5 Ways We Can Start Decolonizing Asian-Originated Self-Care Practices

The recent killings of six Asian American women in Atlanta, GA are just one example of a wave of increased hate violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. We cannot, and should not, pretend that cultural violence is not a significant contributor to this epidemic nor can we ignore how the self-care field as a whole often lays the foundation for anti-Asian violence.

The United States of America is no stranger to white violence. One would be hard-pressed to identify a single structure or institution in the Western world that doesn’t have its roots firmly planted in a violent colonial legacy. Still, it seems that this past year has made it incredibly clear for white folks what People of Color have known their entire lives – racism is everywhere.

The recent killings of six Asian American women in Atlanta, GA are just one example of a wave of increased hate violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders that has plagued this country in the past year. We cannot, and should not, pretend this is an isolated incident or that cultural violence is not a significant contributor to this epidemic. Furthermore, as a social justice organization committed to anti-oppression work and to interrogating our complicity in white supremacist structures, we cannot ignore how the self-care field as a whole often lays the foundation for anti-Asian violence.

The self-care industry is a $16-billion industry in the US that has profited almost exclusively from the contributions of Asian cultures. Yoga retreats, mindfulness workshops, reiki certifications, green tea cleanses, books on feng shui and ayurveda cooking, and acupuncture sessions are all commonly marketed as self-care opportunities. They also all originate from Asian countries with deep, complicated colonial legacies courtesy of the Western world.

While there’s nothing wrong with appreciating the contributions of another culture, and most certainly there is scientific evidence that practices like yoga and mindfulness are good for your physical and mental health, there is a difference between appreciation and appropriation. More importantly, how we participate in and promote the practices of cultures different from our own directly impacts how our society treats people who are descendants of those cultures. Here are a few things we are integrating into our practices to start decolonizing Asian-originated self-care practices and to continue the important work of eradicating cultural violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

1) Acknowledge the colonial legacy of self-care in Asian and Pacific Islander communities.
First and foremost, we need to acknowledge the history of the regions from which many of our most common self-care practices originate. India, for example, is the birthplace of Yoga. India also spent over 400 years under colonial rule by the British, French, Portuguese, and Dutch empires. Similarly, green tea originated in China. Subsequently, China spent the better part of the 18th and 19th centuries fending off European occupation. If you’re noticing a pattern here, it’s because Western society has always been fascinated by and sought to control the resources and cultures of the East. It’s not a stretch to say that global colonialism as a whole can be attributed to Western empires attempting to dominate the region.

The consequences of this cannot be understated. Not only did European powers occupy land and exploit resources, they often inflicted direct physical and cultural violence on the people of these regions. European powers used warfare, sexual assault, forced conversions to Christianity, disease, and the erasure of cultural identities and languages to gain control of the region and extract resources. Oftentimes, the resources and cultural practices that Western powers sought to control were denied to the very people that invented them.

So what does this have to do with self-care? How are the things that happened centuries ago relevant to our anti-oppression work now? It’s simple, colonialism in the region never really went away. India and Pakistan, for example, have been embroiled in an intractable conflict over the region of Kashmir since 1948 as a direct result of the way European leaders divided the land and cultures when pulling out of the region. Economic desolation, the creation of penny economies, and ever-expanding wealth inequalities have created a breeding ground for persistent issues of human trafficking in China, Nepal, and parts of South East Asia. And today, in the self-care industry, many individuals and families sell parts of their culture to white tourists as a means of survival.

All of this boils down to doing your research. If you are going to engage in an Asian-originating self-care practice, know something about the history and the industry in which it currently exists. While we believe there’s no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism, there is such a thing as harm reduction.

2) Contextualize Asian and Pacific Islander cultural practices.
Mindfulness is one of the biggest topics in mental health research at the moment. While therapeutic techniques like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy are showing some very promising results in the treatment and management of a wide variety of clinical symptoms, one issue with these types of therapeutic interventions is that they often cherry-pick the spiritual belief systems of Buddhism and Taoism in their implementation. Perhaps even more so with lay practitioners of Yoga and meditation, the health benefits of these practices are routinely divorced from the broader cultural contexts and meanings in which they originated.

No one is saying you need to completely immerse yourself in Buddhist culture to practice mindfulness or that you need to read the Vedic texts in ancient Sanskrit before you do your first Yoga asana. But you should at the very least have an understanding that practices like mindfulness in Buddhism were never really about mental health – at least not how Western cultures conceptualize it. Even traditional medicinal practices like acupuncture that have shown efficacy in treating chronic pain were developed with an entirely different understanding of human physiology than that of Western biomedicine.

So how do we stop cherry-picking these cultural practices without entirely altering our belief systems? This is where the concept of “both-and” is really helpful. We don’t have to completely reduce and deconstruct these complex systems of spirituality to integrate them into our day-to-day lives. Nor do we have to reject our own culture to participate. Instead, we can study, understand, and appreciate these cultural traditions as a whole within the context they were intended. We can, and should, approach them with reverence and respect. We should use the language, terminology, and concepts of that cultural tradition to discuss the practice whenever possible and at the very least acknowledge any deviations or alterations we might make to make the practice more accessible.

3) Challenge Asian American and Pacific Islander stereotyping.
One of the ways the self-care industry contributes to violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is through the use of stereotypes and tropes. This most often manifests in the ways we market our programs and services. For example, rather than explaining the science or value of a given wellness practice derived from Asian cultures, self-care businesses often simply present a given practice as something mystical, exotic, or experimental that doesn’t require any further explanation or discussion. The problem here is that it ends up presenting entire cultures and populations in the same vein. It is a form of casual racism that suggests Asian people and cultures are mysterious objects for exploration and use. Furthermore, it is the same mindset that has been used to justify violence, conquest, and dehumanization directed at Asian and Pacific Islander communities throughout history.

Ironically, while the self-care industry is relying on promises of “ancient Chinese wisdom” to market their products and services, they are simultaneously cutting out Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from participating. Rarely do self-care businesses strive to acknowledge, let alone address, the unique health and wellness needs of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Instead, these populations are relegated to a “model minority” stereotype where self-care education, resources, and support are presumed to be not needed.

The reality is that Asian American and Pacific Islander helping professionals need just as much, if not more, support from their organizations and communities as anyone else. There is a growing volume of research over the past few decades that clearly shows the model minority stereotype is not only untrue, but it’s also psychologically and emotionally harmful. We as organizations and promoters of self-care have to make a point to remove these stereotypes from our work. We also have to ensure that we are creating programs and services that are accessible and sensitive to the unique needs of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

4) Invest in community care and violence prevention efforts for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Perhaps one of the most important calls to action we can make to help professionals and their organizations is to invest in community care and violence prevention efforts targeted at Asian American and Pacific Islander populations. Far too often anti-violence, health promotion, and social justice organizations apply a one-size-fits-all approach to their programs and services. When they do engage in targeted programming, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are often left out of the conversation.

Whatever your cause is, chances are that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders intersect with and ultimately experience the issues you are working on differently than other clients in your target populations. Having conversations with your team and your board about how you can better serve Asian American and Pacific Islander populations is a critical part of taking an intersectional approach to social justice. For example, if you are an LGBTQ+ organization, consider how LGBTQ+ identities and issues might intersect with Asian American and Pacific-Islander identities. What resources might people with these intersecting identities need? How might we need to adapt our outreach strategies or our messaging?

While your organization may not be able to answer these questions on its own at the moment, you can still begin these conversations now. In the interest of equity, you should consider hiring paid consultants who specialize in Asian American and Pacific Islander issues for their input rather than asking for free emotional labor from Asian American or Pacific-Islander-identifying individuals. If you are fortunate enough to have volunteers or community partners with this expertise, consider inviting them to join your board or to hold positions of leadership with your organization or on specific projects. That said, you also need to respect their boundaries if they decline your invitation for their self-care.

5) Promote and highlight Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders and organizations in the field.
This seems so obvious, but far too often it’s overlooked. There are lots of incredible Asian American and Pacific Islander-identifying practitioners, consultants, and activists working in the areas of resilience, anti-oppression, and trauma work. We’ve created a list of just a few that are doing some amazing work that deserves our recognition and support. This is not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination and we acknowledge this. As we learn more, we will be adding additional organizations to this post. If you know of any other programs that need to be included, please let us know.

Asian Mental Health Collective

Asian Mental Health Project

Project Lotus

National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association

Asian Health Coalition

Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project

Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence

Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Worker’s Support Network

Asian Americans Advancing Justice

AAPI Women Lead

Nicole Cruz Coaching

The Self-Care Institute with Ami Kunimura

Indrani’s Light Foundation

Where do we go from here?
Ultimately, we should be having these conversations all the time, not just when tragedy strikes. We also need to be thinking about how our work as helping professionals and our self-care practices impact different communities. To be successful in this, Self-Care For Advocates has adopted the position that we are an organization committed to continuous growth and improvement. We’ve spent the past 7 years listening to the needs and experiences of thousands of helping professionals from around the globe and we consider our community to be our biggest strength and our best teacher.

As we move forward as an organization, we plan to continue these conversations and live out these values in all that we do. We hope that you will join us and that you will contribute to these conversations as well. We invite anyone who has felt left out of the self-care conversation to reach out to us. We will always create space for you. We will always listen. And when necessary, we will hold ourselves accountable for our missteps and do better next time.

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