Some Post-Colonial Narratives on Spirituality and Yoga


by Matt Sheedy

A friend of mine recently tipped me to a website and Facebook group called Decolonizing Yoga. The group describes itself as committed to

Challenging racism, patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, ableism, heteronormativity and privilege within yoga and spirituality. A place for radicals, queers, activists, anarchists, feminists & revolutionaries to unite.

A quick glance at the group’s homepage reveals a number of articles consistent with this general ethos, tackling topics such as “Countering Racism and Oppression in Holistic Healing,” “How Derrik Jensen’s Deep Green Resistance Supports Transphobia,” “Welcoming the Curvy Yogini,” and “Yoga: Not Just for Young, Skinny White Girls.” Curiously absent from these articles is any discussion on appropriations of Hindu identity.

While I found it interesting and indeed encouraging to come across a website that addresses issues not often found outside of academic circles, it struck me as I was surfing through this website that most critical narratives about yoga tend to focus their attention more on things like commercialization, materialism and a general lack of “spirituality” and have relatively little to say about cultural imperialism in relation to Hinduism. Indeed, it would seem that most of those who raise these concerns don’t tend to be Hindu at all, but rather Western practitioners who are variously concerned with questions of “authenticity” or, in the case of Decolonizing Yoga, with the realities of privilege and marginalization within yoga communities.

Here I couldn’t help but think of Suzanne Owen’s book The Appropriation of Native American Spirituality (2008), as a useful point of contrast, where she looks to

provide a discourse analysis of the appropriation of Native American spirituality through presenting the different perspectives of practitioners, tribal leaders, scholars and activists who claim to have an indigenous, Native American or specifically Lakota perspective in opposition to that of a non-Native. (18)

Of particular interest is Owen’s discussion of how notions of “spirituality” have been recently taken up by many “Native” communities, especially following developments in the 1970s, where the American Indian Movement (AIM) was drawn to certain Lakota groups that utilized traditional practices as a form of political resistance. This politicization, Owen notes, helped to spurn a “pan-Indian” movement, where Aboriginal communities across North America came to borrow many Lakota ceremonial practices in order to revitalize their own fledgling traditions.

In this sense, the insider use of the term “spirituality” is meant to distinguish Native practices as “borrowings” between indigenous groups, with an emphasis on following certain protocols in a correct (read: traditional and appropriate) manner. Moreover, spirituality is seen as immanently social and political as opposed to the more individual or self-focused conception that is common in Western appropriations of certain Native practices and in many popular “New Age” traditions—a point that Owen takes up in chapter four of her book.


While I find myself in agreement with Owen’s analysis of discourses about spirituality and colonization in relation to Native Americans, I find it both ironic and intriguing that a website promoting the decolonization of yoga should have nothing to say regarding Western appropriations of Hinduism.

One reason for this, perhaps, as a friend pointed out to me recently, is that many (though by no means all) South Asian communities in the Eurowest view Western yoga practices as “spiritual” and not “religious,” thereby simultaneously promoting Hindu-related practices while protecting their own cultural identity. Consider the following example from the website IndiaWest, commenting on the controversy in Encinitas, California that would allow yoga classes to be taught in local elementary schools.

Ashwini Surpur, director of yoga therapy at Yoga Bharati, stressed that yoga does not expressly support any religion, but is a method to alleviate stress and improve wellness through exercise.

“As far as I am concerned, there is nothing religious about yoga. Yoga cannot be religious. Because if it’s religious, it is not yoga, it’s a spiritual practice,” Surpur said.

“Spirituality is often confused with religion in many cultures,” she added.

Among other things that we might observe in these related-yet-distinct comparisons is how “spirituality” is marshaled differently in each instance. In the case of Decolonizing Yoga, notions of spirituality seem to imply a radical and ever-expanding inclusivity of those whose identities have been excluded from normative depictions of yoga (e.g. white, affluent, thin, etc.), while in the case of “Native” spirituality, insiders are almost always tied to a specific ethnic identity and a lived and historical experience of having their traditions or customs co-opted, marginalized and suppressed. Here the notion of “spirituality” is modified by the term “Native,” which enables a broad identification across distinct-yet-related Aboriginal cultures.


Last, for (at least) some Hindu communities, yoga is depicted as a form of spirituality that is seen to have a universal quality and is considered separate from more “religious” or cultural identifications with Hinduism. Here it is worth considering how this may be linked, as Richard King notes in his book Orientalism and Religion, to conceptions of “neo-Hinduism” and its emphasis on spirituality, which is not only Western-influenced, but has also allowed “Hindus to turn Western colonial discourses to their own advantage.” (142)

Central to all of these cases is how struggles for recognition amongst groups that have experienced colonization and/or marginalization shape how notions of spirituality are utilized differently—sometimes borrowing from and sometimes innovating ideas that have been imposed from the outside.

Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual and myth, and social movements. His dissertation offers a critical look at Juergen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. He is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy movement and discourses on ‘Nativeness’ in the Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.

This entry was posted in Matt Sheedy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Sexuality and Gender, South Asian Studies, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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