Blog post by:
Spandana Mandaloju, MS2
McGovern Medical School
“We’re going to be moving into OOT-caw-ta-sana pose now.”
I grimaced. The yoga instructor was trying to say utkatasana, or child’s pose. I lifted my arms up and mimicked her posture. I was taking my first yoga class, and being the only person of color, I felt like an outsider.
The truth was, I didn’t know too much about the practice of yoga except that it is rooted in Hinduism (but also practiced in Buddhism and Jainism), and that Lord Shiva is considered the very first yogi. As a Hindu myself, I wanted to reconnect with my religious roots, but I left the studio that day feeling more disconnected than ever. We went through the motions without even a nod towards the complex meaning of the poses. I was forced into the sanitized version of my ancestral traditions, and it felt sacrilegious. Being unfamiliar with ancestral traditions is associated with shame, not only for me, but for many people of color. For example, Danica Love Brown of the Choctaw tribe states, “The reclamation of Indigenous language in the United States has been viewed as a form of survival and a counter to the effects of genocide […] If we lose our languages, we lose our connection to our culture.”1
Decolonizing wellness means to reclaim the wellness practices that are rooted in various cultures and religions but have been culturally appropriated; it also means making these practices more accessible to everyone, regardless of wealth, race, body size, and disability. The global wellness industry is valued at $4.5 trillion2, yet most wellness is marketed towards a white audience by white models – think yoga, crystals, turmeric shots, burning sage, essential oils, incense, and acupuncture. Traditional wellness practices are often stripped of cultural and religious roots and adapted to a Western audience. They have just enough “exoticness” but also aren’t “too ethnic.” To reduce yoga to something that is so easy to market and so exclusive is belittling to the practice and to its religious roots. It is an exhausting form of microaggression, backed by consumerism. Decolonizing wellness is more than just at an individual level - it's at an economic level and allows people to profit off of practices that others were persecuted for.
So how do we decolonize wellness?
- Understand the roots of the wellness practices you enjoy.
There is no need to quit yoga if you're not Indian, but more than likely, your current wellness practices have cultural roots to them. Take the time to understand them and how they have been culturally appropriated and/or historically suppressed. For example, yoga and Ayurveda were banned in India under British rule, so approximately eight generations of Indians were denied the right to their own ancestral practices.
- Recognize when wellness practices have been altered to fit mainstream culture and encourage acknowledgment.
Most natural wellness practices touted today have cultural origins in East Asian herbal medicine, Ayurveda, African and Native American plant medicine, and more. When you realize a business is trying to profit off another culture, speak up. Ask them what they are doing to include diversity and how they are respecting cultural roots.
Wellness should be inclusionary, not exclusionary – and we shouldn’t be settling for anything less.
1. Brown, Danica Love. "Daughters of the drum: Decolonizing health and wellness with Native American women." AlterNative: An International Jounral of Indigenous Peoples 12.2 (2016): 109-123.