There is a price we pay when we conform to what society expects us to be, especially when it does not align with our needs for freedom, rest, and pleasure. For the longest time, I refused to believe that something wasn’t right in how I was living my life.
Let me back up.
If you were to meet me in person, you might pigeonhole me as a whitewashed banana, and this label would be helpful to you in terms of understanding me and my upbringing.
As a first-generation immigrant who moved to Canada when I was five and have since gone to school, worked, and made a home for myself here in the West, I speak English fluently but can only understand and speak basic Mandarin. I understand and can more easily relate to Western values of individualism, democracy, and capitalism. A map of Europe is more familiar to me than a map of Asia. And if you were to ask me about Chinese culture, I would feel guilty rather than flattered that you cared enough to ask me, because I have assimilated so successfully to be called a banana.
I have been disconnected from my ancestral culture for most of my life. It has also take me time to work through these experiences and see the veiled assumptions that are in and of itself forms of exclusion.
When I was growing up, representation and colour-blindness constituted the progressive side of mainstream discourse about race (progressive discourses about race), which we know now is not only inadequate, but bypasses oppression on a systemic level.
Asians move up and down on the racial hierarchy to fit the whims of the white ruling class, often holding these spaces simultaneously. On the one hand, we are extolled as a case study for the existence of meritocracy in a white supremacist and patriarchal society, divided from and pitted against other marginalized communities. On the other hand, we see Asians blamed for the pandemic to the point where white people will argue it’s okay to call it the Wuhan flu but not okay to call it the British strain. This racial tension has erupted in violence to our communities. Every day we read a new report about our elders being physically assaulted. The rise in Anti-Asian hate crimes has skyrocketed in North America, and where I live, there has been more anti-Asian incident reports than any other sub-national region in North America.
We cannot pass for white but we have internalized the colonizer within so that to be called a banana is a joke in mixed company and an insult in community. Next Generasian has previously written on the problematic use of the term “whitewashed” that is an excellent exploration of the psychological warfare and mental health consequences for Asians who have assimilated into Western culture.
Yoga is the gateway to social justice and ancestral healing for me because it was when I deepened my yoga practice that I awakened to healing my racial wounds. Yoga is a 5,000-year-old practice from India that helps us access our higher self through asana, breathe work, meditation, ethics and self observances. It is a highly effective system of techniques and practices that allow us to connect to the source of our being, which is divine. Ultimately, yoga is about union, and it radically teaches us that we are all divine and we are all one.
Mainstream yoga in the west, however, has been commodified by capitalists and distorted by New Age pseudo-spiritualists and, who would have you believe that yoga is about losing weight or knowing how to do circus acrobatics. To the contrary, it is about our healing for collective liberation.
It was when I started to teach and have conversations about cultural appropriation with other yoga teachers that I began to see simultaneously how controversial this conversation was for the white people around me and how freeing it was for the people of colour around me.
Because questions about cultural appropriation are really questions about power structures and who gets to be seen and heard. It’s stripping away the pretence of progress, the Stepford tokens, and starting to complicate the idea of yoga we have in the west.
It was through the dissenting voices of yoga that I began to explore yoga through a decolonization lens that led me to examine my racial identity and the lack of self-inquiry I had, up to that point in my life, about my ancestral culture.
And it was through a guided meditation that ended with me in tears that I was confronted with the truth that the life I was living was keeping me small. I have Chiron in Leo, so it makes sense that I have wounds around showing up and taking up space. I was constantly burnt out at my job. I was the first one in and the last one out. I delivered results under tight deadlines, and thought nothing of uncompensated labour because I bought in to the cult of productivity. At the same time, I understood the dark side of capitalism and knew I was expendable at any moment I was not producing. My work was not fulfilling me, and I was constantly stressed. My relationship with my partner was tense because I would always complain about work. I would spend weekends in bed because I was too depressed to get up. And I thought this was normal.
I thought it was normal to be miserable all the time because I did not know my worth. I did not know my worth because I had not examined the racial conditioning I was exposed to of the silent model minority. I was not living a life that was authentic or creative because I had a scarcity mindset that told me that I had to hustle in order to survive.
I was not living a life that honoured my needs. What guides me back to my purpose whenever I feel self-doubt is reconnecting to my ancestors, and to the powerful womxn in my lineage. I remind myself that my ancestors did not make sacrifices so that I could stay small. If I have the desire and the ability to do what I want in life then I should take that chance, no matter what other people may think.
Authentic living is when I can stop pretending to myself and others what my needs are. It’s the daily decision I choose to make to hold space for all my complexities, contradictions, and unknown parts of myself with courage and joy.
As womxn of colour, and as immigrants who have assimilated, we need to have the space to work through our lived experiences, and not only has my yoga practice helped in my healing process in terms of bringing things to the surface, healing in community has been what has nourished me.
We cannot heal what we do not communicate. Naming the thing, speaking the thing, sitting with the thing, is how we can begin to transform this stuck energy within us, so that we can use our voice and show up as our full, dimensional selves.
For Asians who are seeking to reconnect with their spiritual roots, I am sharing tips that have helped me on my healing journey:
1. Decolonize your approach to spirituality
There is nowhere we need to get to when we make the conscious decision to explore our spiritual lineage. We have to divest ourselves from how we can productively extract resources like knowledge from our spiritual lineage. During the pandemic, there has been a rise in people exploring themselves and it is great. However, in this capitalist system we live in, the market follows and there is a rise in pseudo-spiritual products that promise you healing upon purchase. We need to honour our spiritual practices by learning its roots, of educating ourselves about the history, which will very likely contain trauma due to colonization, so that we can give reverence to these healing practices that come from our ancestors, no matter how much white people co-opt our practices from us.
There is a question of whether we can culturally appropriate from our lineage, and it’s such an important question for me that can only be answered when we consider these: where are we taking our information from and who is our intended audience? Is this spiritual journey for you or are you performing it? For just as womxn can be misogynistic or people of colour can be anti-black, so too can I believe we can act as colonizers towards our own culture, especially when we have not examined our racial wounds.
2. Learn from Asian healers and pay for their services
We need to hold space for our inner teacher and learn from healers whose wealth of knowledge and energetic presence can provide us with a supportive and safe container for us to explore our ancestral lineage. I have been healing my relationship with my physical body, gut health, and disordered eating with Traditional Chinese Medicine through food nutrition and herbal teas and tinctures with several acupuncturists. By connecting to the healing power of ancestral plant medicine, I have been healing from western and eastern beauty ideals. More recently, I have been working with activating my qi energy and alter ego work with a Taiwanese shamanic practitioner.
There are dissenters in every spiritual lineage. Like I found the dissenters of mainstream yoga, there are many Asian healers that are speaking up about the commodification of their ancestral lineages. Whether it is Japanese Reiki, Daoist face reading, or Ayurveda – there are so many wise, loving womxn of colour who are doing this work right now. Do yourself the favour to learn from them.
3. Communicate with your ancestors
We have to let go of our need to get things right away, to find short-cuts in order to receive immediate gratification. This isn’t to say that we are not looking for what works, but that mystery isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
I say this because communicating with your ancestors can be hard for us when we have accepted a mechanical world view that has been disproven by quantum physics in that there is much unseen that we do not know but that exists. Psychotherapeutic research into past live recalls provide empirical evidence for the existence of reincarnation. This may be hard for us when we have disassociated from our body, from our emotions, and rely solely on science for our truth. Science has taught us so much but it is not an objective system because our world views are not objective, our very language has assumptions built in to the word. Science has given us a lot in terms of breaking things down to the atomic level, but it doesn’t provide a holistic understanding, and it is, again, when we elevate one system over another that we lose the potential for discovering truth. As one of my friends said, science is not advanced enough to explain what the Indigenous people across the world know to be true.
Communicating with your ancestors can involve devotional altar work, meditation, and being attuned to the energy around you. There are signs and patterns out there if we pay attention to them and when we do, we can start to notice the synchronicity around us.
Yoga has helped me to understand and heal from my ancestral wounds and it’s made me realize how we, as Asians, can reclaim our ancestral spiritual practices for our racial healing. We can do this in a decolonized manner that honours our spiritual lineage by amplifying the voices of Asian activist-healers and our living and past ancestors.
Irene Lo, Co-Creator of the Womxn of Color Summit
Irene is an Asana Facilitator and Tarot Reader currently based on the unceded territory of the Coast Salish People including the territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. Irene’s pronouns are she/her and she is a cisgender Taiwanese Canadian, of Han and Hakka descent, but she is not your model minority.
Irene helps her students and clients create a sustainable self care practice because healing is a radical and absolutely necessary act for those fighting for change. Her work is rooted in going inwards, whether it is through the spiritual practice of yoga or the intuitive practice of tarot, because she believes self care is our birthright. Irene received her 200 training with the Lila School of Vinyasa and teaches in honour of Krishnamacharya while showing up for herself and community.
Irene is one of the Co-Creators and Co-Founders of the Womxn of Color Summit where she has created a healing community for womxn of color by womxn of color. The community celebrates and uplifts Black, Indigenous, and Womxn of Color in the healing modalities and empowers community to be seen and heard.
Through Irene Yoga Flow, Irene teaches playful vinyasa and relaxing sweet yin yoga classes for individual womxn of color to sustain their self care rituals and through Womxn of Color Summit, Irene brings her yoga off the mat by focusing on community care for the collective through amplifying and uplifting the voices of Black, Indigenous, and Womxn of Color.
You can practice with Irene on YouTube and you can attend monthly live Zoom yin yoga and tarot meditation classes with her. Keep up to date by signing up for her newsletter and following her on Instagram.
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Edited by Jack Hillis