Yoga can help to decolonise us


In South Africa, yoga has long been seen as something weird for slim white women and hippies or New Age types in the well-off suburbs. Given the enduring racialised realities of our urban lives, a silk curtain has hidden this South Asian practice from many black Africans. But a new social movement is taking yoga to the townships.

In Alexandra in Gauteng, a doctor has given up her profession and is now helping to train 2 000 young people from that township to practise yoga. In Athlone in Cape Town, a new movement — Revolutionary Yoga — is seeing young people doing yoga in the crime-ridden streets. A video, Beautiful Butterflies, chronicles the journey of four coloured and black women who love yoga and have integrated its healing practices into their lives as a survival mechanism.

In 2016, the Wits School of Governance provided a voluntary kundalini yoga class to more than 30 students to help them to cope with stress and pain. The class lifted spirits: the energy shift in class the next morning was so buoyant that the guest lecturer had his hands full coping with the excess of happiness.

The global pharmaceutical industry depends on our reliance on manufactured drugs to secure the future of “Big Pharma”. But the politics of decolonisation questions our faith in one science only. Scientific inquiry is clearly not limited to the West, and many “Western” inventions are based on discoveries and innovations from other regions of the world.

Yoga is an ancient knowledge system from India that has become a global cultural practice, partly because it is fashionable but more importantly because its users find the exercises helpful to their mental and physical health.

Something that’s “cool” often spreads because there is something enjoyable or helpful in it. The practice of yoga — a series of exercises and meditation — has been handed down to various teachers by their gurus (yoga professors), who transmit this ancient knowledge system through the generations.

In many countries, however, yoga is commodified and therefore often linked to (racially distinctive) elites:

  • It is a “white” thing because only whites or upper middle-class people can afford the classes;
  • It is an elite thing because classes take place in wealthier suburbs or urban centres when poor and working-class people have gone home to their townships and areas with limited recreation facilities;
  • It is “faddish” or “cool”, and you are drawn into an alternative culture of expensive yoga retreats, special yoga clothing and a range of associated manufactured desires; and
  • The demographics of yoga classes often reflect this elite space of consumption and lifestyles, and so the class itself is alienating for black or working-class people.

In Africa, the yoga knowledge system has to deal with a great deal of prejudice from black Africans, for good reason. In many African lives, survival and good, practical sense are integral elements of their lives, making “self-indulgent” middle-class cultural practices difficult to absorb.

But every cultural community is porous and open to new things and new possibilities. In New York, inner-city schools have begun teaching children from the “projects” how to meditate, and have observed a significant improvement in attention span and academic performance. The larger women taking part in the Western Cape classes testify to the many health benefits of maintaining flexibility in their bodies. The power of yoga to heal a stressed mind and provide greater focus is well established.

In a different kind of cultural prejudice, those who base their bodies’ safety on Western science and the pharmaceutical industry defend these health systems and the drugs they offer. But the decolonising impetus requires that we expand our knowledge of South and East Asian systems of knowledge, including the health systems of those regions.

Why is it not possible that sophisticated, artful systems of body know-ledge could be derived elsewhere — in the ancient techniques of Thai massage that attend to our clogged lymphatic systems, in the pain-relieving acupuncture techniques of the Chinese and in the holistic health syllabi of the Kundalini yoga system.

Pain is a potentially toxic ingredient in transformative endeavours. Revolutions, if they are to be sustained, need whole people who have found ways to overcome their damage to sustain the post-revolutionary slumber that descends on civil societies and government.

In some small way, the South Asian healing practices offer broken and broken-hearted people the possibility of redemption and renewal. Some (perhaps many) of our students come from these fractured spaces in South Africa.

Dr Darlene Miller is a senior lecturer at the Wits School of Governance in Parktown, Johannesburg

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