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Decolonising Fitness: Reclaiming Health

I’m a British Pakistani, a Muslim mum, a middle-aged, brown-skinned, softly curved woman, a fitness professional, an exercise instructor and wellness educator.

Where do I fit in this industry of fitness and health? As Women of Colour (WOC) it’s time to have a conversation about the challenges we face and how we could work together to overcome our own self-inflicted barriers as well as those from society.

I thought I’d do a blog about it all and before I knew it found myself researching imperialism! I came to realise that health and health beliefs cannot be looked at without an awareness of our history in the context of colonisation. This blog has to delve a little into that history but also moving forward, how we can reconnect with our ancestral movement practices and how we need to value them a lot more than we do. We are more than just our bodies and this return to our roots is not only good for our physical fitness but also the health of our minds and souls, but also our deepest spirit.

Recently I’ve been reflecting on our perceptions of fitness and health as South Asians (this is my experience but could easily be extrapolated to any ethnicity) and as a wider society in general. I find myself pondering this for 2 main reasons:

  1. I’ve been a Pharmacist for 25 years, born in Britain, educated here, proud of my education, confident in its authenticity. Over the last few years I have discovered that almost everything I was taught in health has been inaccurate or even downright wrong! Its been hard and humbling having to reconsider that  previously assumed evidence-based science was more like industry-sponsored marketing. In parallel, I have found that much of the wisdom taught in Eastern practices is vital for us and yet has been, until recently, ignored or worse, devalued by the modern Medical system. I’m angry! What a waste of my time here. I feel so much was hidden from me, I was pushed to believe it was nonsense.
  2. I know for a fact that very often people do not “believe” I am a fitness professional. I just dont tick the boxes they have formed in their minds. I find my advice gets ignored or my knowledge is not valued as highly as the advice given from a person who conforms to all the concepts of Western fitness norms.These barriers exist even amongst my own community. When I started teaching exercise 12 years ago I had hoped to work with Asian women but this demographic proved to be the hardest to break into. It’s better now, I worked hard to earn my place and there are more of us represented in sports and fitness now. But even still, as a professional I often feel side-lined or not given the platform or opportunities afforded to my white colleagues.

These are just my feelings but is there any basis to them?

Wellness has become a multi-million dollar industry and what is clear is that women of colour(WOC) are distinctly under-represented as teachers and educators. From the lack of inclusivity in yoga studios,to the minimal representation of WOC in the nutritional/clean eating world, it seems that there are limited opportunities for us to be in the forefront of health and wellness. It’s not that we dont exist,we are there but we just don’t hit the mainstream.It is ironic since it is the women in traditional societies that have been the healers, the dieticians, the nurturers.Their knowledge was held in high esteem and healing herbs and recipies were transmitted down from mothers to daughters.Thankfully,our numbers are increasing and more and more WOC are reclaiming their traditions, challenging the existing Western narrtives and the using their heritage and culture to give space to other women to feel comfortable in a health and wellness environment.

But where are these attitudes to WOC coming from?

I don’t think people are doing this conciously or even out of malice. I think this actually stems from the reminants of a colonial past. I’ve been reflecting on this a lot recently and through my research I’m daunted by the enorminty of the effect of colonisation and imperialism on not only our thought processes and perceptions of ourselves but also the actual physical trauma of the lived experience. The trauma of those years experienced by our ancestors still affects us today whether we admit it or not, those memories still exist in every cell of our bodies.They will inevitably manifest in our behaviour subconsciously. The reverse is true, in that the easy confidence and superiority of the coloniser is still present in the behaviours and beliefs of Westerners today

We hold Western science, progress and knowledge so highly. And yes,there has been plenty of good but as we can see from the evidence (climate change, sky-rocketing lifestyle diseases etc) it has also been destructive. Perhaps the reason for this is the foundation of modern Western medicine is based on power, control, conquering, exploitation, profiteering, whether it was in the past (conquering lands,ruling over inferior subjects) or in the present (industry-sponsored nutritional or pharmaceutical studies).

An interesting piece by Rohan Roy, lecturer in South Asian History from the University of Reading:

“Science was used to argue imperialism was morally justified because it reflected British goodwill towards colonised people. It implied that scientific insights could be redeployed to promote superior health, hygiene and sanitation among colonial subjects. Empire was seen as a benevolent, selfless project.Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling described it, it was the “white man’s burden” to introduce modernity and civilised governance in the colonies.

But science at this time was more than just a practical or ideological tool when it came to empire. Since its birth around the same time as Europeans began conquering other parts of the world, modern Western science was inextricably entangled with colonialism, especially British imperialism. And the legacy of that colonialism still pervades science today”

Our ancestors were told in more than just words that they were inferior. The white man was superior in every aspect, from cognitive function to physical appearance and health. And then they actually lived that belief.

As Roy goes on to say,

In the incredibly influential 1835 memo Minute on Indian Education, British politician Thomas Macaulay denounced Indian languages partially because they lacked scientific words. He suggested that languages such as Sanskrit and Arabic were “barren of useful knowledge”, “fruitful of monstrous superstitions” and contained “false history, false astronomy, false medicine”.

Please, read the link above in the paragraph above.  Its quite horrifying. And now stop and reflect. The education system developed in British India was based on these beliefs.As the British had control over the entire sub-continent,Western science gradually gained the upperhand by dethroning and pushing to the background the indigenous medical systems.With these colonial narratives Western science and medicine established their superior position and became one of the ‘Tools of the Empire’ of India as Daniel Headrick has termed it.Colonisation relies upon dehumanizing “those people” through actions, words, and ideas that create in the mind of the colonisers an image of “those people” as backwards, barbaric, violent, and pre-modern. They were also fastidious about maintaining a physical difference between themselves and the Indians. Is it any wonder why we as Asians have a deep subconcious inferiority complex. We are never enough. We are always striving to be as good as “the other”, as healthy, as fit, as successful..We ourselves look down upon those more traditional than us,we scoff at our own ancient practices and rituals calling them backwards.

Not only our lands but our riches and our sense of pride was stolen. Did you know that Yoga and Ayuverda was banned during British Rule? In order to justify their colonisation of India, the British employed racist and orientalist narratives that put Indian ‘heathens’ at the bottom of the social, cultural and politcal pile. Indians themselves began to believe their ancient knowledge and customs were inferior to Western progress.

As Melissa Heather notes from her website Decolonising Yoga,

In nineteenth century Europe, physical strength was equated with moral and spiritual superiority. In Hindu Nationalist movements physical, bodybuilding activities came to be seen as a way for Indian individuals and society to rise up out of their cultural and political slump and vanquish their European colonizers. Swami Vivekananda was a strong supporter of the physical culture movement in India, arguing that a strong body is essential to achieving Self-realization. With time campaigns of militant physical resistance began to operate out of local gyms, focusing on Indianized forms of exercise that combined yoga asana and pranayama with modern bodybuilding, increasingly referred to as ‘yoga’.

The modern yoga we “practice” in the west is a totally re-packaged, re-branded version of ancient yoga.This is not a problem in itself,as Yoga and Hinduism as we know it now have always been evolving and changing. The history is rich and spans centuries. We at least should be aware of our history. When we as Asians sit (often weirdly uncomfortably) through a yoga session where a young white lean flexible girl is beautifully demonstrating gymnastic poses many of the which are barely 100years old, we should at least understand that she is the least representative role model for the true and deep understanding of the essence of yoga and we should liberate ourselves from striving to emulate her.

And the latest trends of “wellbeing” “mindfulness” “lifestyle medicine” ….these were intrinsically the ways of the East. This is the basis of Chinese,Greek, Islamic and Ancient Hindu and Buddhist systems of medicine. Western medics and scientists till recently used to brush aside holistic therapies and ancient nutritional medicine as “woo woo nonsense”.

A facinating read is Colonising the Body by David Arnold. In his review of this book the author CA Bayley notes

Future historians, however, will wish to enter further into the issue of what exactly constituted ‘medicine’ in India and how the values it embodied were changed by Western impact. For health in the modern Western sense was for Indians part of a wider feeling of ‘well-being’. Both the Muslim Greek-derived tradition and the ancient Hindu tradition of medicine were deeply environmentalist in their assumptions. We are what we eat. We take on the coloration of where we live. It was these beliefs perhaps which made it easier for the Europeans of the early 19th century, to whom they would not have seemed strange, to accept some Indian remedies. Indigenous medicine treated the whole person, and the whole of nature was capable of physical and moral transformation. It merged with cooking, erotics and the preparation of the philosopher’s stone by the many alchemists still practising in India. Disease was not an invasive external enemy, so much as an imbalance between inner humours and outer conditions, conditions that might include the effects of the heavenly bodies, previous evil acts or the local vegetation. Medicine was designed not simply to kill disease but to adjust the balance between the body, the mind and the external world.

By belittling our arts, traditional sports, our movement practices,our traditional https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/umadeviakundi/R9VokNGr6sI/AAAAAAAAAEE/Y_rgypsiK1s/image%5B3%5Dfoods the colonisers changed the way we moved, sat, lived,cooked and ate… at a cellular level. They may have called us savages when they saw us squatting at the roadside, but now they lament at how Western modern living has caused the loss of the ability to squat which is so vital for back and pelvic health! We were told to sit on chairs not the floor and now we are told sitting on chairs is killing us! And our ethnic foods (ghee,coconut,Ayuverda) which we were once shamed for eating are now repackaged and sold to us as products of the wellness industry!

Seriously, the irony astounds me.

There is so much more to read and learn about when it comes to our past for both colonised and coloniser. It is vital for us as British Asians to become more aware of the patterns we may be in and how deep rooted they are in order to make changes. For it still continues today in a much more covert form.We are still told in a subtler language that we are to blame for our poor health, its our genes, we don’t exercise enough, our curries are unhealthy, we don’t value health, we don’t try hard enough to overcome barriers, we don’t do enough sport, we are rubbish at PE, we have the worst diabetes, we have the weakest hearts…

I know this because that is what I was told throughout my Medical and Fitness Education. Provided to me courtesy of the Medical and Fitness Industries.

Maybe it’s actually the fact that science, fitness and health is white-centred. Maybe that our  beautiful ethnic brown bodies need something else, something deeper, something better for us, and that we are most vulnerable to this fake toxic environmnet created by the West. Maybe many of the therapies developed are not the best for non-white bodies? Maybe we are still recovering from the trauma of our ancestors, still trying to build our self-value, still trying to find our place with dignity. Maybe we are still treated, more covertly though,as second class humans and infact this can be seen as BME people face the most health inequalities.

I am not saying we do not have a responsibilty to step up and improve ourselves or that we can benefit from the science of the West. We absolutely do. We are now part and parcel of the West. It is our home. But we have to acknowledge that we too as South Asians (or any ethnicity) are complicit in allowing this personal neo-colonialism to continue. If we don’t address this we will not achieve our true potential for health. We can take all the good from Western practices but without valuing and accepting our innate knowledge and traditions who are we really? A real sense of wellbeing comes from belonging, being at ease, feeling joyful and to do that we must accept and love our whole selves.

Our ancient and Eastern fitness concepts are all about health and wellbeing at a deeper level than merely the physical dimension. Health is done with purpose not only to serve ourselves but to serve others or a God/Supreme Being with a focus of acheiving energy balance and ease in the body. There is great healing in that.Especially in todays busy lifestyles. It is the Yin to the Western Yang.

How can we reclaim our health as second or third generation British Asians? After all we too have become products of the West. We could try

  • finding out more about our traditions, health practices and culture and actually value them
  • seeking out WOC, find them online, value their work, give them platform. Give them opportunity. There are increasing numbers of Black, Latino, Asian etc WOC making waves in wellness. An inspiring woman I met recently is Navi Gill,a holistic healer and Ayuverdic practicioner from Canada. She too is well into decolonising the body and mind :http://www.navigillwellness.com/about-1
  • by learning our traditonal arts and sports, by supporting them, by giving them as much value as Western fitness methods. Let’s treasure our heritage.
  • by finding more joyful movement practices that sit well with our bodies and connect with our spirits. I see many WOC engaging in running or HIIT classes who feel and move extremely uncomfortably. Almost as if they’re bodies aren’t built for this type of movement, or that they aren’t responding to it like their white friends. I’m sure this can be overcome, we can adapt, but just as an alternative view, is it really necessary? Maybe we could find more culturally relevant fitness methods, maybe robotic movements such as running or Les Mills classes just are too limiting for our bodies and spirits…What type of movement is pulsing through our DNA….African dancing,bellydance,Indian dance, marshal arts,yoga and tai chi etc. We can find fitness practices that are just as valuable to our health as mainstream forms. We can do both! We do not HAVE to conform.
  • by avoiding following binary guidelines on food. Find foods that make you feel joyful. Our curries are not unhealthy. Our indigenous foods did not give us disease, Western industrialised foods did!  We do not need to eat salmon and parsley sauce when our bodies feel most nourished with tarka dhal and chawwal, or whatever your cultural cuisine is.
  • by listening to and writing down the stories and recipies from our mothers and grandmothers.Listen to the healing practices from our elders before we lose this precious information. Only then we can liberate ourselves from industry and reclaim our ancestral health.
  • by demanding more diversity or perhaps I should say “more reality”, more inclusive images, more colour, more sizes, more shapes, more thinking out of the normative box.
  • A lot of wellness practices have been appropriated from Eastern religions, without giving credit where it’s due. This is problematic. If you are a teacher whether you are white or not,acknowledge the roots of your practice, avoid cultural appropriation.
  • If you are a WOC who teaches, speaks, inspires…keep doing you! You are paving the way and shattering glass ceilings.We are not bitter at the past, we do not blame or resent the western-adapted practices from our culture, we are in fact proud. Show it!

I feel this message actually applies to all women, of any colour,class,race, religion. I’m no ardent feminist but we have to acknowledge the historical patterns of thought that have been ingrained in our minds and determine how we feel about ourselves.This awareness will help to liberate us to experience fitness, health, beauty and life optimally and comfortably.

I would love to connect with WOC to come together and share experiences, lift each other, connect and help each other grow. Please do reach out …lets bring more colour to wellness!