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
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.