An Indian Yoga Teacher Speaks

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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!

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