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November 1, 2022

“Yoga” and “Asana” are Not Synonyms: A Note on Accessibility and Decolonizing Our Practice

As a trauma-conscious yoga educator, somatic psychotherapist and Buddhist practitioner taking an anti-oppression lens, decolonization is at the heart of both my personal and professional practice.

Decolonizing the body-mind, has to do with examining and dismantling  the systems of separation that we’ve built up within ourselves. We unconsciously create an internal hierarchy, exalting parts of ourselves while exiling others. And the truth is, all parts of us are trying to help us survive. They are trying to keep us alive. They are all deserving of our compassion.

Yoga, is a complete and holistic system of body-mind-spirit transformation. Part of decolonizing yoga is returning to the roots of the practice, and awakening to the areas where we’ve projected our cultural conditioning and biases onto this wisdom-tradition. This includes examining our perfunctory use of the words “yoga” and “asana” interchangeably, as though they refer to exactly the same thing. Our hasty exchange of two distinct terms with differing meanings has informed the newfound necessity of “accessible yoga,” as so many people feel alienated from the practice, believing they are not “flexible enough,” “fit enough,” “strong enough,” the list goes on.

In its truth, yoga is incredibly accessible to all people. Yoga is a state of being, a way of showing up in the world.

“Yoga,” as a verb, is a Sanskrit word that is roughly translated as “to yoke.” It’s also commonly translated in noun form into English as “union.” Yoga is about oneness and interconnectedness and it’s a practice of liberation and transformation. One that if we are dedicated, can help us transcend suffering and reach a state of being in which we feel happy, peaceful and free.

In a capitalist culture, we’ve grasped onto the physical practice- the part that’s perhaps most easy to tie up into a neat little package and market to people with the promise of increasing their beauty, long life, self-esteem, or happiness, through the physical aesthetic. In the West, the word “yoga” therefore, has become synonymous with the word “asana,” related to the physical practice of yoga, and because of this, a lot of people think yoga isn’t for them. They think yoga means sun salutations or handstand or back bending, but that is only one layer of the practice- and it’s optional!

Don’t get me wrong, as a former ballet dancer, I have and continue to practice asana as it supports this feeling of liberation and freedom of expression in my body. And as a trauma-conscious yoga educator, I teach asana in all of the yoga teacher trainings I offer, because asana can be incredibly beneficial in helping to resolve trauma. Asana is for sure a part of my personal and professional practice, it’s simply not all of it. Yet it remains, “asana” and “yoga” are not synonyms.

At its core, yoga is a spiritual practice or an embodiment practice that helps us feel a deeper sense of connectedness both inward and outward, and through this we begin to feel more free in our lives.

The increased happiness we feel from the practice is less because of how we look and more because of how we feel.

One’s level of “yoginess” is not dependent on whether or not one practices asana. Yoga is a state of being. And it’s a practice of inner exploration. A vehicle for showing up in our lives more empowered, more awake, with greater presence, greater awareness, and greater compassion in the world.

Peace to you.

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