Recently, I’ve been reflecting on how to make space and claim space, not just in Yoga, but in everyday life. How would those who have been denied space by dominant culture do the same? At the time of writing this piece, it’s June 21st, International Yoga Day, and we are three weeks into Pride and PTSD Awareness Months. I’m just about to teach a Yoga class focusing on body positivity and decolonizing Yoga; the two are inextricably linked. More often than not, healing and wellness spaces have been dominated by and cater to thin, White, able-bodied, cishet, financially well-off women, leaving those most in need of these spaces with nowhere to go. This only underscores how the body is politic and how healing and wellness spaces serve as microcosms of dominant culture–namely white supremacy, the patriarchy, and capitalism.
Yoga is an ancient South Asian spiritual practice and science rooted in mindfulness, connection with the divine, and unity. The irony of practicing such a class on International Yoga Day does not escape me–it was only in 2014 when the autocratic Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, proclaimed this “celebratory” day, a fact I just recently learned. How did a day rooted in nationalism become a day widely celebrated by Yoga teachers, studios, and students? In western society, Yoga has been co-opted for profit and power and is essentially watered-down, lacking both direction and intention. We must begin to interrogate teachers and studios and start a dialogue about whether their offerings are, in fact, truly honoring the roots of Yoga.
I am also aware of the irony of teaching Yoga on International Yoga Day as someone who is not of South Asian ancestry. I first practiced asana, the physical practice the West often relates with Yoga, when I was 18 years old. I would dip in and out of this practice for 20 years until I found a steady practice, and it was only then when I went on to complete 500 hours of asana teacher training. I make this distinction between asana and Yoga to highlight the fact that asana is not Yoga–asana is only one of eight limbs of Yoga, the eight limbs being: yamas (ethics); niyamas (inner observances); asana (physical practice); pranayama (breath); dharana (mindfulness); dhyana (meditation); pratayahara (withdrawal of senses); and samadhi (liberation from the binds that hold us). In Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a collection of aphorisms on the theory and practice of Yoga compiled between 500 BCE and 400 BCE, there is only mention of how to practice asana in two of the 196 sutras. Asana was often associated with taking a seat, not movement. Yoga is far vaster than what instructors and studios are teaching and cashing in on. I believe it’s imperative to study with South Asian teachers. Nothing replaces lived experience.
Over the years, my practice has moved away from asana, and more towards how I live my everyday life–practicing mindfulness and meditation throughout the day by being present with what I’m doing, practicing compassion and patience, learning about philosophy and music, and participating in community service. Although I am a “Registered Yoga Teacher”, I consider myself a Yoga student who is just beginning to study Yoga. Feeling entitled to call oneself a teacher after 200 or even 500 hours of training in a tradition that is not one’s own, and make a profit off it, is the epitome of colonizer mentality. I don’t believe the current standards of training qualify anyone to be a Yoga teacher if Yoga is not their tradition. Oftentimes, what we are taught in training isn’t trauma-informed, centers thin bodies, lacks cultural competency, is heteronormative, leads to physical injury, denies students body autonomy and agency, isn’t accessible, is greatly lacking in the richness of the spiritual practice, and fails to acknowledge the history and origins of Yoga.
Healing and wellness spaces have historically left out people most impacted by dominant culture. Too many times I’ve heard people say they’ve been body shamed, dealt with racism, or been misgendered. They feel that the offerings aren’t physically accessible, don’t consider neurodivergence, or are cost prohibitive, leaving them feeling harmed and not wanting to practice in public spaces. The co-optation of Yoga by dominant culture has punished people who are the most exploited and marginalized. How are we living in a society where those most in need of resources are the last to receive, and those who need it the least are the first in line? Those with power clamor to grasp and hold onto it and claim resources, resources which were never theirs in the first place, for themselves. They fail to realize the power of collectivism. It is only through collectivism that we will flourish as a society, and it is only through collective healing that we will all heal. The entire collective must be resourced and represented in Yoga spaces, whether as students, teachers, staff, or studio owners.
As a teacher, I am not interested in teaching athletics, acrobatics, or performance. I’m interested in teaching mindfulness, movement, meditation, body autonomy, and agency to people who’ve been underrepresented, under-resourced, exploited, marginalized, and silenced the most. I want to provide a brave space for people to be who they are, feel heard and seen, and hopefully have their needs met. As the pandemic has made blatantly apparent, people are denied their fundamental human rights of health, rest, and healing. The denial of these rights falls on the shoulders of humans living with multiple identities historically oppressed by dominant culture, with systems of domination overlapping and compounding the effect of the other. This concept of “intersectionality” was first coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, to show how Black women’s oppression could not be limited to either the experience of race or gender, but that both identities impact each other.
The lack of accessibility, representation, and equity in many Yoga classes currently offered only highlights how Yoga has been stripped of its essence. The definition of Yoga is yuj, to yoke with the universal, the collective; you can’t have Yoga without the entire collective being represented in Yoga classes. Yoga in the West values movement, production, accomplishment, and metrics above anything else. What we miss out on when we teach Yoga in this way is healing collectively, which as a society, we so desperately need.
I created Our Ancestors’ Children and I co-founded the Trans Yoga Project to bridge the divide. The classes I teach at Our Ancestors’ Children are trauma-informed and are offered at a sliding-scale so people can pay what they can and still reap the benefits of a regular practice. Often, people cannot access mental health care because of its prohibitive costs and while Yoga is not a substitute for professional help, it has been shown to be beneficial to mental health by decreasing depression, anxiety, and stress. In addition, I offer seated, supine, standing, chair, and wall variations for all poses to make the classes physically accessible for all bodies. I inform students that my offerings are suggestions; ultimately, they decide how to move according to what feels best in their body. It’s important for me to teach body autonomy and agency, something many of us aren’t taught in Yoga class and are denied in society at large due to our race, gender, or class. I offer students various tools to anchor themselves in the present moment beyond the breath, such as embodiment, grounding, and orientation in space, recognizing that offering just one tool may be triggering or inaccessible. I cue each pose multiple times to facilitate people processing the cue. Yes, the class moves slowly because what is gained is learning to exist in a space that considers everyone’s needs, a space that is representative, democratic, and equitable. The classes and trainings offered at Trans Yoga Project have the intention of uplifting Trans, Queer, and BIPOC people, encouraging accessibility in the wellness industry and body positivity. The Trans Yoga Project’s Trans 101 trainings teach studio owners and teachers how to create Trans, Queer, and Non-Binary-affirming spaces. Here, we emphasize the importance of omitting gendered language during interactions with students, whether they be through intake forms or in class instruction; hiring and retaining Trans, Queer and Non-Binary teachers, so students feel represented and that their needs are met; and learning how Yoga affirms Trans, Queer and Non-binary identities. We see teaching Yoga as a public service and how it is each teacher’s and studio’s responsibility to be able to hold space for the public. Our offerings stress the importance of addressing the impact of dominant culture on our students’ health and well-being and the importance of dismantling this culture not only in the Yoga studio, but also in society at large. Students have left our classes feeling seen, heard, and connected to a community where they have a safe space to practice.
As a Queer, non-binary, Egyptian, Muslim, neurodivergent immigrant and survivor, I have endured multiple traumas. I experience these identities all at once and each identity’s experience informs the other. Yoga has given me a space to heal from this trauma. It’s taught me the tools of embodiment, grounding, and centering. It’s taught me how to tune into my emotions, breath, bodily sensations, and thoughts. It has taught me how to self-regulate and how to cope with feelings of anger, despair, and injustice. Most importantly, Yoga has taught me compassion and patience for myself and others, and my responsibility to create a better world. I believe that Yoga has a profound potential to teach the masses these tools, empowering them, and making up for where health and wellness spaces fail. It is imperative that healing and wellness spaces are made for us to recover.
We must start building a world that leaves no one behind. We must deconstruct systems that marginalize, exploit, and oppress, systems that fail to treat every human with the dignity that is their birthright. We must create a new social contract by ensuring everyone’s needs are met, not only to survive, but also to thrive. Dominant culture has taught us that this is not possible when there is enough abundance to meet our needs. The US’s military yearly budget is $714 billion. Cities across the country are spending half of their budgets on the police, with cities like New York City and Los Angeles allocating $11 billion and $3 billion, respectively, of their budget to law enforcement, which has proven to be racist, poorly trained, and ill-equipped in serving the public. This money should be invested in housing, education, healthcare, creating jobs, feeding, and clothing people. There is no doubt that systems of dominant culture, having existed for centuries, created the catastrophes we’ve witnessed not just with the pandemic, but also with human rights and the environment, across the globe. They are violent and obsolete. They need to be replaced with non-hierarchical systems rooted in equity and representation, especially in health and wellness spaces. People must have a place to heal from the stress and trauma created by these systems. I believe a world where everyone thrives is possible. It is within our finger’s reach–we must have the audacity to create it.
Noha Arafa, Esq. RYT. 500, (they/she) is based in Los Angeles on occupied Tongva, Chumash, and Kiz land. They are an Egyptian, Queer, non-binary, neurodivergent, human rights attorney, movement and mindfulness teacher, and survivor. Noha is the founder of Our Ancestors’ Children, which offers community-based, trauma-informed movement and meditation classes, and is the co-founder of The Trans Yoga Project, which creates Trans, Non-Binary and Queer-affirming healing and wellness spaces through class offerings, education, and community building. They have worked in human rights law and advocacy since 2001, advocating on behalf of asylees, protestors, survivors of gender-based, police, and carceral violence, through direct legal representation and grassroots community organizing. They believe everyone has a fundamental right to healing and rest. Their work centers Trans, Non-Binary, Queer, BIPOC, neurodivergent people and survivors.
Artwork by: Barbara Kruger, as displayed at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, CA and photographed by Noha Arafa