Final Project: Decolonizing Yoga

“Wait…yoga is Indian?”

This is a response from a friend of mine, after I explained to her what I was planning to do for this final project. As someone who practices herself, she was surprised to learn that yoga is derived from ancient Hindu practices. I don’t think she is alone in this – it’s not always common knowledge where the current incarnation of yoga comes from, where the terms and phrases used in yoga studios came from, what they mean, etc.

In this post, I hope to provide readers and avid yoga practicers with the historical context of what yoga is and how to begin to critically decolonize our yoga practice. There are three main components of this project. First, I will outline the history of yoga in relation to Hinduism. Second, this post will feature an interview with my mother, who is a lifelong Hindu, and also a “certified yoga teacher.” I was interested in exploring this issue alongside her because I think she has a unique experience. She had to go through the process of acquiring a certification here in the United States to practice her own ancient religious tradition. And last, I will include some reflection on how to begin the process of decolonizing your yoga practice. It was originally my plan to also include interviews from members of the Western yoga culture, however I didn’t think that was appropriate for two reasons: 1) I felt my line of questioning would have been perceived as an attempt to discredit individuals as practitioners of yoga (and that is not the intent of this exploration) and 2) I thought it was important in this project to center Eastern narratives and voice with respect to yoga.

Let’s jump into the history.

So, what do I mean when I keep saying yoga is religious and ancient?

Well, the origins of yoga are buried deep in Hinduism. Before we delve into the specifics, I’d like to layout the differences between the orthodox schools of Hinduism. Below is a infographic I made that I hope helps to define and outline the six main schools of Hindu thought and practice:

Six Schools of Hinduism.png

Now, I will say that this is certainly a simplified version, but felt it important to show the distinction between the schools to provide some context on how vast Hinduism exactly is.

A commonly referred to text in the school of Yoga is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This scripture is comprised of 196 sutras (principles), and was put together by Sage Patanjali in 400 CE. In this text, Patanjali highlights eight practices of yoga.

  1. Yama. Moral and ethical rules. There are five yamas: ahmisa (nonviolence), satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), bramacharya (either chastity or fidelity), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness).
  2. Niyama. Virtuous behavior. There are 32 niyamas, ranging from pure thoughts to persistence, to contemplation.
  3. Asana. A posture that is held for a lengthy time to promote relaxation, staying still, and being balanced.
  4. Pranayama. Regulating breathing through inhaling and exhaling.
  5. Pratyahara. Turning ones thoughts and attentions to the inner self, without focusing on the external world.
  6. Dharana. Concentration.
  7. Dhyana. Meditation
  8. Samadhi. Becoming consumed in the practice of yoga, to the point of oneness.

The Western take on yoga is typically centered around the asana limb, with touches of pranayama and dhyana. However, I think it’s important to note the five other practices that are not often included in the physical activity of yoga. This is what sets the practice apart from other schools of Hinduism. To be a disciple of the school of yoga is not simple – it requires deep interrogation and self-reflection. Historically, those who achieve the state of samadhi are considered to be yogis.

Many experienced yoga practitioners and teachers in the West often refer to themselves as “yogis.” The first time I heard that label in a Western context was shocking to me – it was from a friend in undergrad who considered herself a dedicated student of yoga. I was confused by what she meant. In Hinduism, a “yogi” is someone who embodies a lifestyle of these core values:

Ahiṃsā (nonviolence), satya (truth), asteya (not stealing), dayā (kindness),  arjava (sincerity), kṣama (forgiveness), dhṛti (fortitude), mitāhāra: (moderation), sauca (purity), tapas (austerity), santoṣa (contentment), dāna (generosity)

The possession and practice of all of these values leads people to be yogis in the Hindu context. Now, I’m not saying people in the U.S. and west who practice yoga do not embody these concepts. I’m saying that in Hinduism, identifying oneself as a yogi is a reflection of years of work and self-reflection. A way that I commonly like to explain this to non-Hindu people is that the equivalent of calling oneself a yogi for practicing the physical activity of yoga is calling oneself a saint for praying a couple times a week.

It’s almost as if yoga is two entirely different things: one being the school of thought in Hinduism, and the other being an exercise-turned-lifestyle, the origins of which are unknown and irrelevant. In fact, there was even a court case in California that aimed to sue a public school for having a yoga class during gym time (as an unconstitutional promotion of Eastern religions, the parents in the case argued) , and the judge ruled that “yoga is a distinctly American phenomenon.”

While initially this sounds bizarre, there actually probably is some merit to this ruling. Yoga has become its own culture in the West, but entirely detached from its culture of origin. Ironically enough, it’s merged almost seamlessly into consumerism and capitalism. There are entire brands dedicated to expensive yoga attire. Monthly yoga class subscriptions can cost around $200. Words like “namaste” are used to open and close out yoga practices, and they are often translated into a spiritual and divine concept, when in reality “namaste” literally means “hello. Simply because something is in a different language, does not always mean it carries more weight than its simple translation.

Here’s a quick Google search I conducted:
Screen Shot 2017-12-08 at 11.31.09 AM

In order to get more insight on this subject, I reached out to a yoga expert in my own life. As I mentioned above, my mother has practiced yoga in the religious capacity for many years, and recently underwent a certification process to be a yoga teacher in Maryland. The interview was insightful. Due to some technical difficulties, I was not able to record it, but please find some text excerpts below. Emphasis is my own.

Me: What is your relationship to yoga?

Mom: Yoga instinctively reveals the sense of cosmic unity. The cosmic unity is the very essence of our creativity and its mystical reverence from nature as a hidden power, is a gift from yoga. The yogic mystics saw the entire scope of creation is rooted in profound mystery. The meditation part of yoga helps us to ponder over the structure and nature of the universe. I am confronted by the colossal, all pervading intelligence whose energy pulsates every atom in the world. I am still curious to find out the secrets of yogic masters from the east left behind.  To decode yoga is a massive task. The universe is a canvas where the metaphor for transcendent unity comes into a play as an energy reflected into different forms as an allegory or a maya, meaning illusion in Sanskrit.

Yoga the very word implies union with your inner self. Yoga is equal to breath in my life and a vicarious escape to my inner landscape. It transforms heart and mind. It is more than a passion for me, a private prayer and gives me a meaning to the definition of love and purpose of my life.  Yoga helps me to clear the space within myself to become more and more aware of unity in all things in life. Yoga, reverentially teaches me the interconnectedness of all things. It is a joy in celebrating your inner silence.

Once the connection comes into our awareness, we become more giving, patient, loving, kind and peaceful, for the sense of belonging with everything is present. In yoga particularly breathing techniques called “pranayama” Prana = life, Yama =force or energy, life force is breathing and proper breathing  calms and quiets our mind. Quite mind equals positive contribution for those around you. In our society should we value positive contributors who protect our resources more than consumers of natural resources. 

I need to refer to Einstein, who was a self proclaimed disciple of Spinoza(1622-1677), a seventeenth-century Jewish Philosopher and a mystic. He wrote about Spinoza, ”  My views are near those of Spinoza and independence to being in the lime light as a professor of philosophy at Heidelberg University, admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order and harmony which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly. I believe that we have to content ourselves with our imperfect knowledge and understanding and treat values and moral obligation as a purely human problem-most important of all human problem”. He further said” I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a god who concerns himself with the fate and doings of mankind”. God does not play dice with the world. 

Me: How is the definition of yoga different in India and in the US?

Mom: I strongly believe a votary of truth that is present in yoga. In Patanjali Yoga Sutra ” Yamas are guidelines for how we interact with each other in the outer world, external qualities that we need to cultivate for a balanced society as follows:

Ahimsa ( non violence), Satya (truth), Asetya (embodies taking only what belongs to you), Bramacharya (Moderation in all aspects of life, Aparigraha (Attachment to possessions and title to let go)

Ahmisa:  Non-Violence creates a harmonious life for us. A peaceful, joyful and stable life is a life itself. If you help and empower others you feel powerful.

Violence arises out of fear, anger, restlessness, selfishness destroys us and the world we live in. There is a reason we all welcome positive people with goodness, kindness and compassion. Those with positive actions empower us. We feel alive to be around them. Negative people with violence are weak naturally, hence we avoid them. Do you know anybody who wants to hang out with the serial killer alone? There are some people you may never want to meet again, go figure why?

Satya: Satya is truthfulness in thoughts, actions and service to us and others. To exhibit honesty is to remove the mask that we wear every day. In Venice there is a carnival called “Italian: “Carnevale di Venezia” a Christian celebration during Lent 40 days before Easter. This festival is world famous for wearing masks. One of the tour guides told us in Venice that when we wear a mask, we are free of inhibitions and free to do whatever we want. Without masks we are more pretentious, a very opposite state of satya. In yoga satya values a genuine communication, connection and authenticity. You are strong if you are truthful and are able to give constructive feedback and taking off your mask.

Bramacharya: Healthy body starts with healthy mind. So internal health is very important to external health. In Bramacharya you are not over indulging in your speech, body, and tempering use of sex, food, drugs and environment. Here in this internal state you get into clarity of your thought, communicate your goals and visions clearly to others, feeling and listening to your body and honoring not repressing but mastering your sensual cravings. When you are truly connected to your self, you are rarely over indulging.

Aparigraha: This is a letting go state. This is a state of cleaning up your internal clutter. This is a state, where most of us clean our closet,donate and minimize, shop at thrift stores and give life to environment, find your peace and happiness. To practice Aparigraha means to simplify, refraining from excessiveness, addictions and distractions.

Niyamas are guidelines for how we interact in our internal world and its effects to outer world. It includes self regulated energy that harness compassion, love, acceptance, and a desire to honor sustainable living creatures.

Shaucha (Clearing your mind and body to remove toxins of negative energy)Internal purity. You start this practicing ayurvedic( science of eating, recycling and growing organic) Ayu=life, Vedic=Wisdom. In yoga practice we use yogic breathing. All yoga classes foundation begins with pranayama or meditation and breathing. You start your practice with good healthy habits, eating clean, home grown, organic, cruelty free products, refrain from excessive amount of stimulants for mind and body.

In India, ancient vedic texts gently guide you to look within, to find out the true meaning of life. The ancient yogic masters always kindly guide us to look within for answers. The true happiness is find within. You are healthy and content which is a very positive contribution to ourself and the world around us.

Santhosa: This is a state of joy! This states is a natural state for many yogis, who sees the world as a one energy without its division. A contentment, enough is enough in a gentle manner state. Accepting, and making the best out of every situation with a positive mind frame. In this state, there is a natural joyfulness, remain calm during the storm, peaceful even when it is stressful, leg of attachment to external status, choose love over fear. In Ekhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, he explains that when faced with a challenging situation you choose removal, change or acceptance. You get to decide how to find contentment.

The total present in that moment, enjoying that and connecting to the Hatha a state of flow is the right definition of this state.

Tapas: This is a state of heat or fire. In order to gain internal happiness, you need to work for it. Happiness internally is not an entitlement, it is a discipline. In ancient Indian Epic/ purana of Ramayana and Mahabharatha the tapas is a key element. This means everyday commitment  and willingness to do what is necessary to keep your practice mental and physical fit for spiritual path with a clear cut focus. This focus is a determination to your commitment to daily meditation and yoga, other forms of discipline in moderation while remain joyful to such endeavors. Internal fire purifies and bring a positive transformation in ourselves.

Swadhaya: Our Bhagavad Gita a great epic starts with a poem that begins with ” Om Swadhya”.. for yoga practitioners starts with self observation, taking a pause between your inhale and exhale. Allowing you to be in an organic manner where as your inner intuition, reveals your potential and connects with yourself. I call this state “Dating Yourself”. It means taking the time to find out who you are and what you are? Whether your goals and ambitions takes you to inner joy? Be open and cultivate your inner curiosity and a spiritual exploration within you. It might take time for the truth to emerge.

This state is not to be confused with self absorption, which is a distraction to your true practice.

Ishwara-Pranidhana: This is a total surrender to the universe. You transcend from your limited ego self into unlimited potential of the universal force where divine manifests into many ways such as chanting, painting, walking labyrinth, creating a sacred space for reflection, listening to calming music, poem etc. You are not resisting to the restrained self. You are whole and alive state.

Yoga in the East is internal. Yoga in the West is external. 

But, in the Western society, most part, there is so much focus on external. To find meaning for life, no matter what our focus on the external, in the end there is a throbbing feeling of an unease to wanting more and quest of wanting more creates extraordinary stress and negative emotions results. The external looks, such as wealth and possession, where there is unhealthy obsession with body, mind and which is very much a draining energy pattern.

Inner joy is priceless, you see the world with more clarity, love,peace and wisdom. I surrender to the vastness of the inner spirit or innate inner wisdom.

Me: How did you feel about having to get certified to teach yoga?

Mom: At first, I was very grateful to get the certification of yoga.

But, I am also in a moral dilemma for some programs that certified with focus on external things. The study book starts with a big bold letter with a model-like woman objectified, and I quote “a  powerful program, flexible, and a defined physique”. In one of the classes, where when I had mentioned that this class is not about just your body, and it is not about weight loss, half the students dropped out.

After the class, one student came up to me and said, ” the students here are to come for fitness instructions, they do not want to hear about mindfulness and body connection. They want to do the poses and go home”. That is not fair to the students. You come to learn about mind and body calmness. Your central nerves systems calms through your proper breathing and your focus ought to be internal. so that we can get rid of the toxins that is accumulated over the years internally. Your external state is a reflection of your internal self.

So, if a certification of yoga empowers and creates internal harmony, then it’s not bad at all. Playful question, would a Christian faith person let a Buddhist certify you as a true Christian? Don’t answer me,  this is just a point to ponder, refer to Satya.

Me: In your opinion, are there inconsistencies in Western yoga practice?

Mom: I am in touch with lots of yoga teachers in the west who are very sincere seekers in their practice. They are willing to learn and practice humility in that process. None of us are perfect and we are all work in progress. Having said that, yes there are some inconsistencies in the western practice.

I had to turn down some yoga classes where there was yoga with wine, naked yoga, objectifying yoga, which very much goes against the true meaning of yoga — a union within yourself. It has nothing to do with external self.

Me: Do you feel welcome in Western yoga spaces?

Mom: Yes, I very much do! I have come across very sincere students, teachers, friends, family and communities that wants to live a cruelty-free and non-violent, peaceful world. So there is a space that is created and a venue that goes beyond cultural barriers and the wall that we all built against each other. Western yoga spaces breaks those barriers and unites more human beings and their potentials rings a vibrational unity and magic.

I believe that our yoga teachers in the West are cognizant of the fact that the yoga itself is a practice that empowers our students to find out their inner meaning and should not turn this into a multi-billion dollar industry. You decide for yourself, what is yoga? How did it become such a big business in USA? Who profits from it? Is there any true meaning to its name? You be the judge. Question everything.

Me: Any other thoughts you may have?

Mom: Tracing mystical currents, via Sanskrit vedas and poems, enlarges our perspective on man kind. I simply disagree with colonization of yoga and Sanskrit, since it only divide us further. Remember, yoga is unity. Yoga showed us unity, energy, time and space. I try to understand the fundamental unity of all things, I do not know it all.  But, I learn through my struggles, a passion for peace, a fight for tolerance and understanding against hatred and injustice. I am a student in the earth school, who is guided by a power greater than myself. I hope those who want to understand yoga and its wonders, life’s mysteries , to raise above vanities, work through unselfish motives and service to others and a sense of supreme intelligence that pervades everything, we enlarge the perspective of our spirit.

Breath is connected to air that is one of the five elements. Air purifies everything that comes in contact with it, so does other elements. We, living and nonliving thing are made up of five elements. Human body is made up of water, air, fire, matter and earth. In that, air connects everyone and everything. No matter what one is, rich or poor, tall or short etc.. We need to breathe to be alive, so we are all connected by breath to air. If one wishes to separate from the very breath that every one is breathing, because they are so superior and refuse to breathe the same air and then what happens? Our wisdom is connection internally and externally. We all breathe the same air.  Air purifies even nonliving things. Remember if we open up our window and let the air flow through, we feel cleaner, as do non living things, around us.

This project is a such a treat for it helps me to expand my consciousness beyond myself and connect with young minds. I thank you for consulting me in this project.

I’ve given a lot of thought to what my point exactly is here. There are things I learned by doing research for this project and speaking to my mother that I, as a Hindu, did not know before. There are also things I learned that I, as an occasional practicer of yoga in the West, did not know. I don’t think those of us who rely on yoga as a key tool in our self-care regime should give it up entirely. I don’t intend this on an attack to those of us who practice without the context.

Poka Laenui outlines the five phases of decolonization:

  1. Rediscovery and Recovery
  2. Mourning
  3. Dreaming
  4. Commitment 
  5. Action

I think these phases are critically relevant to attempt to unpack the transformation of yoga in the West. I want to hone in on those last two stages, specifically. In order to attempt to decolonize yoga in the West, I think it’s first important to commit to self-reflect on the role of yoga in our lives. (Which beautifully enough, is a key component of the religious school of Yoga). The next step then, is to consider how to actively use these reflections in our practice and what they mean for us, in the context of practicing yoga and beyond. I don’t have answers, but I do have a series of questions that I had to reflect on throughout the development and execution of this project.

  • What is yoga?
  • Do we know the origins and roots of our practice?
  • What do the words and phrases we are saying mean?
  • How are we participating in the commodification of yoga practice?
  • How do we reconcile the two distinct yoga movements in the West and the East?
  • Do we need to reconcile them?
  • Are we aware of the different meanings practices and traditions hold to different populations?
  • How can we intentionally begin to decolonize our yoga practice without giving up a practice that we love?

Week 11: Cultural Humility?

In reading Mullaly and reflecting on my own life and experience, I gave a lot of thought to this question “What keeps us from taking action?”

I recently had an experience in one of my classes where we were discussing a scenario in a small group setting. The scenario we were asked to discuss was a situation intended to spur a discussion of ethics in social work. The hypothetical asked us whether or not we could ethically advocate for a refugee group who wanted to lower the age of marriage to 12, as it was customary for girls to get married at that age in their cultural tradition.While overwhelmingly, my group and I agreed that it wouldn’t feel comfortable on our ends to professionally advocate for this, we did bump into some disagreement around where our involvement should begin or end. While none of us particularly felt that preteen girls should be getting married, for some in the group it was a very black and white issue: this is immoral and we should actively take steps to *change* their cultural norms. Others, including myself, had a harder time drawing that line in the sand. Clearly, this is a very weedy issue and I don’t think there is one right answer. My approach typically though, when I am not part of a culture, is to withhold projecting my own personal values and beliefs on to existing practices and norms (often very skewed to my western upbringing). While this particularly scenario is deeply complex, I think the exercise gave way to some interesting, and at times, frustrating conversations within my small group. I think this was exacerbated as I was the only person of color in that group as well. While the point I was making is that it is a slippery slope in levying judgement and attempting to control cultural practices without having any experience or historic understanding, those who were listening to me rationalized that I was saying that I was an advocate of this specific practice. This was frustrating, because I felt my words were getting manipulated and my point was not being heard.

In my own family and culture, we have some cultural norms that I am not a fan of, but I feel emboldened to speak out against because it is my culture. I do believe I have the background and some of the context to be able to recognize the nuances of the issue, and to develop a stance against it. But I’m not sure how I would feel if an outsider who was observing my cultural practices, classified something as “morally wrong” by their perspective and actively ignored community and impacted voices to push forward what they deem is “right.”

When it came time in class to share our conversations, I shut down. I didn’t provide my alternate argument when my group shared out. In retrospect, I wondered why I did that. Why didn’t I take action to drive home a point that I personally think is very important? I think a part of the reason I didn’t act was worry of being judged or seen as an advocate for something that I wasn’t necessarily supporting or opposing. Another reason I didn’t act, was for some reason, I felt as though if I were to voice this opinion, I would be responsible for speaking on behalf of all people from my culture (and I didn’t want to misrepresent their opinions or provide space for others to place judgement on my culture). I think this self-imposed pressure can also prevent people from speaking up, when they feel their opinions might be unfavorable, particularly where they may represent the only member of their community in a conversation.

I recognize issues are not all black and white and social work school has taught me that there are many shades of gray. I’m also realizing that we all bring our own personal, cultural, and life experiences to our work. Discussing and debating our ethical and moral values in group settings is not intended to be easy, but I think we also need to pay attention to what is holding our own selves back from speaking out, and to still respect and engage with each other while practicing mindful and active listening. This is something I’m continuing to work on while reconciling my own privilege and oppression.

The Colonization and Commodification of Yoga

For my final project, I want to explore the colonization and commodification of yoga.

During Professor Spencer’s presentation on native hawaiian colonization, I was reflecting quite a bit about some similarities between his content and my own culture and cultural history, particularly regarding the oral history tradition in the hawaiian culture. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something along the lines of “Don’t write it down because it’ll be sold and stripped of all meaning.”

My family comes from the Iyengar caste of Hindu Brahmins from Tamil Nadu, India. The creation of the Hindu caste system dates back to ancient Hindu scriptures, but was not truly practiced in its worst form until the British colonized India, and used the caste system as a means of oppression and social control. While the caste system historically (and currently) bolsters inequality and unfair practices within India, it does inform some specific traditional practices within families. Historically, our family comes from a tradition of priests and religious people, and as a result, much of that is reflected in my family’s cultural practice. One particularly religious practice for us is yoga.

Yoga in its current form can mean different things to different people. It can also change based on country and culture. I want to explore this through a blend of interviews and a historical paper outlining the way yoga has changed over time. I want to interview my mother, who is a yoga teacher, potentially some other members of my family, and then some members of the yoga community in Ann Arbor.

I welcome any feedback!

Week 6: Stolen Generations

One thought I had when watching Rabbit-Proof Fence and reading about the Stolen Generations is the distance by which I approached the subject. I was both moved and educated by the film, and took a moment after to reflect on how the past has treated some communities. However, I then had to walk it back, realizing this isn’t just a historic phenomenon. I think it’s a little bit how we’ve been primed by our history classes and other educational experiences to think about these and other historic atrocities committed by colonizers as horrific events of the past, but I challenge myself and others to recognize how recent this truly was, how forced colonialism and assimilation is a recurring pattern through history and now, and how this ideology continues to guide our systems. In fact, as the text during the end of the film pointed out, this practice of forced removal of children continued on until the 1970. The 1970s. That is not a long time ago!

In thinking about how this applies to my own country’s checkered history,  I can identify many examples of structural oppression, but will focus on one: our criminal “justice” system. Recently for another class, we read an article titled Deadly Symbiosis, by sociologist Loic Wacquant. In this article, Wacquant sets forward a notion of four “peculiar institutions” in U.S. history which have intentionally confided and attempted to control Black people in our country. The four institutions are:  slavery, Jim Crow, the ghetto, and the hyperghetto-carceral complex (prison). The last of these institutions continues with great force today.

The first three institutions had two main goals, according to Wacquant: labor extraction and social ostracization. The present-day prison complex in the U.S. keeps in line with these goals, particularly that of social ostracization. As Michelle Alexander highlights in The New Jim Crow, young Black men are overwhelmingly thrust into the criminal justice system for minor crimes, and upon their release, are stripped of the basic rights guaranteed in the civil rights movement.

Mass incarceration is a very current and clear example of an institution practicing racial and social control. We live in a country where there are more African-American people under correctional control than were enslaved in 1850. Unpacking our own violent and oppressive story as a nation can be heavy, but we cannot chalk it up to just history and move on. It’s important to recognize how current systems which we exist within can be brutal and the ways in which we are complicit in their creation and execution.

Week 2: Theory in Social Work and the Decolonization Process

Theory can seem like a pretty abstract concept particularly with regard to social work – many of us enter this field with the intent of not focusing on theory and instead working directly with individuals and communities. Mullaly makes the valid point that theory is integral to social work, particularly when all of us operate under some theory, whether or not we call it that. For me, this was a new way to understand theory.  I have always thought about theory in a far more formal sense, and may have even previously made the argument that theory (particularly in the way I was thinking about it) is not essential to practice. In recognizing that we are all operating under some theory (which can be built just from our assumptions and experiences), I can now begin to see why theory is so important to social work.

Applying theory is particularly critical in a course which aims to unpack systems of oppression because the functions of theory (description, explanation, prediction, control/management of events) are crucial to understanding how to move forward and do our work responsibly and effectively. However, I do think it’s important to consider why this divide between theory and practice exists. Often, formal theory can be inaccessible, especially to those conducting practice. While Mullaly briefly discusses this in the very beginning of the chapter, it something I continued to think about after the readings for this week. The videos in EdX did a good job of unpacking what “theory” can really mean and how it can be applied in practice in a more accessible way, in my opinion.

In thinking about the ways in which my environment has colonized me, I came up with many examples but all had the same unsettling root: centering (and often privileging) whiteness. I distinctly remember watching TV as a child, and considering the white family to be “normal.” I also am beginning to think about the way in which my own family and culture aspires to whiteness. For many immigrants from India, proximity to whiteness is often a measure of success. Assimilation is seen as very important and key to living the true “american dream.” Culturally, we are very community-based, but there is still this strange sense of value placed on whiteness. It even goes so far as skin tone – one of the top selling beauty products in India and among the diaspora is a skin lightening cream called “Fair & Lovely.” Growing up, in my community, I was often complimented on “being light for a South Indian.” I also have family members that have placed strict rules on their son or daughter dating anyone non-Indian, unless they were white. Much of this has absolutely shaped the way in which I think about my own identity and community.

However, as the “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” article outlines, even my engaging in the interrogation above might be colonization in action. While I am the daughter of immigrants, I cannot assume their experiences and speak on their behalf.  To what degree does my outlining the thoughts above about the Indian immigrant community qualify as settler nativism?

In this article, I was struck by the distinction that the authors make between settlers and immigrants. Even in many pro-immigrant rights spaces, you often see the phrase “We Are All Immigrants.” I recognize this phrase is intended to unite, but it’s not really true. Not only does it erase the existence of indigenous populations, it also equates settlers to immigrants. I’ve often been uncomfortable by this concept, but had not really been able to properly articulate what exactly bothered me until this article.

Both of the articles on decolonization were major learning for me. I have heard and used the term quite often, without fully understanding exactly what it means. Particularly, “Processes of Decolonization” was an interesting read – thinking about decolonization as a process with a set of phases is helpful. My main takeaway is that decolonization is beyond just a mindset. One cannot necessarily declare they are decolonized and simply be. Just as colonization was a process, so must decolonization be.



Before I jump into a bit about myself, I wanted to take a second to address my blog title “Where the Mind is Without Fear.” This phrase is from a famous poem by Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, originally titled Chitto Jetha Bhoyshunyo, in his native tongue Bengali. Here’s the full poem (it’s short, I promise):

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Some context: this poem was written in the early 1900s as Tagore’s vision of what India could look like if the country was to be free of British rule. The reason I chose it as the title for my blog is because this poem is still what comes to mind when I think of decolonizing the mind. The freedom of thought, the ability to question what we are taught, and the vision of stripping ourselves of divisive beliefs and actions.

Okay, HI! My name is Anitha Mohan. I was raised right here in Ann Arbor, but have been living in Maryland/D.C. for the past several years. I’m really happy to be back home.

I have many identities which are deeply important to me, but the three I think of most are my gender, my national identity, and my ethnicity (in that order). I am a woman and I am an IndianAmerican. Growing up with that hyphen means I have had to think about my nationality often, nearly every time I am asked “Where are you from?” and “Michigan” isn’t an accepted answer.

I am also a daughter, sister, granddaughter, cousin, and friend. Here’s a photo of just some of my very large family!


I’m very excited about this course. I think that every person has a different journey in unpacking the impacts of systems of oppression, but it is always helpful to be able to have a community to support you. It’s my hope that this class can function as that community for some. I am also looking forward to learning from you all – we each bring a diverse set of thoughts and life experiences to the content. I am constantly working to make progress on my social justice journey.

To develop a critical consciousness of diversity and social justice, it is important to me that I approach this course with humility and an open heart. Often with issues that hit close to home for me, it’s can be easy for me to become self-righteous, but that is not particularly productive. I often interrogate issues of racial, economic, and gender justice, but recognize that I still have much to learn and unlearn.

Diversity and social justice are the root of social work, in my opinion. If the mission of a social worker in any capacity is to truly enhance the health and well-being of the individual, family, or community that they are serving, then they must be dedicated to advancing social justice.

If you’ve made it to the end of this lengthy intro post, thank you for sticking with me! I look forward to a fruitful semester!