Decolonizing yoga in the West

How to unravel the yoga industrial complex and cultivate a conscious practice.

A photo of Shreya Ranganath practicing yoga in the woods.

“Yoga is a discipline that opens the door to inner freedom.” -Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

Growing up in California, I often felt uneasy in yoga studios that had white, fit instructors guiding us all through elaborate poses while distorting the word “Ohm.” It was as if this chance to align my body and spirit required an open mind and, more importantly, an open wallet. My limited knowledge of yoga at the time made me see the entire process as a simple trend representing a small group of people that I knew for certain I wasn’t a part of. Hearing familiar words made me predict my Indian culture was involved in the practice’s origin, but I didn’t want to break the bank and endure being “othered” to find out how.

However, taking a trip to India at the age of 18 changed this narrative for me. The journey was a bridge that connected me to my South Asian heritage, a portion of myself that had always felt distant while growing up. I was able to see yoga as a beautiful reflection and multifaceted discipline involving limbs, knowledge, wisdom, breath and meditation. I came to recognize that it’s not just postures. It is a way of life.

I realized that it was important to watch people who looked like me immersing themselves in tradition by using Sanskrit terms, tracing the lineage back to Patanjali Yoga Sutras and practicing “pranayama” (breath work), “asanas” (exercises) and meditation. Sitting on a lake in Udaipur, I felt oneness, fully immersed in looking within myself — a gateway to true healing. After the trip, I was ready to bring my newfound understanding back to California and use it in every aspect of my life as a student.

However, returning home exposed where whitewashed yoga practices grew in plenty. After dipping my toe into the culture of my homeland, it became easy to spot its absence. I was in a severe yoga drought as I was about to start my first semester at San Diego Miramar Community College. I needed holistic practices more than ever.

I went onto YouTube, and a simple search took me to a diluted stream of predominantly white creators. I didn’t see myself represented. I didn’t see holistic yoga represented. I couldn’t get my mind off of how distinctly different the practices were. Where was the breathing, meditation and deeper dimension that I experienced? Where was the language, the culture that I previously felt? What is yoga sculpt? Goat yoga? Hot yoga? These puzzling questions are what eventually motivated me to want to make a change.

Yoga, when practiced holistically, unites my body and my mind. By diluting practices to simply the physical, we lose the aspects that transcend off the mat and into the real world.

For instance, when I feel stressed with workload, I know I can reach into a toolbox and find the cleansing breathwork “Bhastrika,” mentioned in the ancient text “Hatha Yoga Pradipika” and feel a sense of clarity. In between classes, I can also take a seat, close my eyes and sink into meditation.

I began reading ancient scriptures and relearning the history of practices dating back  thousands of years. I practiced Vedic breathing techniques, asanas and meditation twice daily, intertwining it with my regular routine. The summer before I transferred to USC, I got my 200-hour yoga certification through Sri Sri School of Yoga, a multidimensional yoga education program based in Bangalore, India.

My new title and traditional exposure ignited a deep passion and connectedness in me to the craft. I wanted more people to experience a practice that went beyond the sun salutations and expensive yoga pants. I wanted to eliminate the barriers to entry that historically prevented marginalized groups from practicing.

I approached YogaUSC and SKY with a proposal to start a free weekly yoga course centered on cultural awareness embedded within the practices. Without hesitation, I got the green light, and authentic yoga education was on its way.

Reflecting on almost a year of teaching now, I can safely say that it has been a highlight of my USC experience getting to watch people from all walks of life find their way into the URC Fishbowl and get in touch with this life-changing discipline as it was intended. Seeing peers lift out of “Savasana” (resting pose) with beaming smiles while sharing pockets of peace during midterms and finals reminds me why I do what I do. More than anything, spreading ancient wisdom feels like an homage to my South Asian roots, a love letter to the culture that raised me.

I’ve learned to practice yoga consciously and to be alert to the people represented as the faces of our practices. Yoga makes me proud to be South Asian American. It’s a portion of my identity that I cannot go without. We can’t let that mirror dissolve into the material world.

It’s vital to ask each other and ourselves the difficult questions about accessibility, learn more about yoga’s lineage and ultimately bring awareness to a holistic celebration of ancient tradition for the next generation.

Shreya Ranganath is a yoga instructor specializing in Sri Sri yoga. She teaches a free weekly course Wednesdays 6-7 p.m. at the URC Fishbowl. Find more information here.