By Patrick McCartney, Phd
The decolonization of yoga is an important project. It has produced a variety of conversations amongst scholars and the average consumer of yoga alike. This is based mostly around the idea of cultural appropriation. As a scholar-practitioner, one thing I am trying to understand is when agitators for decolonizing yoga appear to not really know what they are talking about, which seems to have the potential to derail the project. I say this, because it seems that, instead of decolonizing, in many instances, what happens is more likely a type of enabling. I’ll explain what I mean by this below.
I’ve been thinking about this issue for some time. However, the other day I watched a clip on Youtube about decolonizing yoga, which featured Nisha Ahuja, who seems to know a bit about yoga, and is a self-appointed decolonizer of yoga, as is explained in this interview. However, I take umbrage at some of the assertions that she, like many others make, in their attempts to decolonize yoga. Below, I focus on one statement that she offers early in the interview as a platform to a wider discussion.
To say that, “Yoga is a 5000 year old medicine/spiritual tradition,” leaves little doubt in my mind that there are some huge gaps in Ahuja’s understanding of the historicity of yoga. This might not be apparent to others, who see her clearly earnest attempt to help as something to aspire towards. The problem, at least how I perceive it, is this:
How much decolonizing of yoga can occur if the self-appointed decolonizers have a shaky understanding of the historicity of yoga, and rely upon a shallow, essentialist, static and monolithic understanding of the colonial history and pre-modern history of yoga and South Asia?
This is further complicated by the decolonizing discourse appropriating similar hegemonic narratives that were constructed during the colonial era, if not before. Asserting such an antiquity as 5000 years is quite problematic, mostly because it is relying on the same essentialist narratives that Hindu supremacists, the Indian State and other misinformed consumers of global yoga rely on to present an idea that yoga, and India, are “timeless”, “ancient” and “spiritual”. Does Nisha Ahuja take this date to be factual? If so, where is the evidence beyond an appeal to emotion and authority? Or, is it simply an assertion based on emotion, and deference to something just being really old? I am quite earnest in…