Doing yoga as a brown person in an all-white yoga studio can be a pretty uncomfortable experience – more uncomfortable than the yoga poses themselves. I can handle standing out because of the colour of my skin, but it’s the inexplicit spirituality element of it all that puts me at unease. Rolling up my mat and catching the eye of the bright blue eyed, blonde-haired instructor who gives me a knowing (almost reciprocal) look while saying ‘namaste’ makes me feel a bit off.
‘Namaste’ doesn’t mean much to me because I’m not Indian, nor am I Hindu. I know it’s a uniform thing for yoga instructors to say but having heard plenty of others outside of the studio say this to me, it gets me every time. Most days, someone makes the assumption that I’m Indian and asks me just that. But I was born in Melbourne, and am a Sri Lankan Australian who grew up Buddhist.
I attended Buddhist Sunday School every week as a kid and learned about the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. The concept of karma was drilled into my little brain, so I purposefully avoid stepping on any ant I see, can sit cross-legged for hours on the ground at a temple and can chant alongside monks in Pali.
The concept of karma was drilled into my little brain, so I purposefully avoid stepping on any ant I see, can sit cross-legged for hours on the ground at a temple and can chant alongside monks in Pali.
I remember sitting in Religious Education class in year 10 scrambling to trace my family tree as part of a project we were doing. Thanks to Google I stumbled upon my great-great-great grandfather Don Epa Appuhamy via an old Sunday Observer article.
He was an esteemed vedic astrologer who coined the Epa almanac – a calendar for Sri Lankan Buddhists and Hindus that indicates the dates and times of auspicious events including their new year celebrations.
Time is of the essence for Southeast Asian Buddhists and Hindus. When you’re born, your parents are provided with your birth chart that uses the date, time and geographical location of your birth to list your qualities and predict your future to an extent. This is what is used as the basis of many Southeast Asian arranged marriages, and when you hear that ‘it’s a match’, it can mean that the horoscopes of the arranged are suitable.
I can almost feel my ancestor roll in his grave when I’m faced with a bindi-toting individual at a music festival trying to explain to me that Mercury is in retrograde. My ancestors didn’t develop complex mathematical equations underpinning astrology for random people to create and distribute generic clickbait horoscopes.
My ancestors didn’t develop complex mathematical equations underpinning astrology for random people to create and distribute generic clickbait horoscopes.
Astrology is everywhere. I hop on social media and see a quiz being shared among people I know offering to let me know what variety of cheese I am based on my star sign, or countless memes that would coin phrases like “you’re stubborn, you’re such a Taurus.”
I’m then tempted to ask why arranged marriages (that are determined via your birth chart and the planets that occupy your 12 houses) are viewed as backwards by Western society, but arranging your days according to your horoscope isn’t? Cherry-picking what is acceptable when it comes to religion and spirituality can be dangerous, especially when it is tied to something like consumerism.
Look at stores targeted at free-spirited hippies, filled with ‘exotic’ treasures. Employees swaddled in layers of cotton, sell goods from India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Thailand for 10 times the price you’d find it in any of those respective countries. Buddha statues both big and small, even hands of Fatima dot the store, and the cotton from the breezy clothes they sell are farmed by some poor, exploited workers in India.
I’m all for people adapting to different kinds of spirituality, in fact, I love meeting people who weren’t born Buddhists but have fully embraced it, no matter their cultural background.
The same spiritual consumerism extends to countries like India or even Indonesia. And it extends to the yoga industry. I’m all for people adapting to different kinds of spirituality, in fact, I love meeting people who weren’t born Buddhists but have fully embraced it, no matter their cultural background. But for those championing something that is still steeped in a culture that continues to be exploited, it’s time to take a step back and reassess how to continue on a path and respect traditional customs.
It’s time for us to start supporting and listening to people of colour, and this means handing the mic back to them and hearing them talk about their religion and share their spirituality that goes with it.
Rushani Epa is a freelance writer.