Yoga isn't a workout, it's an instigator of social change . . . and here's why it's lost its way in the West
How did an ancient spiritual practice become the preserve of the privileged? From bum-sculpting leggings to Instagram feeds full of wellness gurus showing off handstands on pristine beaches. Here, yoga teacher and writer Nadia Gilani explores how yoga has lost its way in the West and how we can restore its roots and ensure its inclusivity.
Yoga saved Nadia Gilani's life. Since she first started practising twenty-five years ago, it has seen her through many highs and lows; it has been a faith, a discipline and a friend, and – as both a student and a teacher – she believes wholeheartedly in its radical potential.
But over her years in the wellness industry, Nadia has noticed not only yoga's rising popularity, but also how its modern incarnation no longer serves people of colour, working-class people and many other groups who originally pioneered its creation. So how did this ancient spiritual practice become the preserve of the privileged?
Here, Nadia shares how yoga in the West has lost its way, why the practice is not a workout, and why to view it as such not only shuts out many people it should be helping but also overlooks its power to be an instigator of social change . . .
In the early weeks of the covid19 pandemic in March 2020, more people than ever were turning to yoga for the first time. I even taught some of them online. On the one hand, it was a joy to see the practice that has sustained me through life helping people during one of the trickiest times many of us have lived through. Yoga’s health benefits and the sense of calm it promises is what first led me to the practice 25 years ago and I want it to be available for anyone who might want to make use of it.
But the problem is that yoga was never meant to just be a workout, it wasn’t supposed to be a power hour to fit into your lunch break.
That’s not to say these things in themselves are wrong. We live modern lives and yoga as a physical practice can be a powerful antidote to our frenetic, 24-hour lives, but the current incarnation of yoga as a quick fix to a clearer mind and buff body is coming at a cost.
Yoga has become a parody of itself, which is a massive shame because it doesn’t have to be a weird hippy gymnastics class wafting of patchouli if you don’t want it to be. There’s real depth to be found in the practice once you take away the bum-sculpting leggings, green juices and handstands on beaches that yoga has got itself wrapped up in. How and why has this happened? Well, I explore exactly this and more in my book The Yoga Manifesto.
‘There’s real depth to be found in the practice once you take away the bum-sculpting leggings, green juices and handstands on beaches that yoga has got itself wrapped up in.’
Yoga has been spectacularly hijacked by businesses, advertising and social media since I started practicing in the 1990s in a way that sits uncomfortably with the ethics of yoga. The aspirational #liveyourbestlife marketing from yoga studios, athleisure brands and Instagrammers featuring pictures of permanently happy, bendy women doing yoga poses in idyllic locations isn’t my reality. It’s also far from what the ancient practice was meant to be about: self-inquiry, mediation and ultimately reaching enlightenment.
Yoga is most famous for its postures but there’s so much more to it than them alone. In ancient times early mentions of yoga were concerned with controlling the mind and reaching higher states of consciousness, so the postures didn’t even emerge straight away. Practicing yoga is a discipline and the postures – which are a means to a greater spiritual end – come attached to a philosophy that gives meaning and purpose to many of us.
It’s true that yoga is a joy, but it’s not what the wellness industry is selling. This industry that espouses wellness continually shuts out many groups of people such as those on lower incomes, people of colour; it ignores those in larger bodies, those with disabilities and doesn’t seem interested in gender inclusivity either. So as it stands it appears that wellness can be yours for the taking if you can afford the cash to pay for it and it must be said – if you look the part– and I’ve never looked the part even when I started working as a yoga teacher.
‘The aspirational #liveyourbestlife marketing from yoga studios, athleisure brands and Instagrammers featuring pictures of permanently happy, bendy women doing yoga poses in idyllic locations isn’t my reality. It’s also far from what the ancient practice was meant to be about: self-inquiry, mediation and ultimately reaching enlightenment.’
This doesn’t bother me like it did when I started teaching, because the practice has always meant much more to me. Yoga offers a framework for living that can help us connect with what we believe in, choose what values we are aligned with and how we might live our lives. This is what I call Engaged Yoga. I coined the term after George Floyd was murdered by police in the US in 2020. It was inspired by Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s idea of Engaged Buddhism. Engaged Buddhism is about practicing in order to be aware of what’s going on. If Buddhism is not engaged it’s not real Buddhism. I feel the same way about yoga and this is how the practice can be used as a powerful tool for social change.
The ahimsa (non-violence) tenet of yoga philosophy is about not being violent to yourself or anyone else, which often gets repackaged as #selfcare by the wellness industry. In reality, it could extend to being thoughtful about what you eat, so maybe a vegetarian or vegan diet for some of us, or thinking about where our meat comes from. It’s about looking at your mind and the way you talk to yourself in terms of negative thinking and the words you speak to others.
Often people talk about ahimsa in terms of what they're not doing but I’m more interested in ahimsa that’s proactive rather than passive. I’m inspired most by ahimsa that shows us ways to put our yoga practice to work by standing up for what’s right for the greater good and the freedom of people. There are so many great examples in history of ahimsa being a form of resistance such as the Civil Rights Movement in the US and the civil disobedience campaign in colonised India.
Another yoga principle is aparigraha (non-greed). This could mean not taking more than we need and paying people fairly if we’re responsible for that. In practical terms I also find it helpful to think about it in terms of generosity and living in a way that I consider the impact of my actions on others in my life and the communities I move within. There are so many other principles to learn from through yoga which the practice in its current incarnation fails to offer.
The narrative of yoga in the West needs to change. I’m certain about that and The Yoga Manifesto provides ‘Eight Pillars for Recovery’ on how we can work together to restore yoga and preserve its roots in ways to benefit everyone.
Yoga is a practice for learning about and transforming ourselves after all. I believe we can and should use it to transform the world.
Photo credit: Jen Armstrong