how I began decolonizing my yoga practice

Ong Namo: How I started decolonizing my non-religious yoga practice

Yoga has absolutely changed my life, but not solely from the mat based asana practice. However, when I was first introduced to yoga that’s all I knew it to be! Yoga was where you went to feel calm, stretch and maybe get stronger. Only after completing my yoga teacher training and teaching for a while did I encounter the complexities of Westernized yoga. This led me to question my role in perpetuating cultural appropriation. As my beloved practice crashed down around me, I was left to navigate the intersection of:

    • spirituality as an atheist looking to practice non-religious yoga,

    • authenticity in my desire to honor the true essence of yoga.

This is a story of evolution, reflection, and the pursuit of truth.

It’s 2015 and I remember sitting in my car outside a yoga studio absolutely shaking with anxiety and nerves. My heart is pounding, I’m glancing over at my yoga mat beside me with dread. I am still clenching my keys ready to start the car and drive away. 

I had done a little bit of the physical practice of yoga for a few years using an app. But I had never actually attended a class, and definitely had never attended a class in a studio. I had no idea what to expect. Logically I knew I wasn’t going to be very good at it. I was worried that I was getting in way over my head. I don’t know what it was that gave me the courage to get out of the car and walk into the studio. But I’m so grateful that part of me was strong enough to do it.

That moment started me down the journey I needed to find mySelf. My true self.

Jnana yoga as a non-religious yoga alternative

My Yoga Journey

Over the next year I went to a number of classes. going at least once a day, if not more. I craved the mental stillness it offered, and the warmth and comfort I found in the classes. Plus there was the challenge of trying to get flexible like all the pretzel humans in the class. 

My yoga mat became my home after difficult shifts in the ICU and a nurse. It became my home for releasing difficult emotions after my first true interactions with therapy. My yoga mat became my home for feeling safe, strong, and flexible.

My practice continued for a number of years until I decided I was ready to become a teacher. I registered at a local studio that offered it with tax credits (bonus, right?). The course outline was very logical, with a lot of scientific resources and studies to support what we were learning. My type-a brain was like “yes! This is perfect!”

I graduated from my 200 hour teacher training in December 2020. Right away I started teaching and immersing myself in all of the resources I could find. Then, when I saw an opportunity to take my 300 hour yoga teacher training, I jumped on it. I was so excited to teach yoga to the people in my membership community. We talk a lot in that community about feeling at home in your body – something that yoga helped me achieve.

Jnana yoga as a non-religious yoga alternative

The Moment Everything Stopped

In the middle of 2021 I stumbled upon an Instagram Account by Nikita Desai that talked about how much yoga has been whitewashed and is not at all honouring the roots of this ancient spiritual practice. That brought me down the rabbit hole watching all of her videos. I felt sick to my stomach. The yoga I was teaching was further erasing these true meanings of the practice. I was keeping the philosophy and the Vedic teachings out of the mix.

I was part of the problem.

So I stopped teaching yoga immediately and started learning more about the problematic nature of Westernized yoga. This ultimately led to the moment when I was left thinking “I don’t think I can teach yoga as an atheist in good conscience because I don’t want to appropriate this seemingly spiritual practice.”

And so I started exploring other life philosophies and ways of being that I resonated with a bit more. Until one day I stumbled upon an article outlining the four different yoga paths. These four different yoga paths are a way for us to attain that connection to the One-ness. The whole totality of life, or our innermost, truest Self. 

Jnana yoga as a non-religious yoga alternative

The Four Paths of Yoga:

    1. Karma Yoga – or the path of action and selfless service. This still has religious connotations and connections to people like Mother Theresa. Although she did a lot of great work for a large number of people, was still casteist and discriminatory. So that didn’t resonate with me.

    1. Bhakti Yoga – or the yoga of devotion, which is all about faith and surrendering fully to some divine essence. That was a big nope for me.

    1. Raja Yoga – the yoga of meditation, follows the Vedic scriptures to calm the mind and reconnect to our true essence. It was closer to something I could connect with, but still had too much of a spiritual influence for me. And then there was…

    1. Jnana Yoga – which is the yoga of will and intellect. It’s all about self-study, self-reflection. The focus is on doing the work to remove yourself from the ego. To quiet the parts of you that are meaning making machines in order to see Satya or the Truth.

This had me sit up straight and think “so wait. There’s a fully logical, non-spiritual path that follows the yogic teachings but doesn’t have anything to do with some deities? This I can do!”

My realization led me down another rabbit hole of discovering what Jnana Yoga is and what it isn’t. Turns out, a lot of the psychology methods and exercises I had been teaching had their roots in Jnana Yoga! Go figure.

Jnana yoga as a non-religious yoga alternative

I found my non-religious yoga path

The principles behind Internal Family Systems theory are reflected in the principles of Jnana Yoga. There is the one True Inner Self, which I call the Objective Observer. This part of you can recognize that you are feeling an emotion or experiencing something. But without getting caught up in it. This is the Purusha that is talked about in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and so many of the Vedic texts.

I think what really drew me in the most (aside from the avoidance of talking about some divine entity) was how it really focused on self-efficacy and personal responsibility. Instead of Karma Yoga where you hope that the enlightened insights will be bestowed upon you – you take the reins. 

You have the control and the power – as much as you can have anyway. You are the vehicle to coming home to your True Self. 

I found yogic path for me that brings me closer and closer to that most authentic version of me. This direction of study would allow me to learn more about the practice that had changed so much for me. All of this without forcing myself into a spiritual lane that I didn’t want to drive in.

So many people and articles say that yoga isn’t a religion. Now I have proof that you don’t have to be religious in order to really honour the traditions and philosophical roots of this very holistic practice.

It was about this time that I hit my next roadblock.

Jnana yoga as a non-religious yoga alternative

Jnana Yoga as a Non-Religious Yoga

A lot of the resources that explain the foundational principles and guiding philosophies of yoga are scriptures and spiritual texts that form the basis of the Hindu religion. The Bhagavad Gita, many translations of the Yoga Sutras, and even books written about Jnana Yoga all reference some kind of god. Regularly. With my history, reading these things is very triggering for me and very difficult to do. 

Slowly I was able to start to find resources that truly talked about yoga from a non-religious standpoint, including a book called Sure Ways to Self-Realization by Swami Satyananda Sarasvati that talks about a variety of different methodologies that one can use to learn more about the Self and explore the Jnana yoga path without religion.

This book continues to guide me towards other resources that assist in deepening my yoga students’ understanding of yoga’s traditions and meanings, without making them feel like I am appropriating the cultural practice to the same extent.

The Journey Forward

As a white woman, I must acknowledge the privilege that comes with my identity, particularly in the context of teaching yoga, a practice deeply rooted in diverse cultures and traditions. Despite my best intentions, I recognize that I may inadvertently perpetuate systems of cultural appropriation. It’s a humbling realization, prompting me to continually educate myself, listen to marginalized voices, and approach yoga with reverence and respect. Through this acknowledgment, I strive to create a more inclusive and equitable space within the yoga community, recognizing the importance of amplifying diverse perspectives and experiences. It’s an ongoing journey of learning and unlearning, one that I’m committed to navigating with humility and accountability.

And although I can’t promise to be perfect, I can promise that the yoga I teach goes far beyond the mat based practice of asana and will also, if you allow it, help you go down the Jnana yoga path of becoming You. And I can promise that I will keep learning because it’s when I think I know everything there is to know that it’ll be time for me to stop teaching again and reassess my view.

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Ong Namo - Snatam Kaur