I had an interesting discussion with some of my mentees yesterday. A question was raised about the religious implications of the “Om” mantra. Some of the teachers had noticed that in select yoga studio locations, their practitioners were not participating in the standard end-of-class chanting. It was unquestioningly assumed that the Om mantra might not be congruent with some of the practitioners’ religious beliefs.
Now, while this article is not to discuss the religiosity of the practice (that conversation demands its own article space), it is however an important one to have when it comes to the inclusiveness of the studio practice itself.
Yoga studios, by themselves, are not places of worship. They are spaces dedicated to a mind-body practice which involves spiritual connection, depth and focus. Today, most studios cater to a posture-heavy ‘asana‘ focus. The teachers leading the studio classes, more often than not, are just getting onto the path of exploring the practice and not necessarily experts of the philosophy or even the pedagogy. Well, how much can a 2 month (or lesser!) yoga teacher training program actually instill in the participants?
Most current yoga teacher training programs, in their bare minimum requirements, have a core element of teaching methodology – teaching teachers how to teach! Many schools are now recognizing the need to include a component on keeping classes inclusive. Well, to be honest, not all schools & studios are inclusive, but the efforts are on to make them so.
So this discussion with my mentees highlighted and observation of full classes of maybe 30-40 students where the majority would refrain from chanting. We weren’t speaking about the usual case where one or two were not included – we were talking majority!
This observation brought out two important points as far as I could tell:
The teacher was at a loss to explain how the nature of the practice was not necessarily religious. And..
The classes were consistently not inclusive.
Many of us tend to sometimes follow ‘rules’ or prescribed ‘formats’ verbatim to ensure compliance and avoid conflict with management – especially where standardized procedures are concerned. Where all outcomes are not carefully considered, this approach usually stands the risk of causing discomfort and harm to a section of the stakeholders. And well, it also creates and perpetuates an impression of the organization not being open to change (although in reality it may very well be open to it!). A learning organization would do well to constantly be on the lookout for ways to improve processes and evolve.
The observation of this chanting incident was not something that couldn’t be fixed. The teachers were proactive in enriching their own understanding of the philosophy and reached out to me to clarify how to answer this question.
So that took care of the first issue. The teachers now know the theory and philosophy (to some extent).
Still, this was just theory and only the beginning.
Addressing the situation at the studio needed a relatively different approach.
If indeed the practitioners were resistant to chanting Om because it clashed with their religious beliefs, then that needed to be addressed – and yes, there was a way to go about it.
Communicate & give options! And keep it inclusive!
A studio session isn’t exactly the place to lecture at length about the secularism of the mantra, but short proactive sentences to assure them with correct information was one way. If people were still uncomfortable, the best way would be to avoid chanting Om altogether! Better still, replace it with humming instead – the sound of bees! Still created a tranquilizing vibration and there was no religious connection with the humble bumble bee either!
Oh, and it still is a yoga practice!
Keeping yoga classes inclusive is an hot topic in the yoga industry recently. But it doesn’t have to be a drag trying to keep things inclusive. Inclusive and accessible don’t only refer to physical inclusion and accessibility towards people with disabilities (that is also very important and we’ll get it that, too, some other day)… In yoga spaces, Diversity, Inclusion Equity and Accessibility also are a huge component of what we say and do and how we say and do it. This also involves making the practice and wellness accessible to people of all body shapes, sizes, physical and cognitive limitations, race, gender, orientation, economic status, etc. Inclusion includes recognition of the trauma experienced by being Othered and not fitting in with the norm.
Inclusion requires empathy. It is not a check in the box. It is when we draw in our audience to be a part of what we offer – through words, deeds and mannerisms.
Inclusion is not just a business requisite.
It is a human requisite.
What do you think of this? Have you experienced something similar in a yoga studio / wellness center / gym or any other space? What other ideas would you offer that I haven’t mentioned here?
Stress is that one buzzword that simply keeps coming up in everyday life – at work, at home, at school, in traffic…. or even at birthday parties and gyms! Not all stress is bad news, some of it is good stress too – in fact, stress is a necessary part of life and all the decisions that we take to exist and thrive. However, in the most colloquial sense, stress is defined as the degree to which one feels overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of unmanageable pressures.
Although there are many ways in which stress can be managed, food and nutrition can play a very important role. Eating healthy and on time is a good start, but every now & then when those deadlines begin to loom and the pressure begins to mount, our food often takes a back seat. Fluctuating blood sugars affect our mood as well as our emotional response. This in turn, sadly, starts to cause strain in interpersonal relationships and energy drain.
Here are my top 7 stress buster foods that can help to manage just those down days and some ideas on how to incorporate them into your plan as well:
Oatmeal: Carbohydrates are not just an important source of energy, they also are a great source of serotonin, a neurotransmitter extremely important for regulating mood and feelings of happiness and wellness. Simple carbohydrates from sugary cereal bars and cookies can cause a unwanted spikes and drops in blood sugar. Instead, a complex carb like oatmeal is a good way to get the serotonin and at the same time go easy on the blood sugar.
Berries: These gorgeously colorful fruits are rich in antioxidants and flavonoids. While antioxidants help in fighting the stress effects of free radicals, flavonoids have been shown to improve cognitive function and reduce depressive tendencies and improve mood. Blueberries have been shown to increase natural killer cells that are vital in immunity and critical for stress defense. Raspberries, red currants, grapes, blackberries, strawberries (watch out of pesticide levels). The Indian seasonal berries are even better, jamuns(Indian blackberry), amla (Indian gooseberry), shahtoot (Indian mulberry) are a better option to keep your diet fresh and local (for my Indian audience).
Green leafy vegetables: Yes! You can’t get through many healthy lists without this group! In this list, it’s the folate, a water soluble B vitamin, that is required for healthy cell growth and metabolism and is necessary for the proper biosynthesis of dopamine and other neurotransmitters. Dopamine is a pleasure-inducing neurotransmitter and a mood regulator. If you want to keep your mood and stress levels in a good place, make sure you get your daily servings of green leafies. Throw in some baby spinach into a sandwich or salad and you’re done! No cooking even!
Nuts & Seeds: Power packed with nutrients, calories, good fats and stress-busting goodness. There are so many reasons to have these handy babies around – better still mix them together with some dried fruits for your own trail mix. Nuts like cashews are super rich in Zinc as well as Iron, Magnesium and Vitamin B6 and many other minerals that support the nervous system as well as influence mood. An interesting nut to add is the elegant pistachio. Research has shown that the snapping sound along with the repetitive action of working the pistachios has a calming effect on fraying nerves. They’re also rich in phytonutrients that support cardiovascular health. Seeds like flaxseed, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds are another good source of omega 3s, especially for vegetarians, and can help to alleviate depression, fatigue, irritability as well as symptoms of PMS.
Bananas: My mother will particularly be pleased with this entry, bananas being her favorite fruit. Maybe that’s why she’s one of the calmest people I know! 🙂 Bananas are not just rich in Potassium, they’re also a great source of Vitamin B6 which help in optimizing nervous function and decrease stress effects and fatigue. Better news still is that bananas are a good source of serotonin – that feel good & mood elevator.
Protein: Now I know this is a macronutrient and not necessarily a food, but proteins like poultry, fish, cheeses, tofu, lentils, beans and eggs all contain an essential amino acid, essential in the creation of serotonin in the body.
Chocolate: I had to save the best for the last! Eating 40 gm of dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa) has been shown to reduce stress by lowering cortisol and epinephrine levels – both notorious stress hormones. Antioxidants in the chocolate have been shown to relax the walls of blood vessels and lower blood pressure as well as improve circulation. Serotonin and other compounds in chocolate show an improvement in PMS symptoms. Lastly, the presence of anandamide (named after the Sanskrit term, ‘ananda‘ meaning ‘bliss’), a neurotransmitter that creates a sense of euphoria and bliss – similar to the feeling of being in love.
Gosh! Believe me when I say this: I am not following Jenni Rawlings or her blog. But, this link to her latest blog post 7 Prominent Yogis Weigh in on Yoga Injuries and What to Do About Them was shared on a group I am a part of with the comment that the member found it concerning that there were no POCs of prominence featured here. Anyway, someone tagged me – yes, me, the Indian teacher, not a prominent one – and clearly not white or white-passing, so not eligible to have anything constructive to add to this blog, I suppose.
Turns out, to a query on Instagram for this blog post about the lack of POCs or larger bodied teachers in this article, the author replied, “I wish there was more diversity among high-profile senior yoga teachers who actively train other teachers.“
So now, you clearly have me hooked because above and beyond the lack of sensitivity and the clear condescension that Jenni had demonstrated in her tone back in July, this post and comment more or less underscores her lack of desire to actually both consider POC (let alone mention them) and recognize or approach the diversity of practitioners and teachers in the community.
Questions that came up for me:
Does the author assume / believe that Indian / SA / POC asana teachers do not teach safe practice? Do we not consider injuries or know what to do about them? Do we not train other teachers actively? Is the Indian context of teaching safe asana different? Is it not relevant to the Western yoga context?
Do these 7 prominent white and white-passing able bodied yoga teachers know what it feels like to be a larger bodied yoga practitioner? Do they know by lived experience what injury in a big / fat / large body feels like and what to do about it?
What exactly makes a yoga teacher high profile? The number of Facebook / Instagram likes and followers? Don’t those numbers increase ideally when you are able bodied & white / white-passing anyway?
This blog disturbs me and I know I might do both Jenni & myself a world of good by just ignoring her posts. But I can’t do that today. Not just for this blog post but for any that continues to perpetuate the disparity and marginalization in the name of existing prominence. It would be so wrong on my part… on so many levels!
Firstly, I am familiar with just two of the teachers on the list – so the others I haven’t heard of. But then isn’t this the exact case for white supremacy and lack of diversity in ‘today’s yoga world‘? If yoga is continued to be represented by white & white passing teachers, and if no effort is made to even reach out & ask Indian/SA/POCs for their input, then needless to say, the playing field is skewed! And yes, so is prominence!
Secondly, the blog post on safety is also quite exclusive. It caters to the stereotyped able-bodied practitioner. In other words, the safety of bigger bodies doesn’t seemingly fall into the radar of the blog. I can understand that it is not the area of expertise of the author, but her insta comment indicates that she is aware of diversity that, in her opinion, is lacking prominence.
The author’s wish to see more of diversity in the ‘prominent’ list, those who are actively teaching safe asana is, well, quite fulfilled already if only she looked them up!
What is needed then? Because the problem is not this blog (although it is problematic as always), the problem is not one person’s obvious colored prejudice and the unadjusted bias against POCs or people of non-conforming / non-stereotyped bodies. It is simple.
It is about the lack of platforming. And it is about the privilege of supremacy that showcases, repeatedly and consistently white, able-bodied practitioners & teachers to supplement their benefits. In the process, the marginalized remain in the shadows, kept there with a pitiful ‘wish’ for more diversity because it is easier to say, “I don’t know they exist!” or “Do they even do this work to keep asana safe?”
And so, until then, we carry on with the pantomime by allowing the White Savior Complex to take us through asana and help keep it safe for us, even if they don’t really know how to.
Diet is the number one factor that impacts health status (Journal of the American Medical Association) & that healthier diets could save one in five lives every year! Even more than tobacco and high blood pressure. Workplace stress is an often cited cause for a lot of modern and urban lifestyle diseases and disorders. Poor diet and eating patterns are one of the largest contributors to increasing stress. Interestingly, while corporate wellbeing programs take into account employee physical and physiological health, nutrition and diet usually miss the spotlight. Beyond satisfying the taste buds food, nutrition plays an integral part not only in managing energy levels during working hours and ensuring optimized productivity but also towards general health markers overall.
Here are some tips to make eating well a part of your working experience:
Start with a good breakfast – Skipping breakfast or eating a sugary snack-bar on the run does very little to sustain energy levels during the day. A nutritious and balanced breakfast can go a long way to in managing them. Not all body constitution types would find it necessary to have a big breakfast. If you find yourself running low on fuel even before lunch hour strikes, then chances are a breakfast of slow-releasing energy would be a better option that a snack bar or sugary cereal that would create a sugar spike and crash.
Pack your own lunch – It’s a usual trend to and a very tempting one to just go out for lunch with your team mates or just order in something quick (and relatively unhealthy). Planning and packing in a quick lunch can be healthier where you can ensure that your daily requirements of carbs, protein, healthy fats and other nutrients are taken care of. There is also the opportunity to bond with team mates in the office itself! Which brings me to the next pointer…
Head to the office dining area! – Eating at your desk may be a tempting idea especially if you would be looking at multi-tasking. However, studies show that eating in a calm atmosphere is much better for the digestive process. Eating in the company of your colleagues (read pleasant company and ideally not discussing work!) adds to the experience of eating calmly and enjoying the mealtime. The break often does wonders when you get back to the task after the meal.
Focus on your food – Aim for at least one meal a week where you can eat in complete silence. Mindful eating can do wonders as a way of relaxation as well as a means to reduce the extra chatter from the mind. Of course, you can choose to dinnertime for this practice, but some time out from the work day is a great practice for concentrated mindfulness – paying attention to every bite, every morsel, the burst of flavors and textures, colors and aromas of spices or herbs. One step further would be attempting this with your eyes closed! I invite you to try it even if just for a moment! (and leave me a comment! 🙂 )
Snack smart – It is very tempting to reach out for the sinful, sugary (or salty) snacks when hit by a craving or sudden hunger pang. It helps to plan for these – let’s face it, we all have them, might as well plan for them. Keeping some small portions of fruit-nut mixes or trail mix in your drawer or packing some nuts, carrot / cucumber / celery sticks with a hummus dip along with your lunch is a good idea too!
Stay hydrated – Many of us seem to confuse the sensations of hunger with that of thirst – making us reach for a snack when we actually need water. Air conditioning also factors in with reduced urge to drink water and adds to dehydration. If you tend to forget, put in an hourly pop-up reminder on your calendar to ensure you have a glass of water.
Eat to De-stress – Make sure you include foods that can help to combat the effects of stress on the body. The Ayurvedic herb, ashwagandha (Indian ginseng) is a good supplement classified as an adaptogen to help the body manage stress. A variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables also add vitamins and minerals to the daily intake. Ensure omega 3s are a part of your diet as they can positively influence cardiovascular health as well as anxiety and depression.
Supplement when necessary – Stress has a way of depleting the vitamin reserves and/or the absorption of essential nutrients in the body. Vitamin C has been shown to deplete under stressful conditions. When excessive workplace stress may lead to insufficient nutrition from an average diet, it is worthwhile to supplement with high quality multivitamins, Omega 3s and essential nutrients – preferably organic. Read labels and research manufacturer guidelines taking care to watch out for heavy metals and fillers in the capsules.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but I’ve tried them and I know they help. Stress is one thing that we can all stand to benefit from managing, especially at the workplace. Start with choosing any one and gradually add some others to build towards your de-stressed working lifestyle.
And remember, if you do try the mindful eating tip one of these days or any of the other tips above, please leave a comment below to share your thoughts or experience!
So we have yet another post on social media that is ringing the bells – church bells this time! This post from Yoga Faith claiming that yogic practices & postures are from the Bible and they are out to reclaim them.
Ok.. so this is so not done. SO not done that it is hilariously ridiculous. And if it weren’t for the flu then I would have responded to this earlier – but then yesterday happened. The whole morning & much of the afternoon I sat with this ugly feeling in the pit of my stomach because the day opened me up to various facets of this conversation and the experience of hurt, harm & pain was direct.
I’ll be honest, I’m not usually this sensitive, so maybe it had something to do with the Autumn Equinox. Jokes apart, though, I was very disturbed over the many comments that this post generated to the point that I was eventually reduced to tears of hurt & pain. I recall telling myself that this was just another appropriation incident and that it was absurd for me to take it so personally. But I just could not bear it. Eventually, my 17-yr-old noticed my tears and realized that somewhere, somehow, something that wounded me quite deeply.
So as is my wont, I chose to share it here – because sometimes it is this raw pain when shared brings hope for change.
Firstly, about this whole Christian Yoga / Yoga Faith spiel – I think it is definitely a case of misunderstood scriptures by a group of (probably) well meaning folks who picked the wrong practice to appropriate. I think dragging in yoga was uncalled for. Yoga is a spiritual practice long established and existing way before the documented Vedic period in the Indo Gangetic plains. For Yoga Faith to claim, with much audacity, that the roots exist in the Bible because of the meditation & chanting practices mentioned there is preposterous. Blatant appropriation by a white Christian outfit needed calling out and I see that it did happen – a number of my friends and colleagues voiced their feelings ranging from outrage to hurt through various channels of social media.
I was nursing my children back to health after a nasty flu episode. I followed the comments occasionally, but I passed joining in.
But then a couple of very interesting dynamics started playing out. As the dust around the immediate post reaction settled and Yoga Faith issued their quasi apology (pfft! another #eyeroll accompanied by a #facepalm), pockets of conversations on my groups & social media all started with the post-incident chatter.
I woke up to a chat window full of enraged comments at the Yoga Faith apology note and later saw that same apology note torn apart in some other social media groups & threads as well. To some extent it was sensible critique, but soon enough the criticism moved away from specifics to include a generalized group of people – Christians. Mockery and wordplay around christian words and practices including a fair amount of blasphemy directed towards Jesus & other christian terms. I recall sharing outrage in the past over Hindu deities images on bathroom mats but was surprised at having these same people wilfully engaging in exact same volleys without a moment’s hesitation or… empathy… because it is a different religion now? An eye for an eye….
Here’s the punch line – I am Christian by birth. I may not be a 100% actively practicing Christian and may have a 99% leaning towards spiritual philosophy instead of organized religion, but, my faith and deeply personal contemplation does happen as a Christian. And to that effect, those conversations caused pain – and not just tiny wound flecks, but larger hurtful ones.
So, although I still believe that Yoga Faith messed up and hope that they offer a better response and apology eventually, I’ll share here again what I have always said – numerous times. Since my yoga journey, and having read the Bhagvad Gita, I have found immense understanding of my faith – not my religion, my faith. Maybe a part of it is Christian faith, and so be it, but it has not got anything to do with the rites & rituals of the church.
I came across Yoga Faith’s Facebook page and posts indicating yoga asanas captioned with Bible verses as if to equate one with the other. Now, while drawing a connection to yoga from personal experience is open to all, but claiming its heritage to a Biblical verse for ustrasana – no thank you. This is when I’d like to remind Yoga Faith that a great many churches have been spending many years vilifying yoga and yogic practices – so no, save the story… really.
Having said that, there is one part of Yoga Faith’s initial post that I understood – the part on meditation & chanting being in the Bible. And that is true… but that is also true of any other spiritual tradition and/or religion where communing with the Higher self, the Divine involves deep meditative and contemplative practices. Hymns are sung, prayers chanted, and repetitive prayers akin to mantras are chanted on a rosary or maala or tasbih or dhikr. This is true of Hindu, Christian, Muslim practices. I can’t speak for other religions as I do not know. They are not wrong to say that these practices were mentioned in the Bible – especially in the Old Testament – but again, they are silly to claim that the seated postures are described in any details in the the Bible. Sitting at the feet of a master, kneeling or standing do not in any way indicate that Biblical characters were practicing yoga asanas (please allow me another #eyeroll).
What needs to be also remembered is that Jesus was from the Middle East in Asia and I feel that there were many practices that Jesus performed that are rememble yoga. Yoga and yogic philosophy is a Vedic darshana. The arrival or origin of yogic or other practices to/in the Indo Gangetic plain or their spread from the Indo Gangetic plain spread it to other places is still unclear. But the commonality of the region makes is quite possible to have very similar postures of reverence and spiritual obeisance. But conjecture aside, yoga as we know it today, remains to be the practice that has been preserved and conveyed down lineages and traditions from India and Indian sources and as an Indian Yoga teacher (although Christian), I would ardently stand by that to refute Yoga Faith’s unbased claims.
Now, there is also my own personal reflection of how I was able to connect the esoteric and thought philosophies of the Gita and yoga to Christian philosophy – both being very different from Hindu or Christian or other religious rites & rituals. As a philosopher, there are numerous schools of thought, including teachings of Yogananda Paramahansa and other core Krishna schools, where Christ consciousness & Krishna consciousness are considered similar, if not the same – any differences being attributed to the culture of the geographies.
All of this is accepted history and ongoing debate & I get it. Yet, what hurt me was the intensity and harmful statements that were made. The ones that were made without knowing my background allowed me to see the anger, some of it without having full facts and yet allowing me space to share and speak. Those didn’t cause me as much pain. Yet two specific experiences did, and both included me voicing out the harm I was experiencing at the choice of words and sentiments from the majority in the conversations – Hindus (some yogis others not).
It is important to this blog post to specify that the narrative took a Hindu rhetoric instead of a yogic or an Indian one – because the argument cannot stand as Indian v/s Christian (national v/s religious) – to be on par, it had to get to the the Hindu v/s Christian narrative of this entire yoga story.
I could handle that part too.
Until things got ugly. Because it really didn’t take long for the usual suspects of mockery, name-calling and bigotry to start its play. I have seen enough of this sectarian instigation over the course of Indian politics earlier this year and seen many social media trolls hijack innocent posts and engage in bullying and groupism – all in the name of saving ‘yoga’ or ‘Indian culture’ as if to say that if you weren’t a Hindu you were ‘lesser than’ or that you were in a way ‘less Indian’ or ‘less patriotic’ or whatever. The assumption that by way of being born a Christian, I was being supportive of Yoga Faith was just the start of it. My yogic perspective and/or my other points of intersection was cast aside – especially as they were potentially going to defuse the anger that they wanted to continue stoking.
And then came the gas-lighting. Mind you – no apology was ever offered for the harm that I just voiced having experience – not even a half-assed one. Instead there was something on the lines of, “How dare you point a finger at my friends who were mocking you? They are free to voice their opinion on my page since I may agree to some parts of it.” What was left unsaid is that, ‘Since my friends’ bigoted views match mine and we can laugh about it, they are free to opine, but your opinions are not welcome here and you are not supposed to take offense, even though you are also supposed to be my friend.’ Other comments were on the lines of, ‘I’m a Christian and I didn’t feel offended by these jokes so why should you? My faith is stronger & can withstand such mockery….’ And the priceless one, ‘I thought you are a mature and light hearted soul….but….‘
Then there was a last attempt at drawing sarcastic, dark humor at my ancestry and ethnicity – another very common engagement, if not in public forums, then most definitely in private groups and chambers. Anyway, that stung. And my ‘friend’ found nothing wrong in any of it – except for a last comment asking that since she didn’t mean disrespect to anyone and least of all to me, for being her teacher. I think that is what dug the nail right in. The sentimentality of it all – the last straw. I broke.
The conversation went on to democracy and their individual’s right to mock others if they felt like it. This is where it started really making me physically sick. This group of people felt it was their constitutional right to freedom to mock others.
Now here’s where the political needle spins. This conversation is happening in India. And these are Hindus – the ethnopolitical group in power, the majority. And on the other side two of us on the receiving end of this mockery – the minority. It was this dynamics that was in play – whether they knew it or not, it was… because everything that happened on that thread is what everyone in the west calls a supremacist attitude of oppression due to the power of privilege– make that unchecked privilege.
As an audience it is important for us to work against supremacy and unchecked privilege. Please bear in mind that I always speak for yoga, but in this skewed yoga industry where everything in the WEST seems to be of relevance, the Indian narrative is often forgotten. The Hindu narrative of yoga in the West where Indians & South Asians are considered the marginalised minority, in India they are not – they are the majority and engage in as much of a supremacist attitude just like the larger white population in the western world do. It is this unchecked privilege that is used every.single.time. and they can get away with it – and in the western context, the marginalized are being given a platform to speak.
I have tried on various forums to indicate how many NRIs (Non Resident Indians) engage in this political instigation by gathering white allies who have let go of their Christian identity by their own choice (good for them!), who have found renewed faith in Hindu philosophy (again, great going if they’re happy, go for it!) but who then go on to blindly follow these individuals with skewed supremacist views without knowing the cultural politics that occur on ground in India – they’re just removing white supremacy and replanting it with their allyship in India. I once mildly suggested that people watch out of the ‘brainwashing’ to which I was patronizingly replied, ‘Don’t worry, Luvena, I can’t get brainwashed that easily!‘
Gosh! Did I just vent? I guess I did… it was just too much… too much for me to handle yesterday. I cried from the hurt of being shamed and for the refusal of a ‘yogi‘ to see the harm that was being perpetuated. I was hurt by a student who pulled the rug from under my feet. I don’t know which one was worse – was it the mockery, the humiliation or the open agreement by liking the mocking posts and at the same time continuing to victim shame. Maybe the romantic in me felt humiliated by a student, who was also a friend. Regardless, I took it personally. I was offended. I was hurt.
This is ugly – this happens.
So, to the white people reading my blog post – here’s an invitation. The next time an Indian/SA yoga teacher speaks, please use your discernment. We all have diverse views, ideologies and sentiments. Some of us are far right-wing fundamentalists, others are far left leaning, yet others are neutral and many others just don’t care. Not all of us are Hindus – we have Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, atheists, etc too and some of us are yogis others are not. There are a group of severely marginalized communities in India who are not even considered in organized religions – the dalits, the bahujans and the adivasis – who are not included in these conversations of social order and hierachy. (I am aware that many DBA speak for themselves and I have better privilege in comparison and I do not wish to bring their story in to gain any advantage at their expense. But do learn about them.) It is beyond Hinduism but it is contemporary Indian.
Make an educated and informed call about how you would engage with us – what about us speaks to you? Is it our authenticity or is it our vulnerability in situations? It is OK if it is the lack of either too 🙂 Recognize that the ones considered a minority in the U.S. / UK / developed Western countries are largely the very affluent and privileged majority here in India and compared to the local residents and are not necessarily engaging in equitable practice always. Many of them live well cushioned lives in the west and assume a place of authority to speak on behalf of all Indians – especially the ones living in India! The do not! They also don’t necessarilygive back to their country as you would think they do but then they are often not expected to either. Do your homework. Ask questions. Be wary of the ones who gang up and bully others who do not agree with their POV or those who label any one with an alternate opinion as antinational or Hinduphobic. That is again not true, yet it is a commonplace argument. The moment you say anything that could pose as an alternative perspective it is labelled as Hinduphobic to shut down the conversation and effectively get the individual to second guess themselves and stimulate sympathy in the western audience. This, even if the person in question is Indian.
And to all of us, it would never hurt to be kind. Making a point, even a strong one doesn’t have to make anyone stoop so low that below the belt slurs and pejoratives are the only means with which you can operate. Slander and libel are not the way to create any kind of positive change – or is it that positive change is something that is not the goal?
India is diverse and the narrative is as diverse as her people. If you’re standing in solidarity with us, then please do add this to your list of work in this space. Until then, yes, Yoga Faith needs to do better.
This morning, I came across a Facebook post from my friend, Kaya Mindlin. She was sharing her thoughts on how some spiritual teachers would suggest that “for the sake of spirituality, you must put your logical mind to rest” and in the process set the stage for bypassing and even inviting guilt for using logic and reasoning in an instance.
This was an intellectual thread and it was quite interesting to note that it was common for many yoga teachers to ask this of their students.
What I’ve observed is that many, if not most, yoga teachers today knowingly or unwittingly assume a place of spiritual high-ground. There is an assumption that if one is a ‘yoga’ teacher, then they have immediately received some spiritual secrets of life that are universal truths (along with their YTT200 certificate maybe). An assumption like that often, in my very humble (yet blunt) opinion, brinks either on stupidity or more seriously, on a lot of potential harm and danger.
This was my comment on Kaya’s thread:
Humans are gifted in that that have a mind that thinks like animals and also possesses the ability to discern with multiple facets – logically, intuitively (although this isn’t necessarily logical) and by taking into account sensations, feelings and emotions. All this is logic- and body/ personality-based judgment and subjective. The objective way is to go beyond these ‘personal’ and objectively look at it as the bigger picture – that takes the discernment to a Manasic level(higher order thinking) & tapping into inherent wisdom. Teachers who use spiritual cliches are usually unprepared to answer their students questions and end up making such statements as a way to shut them down using scriptural verses/ thought as a crutch. Viveka, vichara and dharma are all a part of human endeavor.
Our strength as human beings is our ability to sense, feel and emote and to make enough sense of it to express. However, our sensations, feelings & emotions are all subjective to our own experiences. In other words, they are purely based on the individual perceptions of our personality… and our ego. Ego here, referring to our individual self and not the attitude thereof. The experience is largely ‘I ‘based because it happened to ‘me‘. This experience also doesn’t hold true for everyone else and hence remains to be a subjective one and arising largely from the physiological & psychosomatic response to situations.
These responses and experiences are body-based and allow us to choose based on what our physical body, and our mind, wants, likes and desires because it feels good and nourishing. This is important. This is also discernment at a basic, personal level. This is where we use our ability to think and assess what is beneficial and what isn’t as it applies to us / our individual self and to some extent taps into our next level consciousness to include our immediate close ones (family & maybe very close friends). Everything is subjective. It is in this state when one doesn’t overly bother about the community or state or country because they align themselves with choices, policies, actions, etc that are beneficial to them and them alone.
Very subjective and rooted in the ‘Me, Myself & I‘
However, humans are higher order thinking beings – gifted not just with an intellect, but also with a higher sense of spiritual understanding and evolving wisdom. We have the ability to not just be stuck in the ‘me, myself & I‘ but also to move to a consciousness rooted in the ‘We, Ourselves & Us‘. It is, essentially, the philosophical path of righteous action – dharma – based on our elevated consciousness. It is an action based on an elevated level of consciousness when we can see the bigger picture of the series of incidents and situations and understand the larger perspective – the manasic perspective.
It is stepping out of the well and understanding that there is a whole world beyond it! It is important, though, to recognize that the process does not mean discounting or dismissing the subjective sensations, feelings and emotions, but acknowledging them as a part of the personality. Allowing ourselves to acknowledge the physical experience and emotional washing over and still be able to hold ourselves accountable to look beyond that subjective experience.
This is easier said that done.
But there in lies the work of the disciple, philosopher, aspirant and yogi. That is the austere work of our path to freedom and yoga – our tapas.
Many spiritual ‘teachers‘ – the ones who may have gathered various concepts from diverse self-help or healing modalities and traditions but lack a solid grounding on the existential philosophy and deeper meaning and wisdom of scriptures or even philosophy, often have a collection of quotes & cliches to offer their followers & students. The harm here is that the confusion the students may feel would be met by the poorly prepared teacher who offers a cliched statement as a bandaid instead…. only to either invalidate the student’s experience and natural questioning or dismiss it has being judgmental of yoga and yogic practices.
The risk is in assuming that everything about yoga, philosophy and the scriptures in abstract. To some extent it is – for that matter even science, to some extent begins with abstract assumptions and hypotheses (until proven). But using a partially understood abstract to shut away questions that students may have and by asking them to pause their thinking mind or be less judgmental and ‘go beyond‘ it is a ripe setting for physical, physiological, emotional, spiritual, mental and psychological trauma and harm. Not to forget, making a case for guilt.
At the end of it all, if the teacher is unable to connect the principle of ‘going beyond’ judgment to explain where exactly he/she is asking you to go to, it is just plain old spiritual bypassing. It is worth remembering that this ‘going beyond‘ will involve work, determination, commitment and a bit of sacrifice as it would mean letting go of the stronghold many of us have with our subjective feelings, emotions & sensations.
Yesterday, after my YTT lecture on the Nervous System, I delivered an impromptu message to my students on the significance of today. As a lead teacher of YTT, it becomes important to weave the sentiment of yoga, philosophy and values of the practice throughout the individual units and modules of the curriculum…. especially when it comes to anatomy (which runs the risk of being the very sthula & matter-based externalized aspect with the tendency to grasp the logical mind… and keep it there.)
So, at the end of the class, since today was going to be a day off, it just felt natural to gently draw the attention back to yoga and tie it with the holiday that the entire nation and its people would be celebrating – our Independence.
When I was about 4 or 5, I remember my father taking me along for the flag hoisting at the Indian Embassy in Kuwait. I remember standing alongside him in a sea of fellow citizens of all economic background, united with this feeling of patriotic unity. I also remember the endless platters of samosas, laddoos and other Indian delicacies for the citizens to feast on. We were celebrating together. In the years to come, my siblings and I were often a part of these celebrations at the Embassy. Those memories form the backdrop of my Indianness – my connection to the larger whole – my fragmented sense of identity as an NRI in this larger united fold of India.
It was this sense of union – yoga.
It pays to revisit our history – what it means to be able, free and have the privilege to do as we choose. As yoga teachers that cuts a little deeper and definitely goes way beyond asana. There are so many ways we can relate to contemporary practice today, but the fact remains that we practice freely on the backs of the many who sacrificed their lives, their pride and who endured the indignity of oppression for many, many years.
While we work on healing the wounds of the past, may we not forget or give in to the ignorance of letting go of these memories so easily. It is not just another holiday, it is a reminder to uphold and value what we have had to fight for.
Yoga is our inheritance, it is our legacy…. what remains from it, what was painstakingly and with great risk to life, preserved. With the many arguments that post colonial yoga teachers ‘sold’ yoga to the West – there are many of us who quietly smile at the knowing of what a man made to bow down to colonial pressure might have chosen then to offer to the West. It wasn’t selling, it was a choice – on what to offer and what to keep in house. There might have been great insight in how the choice to deliver asana was carefully delivered.
Look how even that offering has been ‘innovated’ in the West (others very kindly use the term ‘bastardized’). I smile.
It was never about asana – it was always about freedom – and I feel it was quite relevantly political this spread of yoga and yogic thought.
So why do I think of this today?
I think of it today as we still struggle with the demons left behind for us to work through – the demons of the residual post-colonial trauma and grief. I feel the pain as I observe the fact that so many Indians today are looking at the asana oriented yoga of the West as the blueprint to follow. I am not blind to the various YTTs that exist with a focus on asana and a gradual distancing from the essential values that the practice and culture of yoga have to offer – it, most proudly being ours for the taking freely – a legacy to wear and live with humble pride.
I wish you could sense the emotion – the lump in my throat as I type this. Freedom is not just of the body, it is of the mind. That is the liberation we all seek. We celebrate our Independence today, but are we really free of the cage? Are the colonizers freed from their mentality, especially if it is an attitude that is deeply imprinted in their minds? The journey to freedom is still on for all of us.
The journey is not with aggression though. The journey is with love and compassion – and this is the bloody hard part… to work through the resistance with love and compassion – every single time. Yoga is not just mine, it is for humanity. My evolution to freedom may seem like my own selfish goal, but evolution is pointless if humanity is not taken along.
The challenges we face ahead are real – resistance and pressure to clip our wings come in all shapes and from all quarters – in-house and from without. The political pressure still exists for many. So yes, this journey to freedom is still on – and we all move together…
Until then, I wear my freedom on my sleeve, with gratitude to our ancestors and the many lives that were lost to give me this freedom, this entitlement to call myself an Indian and to call myself a yogi and to be able to teach it with depth, emotion, sentiment and gratitude. It comes from knowing that I was entrusted to hold something far too valuable that one can humanly comprehend…. and to be able to convey it in just as much feeling and fervor as it was taught to me.