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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