Yoga and Intergenerational Trauma

In western psychology, intergenerational trauma is finally coming to the forefront of therapy. This is the understanding that even when one person has experienced trauma, it creates ripples for generations. This can manifest via how children are raised to view the world, poverty, abuse, breaking patterns, and more. When therapists are working with patients, they not only have to take this into consideration, but also need to take their work a step further. They need to ask themselves what their own biases are. As yoga teachers, we are asked to be aware of how we teach since it can have a lasting effect among those in our community and be aware of our own biases in order to be fully present and effective teachers.





Brent Bezo, a graduate psychology student at Carleton University exploring intergenerational trauma investigated if the starvation of Ukrainians under Stalin's regime effected Ukrainians today (DeAngelis, 2019). The results of his study showed that through three generations, effects such as food hoarding and overeating rippled through these families (DeAngelis, 2019). Dr. Norris of Dartmouth College and Dr. Engdahl of the University of Michigan worked with the families of Holocausts survivors (DeAngelis, 2019). They found that the children and grandchildren of the survivors had suffered anxiety and depression to name a few effects (DeAngelis, 2019). Dr. Bombay from Dalhousie University explored the effects of the Canadian government's separation of First Nations children from their culture and forced adaptation into a Euro-American culture on secondary and third generations (DeAngelis, 2019). They found high rates of suicide (DeAngelis, 2019). These studies clearly show how trauma continues through generations like ripples on a pond.


The British landed in India in the early 1600's as many European countries were exploring the world and taking over non-European lands to exploit them for resources. In 1757, Britain established their empire there (Sen, 2021). It wasn't until 1947 when their occupying force ended (Sen, 2021). During this time, like the First Nations in Canada, like the Maya in Central America, like so many people across the globe, Indians were forced to ignore their culture and adapt immediately to a European style. This meant learning to read and write English (for those who were not impoverished), change all institutions from Indian to British (i.e. government, medicine, education), and let go of your spiritual/religious beliefs and adapt the the Church of England. Those who kept any and all practices alive, did so underground and in secret for many years. Yoga asana and tapas practices (i.e. keeping one arm lifted your entire life) became a means for entertainment. Krishnamacharya is credited with a revival of yoga in India, which we have to remember was a combination of asana, Indian wrestling, British Army calisthenics, and more (Goldberg, 2014). Mahatma Gandhi is the one who in his call for independence, strived to live and model Indian customs and traditions.


Meanwhile in the U.S., Indians who came to live here for freedom and opportunity found themselves surviving by teaching yoga after the case United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind which said that Indians were considered people of color and therefore could not hold citizenship. They focused on teaching yoga philosophy and esotericism. As the world opened more, and Swamis came to the U.S. more and the "flower children" of the 1960's went to India, yogasana became popular in the U.S. (as the U.S. began a fitness craze which continues to this day).


When we teach yoga, we can now see that we are teaching the indigenous practices of a people who were oppressed and told that they themselves were not allowed to practice for over two hundred years. Christian missionaries did in India what they did in other nations occupied by European forces - they conditioned the population continuously by admonishing their system of faith while saying that Christianity was the only real faith and it needed to be followed (Heath, 2012). In fact, we can look to the term Hinduism today and understand the depth of colonialism as this term was not used by the Indians, rather Sanatana Dharma is the preferred term, loosely interpreted as the eternal truth.


And why bring up Hinduism anyway? Yoga is a spiritual path born from Sanatana Dharma. In India, there is no separation of truth, science, religion, language, and culture. Yoga cannot be separated from its spiritual belief system, Sanskrit, puja, ayurveda, and more. This is why yoga is the way you eat, the way you sleep, the way you speak and think, the way you live your life, the way you serve others, the way you move your body, the way you drink your water. It is a life practice at every level. And yoga only has one single purpose - merge with the divine.


Arthur Kleinman and Peter Benson present steps clinicians can use to be aware of their own bias and how unchecked, could potentially do harm (2006, p. 1673-1676). I believe this applies to all of us using healing modalities. One such step "is to examine culture in terms of its influence on clinical relationships" (Kleinman and Benson 2006, p. 1675). When we as non-Indian yoga teachers teach yoga and do not point to its origin, purpose, and try to separate it from its roots or teach without fully understanding what we are teaching, we are not only continuing the colonization of yoga, but we have not faced our own internal biases and furthermore are continually traumatizing those who are already dealing with intergenerational trauma.


This may seem like a "big" undertaking for us as teachers. It shows how what we teach has a bigger impact than anything we might have imagined. And it has nothing to do with helping our students de-stress. However, it is the least of what we can do. We believe we are helping others. It is therefore our responsibility, as well, to, like therapists, understand intergenerational trauma, recognize our own biases, and teach in a way that our greater community recognizes the rich history, understanding, and purpose of what we are sharing.



References


DeAngelis, T. (2019, February). The Legacy of Trauma. Monitor on Psychology. Retrieved January 3, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/02/legacy-trauma


Goldberg, M. (2014, August 23). Iyengar and the invention of yoga. The New Yorker. Retrieved January 3, 2022, from https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/iyengar-invention-yoga


Heath, B. (2012, November 27). The impact of European colonialism on the Indian caste system. E-International Relations. Retrieved January 3, 2022, from https://www.e-ir.info/2012/11/26/the-impact-of-european-colonialism-on-the-indian-caste-system/


Kleinman A, Benson P (2006) Anthropology in the clinic: The problem of cultural competency and how to fi x it. PLoS Med 3(10): e294. DOI: 10.1371/ journal.pmed.0030294


Sen, A. (2021, June 29). Amartya Sen: What British rule really did for India. The Guardian. Retrieved January 3, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/29/british-empire-india-amartya-sen





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