A few weeks ago I was sitting on the stairs of the local courier office waiting to collect a package struggling to breathe in the heat when I was slapped in the face with colonialism, ableism and fatphobia all at once. I was accused of being a bad yoga teacher because I had asthma and had gained weight since the person last saw me. I did not respond kindly to being insulted which led to me being further insulted for not staying calm in the face of oppression. I responded with some choice words because I am frustrated with the false narrative that colonizer culture has created around yoga. Too many people believe that yoga cures chronic illness when that is categorically false.
Very often people see yoga as a cure for stress, illness and disability. This is what happens when yoga is viewed through the western settler colonization lens and it reduces the vastness of yogic traditions to a workout or a cure.
Before we continue I would like to take the time to explore the characteristics of supremacy culture and how that affects how we interact with the world. In order to do this we have to understand the characteristics of White Supremacy Culture that shapes the world and many of our daily interactions. Tema Okun has been working in this fiends for decades and outlines some of these characteristics on the website https://www.whitesupremacyculture.info/. If you are a white person and think that you don’t need to learn this information because it doesn’t affect you, I encourage you to read the article 10 ways white supremacy wounds white people.
For reference some of the characteristics of white supremacy culture include:
- One Right Way (Along with perfectionism, paternalism, objectivity and qualified)
- Either/or & the Binary
- Denial & Defensiveness
- Right to Comfort & Fear of Conflict
- Progress is bigger and more, Quantity over Quality
- Worship of the written word
I encourage you to spend some time in self reflection to think about how each of these show up in your life and in your yoga practice.
I recently attended a conference where a speaker said “yoga is not about relieving the stress that western civilizations put on us but about transcendence”. This was deeply meaningful to me and my work in yoga and accessibility. I am often asked what are the benefits of yoga. In dominant culture we can only engage in an activity if it directly, immediately and visibly befits us. We’re always looking for the newest, shiniest thing which is the antithesis to yoga. It is through this lens that yoga came to be seen as the cure for ALL illness. Someone somewhere did yoga and felt better and as we do in dominant culture we decided that yoga was a cure without examining the mechanism of their relief and whether or now they actually were cured or the original cause of their illness.
This reminds me of a poignant anecdote. When asked about whether yoga cures illnesses Krishnamacharya who is considered the father of modern yoga said
“we all suffer from this illness called life and death is the only cure”
In this context let us examine how yoga and white supremacy culture collide to create systemic harm. Let’s start with urgency and what is seen as progress. There is an idea that if you are sick you need to get better soon; visibly better because progress doesn’t happen if it can’t be seen. This mindset does not work with chronic illness. There’s no getting better; the illness or disability is here to stay. Progress is not linear and it is rarely visible. For me progress is finding things that make my life easier: a bed desk, comfy slippers, a doctor that listens to you. When you’re chronically ill you have to learn to see your life as it is and adapt to reality. Yoga is about seeing yourself as you really are. Unfortunately dominant culture has twisted yoga philosophy from the liberation that it was meant for to gas lighting. The greatest example of this is the rampant misuse of karma as an excuse to allow oppression to go unchallenged and unchecked. For too long dominant culture has used “eastern philosophy” as another tool of oppression. This is why many people thing that one session of yoga will cure depression, make folks walk with no pain and magic away all your problems.
Even if you feel better after one class that doesn’t mean that yoga is a magic cure. It simply means that taking time to practice is rewarding and you should continue doing it without expecting the same results every time. Your mind and body are not the same everyday and you won’t have the same results all the time. Dominant culture creates the idea that things should always be comfy, cozy, rainbows and unicorns but yoga is the hard work of examining your true self. Sometimes when you look within what you find is not always beautiful. Yoga asks you to sit with that and examine it. For those of us with chronic illness the not so pretty thing might be accepting that you are not making it out of bed. It might mean learning to be gentle with yourself. It might mean seeing your intrinsic value as a human being instead of your value coming from your abilities. Yoga does so much more for the disabled and chronically ill that a quick cure that makes them seem “normal”
Now let’s look at binary thinking and one right way. For many people you are either sick or well there’s no in between; but chronic illness lives in that in between. Chronic illness and disabilities affect how we live our lives but it’s not the same as an acute illness that you eventually recover from. This can be difficult for some people to understand because they’re used to binary thinking. They expect yoga to “fix” disabled people but that’s just not a thing. I could talk about how disabled folks aren’t broken and how that viewpoint is harmful but many have done it more eloquently and thoroughly than me. Instead let’s talk about how that connects to the idea that there is one right way. The reason people want to fix us is often to make us normal; normal being the right way. This is something that yoga comes against often because yoga suggests that there are many paths to liberation and we each have to follow the path that resonates with us the most. That is why there are 8 branches of yoga. That is why there are many types of yoga. Those of us with chronic illnesses know that what works from one may not work for others and it’s time dominant culture accepted us.
And finally individualism; what I believe is the core motivation for telling chronically ill people “go to yoga”.
As a society we have a duty of collective care to each other. However we often shirk that duty in favor of radical individualism. You aren’t suffering because systemic inequities make it hard for you to exist; you’re suffering because you’re not trying hard enough. When we tell someone “go to yoga” we’re suggesting that they are not doing everything possible to get better. We have become a society obsessed with personal responsibility while ignoring that no successful person did it alone, they all had help. Yoga does not encourage individualism. The word itself, yoga, means to yoke, union. Yoga is about improving your relationship with yourself and others to find equanimity and bliss.
Anyone who truly understood yoga would understand that long before you suggest someone go to yoga you would first make sure that they were supported and had access to sufficient care. They would also ensure that the person had access to decolonized, accessible, trauma informed yoga. Many people suggest yoga as a means to make themselves feel better within the framework of white supremacy culture. So next time someone suggests yoga as a cure you can point them here so they can engage in some self reflection.
For more of my thoughts on this topic you can purchase me yoga is not a cure pdf from my Ko-fi shop by visiting https://ko-fi.com/s/e140e0de98
I have also included some books that present a very accessible version of yoga full of modifications for accessing a variety of poses.
If you’re chronically ill or disabled please share your yoga stories in the comments. The good, the bad and the ugly; whatever you’re comfortable with sharing. Also share what would make you feel supported in a yoga class and more likely to participate.
Please consider supporting my work with a monetary donation.