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How These Indigenous Yogis Are Connecting Yoga & Native Traditions

A growing community of Indigenous teachers are offering yoga as a way to address their communities’ needs—and reconnect with their traditions.

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When we talk about yoga’s roots, we have to also acknowledge yoga’s branches and the places where it cross pollinates with other healing, spiritual practices. A growing community of Indigenous yoga instructors is doing just that.

Shayla Stonechild, founder of the Matriarch Movement, finds clear links between the ancient practice of yoga and Indigenous practices.

“[Indigenous people] knew the power behind our words and vibrations and intention and prayer and song,” she says. “We [found] purification of the mind, body, and spirit through sacrifice, through ceremony, through rituals.” The same can be said of people who originally practiced yoga thousands of year ago thousands of miles away.

“Yoga is an Indigenous practice grounded in Indigenous ways of knowing,” says Tria Blu Wakpa, Ph.D, a UCLA professor who studies the politics and practice of yoga among Indigenous people. She is co-founder and co-editor of Race and Yoga Journal, a platform for the study of yoga through the lens of people of color.

“Yoga is typically not understood as a Native embodied practice,” she writes. But Indigenous people in the West have begun to connect with yoga as it has gained popularity in the mainstream. She suggests that yoga become a pathway for Indigenous people to connect with western Indigenous healing practices that colonialism has minimized and co-opted.

See also: Shayla Stonechild Finds Her Voice

Yoga is Indigenous

Even as she makes space for the growing acceptance of yoga in Native American and other western cultures, Wakpa’s work acknowledges the “eclipse” of the South Asian roots of yoga. (She prefers that term to “erasure.” It leaves room for the re-emergence of people who have been ignored.) But it also brings Black, Indigenous, and other people of color into the yoga conversation.

By calling yoga an Indigenous practice, she makes a distinction between South Asian yoga and what she calls the “settler colonized” practice that has been mainstreamed in the U.S. But she also acknowledges the similarities between South Asian yoga and Native American healing traditions.

Stonechild also noted the links in her Yoga Journal cover story: “[Indigenous people found] purification of the mind, body, and spirit through sacrifice, through ceremony, through rituals,” she says. The language may be different, but the spirit of generating tapasya or performing satsangs and pujas is familiar among Native yogis.

In fact, a growing community of Indigenous teachers is offering yoga as a way to address the physical and mental health issues that disproportionately affect their communities. Many are using yoga to reconnect with some of their traditional practices, as well. Here are a few leaders who are bridging yoga and Native traditions—bringing the benefits of both to Indigenous communities.

Kate Herrera Jenkins

Kate Herrera Jenkins in black tights and rust colored boots does a spinal twist
(Photo: Mary Lou Davis)

Kate Herrera Jenkins (Shu-wah-mitz), founded Native Strength Revolution—a collective of Indigenous yoga teachers from around the U.S. and Canada—in 2014. NSR teachers represent Ojibwe, Ponca, Osage, Oglala Lakota, Navajo, and other nations.

As a music therapist and a member of Cochiti Pueblo, Jenkins was acutely aware of the kinds of  physical, mental, and public health conditions that disproportionately affect Indigenous communities. She urges the practice of yoga to address obesity and diabetes, mental and spiritual challenges, trauma and PTSD, and addiction.

Jenkins originally fell in love with hot yoga and studied Bikram, Yin, and Vinyasa styles before opening Kiva Hot Yoga in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2011.  She wanted to share this healing modality with the world. Her big picture goal with NSR is to provide continuing education opportunities for other Native yoga teachers. She designed a teacher-training program especially for those who want to teach Indigenous people on reservations and in urban settings.

Alexis Estes

“Yoga offers an opportunity for healing from difficult experiences because it increases awareness and peace in the present moment,” according to Alexis Estes (Woksape Ole Winyan). As a member of the Lower Brule Sioux tribe, she is a yoga instructor for American Indian Health & Family Services in Detroit, and formerly for Native Hope, a nonprofit group with a mission to improve the lives of Indigenous people. She currently works with Lakota youth through the Oglala Lakota Children’s Justice Center in South Dakota.

Estes (whose Lakota name means “Seeks Knowledge Woman”) cites the importance of using the breath to relieve anxiety, asana to shift muscle memory, and affirmations to evoke positive mindsets. These are critical skills in Indigenous communities that have endured so much violence and trauma—the trauma that science now proves gets passed on from generation to generation.

“Native Americans today do not need to see themselves as permanent victims of history,” according to Native Hope. But an important part of healing is to acknowledge the trauma, understand its roots, and actively begin healing. Estes is on a mission to do the all of the above.

Tony Redhouse

Tony Redhouse in white shirt performing a blessing ceremony smudging with a feather

Tony Redhouse began doing yoga as a way to stay flexible for traditional Navajo dance and drumming. But he soon began to recognize its value as a pathway to inner balance—and he made the connections between Indian beliefs and yogic philosophy. Most notable: the quest for union.

“In Native American wisdom, the breath is our individual soul, while the heartbeat is the life force in everything. When we connect the breath with the heartbeat—our soul with the life force—we become one and experience a healing,” he said in an article for Wanderlust. “This is often why we feel so peaceful when we practice yoga; we are bringing our movement and heartbeat in line with the breath.”

After studying with hatha yoga teachers and becoming certified to teach, he created Native American Spirit and Yoga to connect with Native communities. Redhouse brings his personal experiences and his skills as a spiritual coach and sound healer to work with people in hospice, cancer treatment, and recovery, as well as  young people affected by gangs.

He uses the music, movement, and breathwork to help people “find that beautiful circle of life.”

“It’s not about our individual circle or our community circle,” he says. “It’s about how we connect as One.”

Watch: Diné yoga teacher Haley Laughter’s Hozho Yoga flow, directed by Robyn Silverfox.

See also:  How I’m Using Yoga to Protect the Earth and Honor Indigenous Voices