that currently makes the 5,000-year-old practice an engine of suppression. “We need to scale back on those yoga teacher trainings,” she says. “We need to incorporate anti-racism and social justice work into the yoga studio model. Meaning, let’s actually have workshops and classes around topics like inclusion and diversity. Not as a part of yoga teacher training, but as a regular class on the schedule alongside your vinyasa movement class and alongside your yoga philosophy class.” In other words, mastering your downward dog should be just as important to you as honoring the lineage that gave you the practice you love so much, and making sure everyone has two-foot by six-foot mat space to do the same.
“It sounds radical because it needs to be radical,” says Chinea. “Social justice is radical—it’s a radical shift from the dominant culture. It’s a radical shift from the status quo.”