How Indigenous yogis and meditators are adapting and reclaiming 'wellness'

Indigenous practitioners say contemplative activities like yoga and meditation can be powerful tools for healing. Some are working to protect the wellness industry's use of smudging from cultural appropriation, while also respecting that the practice of meditation originated outside Turtle Island.

‘The practice of yoga is to bring us closer to a spirit … and that's embedded in our ways of being'

An Indigenous woman wearing a black zip-up and leggings sits cross legged, with her hands on her knees, outside.
Tareyn Johnson, the director of Indigenous affairs at the University of Ottawa, once walked out of a yoga class led by a white instructor who incorporated smudging into the session. (Tareyn Johnson)

Yoga classes are often meant to bring a sense of peace and serenity to practitioners, but Tareyn Johnson remembers one that did the exact opposite. 

The Anishinaabe woman, who's a member of Georgina Island First Nation, says she started practising yoga — which has its roots in India — several years ago to find calmness and help reduce regular migraines. She later dove deep into the ancient practice's history and philosophy by completing a 200-hour yoga teacher training program in Ottawa, where she lives. 

This specific yoga session was taught by a white instructor at an Ottawa studio. 

"[The teacher] brought out what she called her 'sacred medicine bundle.' And she smudged. And then she put on some music and … talked about being trained by a medicine man," Johnson recalled in an episode of CBC's Unreserved

"I just had to walk out of the class at that point."

Activities like smudging and mindfulness meditation are popular in the wellness industry; smudging, or what's often called "saging," has been rapidly gaining traction in the Western world in recent years. Today, people like Johnson are working to respect these practices' roots and protect them from cultural appropriation, while also respecting that the practice of meditation originated outside Turtle Island.

Other Indigenous practitioners say contemplative activities like yoga and meditation can be powerful tools for healing.

Johnson says she has seen Indigenous traditions and items being adopted or appropriated by non-Indigenous people many times before. But, that one yoga class in Ottawa was just "too much," she said. 

"People are paying [this instructor] to teach them yoga and she's giving them a sort of watered-down [version] of Indigenous spirituality and it just, overall … was an icky feeling," Johnson said. 

Meditation is 'part of ceremony'

Michael Yellow Bird began his mindfulness practice in 1975, when he was an undergraduate student, and found that it was a powerful, healing approach to help calm and centre him. 

"Especially when I had traumatic memories from growing up on a reservation as a kid that interfered with my thinking, my sleeping and my studies," Yellow Bird told Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild. "Or to help me deal with some of the daily microaggressions and the racism that I faced from [other] students."

Smudging involves burning traditional medicines, such as dried sweetgrass and white sage. (Albert Couillard/Radio-Canada)

Today, Yellow Bird, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations in North Dakota, is the dean of the faculty of social work at the University of Manitoba. His research looks at the neurological effects of colonization and what he dubs "neuro decolonization" and "mindful decolonization."

Yellow Bird believes mindfulness approaches can not only help Indigenous people heal from colonial trauma, but heal the brain itself. 

Regular mindfulness practice will, over time, increase white matter in the brain and improvise grey matter, Yellow Bird said. White matter helps with connectivity and grey matter protects important parts of the brain, he noted. 

While the practice of meditation originated outside Turtle Island, Yellow Bird also believes — after many years sitting on meditation cushions — that Indigenous people have been using mindfulness for generations in ceremony and prayer, and in activities like singing or dancing for long periods of time. 

"When we meditate a lot, and when we practice contemplative Indigenous practices where we do a lot of deep prayer [and] ceremony … that part of the brain also activates. And it helps raise our level of emotional intelligence and to understand the mental state of others."

An Indigenous man, in a grey t-shirt and wearing glasses, smiles for a profile photograph.
Michael Yellow Bird says mindfulness can help Indigenous people heal from colonial trauma. (Michael Yellow Bird)

In graduate school, when Yellow Bird was experiencing a mental health crisis, he visited his  grandfather, a Sun Dance chief and well-known medicine man named Tom Yellowtail. 

His grandfather gave him instructions on how to pray and talk to ancestors, and asked the young man if he prayed. So Yellow Bird described his mindfulness practice to the elder.

"He listened very carefully … [and] he said, 'Keep it up,'" Yellow Bird remembered. "He said that meditation is really a part of all Indian ceremony."

Indigenous people have always done practices that focus their mind on healing, Yellow Bird recalled the elder saying. 

"And sometimes it takes a long time to get that healing done, so we always have to come back and focus, and keep good thoughts there and bad thoughts out," Yellow Bird continued. 

"To do that, he said, was sacred." 

'Walk with kindness' 

To Tareyn Johnson, the Ottawa yoga teacher's use of Indigenous practices was a "theft of cultural knowledge." 

Johnson is the director of Indigenous affairs at the University of Ottawa and said she believes that the way yoga is practised in much of the Western world is theft of cultural knowledge. There's so much focus on the physical aspect of yoga, to the detriment of its own spiritual components, she said.

But it's possible to approach yoga — as well as Indigenous cultures and practices — without appropriating, Johnson suggested. If you're new to the topics, read, learn as much as you can, use a critical eye and be respectful, she said. 

"I would never want to scare someone away from being interested in Indigenous cultures or yoga because it seems intimidating or it seems like it's like a landmine of cultural appropriation," Johnson said. 

"And definitely get into yoga. I love yoga. Yoga changed my life," she added. "I just think that when you're approaching anything, try to think critically and walk with kindness." 

A female yoga teacher sits, legs crossed, with her hands in a prayer position and her eyes closed, in front of a class.
Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw yoga teacher Jessica Barudin incorporates Indigenous language and cultural elements into her yoga practice and classes. (Jessica Barudin)

Yoga teacher Jessica Barudin, who is is Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw and a member of the 'Namgis First Nation in British Columbia, understands how typical yoga classes are a far cry from the practice's ancient roots. 

To not repeat the cycle of cultural appropriation in her classes, Barudin reminds people of where yoga comes from. She also honours yoga's Indian roots — the mythology of the chants of the Sanskrit language, or different aspects of the postures — by learning from teachers who are from that part of the world.

Yoga is much more than stretching out the hamstrings in downward facing dog; it's a mindful, embodied movement practice, she said.

"Yoga is really about the mind. It's a mental science," she said. 

And it can help people cope with the stress and ongoing traumas happening not only within Indigenous communities but around the world, Barudin said.

"Yoga provides a framework to find a bit of balance … through some of the chaos."

Integrating yoga and Indigenous cultures

Barudin said she sees parallels between yoga and Indigenous cultures, and her teaching blends the two together. She incorporates things like medicines and traditional language, creating yoga sessions that speak to both her and the practice's ancestry.

"The practice of yoga is to bring us closer to a spirit, to greater consciousness, and that's embedded in our ways of being as Indigenous people," she said. "In our ceremonies and our connection to place and land."

An Indigenous woman stands on a beach, in dancer pose.
Barudin says yoga can be a powerful tool to help Indigenous people heal from intergenerational trauma. (Jessica Barudin)

Barudin doesn't teach in yoga studios; classes are often expensive and inaccessible for the people she's serving. 

Instead, she works with and in communities and tries to invest in the health and wellness of, in particular, Indigenous women and two-spirit people with programs like the First Nations Women's Yoga Initiative. 

Through this work, Barudin has seen Indigenous women in transitional housing, fleeing from domestic violence and abusive relationships gather up the courage to participate. She's had women involved who are deeply immersed in their culture and learning their language, and used yoga to take care of themselves throughout this process.

In her eyes, yoga can be a powerful tool to help Indigenous people heal from intergenerational trauma. If every Indigenous person on Turtle Island rolled out a mat regularly, Barudin believes their lives would change for the better. 

"I think we'd have a beautiful revolution of healing," she said.


Laura Beaulne-Stuebing is a producer for CBC Radio's Unreserved. She is based in Ottawa.