Freedom … to Yoga

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Album from 2016 [Picture Credit: Lionel Rangel)

It is India’s 73rd Independence today.

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.

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Why I Said What I Said

After my blog post last week, I was overwhelmed by the supportive comments. It was a whirlwind of activity – and many shared the blog – possibly because the post contained raw emotion and anger. I couldn’t really explain all of it, but the parts that I could I did. While some of my other desi friends and I sat with these shared thoughts, we were all in agreement over the hurt and anger we felt. We were also deeply aware that the pain and rage – sacred rage – was towards a deeper, more historical and inherited past. It was the pain of our ancestors – one that has not necessarily healed with time.

As a people, we come from a region that is rich in spiritual nuance and tradition. It has also been a place of deep esoteric richness along with indigenous wisdom and knowledge that is beyond a place of logical cognition. Our land has been geo-politically transacted with over the centuries and by way of being ‘open‘ to external influences perhaps left the door open for too long with the idea of atithi devo bhava – अतिथिदेवो भव: – ‘The guest is God’.

Nevertheless, the colonial history of India is one that defines a lot of present day Indianness – the way we are presented to the world and also largely how we are ourselves. And we are not just what you see us to be. We are complex and diverse in what makes us the way we are. By and large, despite and in spite of all the domestic challenges in our country of origin, our inheritance is a deep imprint of that colonial past. Sadly, the generations immediately post colonization were left to barely pick up the pieces as the next few generations slowly tried to make sense of things . Not many of us recognize that our inherited trauma is slowly showing up today – some of us are unable to deal with the microaggressions that trigger this unindentifiable sense of violation, others see it but are not equipped with the tools to deal with it or challenge it… and then there are those, that slowly but strongly recognize the violation and voice out the inherited pain that is born of our history but presented in our today.

That is why we speak out. That is why I spoke out and said what I said.

And I am not done speaking just as yet.

We are defined by our history. We are sentimental about it too.

Colonization was not a joke – not even a dirty one dripping in dark humor. It was a period of demeaning humiliation, thievery, dominance, supremacy and an ongoing, deeply painful process of breaking down our confidence and making us strangers in our own land, deeming us undeserving of the right to our own property and constantly being at the mercy of the white saheb. The guest we welcomed into our homes had turned into a lord who systematically tore away at our sense of individuality, culture, belief and identity. Our ancestors lived this reality and never really had an opportunity to claim the reparation for those crimes.

They just moved on, but the imprint of those aggressions have been conveyed down the generations initially by way of grudging ambivalence and the obvious social, psychological and cultural sense of inferiority. However, one lasting impact of colonization and the post-colonial experience is that while the colonized people are still reeling with their inherited postcolonial trauma and learning how to deal with it in the current generation, the attitude of supremacy amongst those who were conditioned to benefit from it has not been dismantled. The bias, micro and macroaggressions continue to happen, unconsciously as well as intentionally – often coming from a place of strong denial and resistance / reluctance to see the harm that one has caused. Many of us are all too familiar with present day descendants of the colonized who have an attitude of inferiority around white people. I have seen it often in many of my parents’ generation. I think I may have observed it in some instances with my parents too. But, it happens. All.the.time.

That condescension well smothered in the wrapping of logic and movement science is exactly where that blog post went last week and had gripped us right where it hurts the most. The frustrating part is that the OP as well as her supporters are all seemingly logical academics who choose to defend the original article. They are also very likely the ones who choose to continue this humiliation and continue to sell their brand and benefit from yoga – the term as well as the bastardized practice that is left in their possession. Their tendency seems to exclude from the practice any and all spiritual context, nuance or sentiment and a refusal to see that the yogic culture is based on just that.

Yoga cannot be explained through a logical movement science process. Asanas may be approached by body movement science principles, but body movement can not and will not be yoga. Especially not the modern innovated practices. The reason is that yoga is not just the asana version of postural practice that the left-brained western world wants it to be – so that it can make sense to them. So, most of the western teachers who are looking at yoga are looking at it solely as a physical practice to understand the accessibility of asana and it stops them right there. They are stopped at the rupa of the practice where the whole purpose of yoga, and even asana for that matter, is to get in touch with the arupa and no amount of movement science and anatomy can help us figure that out. Building a yoga anatomy concept of breaking down asana into a logical buddhi based approach is only satisfying the kama manas and intelligence. Staying put there will keep the practitioner in a fragmented state of understanding the individual pieces of the jigsaw and not allow you to evolve into a meta Manas view. Yoga takes evolution away from the logic based fragmented ‘physical’ to the united, whole view of the non-local, non-logical.

So, while creating a brand new, innovative movement practice is seemingly available to all, please refrain from calling it yoga…. which has a systematic path in various lineages and traditions spread all over India. Some of these traditions are well known and others remain sacredly guarded wisdom. So, as far as Krishnamacharya’s influence goes, there is much that he knew and experienced as an Indian under colonial rule to know what he was doing when he gave yoga to the western world. A part of the world that was only interested in taking what was not theirs to take, to fragment it even further and still call it yoga. All in the name of logic.

I can feel my frustration here enough to say that if one wants logic, go pick on ballet and gymnastics – there should be sufficient practices from the Eurocentric white world that will benefit from this approach. Why not leave yoga to the illogical, emotionally charged desis who are the inheritors of the practice after all? Why go into our homes and say our interior decor is all wrong? And then go on to humiliate us after allowing you to come in and pilfer?

Not all critique needs to be logical. Nuance and sentiment plays a big role. And again, if one does not appreciate the energetics and emotions behind yoga, the practice, the culture and the history behind it all (yes, they all have to be considered in the same breath)…. well, why not just leave it and go do something else! Or.. just don’t call it yoga so you can sell an exotic practice steeped in Orientalism. Why is that so hard to get? Why do we have to keep hearing arguments on why it is OK for people to steal?

Phew! deep breath, Luvena…

Next, I spoke about the harm and hurt. Harm and hurt are not just physical. We all know that. Now, bring into the fold someone who finally, after generations of internalized pain and oppression, is strong enough to voice and shine light on hurt and harm caused by a white person.

Boom! What just happened?!

You see, this voice has been suppressed through oppressive behaviours for generations and eventually, someone would have to say, ‘Ouch! That hurts!‘ Right? Wrong!

When this voice is met with denial, resistance and a defensive explanation for why this hurt is misplaced, then the privilege is left unchecked and the individual has now, demonstrated to the voice that they are right in their actions, no apology offered, take a hike! The OP’s choice & style of response is open for everyone to see. It is not secret – the blog and other social media posts are all under public settings. This attitude of ignoring the voices of concern from the people who are voicing their hurt is problematic. I don’t need to explain the logic behind it now, do I?

It is disrespectful, condescending and outright haughty. The OP’s ready engagement with all the supportive comments from other white people who found nothing wrong along with the ready tip to ‘please ignore these voices that speak up‘ was … *lost for words here* – maybe my logic driven academic friends would help me find a word here for this feeling?

So yes, we are voicing hurt feelings and in the face of those who say, ‘Don’t just say you’re hurt, prove it with facts and figures and rational observations’. I wish I had words to express the deep shame and lack we feel when we are trying to say that there is no quantitative figure to the experience of what we are being made to endure.

A lot of yoga, yogic thought, our culture and practices are steeped in bhava – bhava that cannot be accounted for. We are finally voicing the hurt that our ancestors experienced and are looking to heal from it. It is our inheritance, this pain. And many of us, today, are looking to heal this wound for ourselves, our children and for our ancestors. It is how we are wired. It is what we do – as a people.

We do not expect you to fully understand it. It isn’t exactly logical to understand, but we do appeal to you to at least step out of your inherited sense of superiority and privilege and realize that we come from a place of non-logical sanskaras and for that, we ask that you respect our pain. Yes, you do need to sit with this discomfort but ignoring us and our concerns is not going to shun or shoo us away like a pest (yes, you made us feel that way – I’m speaking to you, Jenni Rawlings. You may have made a seemingly logical but ill-researched, self-serving post, but you made us experience deep hurt by picking on an old wound only to make it bleed afresh.)

And so, we speak up – our voices are getting stronger and one will not be able to ignore us completely for much longer. We exist. We ARE. And we are because we carry that legacy of doing right the way we see it… the way we feel it. Because we are called to. If you don’t agree, please step aside and make way. The victimization ends here. This is our journey to walk and complete and if you won’t help, then please don’t add to the obstacles.

On Ancestry

Credit to Jyoti Solanki (IG @jyotigini ) for helping me find the right image.

Edited by Jyoti Solanki

“Too Much” Ado Around Isms, Or Is It?

Yesterday, I sat for a very long time trying to understand what Jenni Rawlings’ blog, “What Makes Yoga Yoga? A Response to Social Media Critics” was bringing up for me. I was, all at once, feeling anger, shame, humiliation, belittling, fury and also experiencing a physical turmoil that I wasn’t able to settle. I was visibly upset – physically, mentally and emotionally. This was a pushback from a white teacher with so much condescension in her words simply because ‘self-appointed gatekeepers’ were calling out practices on Social Media that were clearly not yoga.

My upset was not one of intellectual debate and wordy back-and-forth, it was deeper than words – it was deeply personal and rooted in a sense of who I am and where I come from. It wasn’t for a sense of national pride as much as it was for a sense of resilience and fight for freedom and survival that my ancestors went through. It was an upset over the blatant disregard of the socio-politics at play hundreds of years ago and the residual supremacy and dominant culture syndrome. The stronger kick in the gut was the showcasing of relief by many at the assumed permission to continue the oppressive behaviour – relief at having been absolved of the discomfort of having to hear voices of the Desi / SA/ BIPOC community that have been silent for so many years. The permission was clear – practical tools were offered on how to shrug off these voices of concern when they were raised. People who wanted to appropriate and perpetuate harm could continue doing so – the people who are hurt by these actions can safely be ignored.

Yup! That was the slap on our faces… resounding slap…

So I messaged her on her blog and then when I couldn’t take it any more, sent her this email – all of 3 pages long. At the time of publishing this blog, I have received no acknowledgement for it and no response either. My letter was kindly edited by Sashah

Dear Jenni,

I am writing with deep concern about your recent blog post on “What Makes Yoga Yoga? A Response to Social Media Critics”

My name is Luvena Rangel, and I’m a yoga anatomy, physiology and philosophy teacher located  in Bangalore, India. My work involves teaching the above mentioned core subjects in YTTs as well as ongoing philosophy, teaching methodology, cultural norms and a deep study and practical research into Cultural Appropriation, Indian history, thought and socio-cultural bias – including racism, casteism and supremacist & systematic oppression especially in yoga. And I am an Indian woman.

I was hoping that your article, coming from a teacher who many of my friends & acquaintances from the “greater yoga community” look up to, would have presented an innovative, respectful, though-provoking  perspective. Unfortunately, I am deeply saddened that despite the efforts of so many Desis and BIPOC who tirelessly put in their emotional labour to have their voices heard (in your comments and otherwise)- it is evident that instead of doing the work of understanding internalized racism you have chosen to give a free pass to bigotry and prejudice by way of this dangerous piece of writing.

To begin, you have stated that the purpose of your post is to be highlighting the concern around social media users shaming yogis because of how an asana looks. However, your references are largely less to do with how an asana is demonstrated by people of different body types and abilities and seems to be more of a defense toward who is presenting them and how. 

Sexually explicit, intricate postures (not all yoga postures), demonstrated by white, able bodied people can and will be called out because the tradition of yoga is one of cultural respect – a bhava contained in a maryada – both concepts of deep significance to  Indian people and culture. This is not to say that there aren’t sexual connotations and traditions of nudity however,  the current western Instagram models touting body & sexual reclamation are activists of their own cause and rite of passage. It is not yoga.

And calling it out is not just possible, it is required. Bhava and maryada are both  concepts and values of Indic thought and upholding them is a part of the culture where yoga comes from and it is important that if we wish to be in the yoga world, that we respect and honour the roots of yoga. If the western ‘greater yoga world’ doesn’t want to accept these ideas of respect and sensitivity, then my opinion is that no matter how long they teach yoga, they are not entitled to it. Saying that  It is our ‘shared tradition’ totally erases the roots, culture and people from whom it came. 

That being said, I agree that there are a few self-appointed ‘gatekeepers’ to yoga,  but what you fail to acknowledge in your article is that the entire practice of yoga comes from a country and a culture that deserves to be acknowledged. This culture values something beyond authenticity & pronounced titles to safeguard a culture. It is called swadharma. It is a concept that every Indian regardless of religious and/or direct/ indirect yogic influence is seasoned in. Unfortunately, that understanding of swadharma is something your piece is absolutely devoid of. 

I want to be clear that  your assumption of a “shared tradition” simply by way of practicing asana is harmful, hurtful & culturally appropriative. We do not ‘proclaim’ our connection to authenticity. We do not need to. Our bloodline, heritage & culture is sufficient to entrust us to that connection. When my 16-yr-old son (who does not practice yoga asana)read your article today, he shared with me that he felt anger and hurt. When I asked him why, he said, “Why? Because I’m Indian and this makes me angry.”This hurt & anger we felt is felt by many other Desi yoga teachers who read your blog & responded to it, and I would name this as Sacred Rage.

This is because your article consistently humiliates the tradition of yoga by questioning its purity. Your statement of the three Krishnamacharya students who have gone on to teach “their own branch of modern yoga” is indicative of a failure to truly understand the nuance of Indian culture, wisdom tradition, education and yogic thought- despite having possibly taught  (yoga?) for as long as you have. Please do the research – deeply and not superficially – on the parampara of a guru shishya tradition.

Ashtanga yoga is NOT a fast-paced practice just because WP who wanted a love & light equivalent to calisthenics / high intensity aerobics. The obviousness of various poorly understood  ‘facts’ & ‘claims’ are terribly harmful and show a deep gap between your knowledge of the roots of yoga. This gap that is likely inadvertently causing you to harm others by totally erasing aspects of yoga and the culture from which it derives.

To be clear- Krishnamacharya did NOT invent any yoga. For someone who makes a living off teaching yoga, your statement that Krishnamacharya would have been inspired by modern movement based practices is based totally in your own assumption and privilege. Krishnamacharya’s choice to teach anyone was his alone and it is painfully evident that Indian men and women had to sacrifice considerably to be able to teach and preserve a  knowledge that today, many white people want to have a piece of simply because it has been available.

When you say that  “It is therefore literally impossible for someone to look at a person doing a movement on social media and declare whether what they are doing is yoga or not.” – I absolutely do not agree. While we may not be able to understand the thoughts behind the photographed model and if they are in ‘yoga’ or not, a sexually explicit, narcissistic proclamation of flexible ligaments in contorted body shapes is not yoga…. And it not necessarily asana either. And yes, we CAN tell if it is a yoga asana or not. Dismissing the perspective, knowledge and connection of those of us who have cultural knowledge you may not possess is grossly disrespectful and assumes that if you are not the authority- no one is. 

To address your points about medical advances & knowledge of the human body compared to what existed in “early 20th century India, this shows another gap in knowledge.  If WP needed a study in Anatomy for yoga, there has been a deep study of the human anatomy & physiology AS WELL AS the emotions & spiritual consciousness involved for health & wellness developed in India AGES before modern medicine and the concept of modern movement science. I would say the depth of science was well developed in India way before white man came to  “save us” from our indigenous wisdom by burning our books and destroying the connection to scripture (colonization). Only to replace it with a dependency on modern science and a reliance on buddhi based science ,severing the ties to the deeper aspect of yogic practices. 

We have had Ayurveda for a long time and Eastern Anatomy is a discipline modern anatomy would just not be able to comprehend. I speak from a place of professional bias here. I teach Anatomy myself and come with a background in both Eastern & Western anatomy as well as Ayurveda.

Using Anatomy as a benchmark, your article is leaning on an anti-Indian prejudice and the language and emphasis in your post all indicate an effort to justify appropriation,  disrespect and an allowance or free pass for white people to continue harming the culture and people who maintain the integrity of lineage, culture and tradition day in & day out. 

I highlight white people because on your Instagram and blog comments almost all the supportive comments are from white people. These readers now have your piece to refer to when they are questioned about their participation in  prejudice and harm to South Asians and BIPOC. 

You have much to gain from this article, but this has hurt and caused immense pain & grief to the origin culture and peoples. Your article is consistently taking the points of those who are working to keep the tradition pure and then knocking them down by saying they are insufficient to make these claims. Why? I do not see you acknowledging any of the pressing comments that indicate concern but only find you engaging pleasantly with those who agree, with relief perhaps, with your POV. There is tremendous privilege at play here, and your ignorance of the concerned comments adds to your erasure of South Asian voices and Indian culture. 

Finally I want to address your statement “The boundary around what makes yoga yoga is something that is continually being negotiated and will always be open to influence from new ideas. Experimenting with different approaches, unique props, or innovative sequencing in yoga classes is not somehow a threat to the institution of yoga as we know it.”

You have concluded your article with one of the most demeaning words in your entire article – one that gives yourself and the many other people who benefit from  white supremacy and dominant attitude of colonization – this self-appointed right to appropriate, steal and take from colonized cultures with the shameless excuse that yoga will always be open to influence from new ideas.

In conclusion, I invite you to reconsider this article and deeply reflect on the harm you have caused and will cause. My hope is that you will take this feedback and begin to examine the privilege and internalized white supremacy at play in this piece.

 

Luvena Rangel

 

 

Saved By The White Yogi

How many desi / brown yogis do you know?

Ok, so this question is not for the yoga teachers & practitioners in India.. lol…  So the context is more western… but do read on, either way, because it impacts all of us…

I recently spoke with a yogi of color who was associated, work-wise, with the pretty problematic lululemon & Yoga Journal. To the suggestion of divesting these whitewashed businesses of the opportunity to tokenise & monetize off desis & POC (and of course culturally appropriate), she asked me 2 very pertinent questions.

First, if there was a BIPOC brand with an equal global reach (comparable to lululemon and/or Yoga Journal)? And secondly, who would we have as role models to look up to if famous people of color like Naomi Campbell or Oprah had not connected to the labels and networks and brands that they did. She didn’t think she’d be where she is had she not seen brown faces on the cover of Yoga Journal.

Funnily enough, Yoga Journal is always in hot water with the desi / BIPOCs simply because of their tone deafness & refusal to actively create change and showcase Desi & POC faces. lululemon similar stories. I have had peers, friends who have been working with these organizations for years to help their management from the inside out to help effect sensitized change – but…. yeah… but!

But today my thoughts are really drawn to the second comment this teacher made. Where would we be if we didn’t see brown faces on the cover of Yoga Journal?

This is what I heard instead:

“Where would we be without Yoga Journal?”

“Would we be successful enough?”

“How would we have shot up to fame and fortune?”

Of course she didn’t say any of these words, but there is this undeniable sense of being saved by these white businesses because, hey! Are there any BIPOC businesses with that kind of reach?

Straight cut answer? No there aren’t!! But any guesses why??? Because the white washed YJs & lululemons have denied us that space – rightful space, if I may! The crumbs they offer by means of split cover images and the occasional brown face they sprinkle like seasoning being the few role models the community is expected to lap up in the name of diversity, inclusion and representation.

Her words bothered me – I felt the cut deep within.

So I’m going to say it out loud & louder one more time.

I’m a Desi yoga teacher. My voice is clear and needs to be heard. I am taking up my rightful space to speak up on behalf of myself and my community. This is a face & voice you need to hear in the conversation of yoga, culture & representation.

Why?

Because we desis exist! Because our contribution needs to be acknowledged and we aren’t just talking about asana here – we’re talking about a practice and a lifestyle.

We’re talking about us.

We don’t need the likes of Yoga Journal & lululemon to save us – but they do need to clean up their act. Don’t capitalize off us – UPLIFT us & offer a platform! Don’t tokenize by picking on one model who checks your box of corporate diversity, open your eyes & look at the wider array of people – real authentic people!!

But what am I getting at again? Is is a plea to white businesses to again take the cues and use it to strengthen their position without making the change? Maybe that is what would happen in some cases.. So what is the alternative?

Perhaps collectively supporting desi & BIPOC businesses and doing so consistently. We have all sorts of businesses – teachers, mental health providers, LGBTQIA+ activists, speakers, product craftspeople, educators, musicians….. so many of us doing such diverse things – inside & out of yoga. Support them… uplift them… engage with them…. with US!

I do see the need to work with whitewashed orgs, especially the ones who are looking at making changes from within and I am happy to help – as are many other teachers and activists in the field – but that alone is neither the solution nor the means. It has to be a multi-level and multi-pronged approach. Clean up the gentrification of yoga. Support, encourage and uplift the communities of the original people.

We do not need white yoga saviors.

The Carrot Halwa Insight

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As I was prepping to make a surprise carrot halwa for the kids this afternoon, I got into one of my spellbinding webs of thought. This time, I found myself getting immersed into the dish I was preparing. Mind you, I’m not an Earth Mother and I really do not enjoy standing and cooking for long hours although my efforts are always very kindly appreciated and enjoyed with much pleasure.

I have also of late revisited many of the traditional Mangalorean recipes that have been handed down from my great-grandmother and have enjoyed observing the way my children have enjoyed the goodness of wholesome flavours – all from clean ingredients and spices from our own surroundings. It’s been a beautiful experience… and yes, I digress…

So back to the carrot halwa.

This web that was drawing me in gradually into my usually simultaneously multi-faceted thinking pattern (I really don’t know how else to explain the way my aha moments appear!) As I pounded the green cardamom while the grated carrots slowly cooked in ghee, the gorgeous aroma of the seeds just lifted my senses up a notch. I looked around at the orange carrots looking so vivid and bright against the vessel and I was reminded of a class I often teach – Healing Through The Senses – a class that taught Ayurveda 101 and brought into consideration the various elements and principles of Ayurvedic biology and physiological influence.

My halwa recipe is entirely organic – in the sense that I wing it every time. There is not set ratio or proportion to the ingredients, instead, I go with what I sense is required on the day I make it. So it is a largely intuited one. However, the basic requirements are the staple carrots, ghee, milk, sweetener of choice (I don’t use refined sugar any more, so I replace it with jaggery powder) and powdered green cardamom. Add-ons by others include raisins, powdered pistachios, slivered almonds, silver foil, saffron strands, etc. My family is not that fond of dry fruits, so the basic ingredients suit our palate just fine. In an effort to bring in an Ayurvedic quality to milk, I try to bring in desi gir cow A2 milk when I can – and when it isn’t available (because it shouldn’t be made available beyond what little can be spared for human consumption), I make do with regular milk. I also used to make my own ghee, but now get some desi ghee from friends who source it from the farm.

Cooking halwa isn’t that hard – the only physical effort is the grating of the carrots. After that, preparing halwa is a labour of love and teaches us patience and perseverance – to keep an eye on the carrots so they don’t burn and the milk so it doesn’t stick to the pan as it evaporates. The mindfulness of being with the food as it cooked gently because you can’t rush it takes the experience to a whole new level along with the gradually deepening aromas emanating from the slow cooked dessert.

Now, to the Ayurvedic significance (because that’s what this post is all about!)

Carrots, root vegetables, are the fruits of the earth produced in the dark winters. Their nature is such that they store the energy within them while the world outside is moving to cooler temperatures and seasons. They are a storehouse of pitta and are ushna is potency which makes them ideal to warm the body during the damp and cold, kapha and vata of fall/autumn and the Indian monsoons. The idea of carrots in many winter vegetable stews is not a new one!

The grounding effect of the ghee, jaggery and milk also have a soothing, nurturing quality while the ghee also adds a good element of fluidity and unctuousness to the dish. The earthy jaggery was a rustic element of connection to prithvi and the cardamom was both heat and air of moving exhilaration and crisp lightness.

All in all, the appreciation of the wisdom of our food and the consideration that our traditional recipes carry simply astounded me. I was amazed at what I was able to understand when only I paused to listen to the wisdom and be receptive to how this artful, yet philosophical blend of ingredients created a symphony for the senses – a visual delight of vibrant colors, sensory orgasm of all the tastes of ayurveda. It has the balancing act for all the doshas and it has the fulfilling satiety that accompanies the experience of having explored all the six tastes of ayurveda in one dish itself!

Beat that!

Apart from breaking down the recipe for all the ayurvedic insights, I couldn’t help but be WOWed by the specificity of our ancestors in the foods they ate and served because of their primarily tendency to affect one’s psychology, mood and temperament. There was and still remains the effort to constantly bring our mind and body back to a state of balance and food was a tool to address that. The connection between what we ate and what we comprise of (annamaya kosha) and the effect of that layer on the deeper sheaths of our energy (pranamaya kosha) and mind (manomaya kosha) was significant in co-creating a structure of balance in society – in their citizens’ bodies and minds…

The responsibility of this structure was on everyone. The comparison to our responsibility to create a better society around us today in 2019 was not lost on me – the poignancy was deep.

Food unites people – within themselves and without, with others.

Union – yoga.

Food for thought this…. all because of carrot halwa that took a good 45 minutes to prepare and 5 minutes to be polished off by two very grateful and happy children.

This… this conversation with myself – on halwa… my thoughts for today.

Here’s the recipe:

  • Cook the grated carrots in ghee over medium heat till they are nice & soft. Be patient now & mindful enough to stir it often.
  • Lower the flame & pour in the milk, jaggery powder & green cardamom powder. Allow it to cook. Keep stirring as the milk evaporates and the mixture thickens. Here’s where you remember why you love the one’s your making this for… especially if it is for yourself!! Perseverance. Stir often & mindfully so the halwa doesn’t stick tot he bottom of the pan.
  • Don’t over cook it or it may end up too dry and the carrots overcooked. I sometimes put in some ghee a little towards the end too…

Note: You may add those optional extras that I mentioned in the blog above… but it tastes delicious this way too!!

Last part of the recipe: Enjoy it… savor it… Smile..

Imperfecting My Practice

I wrote this on my personal blog today. It was a simple journal share about my take on this month’s bullet journal spread. A little bit on the journey of healing through art and then the self-inflicted pressure to comply with ideating, creating and doing… everything from scratch and by myself.

The belief pattern was such that everything had to be a challenge and the easy way to do things was just not comprehensible…. or perceivable even!

As the sunflowers were drawn and filled in with color, one by one, the larger picture came into focus – one leaf, one petal, one dot at a time… The free hand opened up the alter-side of the thoughts as they surfaced. Why did I need to do everything from scratch? Why did I need to struggle so hard? Why did I need to reinvent the wheel? Whose approval was I seeking after all? Was I seeking for any approval at all?

I didn’t think I was… I don’t think I am… but was there an unspoken need to let someone else me me for who I am? See that I am this individual doing this thing, living this life…? I don’t know… Was there a pressure to perfect what I portrayed to the world who saw me? And all this while I was actually not looking to portray any sense of perfection at all!

I had no answers, but the questions were slowly starting to make sense in a confused kind of way. So I continued painting in my sunflowers….

Only this time, I started filling them all over the place – with random pleasure and childlike abandon. I started coloring outside the lines I had drawn just a few minutes ago and then pushed the markers outside of their perfect spaces.

And started thinking about my practice – my perfectly imperfect practice! Does my mat bring out my guilt for irregularity? Does my position as a yoga teacher stress me out to live my authenticity, does my vocal choice demand a political correctness for what yoga is meant to be for me?

Maybe…. and maybe not!

Maybe I live in this perfectly, imperfect and asymmetrical juncture of presence where my imperfection is allowed – even though I resist it. In the end, the perfection comes from constantly reminding myself that in the quest for evolution and rising up from the ashes, it is the imperfection and the aware acceptance of it is the impetus to surge.

What does my practice make of me today? What does it urge me to do tomorrow? How do we evolve collectively?

Now that is a larger question that would require the effort to show up in all my imperfection – willing to do what needs to be done.

Imperfectly yours…

An Indian Yoga Teacher Speaks

yogalotus

A large part of this year has been opening up the Yoga Industrial Complex and the various facets of yoga today. I think it would be honest to say that with the various conversations, I must have been naive – very naive, actually, to all that was happening. There were times when I even felt reticent in the face of the aggressive debates and controversial arguments and at other times, I just felt emotionally torn that ‘others‘ were fighting a seemingly just cause on my behalf.

For all the unity that yoga is supposed to be, I felt pretty much isolated and watching in from the outside of the inside – does that even make sense?

But, as it happens with constructive conversations, including some heated discussions, I started drawing in on the various perspectives of the larger issues as well as a smaller ones. Aggressions, transgressions, blatant abuse, appropriation and microagressions. I started being aware and sensitive, not just to those matters that were obvious, but also those in which I seem to be involved and affected but until then, largely unaware.

Earlier this year, Yoga Journal was in the spotlight for racist and exclusive narratives by issuing split covers for the same issue – sharing the cover between a larger bodied, person of color and an able-bodied white yoga teacher. This month, Yoga Journal released their Travel & Culture issue with interviews and features of some of my very accomplished desi yoga teacher friends – that was a great start.

A few weeks ago, an article was published of 19 yoga teachers to watch for in 2019. The article received a bit of heat for highlighting an article where all but one or two were white and able bodied. Needless to say, a big part of the ‘international‘ yoga community made themselves heard around these instances and conversations happened. Some of the voices that made themselves heard were South Asian teachers and persons of color.

Last week, in response to that Instagram list, two yoga teachers (Sophie Griffiths of @feral_and_true & Jesal Parikh @yogawalla) proactively took on the effort to collaboratively issue a fabulous list of 19 Women of Color to watch in the Yoga World in 2019.

This list was brilliant… for a lot of the conversations and conversation starters and the multidimensional approach of the practice AND the narrative. This was important stuff.

Until, I noticed that a lot of the narrative was still focused on the western ideal or western narrative of the desi or South Asian yoga teacher. It was a start and a bloody wonderful start, but in a world where news and culture across countries is so easily accessible and connections are forged with one well-timed and/or well-received Facebook/ Instagram comment, the narrative from an Indian yogi, let alone an Indian yoga teacher, was missing!

If you’re wondering why this is important, it is because of one simple fact – an Indian yoga teacher in the West is a part of the Western narrative – a part of that ecosystem, with all its issues and drawbacks, but still fits into the parameters of the Yoga Industrial Complex & capitalistic view – even if they don’t necessarily subscribe to it.

An Indian yoga teacher, well, may have many views and experiences that are similar to their desi contemporaries in the West, but also have many other views, experiences and perspectives that are not being heard…. because in the entire collective voice in the west, even in the conversations around bringing the focus back to the indigenous South Asian faculty, the actual platform is missing. The work done by many local desis is comparable and so is, perhaps, the point of reference – training-wise or even effort-wise. But…. there is still a distance to cover.

I’ll be the first to agree that I have an advantage here by way of exposure and partnerships with teachers in the West, but there’s only so much one can do with prior exposure, industry connections and friendships. The rest is just as organic as everything else. I mean, how do we get to know each other, and all that, right? The larger game players and narrative shifters are all defining the way from the Western perspective – and those, may not necessarily be what the ground reality back home actually is.

From the Honor Yoga Collective conversations, I realized that there was much to share and learn in terms of cultural exchange as well as cultural honor and an awareness and sensitivity to appropriation. I also recognized that the onus to teach from my experience was not necessarily on me.

So it got me thinking about the missing link in all of this.

I realized that many NRIs or Indian-American or citizens of other western countries (of Indian origin) were already living a life far removed from the daily life & story of their resident Indian counterparts experienced. The common ground was a culture that may or may not be conveyed down generations, but the deeper connection exists despite the distance.

This distance is even larger between the stereotyped white person / white yogi (or white yoga teacher) and the average Indian yoga teacher.

The purpose of this post was to start sharing the experiences of what an average (or well,  maybe a little more than average) Indian yoga teacher experiences in India. As I type this I realize that this may not cover all the experiences in one post, so I’ll be consciously considering putting these out in a series of posts as and when I have enough to elaborate on some points or if something more relevant comes up in the process.

So what is it like being an Indian Yoga Teacher?

  • It is hard work & competitive.

I refer to the inconsistency in teaching opportunities and the varied systems of teaching and practice where some communities believe that yoga ought to be taught for free and others feel that they need to compete with their batch mates to make a living. The yoga industry is suffering from the effects of ‘Colonial Extraction‘. By now, not everyone in India is a yoga practitioner so the community really needs to be educated on the value of yoga and answer the ‘why yoga?’ question – but, the same starry-eyed community members will happily entertain the glossy repurposed & repackaged yoga that teachers get trained in the West to share in India. So sorry, the yoga teachers in the West who apply the western lens of modernity and rebellion to all things yoga because ‘yoga is for everyone’ and can be approached differently by different people – sorry, but your misinformed practice (or malpractice) is slowly eating into what little remains of the culture it originates from.

  • It’s hard to make a living with yoga.

Unless you’re working with an established organization where the essence of yoga is not a priority or if you work at an ashram or other well established school where your immediate & personal needs are taken care of, you can forget about making a living from yoga. I speak for the regular yoga teachers, who teach regular yoga asana classes. The few who super specialize and offer personal classes may probably make a decent income but if you’re the sole bread winner and have a family to support, it… is…. very…. hard.

The average teacher offers a quality asana class in India for about $1-3 per hour (yes $1 per class!). I honestly feel sick to my gut when I read the average class rates of mediocre and/or highly appropriated classes in the West starting at $30 and upwards. Sometimes fresh graduates of a YTT start at $30 when the draw is a flexible body and an Instagram account fully loaded with highly contorted bodies.

  • They’re losing their essence.

With all the Instayoga in da house, it is such a pitiful sight to have so many asana oriented teachers, especially the new graduates who immediately lock down their Insta profiles and flood their feed and stories with intricately ‘perfected’ asanas. Sadly, even the graduates from ‘good’ schools end up going the asana way and move away from the purpose of ever stepping on this journey. At the same time, Indian yoga schools are looking to meet the demand of the West and offering watered down ‘yoga courses’ and amping up the yoga tourism business with a flurried rise in yoga certification mills all over the country, especially in the yoga centers of India – Bihar, Rishikesh, Goa, Mysore, Kerala…

  • They’re lacking representation.

In the wake of the modern postural yoga identity, a lot of yoga teachers, like I mentioned in the previous point, tend to identify and exemplify yoga to be a postural aspiration and that too of the stereotyped western able bodied narrative – the ‘love & light’ narrative, as I usually call it. The philosophy of yoga is threatened by the constant application of the able-bodied supremacy with a culture that is promoting fitness, weight loss and an urgency to be outwardly well even if it means they’re breaking on the inside.

The idea of a larger bodied yoga teacher, or one with physical limitations or disabilities is an anomaly – it is disruptive to the common place stereotype.

  • They don’t really actively work towards social justice.

Believe it or not, this one just came up to me. I really, really had to scratch my head & think if this was a point I wanted to add here and I realised that I did want to. Why? Because of all the teachers that I know, I’m still not really sure how many actively move beyond their on-the-mat practice to off-the-mat advocacy of matters beyond asanas & philosophical debate, perhaps. To be fair, Indian yoga teachers are largely focused on their practice and their teaching and hardly know of the larger yoga conversations and controversies outside of the country – even if those conversation are actually about them and may affect them. So when the Western yoga communities engage in social justice, very few of them actually go beyond the shores of their countries and residence and seek to make a difference to the land of the origin of yoga.

  • We are diverse.

Most yoga teachers in India are asana teachers. But there are also many teachers devoted to their self study, svadhyaya, as well as their purpose to teach & learn. We have teachers of the different schools of yoga as well as the different limbs and approaches. It is a pity that while the Indian-American (or South Asian or equivalent BIPOC) teacher is given a platform to engage in diversity in yoga and yogic thought, no one goes back to India to reach out to those voices that have as much to share in terms of content, context, nuance and experience. They could and would definitely benefit from the exposure too with their work!

  • We are contemporary teachers.

Which means that we are very similar to most other teachers around the world with one exception – we are desi. We are practicing an art and a science that comes from a wisdom tradition that is ours and is home grown. We are global citizens, aware of what is happening around the world, but also struggling to come to terms with the generational inadequacy that many of us are not even aware of – a residue of colonization and an inherited trauma scarred in our historical, collective karma. In the process, we often forget that we are the inheritors of this practice, this wisdom – and many times inadvertently are complicit in how yoga is treated and misrepresented in the western world.

  • We are undervalued.

And in all this, the average Indian yoga teacher places a nominal value on their service. And the western world knowingly or unknowingly add fuel to that by continuing to take what this country has to offer by means of yoga – by way of an ‘economical’ exchange. Yoga Teacher Trainings in India come at a fabulous price to western aspirants! We have teachers who are happy to share our culture, norms, thoughts and learnings – sometimes even for free – because many of us believe that knowledge flows… and then have that freely offered knowledge priced and sold onwards. In the end, the disparity between the give & take remains.

There really is a lot to unpack here – and I still have many thoughts billowing in my head trying to settle and blow up at the same time. I also have the real uneasiness of witnessing appropriation and mispresentation of yoga and yogic thought on a daily basis – and the unpleasant taste of defensive, refusal to acknowledge harm when it is called out.

Yet, I do the one thing I really know to do to remain true to the practice and the values that make me ME – values that I have received through my practice, through my teachers and through the timeless scriptures that I have studied – all of which have opened up timeless wisdom as and when I may have been ready to see it. Am I a warrior to stand up for this? Maybe, maybe not… I may not necessarily be a custodian of my culture, but I most certainly can use my space, my personality and my words to share what I experience.

Again, I’m still unpacking all of this – and know that when asked, I usually have something to add on what it’s like to be an Indian yoga teacher living in India… because, well, I am one myself after all!