“When I found Yoga…” “When I discovered yoga…” “Yoga saved my life!” “I’m so glad I found yoga!”
Have you heard one, or several, of these phrases before? I have heard—and said—some version of them myself as a yoga teacher and student. In yoga teacher trainings I led and participated in, everyone had a story that went along the lines of “I was miserable; then I found yoga and, POOF! Things are amazing, and I want to teach it and share it with other people to help them turn their lives around!”
But last year, in conversation with a friend, I said, “I’m going to quit using the words ‘found,’ and ‘discovered,’ when I talk about my relationship to yoga.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because I didn’t find or discover yoga. I just decided to start learning it, that’s all,” I replied.
This awareness wasn’t something I came to on my own. I came to understand it through the teachings and perspectives of many South Asian, Black, and Indigenous teachers with diverse backgrounds in yoga and a multitude of spiritual practices. Practices that have, unfortunately, been dominated by white capitalistic culture for years.
How to use language that honors yoga’s roots
When I was teaching yoga regularly, the number of students who came up to me and said, “Yoga has saved my life and you’re part of that!” or “I’m so glad I found yoga! I’m so glad I found you!” was cringeworthy. My students were learning about yoga, and I was teaching it to them, at first in ways and with language that I didn’t consciously recognize as harmful to the roots and tradition of yoga.
I believe that the practice and study of yoga can positively and permanently impact one’s life. But I have noticed that much of the language concerning yoga’s positive influence is centered around the practitioner, and not the actual practice.
Yoga is not something that you buy and sell and follow to get to the next better, brighter, more beautiful part of your life. It’s a philosophical, spiritual, and kinesthetic practice that expands, contracts, evolves and exists all on its own. It’s a lifetime study of the self, svadhyaya, and a lifelong relationship with the present moment, an understanding of the connectedness we share with the world around us.
Yet too often, how we talk about our personal experience within the practice often glazes over the history and culture of yoga, replacing integrity with unintentionally self-centered anecdotes.
One of my “ah-ha” moments came through the teachings of Susanna Barkataki. In her book, Embrace Yoga’s Roots, she drops seeds of revolutionary wisdom pertaining to how we practice yoga in our lives, and the necessity of decolonizing yoga spaces. “If our thought, speech, or action is not bringing us right there, toward connection, it is not yoga,” she writes. After reading this passage, I recognized that how I spoke about yoga mattered immensely—especially as a white yoga teacher.
When, as a white person, we say “and then I found yoga, and it changed my life” it’s like unintentionally staking a flag into the ground of a territory that doesn’t belong to us. What we really mean to convey is “learning yoga changed the way I see myself and the way I feel in my body,” or “practicing yoga has revolutionized my internal life, and made me want to share that externally in a meaningful way.”
These days, when I am in conversation, I have actively and intentionally switched the words “found,” and “discovered,” with “learned,” “practiced,” and “studied.” Instead of putting yoga into the position as a “lifesaver,” I talk about how my yoga studies allow me to examine my breath, movement, and thoughts without self-judgement. When I acknowledge my growth within this practice in a way that credits the yoga tradition and its ancient roots.