This article was adapted from Yoga Where You Are: Customize Your Practice for Your Body and Your Life © 2020 by Dianne Bondy and Kat Heagberg. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.
Yoga researchers have found evidence to suggest that yoga not only originated in India but also has roots in parts of Africa, particularly Egypt. The practice of yoga was created by brown and black people as a tool for spiritual growth, as a way to integrate the spiritual element with physical experience. Over time the practice has evolved into many different forms—some more accessible than others. Today, many people have a distinct expectation of what yoga should “look like”—an expectation that often has little to no connection to yoga’s roots. If we choose to look at modern yoga as a collection of mindful movements, we can see that other cultures have had an influence on yoga’s history and evolution. We can, for example, see the Western influence through many accessible yoga modalities as well as the development of fitness-centered yoga.
Many different cultures created spiritual practices that connected movement and breath, whether in the form of dance, asana (postures), or exercise. One such example is Kemetic yoga.
What Is Kemetic Yoga?
Kemetic yoga, which originated in Egypt, focuses on the movement of energy through the body in order to connect with one’s higher intelligence and the divine. One practices Kemetic yoga at a much slower pace than in a standard asana class, and there is more of a focus on meditation and the chakras (energy centers). The physical poses of Kemetic yoga are taken from ancient illustrations of Egyptian gods and goddesses. It is a practice with African roots that has been largely ignored by mainstream yoga culture. This is not surprising given the history of oppression against people of African descent in North America. The contributions of people of color to modern society rarely make it into history books even though they played a huge part in the development of modern world culture.
Several preeminent researchers of Kemetic culture—particularly Sehu Khepera Ankh, St. Clair Drake, and Yirser Ra Hotep—aim to make the practice of Kemetic yoga more widely known, especially the African influence on contemporary spiritual practices. Reading about the connections between Africa and yoga has reaffirmed for me that the practice is in my blood, that I fit into this culture.
Kemet, or KMT, was an ancient name for Egypt during the era of the pharaohs. Research suggests that the first Egyptians were black-skinned and came from the Sudan, Ethiopia, and southern Arabia, as well as Babylon. The Kemetic people designed and built pyramids and made important contributions in many fields, including mathematics, architecture, chemistry, medicine, and more. They expressed their ideas in sacred symbols, such as those found in the pyramids and in tombs like that belonging to Tutankhamen.
Yirser Ra Hotep (also known as Elvrid Lawrence) is the most senior instructor of Kemetic yoga in the United States, with over thirty years of experience in practicing and teaching. He has written extensively on Kemetic symbols and their connections to yoga. He writes, “Through modern eyes, what these ancient people meant by their symbolic drawings and carvings appear obscure and mysterious. Through the eyes of one enlightened to their worldview—their obvious and magnificent messages are easily understood.”
One of the examples Yirser Ra Hotep discusses involves a carving on the back of a chair found in King Tut’s tomb. The carving illustrates a man called Shu. Hotep describes what Shu symbolizes:
"His long curved beard indicates that the ancient Egyptians or Kemetic people
viewed him as a Netcher or force of nature. In the ancient Kemetic Scientific System
of Cosmology, Shu represents the concept of the breath we breathe, which
gives life to our physical bodies. It’s also the atmosphere that surrounds the
Earth and one of the four elements of creation, i.e., earth, air, fire, and water.
Egyptologists who studied ancient Egyptian civilization have known about
this carving for thousands of years, yet no one ever equated Shu with Yoga.
When we do a casual examination of his position and the symbols carved on
the chair which includes the sun disk at the top of his head and two Cobra
snakes, the connection with Yoga becomes obvious. The sun disk on top of his
head corresponds to the crown chakra or energy center related to higher intelligence
and enlightenment. The cobras correspond to two of the three main
Nadis which according to Yogic science are channels through which energy or
life force moves, nourishes and animates the human body.
The position of Shu and all other myriad of Yoga positions we see represented
in ancient Egyptian art and literature are not unique to that culture.
You can find it in other parts of Africa and in the western hemisphere where
Africans traveled thousands of years before Columbus.”
Hotep and other scholars provide strong evidence that connects yoga to an ancient African heritage. This opens the idea that there may be multiple cultural sources in different geographical locations that created their own yoga traditions of mindful-movement practices. We see this linkage of movement and spiritual connection in East Asian martial arts, and we see it in indigenous populations in North America with their traditions of drumming and dance. Ultimately, exploring the diverse origins of the practice only serves to further enrich the culture of yoga.
It is important for black people and other people of color to know that our history is valid. The world belongs to us too, and our experiences and contributions matter.
As teachers and practitioners of higher consciousness, we need to be open to the idea that yoga is much larger than we perceive it to be or have been taught to believe—and that its origins are likely far richer and more complex than what we think and understand about modern yoga culture today. It is important for black people and other people of color to know that our history is valid. The world belongs to us too, and our experiences and contributions matter. Black and brown lives matter and are an important part of the creation of the world we have today. People need to recognize this. Allowing a culture to know its roots, to take pride in its contribution to society, and to acknowledge its heritage and traditions takes nothing away from the dominant culture. It does not oppress the dominant culture, but rather, it enriches the experience of all of us. If people of color are celebrated for our accomplishments and are seen as equals in this culture, we can begin to dismantle white supremacy and finally focus on healing this society and this world.