It’s taken me 5 months to open up about this. Yes, me, the one who usually has no qualms about saying things as they are – it took me 5 months to really do this today. In the meanwhile, while it may have seemed that I was occupied with other things – teaching classes, educating (for free) on other sticky matters that Instagrammers love, leading sadhanas, etc, this matter sat firmly in the center of my mind space. It would not shift, it would not budge and it took a toll on my health – physically and mentally.
It is always easy to speak up and resist an outsider, a colonizer, a supremacist who fits the frame and stereotype of being the outsider. What happens when the speaking up and challenging is for someone who is supposedly an ‘insider’? What happens when that insider supports the colonizer agenda? What happens when the conversation itself is hushed by the very people who, on all other platforms appear to be working towards uplifting the silenced? What happens when the so-called victims themselves jump into oppressor tactics? These are the questions whose answers I experienced. Those were the experiences I was stuck with over almost half the past year!
Now, it is time for me to declutter my mind space. In my silence, while I cocooned myself in response to the pain and harm that folks who were, until then, ‘my people’, I’d like to believe that I got some clarity and a fragment of healing. I say, ‘a fragment’ of healing, yes. The pain is still here. But the clarity of stepping back and observing the dance of self righteousness, commodification, tokenization and self-tokenization all in the name of ‘Decolonization’ and ‘Anti-Cultural Appropriation’ has been a massive shift. That, and the shocking revelation of how, in the midst of this dance, what was actually happening was an enactment of blatant Hinduphobia.
Yes, that’s the word…
Here’s the story.
In April (2021) I came across an article written by a colleague whom I got on well with. We had worked together in some projects and workgroups and the channels of communication between us were always friendly and open. The article was published in the Yoga Journal, notorious for its appropriative, white washed bigotry and racism. I assumed that with all the social media backlash, they were looking to do better and that this article might have been a segue for more Desi representation in their content. I don’t comment on article / podcast links unless I have opened & read or listened to them fully. It took me a few days to open up and read the article in question. By then, I’d seen many other colleagues from the yoga community comment with high praise and pride at the work. When I did read the article, I was shocked. The article was extremely flawed and had many errors. It was on yoga & Sanskrit – both areas that I have some knowledge, let alone expertise, to be able to critique it with integrity.
I considered the author to be a ‘friend’ – a word that seems to mean many things to many people on Social Media – from Facebook ‘friends’ to friendship being considered an equivalent to ‘absolved from the consequences of any actions’. Very few, I understand now, use the word to mean someone who may also hold up the mirror and nudge the other to do better at the same time be open to receive the same mirror holding in return. The objective of friendship to be mere fair weather friends or those who only appear to fan your ego, sadly, is what seems to run many ‘friendship’ circles and ‘like minded communities’.
Anyway, I held that mirror up to the author. I had the following reasons to do so:
- I considered the author an open-minded friend who would want to do better.
- As a steward of Dharma, I wanted to do what was right and rectify the errors that were being presented to a wide readership of a publication that clearly refused to put in any effort towards correctness and was doing the bare minimum through superficial allyship and tokenism.
- As a teacher, I felt responsible for my students, or any student / practitioner, who without access to better teachers would be terribly misguided by this article and experience emotional and spiritual harm. (I’ll speak more about this later in the post)
- I felt the article showed Desi teachers in poor light and demonstrated how a brown skin and a Hindu name could be tokenized and equated with knowledgeability, when clearly that was not true. (I’ll speak more about this, too, later)
- Since the author was clearly not aware of basic Sanskrit, and since the article was all about Sanskrit, I was willing to offer my time (requesting due credit if the offer was accepted) to help the author edit the article and republish.
- Yoga Journal clearly needed to do much, MUCH better and I wanted them to acknowledge the error (like most decent publications do), take down the article (at least the e-edition), support the author to rectify the errors and perhaps exert due diligence when it comes to whom they actually showcase as ‘experts’ in their publications!
I did two things: I wrote to the author, with kindness and with the offer to help edit the article. I also wrote to Yoga Journal, with sternness, disappointment at their lack of credible focus and the urge for them to do better. I wrote to them with the backing of the WICCI Karnataka Yoga Council of which I am the State President here in India.
A few things came out of this.For one, Yoga Journal ignored my emails and my tweets – I wrote to them multiple times following up on the matter. I have not heard from them except for one auto response that said they will forward it to the concerned team. Clearly, not one YJ editor is concerned, let alone the team. (As of June 2022, YJ has still not responded to my emails or messages!) I have since seen Yoga Journal publish articles and cover pages that want to appeal to the political atmosphere of the US. The eyewash by featuring BIPOC on their covers and focusing on anti-racism is a kick in the gut to yoga philosophy & cultural stewardship. It is mere distraction & diversion. They fail to convince that there is any real accountability.
With the author, I was first told that the author had clearance from their parents and community teachers to go ahead and publish. I was stunned at the statement which essentially threw elders right under the bus, refusing any responsibility in the matter. Then I heard the refrain that Sanskrit had evolved with migration, etc. This was another hashtag facepalm moment clearly indicating ignorance of the subject matter. And finally, there was the unspoken bit that suggested an open ear but no mention of rectifying the error that I had written out & sent over. This is where the first problem largely rested.
The author who leant how to trace out the words in Sanskrit through a chart that was shared from their parents had not made a pronunciation error (to blame diasporic migration). The words were incorrectly written – by hand – as captions to the author’s artwork. While the pronunciation / transliteration was also wrong in many places, my focus was on the Sanskrit words that were written in Devanāgarī – the script in which Sanskrit is written. Now, any author who chose to publish for international readership about a subject with sufficient technicality – wouldn’t you expect the basic conceptual correct knowledge of the author, if not subject matter expertise? The author kept repeating that they did not claim subject matter expertise – then WHY did they agree to write on a topic that was finally published with so many errors? Are we saying that the author and a money making machine like Yoga Journal had no resources to seek anyone in the world who would proofread the article and suggest amendments? Further, despite so many comments from knowledgeable Sanskrit scholars and readers on their social media Yoga Journal failed to acknowledge any of the emails and comments and continue to keep the faulty article live to this day and perpetuate false knowledge to their audience.
It is important to note here that yoga, yogic traditions and culture has historically been decimated and appropriated by the Western World by blasting our indigenous sciences, literature, wisdom and knowledge, deeming them blasphemous or incorrect; defacing them with Western ideas of what they think the correct meaning and knowledge should be and further capitalizing by promoting the distorted version to the world by calling it the real thing. Through this article, written by an author clearly lacking the credentials to teach any Sanskrit, let alone a few words, Yoga Journal has blatantly repeated what imperialism and White Supremacy have long done in academia and in the socio political and cultural world. They have taken Sanskrit, the ‘language of the Gods’, desecrated it, tokenized a brown woman and continue to capitalize on that with zero remorse.
Deep breath, Luvena… you got this… 1…2…3….
So, if you thought that was the end of it, it wasn’t.
If you haven’t guessed already, doing this work, standing on the side of Dharma, is not easy work. It is hard, arduous, exhausting and lonely. It is also very painful and isolating.
And it is very, very unsafe.
The Desi yoga community, of late, is seeing a rise in ‘supportive circles’. I’m a part of quite a few of these ‘safe spaces’, but quickly find myself leaving many of them. The concept is good to hear, the intention appears to be wholesome, but most of these spaces lack the depth and grounded ability to be unbiased when it gets down and dirty with doing the real work. The colonized mind shows up there whenever there is a need for objective space.
After the emails and tweets between the author and YJ, I needed a ‘safe space’ where I could vent my frustration with people who I thought would understand. After all, some of these people constantly focus on how ‘Namaste is being misused’ by white folks or how ‘our culture’ is being appropriated. I thought they would understand how and why this matter was problematic. So while I had clearly ignored one very popular group after their founder had clearly told me that it was not a safe space, I shared the experience in another group where I’d been a member for a while and expected an objective understanding.
While a few people understood the impact of what I was addressing, the bulk of the responses included statements and messages like:
- We shouldn’t be infighting because of the White Gaze upon us.
- I was looking for technical correctness in an language known to be elitist and casteist.
- The author was trying to do the right thing by trusting in her elders.
- Me calling the author my ‘friend’ in my post and then going to speak about her in a closed group for South Asian yoga teachers where she was absent was not done and constituted a breach of trust and shaming.
- I should be happy for someone who gains success & visibility through Yoga Journal – but yes, by all means hold Yoga Journal accountable for not exercising due diligence.
- That there was so much harm being done by the colonizers as it is and was I even on the yogic path by shaming my sibling?
- And there was an unbelievable gaslighting comment where my concerns were labelled as pro-colonizer and I was asked why I used white person emojis?! Yes, that also happened.
Eventually, the post was closed for comments by the admins, without intimating me, and sometime somehow some comments with personal attacks against me were deleted. And such is life…
Additionally, there were some other observations:
- There were some passive aggressive social media memes about in-fighting between Desi teachers made by Desi teachers – so yeah, the irony wasn’t lost.
- There was some unfriending & blocking.
- And there was some very loud silence from otherwise very vocal folks who, in the past, have messaged me with pride at at my ‘courage for speaking up about important issues’.
So taking a stand when it is needed is not considered a matter of integrity. On the other hand, it is weighed for it’s marketability and success factor. If someone stands to gain success and break the glass ceiling, then we were to be happy for them, even if their method was unethical. Just remembering this incident now elicits a visceral reaction.
It is worth noting that all this happened during the pandemic around the time India was seeing its most horrendous crisis with shortage of oxygen and hospital beds. It was a time when death and dying had become prematurely normalized and people were not having an opportunity to grieve. I knew families where eight members died within the month and others where friends as well as strangers were desperately trying to assist faceless names across the country find a bed or secure oxygen cylinders.
Asking for accountability was categorically called as shaming – in other words, gaslighting the aggrieved to believe that their expression of hurt & ask for accountability was actually hurting someone else (who otherwise stood to gain from their actions). Yoga Journal was constantly pointed to for making amends and the author was absolved from any corrective action. It was assumed that my venting in a private group meant that my private email to the author was hate-filled as offensive.
Apart from losing members in our families, I was acutely aware of how we, as a Civilization, were slowly losing our elders, ancestors and spiritual heritage to the pandemic. The helplessness of not knowing if we would survive the second wave, get the vaccine or even if I could honestly assure my children of another birthday was heartbreakingly terrifying. In a moment of silent contemplation, I vividly remember the intense grief I felt at the prospect of losing our children as well as young teachers who were dedicating their time to studying the scriptures for posterity under the guidance of able, qualified and experienced acharyas.
When Swami Omkarananda Saraswati, a Sanskrit scholar and head of Sri Swami Chidbhavananda Ashram at Vedhapuri in Theni district, succumbed to Covid-19 in May, I must have been at one of my loneliest fights – for the first time truly seeing what YogaLand was and how they were simply not aligned with the cause and contributions of these teachers, the scriptures, or even with Dharma itself. The potential and unprepared loss of our Living Civilization to the pandemic was devastating. I felt spiritually orphaned and uprooted. The larger yoga community that constantly sought to partake in the benefits of yoga – from stress management and flexibility to industry clout, had turned their face away from the land that provided them the ability to .
It was lonely and isolating.
Isolation in the face of doing the right thing is not new. However, I think I was naive (or stupid) enough to believe that the people who were making the righteous noise in the name of social justice & inclusion, were actually in it for the ethics of it. The performative activism and allyship is astounding.
Where was social justice in all of this? Where were the Social Justice Activists in YogaLand when India was struggling? Were they only going to use the refrain of ‘Yoga is Political’ or ‘Yoga is Social Justice’ in the context of where their bread gets buttered – ie, the North American social context? What was the purpose of all the social noise that did not extend to the source culture that they were always dropping into their comments, headlines and statements?
This context was necessary to establish because what followed is the core of what this blog post is all about.
Eventually, the post was closed for comments and sometime somehow some comments with personal attacks were deleted. The group post was closed for comments after all the above responses were collectively thrown about. Of course, there were a few sympathetic private messages which expressed unsafety for them to put their thoughts out in the group and by the time they did, the comments were closed. A few others typically messaged me weeks later apologizing for not being supportive on the forum (that’s another story there..). And such is life…
So what exactly happened?
As I said it has taken me 5 months since the incident to speak up about it. If you think it has been an easy decision to write it out here, I can assure you it has not. The yoga space, the Desi community and this whole area of ‘speaking one’s truth’ and standing on the side of Dharma all sounds great but it is not… it is very dangerous and unsafe.
I have since:
- Lost income.
- Missed out on speaking opportunities– some which I had already decided to stop supporting, others which saddened me by their U-turn. The echo chambers created by those who stand to gain from white capitalist allies are incredibly toxic despite what meets the eye.
- Been labelled & attacked – sometimes passive aggressively, often ad hominem. My ‘faith’ has been questioned and my political leanings pondered upon.
- Been labelled as anti-diaspora (conveniently forgetting that 4 generations of my family have been non resident Indians & that I only moved to India in 2014)
- Been marked as a fundamentalist and/or Right Winger and Hindutva (sigh!)
- Blocked by a white capitalist organization even though I had zero conversation or disagreement with them about anything.
- Had my content plagiarized with zero credit…. Also plagiarised to used keywords indicating alignment with Dharma by folks with hardly any understanding of Dharmic principles.
- Been cancelled & replaced – tokenization rules!
In other words, for the most part, all of these and much more, are part & parcel of what constitutes Hinduphobia. And no, Hinduphobia does not mean it has to be at the hands of a non-Desi. This is rampant Hinduphobia, a remnant of the colonized mindset. Such is the detachment from our own culture and heritage that anyone standing FOR the culture and heritage and not pandering to white capitalism is instantly labelled with political affiliations and the intention of call-out or call-in is tossed away. The need to align with whiteness & white-folks determined success overshadows the need to learn or really connect with one’s own culture.
Why bring in Hinduphobia? Well, what else would it be? Apart from the lack of support, the Desi yoga community has a host of voices who feel validated and heard when they call out white appropriation and capitalization of yoga and Hindu culture but oddly turn a blind eye when their own folks actually pawn away and distort their culture. Furthermore, they silence those who do speak up about it because if they didn’t, then it would impact their income too! Social and financial currency are very likely key here as I see more and more Desis define their success by their appearance in white supremacist and racist organizations and conferences and less by holding themselves accountable and in alliance with their heritage and culture.
These are not mere assumptions. I have had conversations over time with many of YogaLand’s present day Desi celebrities. You name them, and I’ve had conversations with them on various topics that constituted Hindu culture and authenticity and the defensiveness that inevitably cropped up was palpable. The abject reluctance to acknowledge traditional Hindu experience was shocking. Yet, these ‘teachers’ are platformed as Desi experts. On what basis?? What is their eligibility to expertise? Is it just the mere accident of birth? The brown identity?
This identity politics that repeatedly comes into the Western narrative of eligibility to teach yoga and yogic scriptures is an important aspect that must not be disregarded. YogaLand’s tendency to equate identity to adhikāra is severely damaging to the continuity of authentic teachings. It is here, again, that one’s skin-tone and Hindu-name bound identity, sufficiently promoted if clad in a sāri or dhoti, added points for bindi and showcasing mūrtis, gets associated with their eligibility to teach. One may be born into a Hindu family and know something of the scripture in question – but to teach it, one needs to have studied it with the depth and rigor that only comes through a systematic methodology of a samprādaya.
It is a disservice to the student when ill-equipped and ineligible teachers position themselves to dissect a text through a lens of social justice or personal experience. The commodification of these texts as the next bestseller course by these pedestalised people is spiritually dangerous and I am shocked at their brazen audacity. They may call it courage. It is not. It is just a flytrap and innocent students are the naive flies.
What did I feel in all this? Terrible! I felt terribly frustrated, alone and unheard. The very people who were trailblazing the need to pass the mic to silenced indigenous voices were yanking the mic away from someone who was pointing out a glaring flaw and hushing the error by promoting incorrectness. By allowing and supporting the misleading article, these very people were suppressing indigeneity and knowledge. At best, these very ‘teachers’ were ignorant about Sanskrit or even basic Devanāgarī but were also wary that highlighting my words would mean accepting their own lack of knowledge. But that was never the point! So this hesitation – no, refusal – to stand up for what is right made me feel physically sick. And I felt alone – it felt like a losing battle because all these saviors of Whitewashed yoga were actually, without mincing many words, were telling me to maintain the status quo, keep the family secrets in-house ‘because White gaze’… and don’t go about stirring the pot, because you’re clearly the minority here… So once again, the minoritized voice was attempted to be silenced.
We hear Desis speak about ‘our culture’ being appropriated, our traditions, our prayers, etc… but when it comes down to it, most of these folks refuse to openly say which culture, especially if it is Hindu culture. I know a few Sikh yoga practitioners & teachers who are very clear and proud about their culture and heritage. Yet, I find a sense of apology when it comes to Hindu teachers who refuse to freely & proudly shine their culture. There is an unspoken vibe that standing for their Hindu culture might make them unpopular or that their anti-Islamophobia may not hold strong enough.
Then there is the idea of Secularism that restrains people from claiming their identity authentically. Secularism doesn’t mean that one group gets the mic while suppressing the other. In the search for equity, Islamophobia is just as vile as Hinduphobia, yet, the latter is so openly practiced and no one seems to know it is even happening!
Situational examples provided in Understanding Hinduphobia, help clarify what may constitute Hinduphobic behavior. I can assure you one thing – experiencing it first hand is gutting and very painful. Here are a few of the examples that landed squarely with my experiences:
“Accusing those who organize around or speak about Hinduphobia (including the persecution of Hindus) of being agents or pawns of violent, oppressive political agendas.”;
“Making unsubstantiated claims about the political agendas of people who are simply practicing Hinduism.”;
“Erasure of the Hindu civilizational imprint, including the denial of Hindu contributions to specific histories, knowledge systems, geographies, culture, etc., and the superimposition of Western civilization norms.”Understanding Hinduphobia
Over this incident, there has been overt silencing from within the community by segregating stewards of the practices by calling us gatekeepers when all that was being done was what everyone has been asking for always – a respect of the roots and traditions of the culture. If we find it ethical to call-out (or call-in) ignorant appropriation by White folks, then how can calling-in (or calling-out) of our own folks who promote incorrect knowledge be considered inappropriate? Note that there was an open offer to help fix the errors, the offer still stands, but there has been no effort to rectify the error. What remains, though, is the undisguised disregard for the harm that the article and the publication has done. There remains no accountability. And instead, there is now a division and capitalism stands to win.
For the white folks reading this, please do not think that I, in any way, condone your appropriation and misuse of yoga and yogic concepts. If anything, I will be ten times as harsh. So, do not, for once, think that this is an excuse for you to do as you will – remember that is the very thing that makes many desi folks resist doing their real reclamation of identity.
Earlier in the post, I promised to address the spiritual harm and the misrepresentation of indigenous teachers. Needless to say, Hinduphobia includes whitewashing and Whitesplaining (is that a word already?) of the word, the sentiment and the essential principle of ‘Guru’. In its most literal meaning of being a ‘teacher’, the publication of this article underscores the ruthless stereotype in YogaLand that ‘Gurus are abusive’ and/or ‘Gurus are not required’. Clearly this publication that holds the potential to cause harm will, and does, highlight the harm that any brown skinned individual can cause by putting themselves in a place of authority to teach, even if they don’t openly claim to do so. The authority that comes with being published in a yoga magazine with international readership – does one even need to wonder?
Then there is the thing about eligibility, the adhikara, to teach and once again YogaLand, in this new race to uplift Desi voices, seems to ignore the fact that what needs to be done is uplift Desi experience and ensure equity & respect for them. However, when uplifting Desi voices as teacher voices or voices of expertise on a topic that the White Western World is not qualified to judge, merely being brown skinned with an Indian name does not cut it! We cannot claim eligibility to teach just by mere birth into an Indian Hindu family! There is loads of misinformation or information without proper teaching that gets conveyed in families. There are loads of rituals & traditions that families follow but somewhere along the way the meaning behind the traditions hasn’t been transmitted. How can we ever issue blanket expertise status to anyone just for being born Indian? There is a reason for lineage and a reason for paramparā and samprādaya to enable teachers to not just be custodians but also stewards of right knowledge for those who truly seek. For this, we need the humility to know where to draw the line around what we can teach and where we must honestly say, “Sorry, that is not my area of expertise.”
In this very shaky and flaky space called YogaLand, today, where we have an emergence of brown teachers who can be tokenized just to check the boxes of Inclusion & Representation in White Capitalist Organizations, who is to be held accountable? The organizations who can do better and dig deep… or the folks themselves who stand to be tokenized, or worse, who willfully self-tokenize?
Yoga Journal still doesn’t feel it necessary to address any harm because they stand to gain scholarly positioning by disseminating incorrect knowledge over traditional scholars, whom they refuse to acknowledge or approach.
It is unfortunate that some Desi teachers feel the need to benchmark success less by promoting their true culture with pride and more by allying with white-led organizations known to promote racism, inequity, prejudice and appropriative capitalism. I find a lot of teachers suddenly dropping ‘Dharma’ casually into their verbiage and still continuing to be bystanders, refusing to fully stand in the full expression of what Dharma means. Others continue to speak with authority and earn off ‘Yoga’ and ‘Dharma’ and yet denounce & problematize the Vedas because it is the ‘cool’ thing to do. Dharmic responsibility doesn’t mean doing what is right when it lines your pocket with Financial Currency and your media channels with Social Currency. No! it means doing what is right especially when everyone else is dancing to the other tune. There is no fair weather Dharma, my friends. It just is. Dharma prevails.
And while it remains painfully stigmatizing to be labelled and silenced by your own people for speaking the truth, we will still find a few voices who continue to resist and challenge the system. We will be isolated and our credibility will be questioned, tarnished and maligned; while white capitalists and their brown tokens will freely block us and delete our posts, comments and contribution, we will find very few who support us and we will be grateful to them for holding space – the real, unconditional and honest space – to stay true to Dharma.
And while all this remains as it may, we will not be silenced. Unsafe as it may be…
धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः
dharmo rakṣati rakṣitaḥ
Those who protect the Dharma are protected by the Dharma.
Special thanks: With much gratitude to my friends Savira Gupta & Kaya Mindlin for holding me while I cried in frustration to make sense of this crazy place we ‘lovingly’ call YogaLand and to Sneha Rao for picking the phone to hearing me rant for close to two hours that day when I felt my lowest, when I felt that ‘my Yoga Community’ had failed me…. and also for lifting me up by recognizing what I was so deeply hurt about; for hearing me out rationally where others didn’t.