Silencing, Safety and Hinduphobia in YogaLand

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 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 the basic Sanskrit, and since the article was all about Sanskrit, I was willing to offer my time (with 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 Karnataka Yoga Council of which I am the State President here in India.

Excerpt of my first email to Yoga Journal on 28th April 2021

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 response that said they will forward it to the concerned team. Clearly, not one YJ editor is concerned, let alone the team. I have since seen Yoga Journal seem to 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. The article in question has numerous Facebook comments and tweets from lay persons as well as Sanskritists – not one received any respectful acknowledgement from the publication or their Social Media staff.

My comment on Yoga Journal’s Facebook page.

With the author, I was first told that they 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 to take any personal 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 intention to rectify the errors that I had written out & sent over. This is where the first problem largely rested.

The author’s article announcement post on Facebook.

The author who, according to their facebook post, 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 incorrectly written in Devanāgarī – the script in which Sanskrit is written – and not a matter of my ‘quest for technical correctness’. Now, for any writer who chose to publish for international readership about a subject with sufficient technicality – wouldn’t you expect the basic conceptual correct knowledge of the writer, if not subject matter expertise? The author kept repeating on various social media discussion threads 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 by 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 about how ‘Namaste is being misused’ by white folks or how ‘our culture’ was being appropriated, I thought they would be 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.

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 me being vocal. 

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. Even remembering this incident now elicits a visceral reaction. 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.

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.

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…

I felt it was necessary to establish this context here because what followed is the core of what this  blog post is all about.

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.

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.

References: https://understandinghinduphobia.org/

The Golden Beverage – With a Twist

Golden beverage in a mug

I just threw some ingredients together last morning to prepare my morning beverage. Actually, there was a reason that sparked my creativity. My youngest was feeling a little iffy and seemed to be struggling with a mild congestion & slight cough for two days. He insisted on having his yellow milk before school yesterday. I obliged.

There is something really therapeutic about rubbing fresh turmeric root on a grinding stone. My little grinding stone was in a moving box and I didn’t have the heart to rub turmeric root in my white ceramic mortar & pestle.

I digress.

After my son left, I was left thinking of the bug doing its rounds, other more serious bugs also lurking about. I paid thought to my child’s intuitive reach to the herb that comforted and soothed his boo boo.

But my beverage was not as innocent as his. I threw in some other ingredients – my mind & thoughts working simultaneously with Ayurveda one one side, my needs and wants on the other.

What did I want last morning? What did I need?

I wanted creamy richness. I wanted to soothe myself for self-care. Yet, I wanted the familiarity of coffee or tea. I wanted a mouth full of flavor reminiscent of home. I needed a deeply satisfying sense of tethering & grounding as I was settling down to swadhyaya and then some goal setting. I needed to stay the course. I needed comfort. I also needed to have my immune reserves in top notch condition.

The weather was shifting. The past few days had been unprecedentedly hot for mid February in Bangalore and the viral fevers were testimony to an erratic Vata period.

I put together my Golden Beverage with a twist.

The twist included a small shot of organic filter coffee. A bit of a stimulant, coffee, but my small shot was my teensie sin to the potion. Any aggravated Vata would be taken care of by my next ingredient.

It also involved thick, whisked coconut milk. I whisked it with some virgin cold pressed coconut oil. Now, you can take the girl out of Mangalore, but never the coastal goodness out of her! Everything about coconut screams home, nourishment, nurturing, stability, goodness, mama, and delicious flavor! This is the creamer I wanted. Coconut is a great balancer for Vata & Pitta and I was careful not to overdose on it, so my Kapha was well looked after. To keep the beverage warm, I placed the whisked coconut milk in a bowl of boiling water so it would be warm.

I didn’t have vanilla pods – vanilla brings out the coconut better, I hear, but I’m not a vanilla person… so I sprinkled in a dash of cinnamon & nutmeg both are wonderfully grounding balancers of Vata & Kapha.

To assemble, I put in a few pieces of palm jaggery powder in my mug and a whole tsp of ground turmeric.

Palm jaggery is special because my earliest memories of visits to Mangalore involved ‘godachi kaapi‘ – jaggery coffee. This jaggery is a great mineral resource – rich in Iron, Magnesium and B vitamins.

And, well, the tridoshic turmeric needs absolutely no intro.

Put them all together and sit in the quiet of a house after the morning ‘off to school’ rush – the beverage is a soothing treat to the senses – relief & respite.

 

 

Opening Out Of Silence

There’s a lot going on in India currently. The nation is in a state of uncertainty, fear, confusion, panic and all sorts of things. We cannot deny that there is another view to things that subscribe to the narrative of fear mongering and that this is all unnecessary hype. And yet another view of centrism or fence-sitting.

They all have their reasons. Well, they all are also justified.

Yet, I struggle with this justification. I struggle with the pain I see. I struggle with the cold disregard by some. And I struggle with the indecisiveness of the fence sitters.

In all of this, I struggle with me.

I’m not a spectator and if you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll know that I’m not really silent about my views.

But this time, I struggle.

I struggle because I feel the fear and sense people’s resistance to fully be cognizant of the extent of what is happening. And it is real.

As I questioned my response to the situation, I could not keep the primal fear, anger and hurt aside – even if I told myself that it was OK to feel all that.

And it was because of yoga.

As a yogi, I was frustrated at the silence of those who could speak. I was also frustrated by the blind eye. At the same time, I was aware of the confusion of those placed far away from the epicenter of it all and them assessing, perhaps, if they were a part of this mayhem at all.

Then I saw this…

Source: Anonymous

I thought back to all the conversations around colonization and how so many from my wider audience and those who read my posts, followed my stories, etc, suggested that they were actively doing their own work. In their own practice, in their own space…

In their yoga.

Well, I went through my social media stories of the day, thinking of all the previous controversies over Desi under representation, ‘Namaslay‘ moments, erasure and cultural insensitivities that we have spoken about and multiple instances of silencing South Asian and shutting them down…. but I saw nothing about what was going on in India currently, except from a few. Nothing! No one was speaking about India.

Everyone was still on about tight hip flexors and pinchamayurasanas.

So I go back to the above forwarded comment as I consider, why the western yoga community was not speaking about India? Why is the political situation not being talked about? Why the silence? Where they that closeted in their own pond that they really do not hear of the country that gives them a reason to teach and make a living from (assuming they’re a yoga teacher)?

If you are following things then who are you listening to? Which voices are helping you understand your practice and the harm within and without it? Who informs your understanding of the culture of the nation whose philosophy or thought you subscribe to, even if only partially.

This is important for me because yoga and India are not one single thought – we are not a singular / set kind of yogis and we are not one set of Indians. We are not monolithic.

We are a complex people.

But we are in pain and the yoga community can & does play a role.

Why?

Because didn’t all the western resistance use the ‘Yoga is Political’ refrain?

Every time we spoke about supremacy,

…every time we spoke about cultural appropriation,

…every time we spoke about racism, fragility, oppression, colonization, decolonization,….

…every time we spoke of any controversy….

we said, ‘Yoga is Political’

Well, today, yoga is just as political for India. It cannot be apolitical.

Yoga is one of India’s tools for soft power. Although power can be used in many ways, I would urge the yoga community to address it responsibly – on either side of the equation.

I have always urged the non Desi community to be cautious in the narrative they chose to follow. While, a few bluntly told me that they cannot be ‘brainwashed’ or ‘played’, it was plain to see from the media they shared and comments they made online that they were putty – already buying in to the echo chamber they were sitting in but not necessarily ‘getting’ it. They’re not the only ones, though. Many of us have been shocked by family and old friends who have been openly displaying their bigotry and blindness towards the chaos – even while facing the loss of young lives.

What I would ask of you is to remember that we have a spectrum of people and thought in India, just like anywhere in the world. I’d like to ask that you check your privilege and your political bias to understand that privilege and political bias exists in India too. And within that spectrum, while all thoughts are welcome, we stand the risk of being subject to extremism and false narratives of unwarranted xenophobia.

I ask you to be cognizant of that.

Within pockets of the discussion you will find the narrative of victimhood and an appeal for consideration to. White people, please be aware that you see a minority of brown people from India in your country. You see us as one lot of brown people – minorities, voices that are often stifled, sometimes oppressed and facing frequent micro aggression. True as that may be, in India the narrative is not quite the same.

We are a brown nation. Here, in our collective brownness, the color of our skin does bring in prejudices (given our penchant for fair skin!), but it does not categorize us into majority / minority.

However, for a country that is a co-existing blend of multiple cultures, faith and religious sentiments, we are always sitting on the threshold of divisive politics. And our majority / minority agenda gets played right there. On the basis of religion – not faith – religion.

I clarify that it is not faith, because as a people we are programmed to lean towards faith – sometimes blind faith too. We are also culturally, an emotional people entrenched in a patriarchal system with casteism spread over our social fabric – left, right & center. Our generational trauma from colonization is just one side of the story. The trauma from the prejudices internally is more pressing.

Yoga is political because yoga is unifying.

Yet, yoga is being used to promote a sense of identity – especially in a way that western and white yogis would feel an emotional charge when their feminism and idealistic wokeness leads to a politically correct sympathy and empathy for the oppressed identity that they see in desis who promote the narrative of oppression and victimhood.

So, here’s the deal – yes, we come with trauma and yes, the trauma of colonization is still with us in every thing we do and experience. It informs the way we behave in India, our education system, our civic establishments, our daily choices. It also is responsible for the diminished sense of identity for some and the subservience, lesser than and erasure that many of us, and even our parents, still experience in western countries – as permanent residents or visitors. It stinks. And I will never deny that.

Does white supremacy exist? Like hell it does! So check your privilege because unconscious bias is real.

Do pass on the mic while we speak, hear us out, don’t erase our presence and do extend to us the basic civility and equitable respect.

BUT, to place us on a pedestal because of ancestral, historical guilt is simply ridiculous. While you check your privilege and engage respectfully and equitably, do not idolize us. A cultish ordering is dangerous and gives away your power to discern.

That is important. It really is.

Because, in giving that importance to one or two Indian / Desi voices is like negating an entire nation of voices and experiences that are a part of that spectrum.

More important is to be wary of subscribing to ONE voice – especially if that voice, despite sounding so logical & factual in its confidence, is also narcissistic & covertly bullies by manipulating you to respond (or react) with instinctive guilt. What you may want to experience is an awareness, and understanding that perhaps you didn’t know as much earlier. An awareness and gradual peeling away of comfort that privilege accords you. An acknowledgement of history and the understanding of how it exhibits in the descendants of the colonized even today. To have difficult conversations and make your way forward. You do not want to act out of guilt while you’re working on dismantling white supremacy and privilege.

But in my part of the world, in India, the supremacist ideology that is making its presence felt is Hindu supremacy. Where patriotism, which we all feel, is being confused with extreme, nationalist thought. Many do not subscribe to extremist thought but are being emotionally led to feel it because of a perpetuated narrative of anger, loss & victimhood. The beauty of Hindu thought & spirituality is being misconstrued as a religious and ritualistic identity. Ritualistic order at best is superficial yet, as mentioned in the Devi Bhagwatam, is still a form of worship. At worst, it can lead to fanatical violence.

This is the divide that supremacy is creating and yoga, in all its political correctness stands to add to it if not applied conscientiously. Hindutva is the essence of being Hindu – not be deification or ritualistic symbolism and norms. Hindutva is the embodying of thought that ought to show in the behaviors of unification. Yet, presently, the effort of many is to use Hindutva to legitimize the spread of malicious narratives that promote the sense that ‘Hinduism is under threat’… and this, through yoga in the west because to the average white western practitioner, the fabric of Indian culture & social order is not really understood.

The ringing refrain of ‘Yoga is Hindu‘ makes people who have been disillusioned by the organized religion / faith they were born into feel that they are now brand ambassadors of Hindu thought and often end up anglicizing the philosophy or watering it down to their taste. When the spiritual truths of yoga and Hinduism appear to fill a void, it makes it easier to absorb these ambassadors into the culture that is so giving without the need for officially ‘converting’ them and create a sense of belonging and liberation.

I do love that about Hinduism – the thought, philosophy & culture that is giving regardless of faith. But, I’m too close to home to know the fine print and the underlying danger of this generosity. Because it makes people add to the perpetuation of the supremacy quotient in India. The number of white people assimilating Indian culture, cultural symbols, even at the expense of appropriating it is ridiculous. And this ends up being a non-proselytizing form of getting more people into the fold… and to have them support a political framework steeped in the misrepresentation of Hindutva.

This is not yoga. Neither is it Hinduism / Hindutva.

It is political.

Yoga is political.

The conversation of colonization and the narrative of Hinduism being under threat includes the historical violence of invaders and colonizers who did not just impose trade and societal restrictions but also applied religious oppression on to the indigenous native communities. So we have this generational pain of invasions and colonization. But one cannot and must not discount the internal prejudice and abject application and exclusion due to the caste system that is often ignored in this conversation because it existed before the colonization, remained all through the colonial times and still exists as brahminical patriarchy, hierarchy and casteist exclusion.

While one may argue that it is an ‘internal issue’, it is particularly important to remember in present times because it is this internal prejudice that is the main cause of the distress that the country is facing today. A distress that is communal and is a distress where the oppressor is repeatedly pulling out singular incidents and citing instances of victimhood and persecution on the basis of imagined narratives and fabrications of poor quality news and media.

The current call for resistance against Hinduphobia never ever addresses the plight of the Dalits, Bahujans and the Adivasis. This refrain of Hinduphobia is always from the upper castes who simply refuse to acknowledge their privilege because they stand the risk of losing their sense of erstwhile security  and power.  In the west, they cry foul over anti-brownness and in India they bring in history to cry anti-Hinduism. Ask a Hindu Brahmin you know what they are doing to check their privilege and if they go and hug or shake hands with or sit and eat with their ‘lower caste’ house help, domestic workers, or others. Just ask…. and see them squirm. Check their friend list for any muslims? Do they ever extend any Eid greetings? Anything? For all the time they spend researching and scraping the wounds of the violent history of Islam and Christianity, perhaps if they spent half as much diligent research into the violence their own ancestors inflicted and still continue to inflict presently, it would be a start.

Yet, they speak about Hinduism and the desecration of Hindu symbols and idols. Do I feel the harm of Hindu symbols and rituals being misused in the west and in yoga? YES! I do! And you’ll see enough & more of my posts, talks and commentaries where I have called out those who have misused and humiliated Hindu symbolism.

But the current shout about being anti-Hindu in the protests and desecration of Om and deities during the civil protests in India and calling it Hinduphobia is not necessarily coming from a place of pain.

It comes from a place of claiming ownership and of manipulation. It is rage – not sacred rage, mind you! It is not spiritual rage. It is a rage of ‘us’ v/s ‘them’. THEY are desecrating OUR idols and OUR DEITIES… but even the Bhagavad Gita and the Devi Bhagwatam speak of the idol being just an external representation of the ONE within. So whatever form is man made, while sacred for those who follow it, is irrelevant to the Divine.

Are these custodians actually saying that the Divine, who is all encompassing and benevolent, unlike the Old Testament God who is angered, is actually hurt by mere mortal stupidity? Where does Hindu philosophy of karuna and nirlipta come in here?

No, this propaganda is merely one of their personal angst and a personification of their own fury and prejudice that is being directed through the lens of religious anger. Extremists exist in every religion – there are Christian extremists, Muslim extremists, Hindu extremists, Sikh extremists, Jewish extremists… Extremists are not the exemplars of the faith within the religion. But every time this us v/s them strain is repeated, it just propagates the misunderstanding that the entire religion is extremist.

And that is just wrong.

I hear some people repeatedly speak about Hinduphobia but never reference their own Islamophobia, even in passing. I was reading through a couple of social media posts today that made  me feel physically sick. The author & commentators openly dissected a protest incident and in minutes created a scenario on what, according to them, the protester in the image thought and how it is ‘definitely‘ a way of ‘Hinduism bowing down to Islam‘. The conversation was insistent on making people on the thread buy that idea of an unknown protester in a newsclip being a Hindu hater. Within minutes, eveyrone on the thread was furious at the audacity and how everything was all about a hatred of Hindus. It was instigation happening right in front of my eyes (who cares about what the protestor really thought?!). Who really cares about what the protest itself was all about?

Another facebook author was angry with a movie that is scheduled to release soon about an acid attack survivor. His anger was based on a story published (on a routinely biased and incendiary pro-right website) that suggested that the movie makers had bowed down to Islam and changed the attacker’s name in the script from a Muslim name to a Hindu one. The already emotionally charged readership swallowed it hook, line and sinker and made a noise about anti-Hindu and derailed the social message completely. Why? Are Hindu men not violent and abusive? Has no Hindu man ever been criminal enough to engage in an acid attack? Funnily enough, after the fact check was publicized,  the rumor was found to be factually incorrect. The pro-right website promptly removed the article and replaced it with a more factual story to cover their tracks.

In the recent horrendous rape story in Hyderabad, it was the one Muslim accused who was highlighted but his three Hindu partners in crime were not showcased. Why? Aren’t all three equally responsible for their horrendous act? This mis-centering is rampant in Indian media where minority accused or criminals are labelled to generate an emotive response as opposed to justice.

Honestly, ordinary Indians live very peacefully and coexist happily until these extremists come in and sow the seeds of doubt, mistrust and anger and instigate feelings of anger against their non-Hindu friends and neighbors. Why? The reason boils down, one way or the other to of the Mughals, British & Portuguese, Muslims invaders and other colonizers who pillaged, plundered and violated our ancestors and executed forced conversions. We are coerced into feeling and holding on to the pain and anger of a historical memory and we are left holding on to that pain and anger.

We are constantly reminded of the painful violence of Muslim and Christian conversions, of how the missionaries came and violently converted our indigenous ancestors. I say OUR ancestors because I am a descendant of one of these converts. I know of the history from what I have read and researched of my community. It is a bloody history. It is terribly painful and I couldn’t sleep for a few days after finding out.

It is my history and yes, it is horrifying.

But, I am born into a Christian family today. My ancestors were Hindu Brahmins, but we are not. We are one of the Christian minority families are survivors of the violence that is being spoken about. We are the descendants of those traumatized Hindus who had  been forcibly converted.

Likewise, the muslim community is being targeted for the Mughal invasions of hundreds of years ago.

But, in today’s narrative, it is none other than us who are being bullied and traumatized as if to be held answerable for the trauma that was caused. We are being held accountable for the crimes that were perpetrated on our own grandfathers and ancestors.

Seriously, how stupid is that?

I speak of this here because the narrative of anti-Hindu is one you will hear often in yoga. We see appropriation by white and western populations of Indian culture, which is often sacred Hindu symbolism. Desi voices speak out about it – the harm felt because of it. It is valid and it hurts Hindu sentiments. It hurts Indian sentiments too.

But to apply the Hindu anger on account of being a minority in the west to Indian non-Hindus is simply absurd.

Hindus are not a minority in India. Hinduphobia is India is practically non existent. But you will find nationalists and fundamentalists shouting it from the rooftops to sway the sympathy meter with one or two choice images and biased and incendiary article links. They provoke, poke and prod their audience to feel the anger and rage and fury and insecurity… and hold on to it. Unlike what yoga and Hindu philosophy speaks about emotions, they encourage people to hold on to their anger and keep stoking this with endless essays of justification.

They feel fear of their privilege being questioned. What you, dear white people, constantly hear of as white fragility, is just the same thing that they feel. The fragility of supremacy and privilege being dismantled right in front of their eyes.

Worse, one may find essays over wordy essays to prove the existence of Hinduphobia. In fact, what is often spoken of as White Christian supremacy in the West is the exactly what is Hindu supremacy in India where Christians are a minuscule minority. Note that the native Christians in India are not white. So, in simple terms, they are just oppressing and pushing on the agenda of anger and hatred against their own people!

Do some Christian missionaries try to convert? They do! It is their job to do it… One may call it their dharma to do so. And they are bloody irritating, but they do not come door to door all over India. But then again, India is a huge country and maybe they do crazy things in other smaller places – especially the non denominational groups. But I see these one off crazy things collected and shared as media that insinuates that ALL Christians and Muslims do that. That is both an unfair and reductionist view.

During Indian festivals, we have various Hindu committees going to every house collecting mandatory donations for Ganesh Chaturthi, Navratri or Dusserah and Diwali funds and all families make an offering. They do this as a community. Because we celebrate each others festivals as a whole community. We eat, drink, celebrate and wish each other for Diwali, Eid and Christmas. And we mourn collectively for victims of horrific crimes and we protest together as a country against that which is divisive.

Yet, our weakness is in our vulnerability to communal threat.

Ask a resident Hindu for a first hand experience of anti-Hindu violence or threat unless it is where they have instigated it (very likely they won’t admit to that). Ask a minority for a first hand experience of aggression & microagression in the face of Hindu supremacy (unless they have also instigated it, which is also rare but very likely they wont admit to that either). Ask people of the DBA community and make up your mind. I am from the minority in India and I have experienced it multiple times over many years! It is damning, shaming and horrendous.

I’m not the only one.

There are countless experiences day in & day out and yet, we are made to feel guilty because of our faith and are made to feel inferior because of historical crimes (that we do not condone or agree with even!). But people today are being held accountable and answerable for crimes of the past… of which they themselves are the survivors, generational trauma nonwithstanding!

It is 100 times worse (or maybe more) for the DBA community. I really cannot claim to know of their experience & trauma because I don’t. In comparison, I still remain a highly privileged Indian.

And just like that the existence of Hindu supremacy is denied and whataboutery ensues.

It is toxic this whole thing and the price of my silence would weigh on me heavily if I didn’t at least appeal to whoever reads this to please think.

Use your discretion.

Use your sensibility.

Yes, if you’re a white or white-passing person, please check your privilege, but use your discernment to consider the privilege within the Indian community too. I’m not asking you to discount Indian voices, not at all, but be prudent with what your hear and see. Is their constantly angry voice that calls out Hinduphobia and anti-Hindu sentiments leaving you with anger or as a yogi / as a Hindu, does it offer you a way to transform this pain using yoga and Hindutva to create peace?

Are these voices just churning your anger and making you spew angry comment and after on social media or is it giving you an avenue to transmute it to something constructive and uniting? Are these desi / South Asian voices just breeding ground for bad-mouthing and name-calling other desi voices that they do not agree with – a mere slander fest that you are happily participating in under the guise of ‘calling out’? Isn’t there are more unifying way of dialogue that seeks to understand the other? Or is slander, finger pointing and name calling the only way out? All in the name of educating the ignorant?

If you are simply adding to 60 or more comments ridiculing alternative thinkers instead of finding it in you or assisting others to find a better way to deal with the pain, then you’re like just playing into the hands of an agenda that is not looking to create peace after all. Question that… what is the propaganda doing after all if not helping other yogis find a better way?

Politics is murky, yet, yoga is political (sigh! this is so painful to keep repeating, but it is what it is!)

Yoga is meant to touch your spirit and help you evolve. Please use your yoga to be mindful of your choices. Just like how human understanding & consciousness is a spectrum, so are our choices. Being pro-right or pro-left is neither a good or bad thing – it reflects how we think and choose. But ridiculing alternative thought is, well, an indication of a closed dialog. Extreme thought however is taking things too far and that comes at the price of eliminating contradictory thought.

Dialogue involves both sides speaking and both sides actively listening. Step back and watch the conversation (as it is usually online). If there is a facade of understanding or a illusion of dialogue which quickly disintegrates into a denigration of any other thought (or religion or belief apart from one’s own), then that is very likely one where communication or dialogue will not be entertained. Those are the spaces where echo chambers are plentiful – the cacophony of similar voices angrily shouting at each other about the other – resulting in stoking the fire of their own anger and discomfort. I’ve seen this in both extreme right and left quarters – both sides only perpetuating a narrative of anger and frustration, neither willing to concede to any effort at peaceful conversation.

The narrative of left or right – is the same everywhere – globally. It is human nature and a bent of mind. Cultural context plays a role but it cannot change an ideology. Harm is harm. When one is so hardened to think a particular way, they will find numerous ways to explain their stand – be it an extremist from the left or the right. It is who they are.

As yogis we aim to see the whole picture – not as a fence sitting centrist – but a balanced, meta view – the bigger picture. It is a blend of the left & right towards the highest good. And that way, we choose our leaders. That way, we choose to lead our families, our communities, our organizations and our nations.

Not by force-feeding – of thought, opinion or law. Not by taking sides. Not by listening to the loudest voice. But perhaps by listening to our quietest one – where we know what we truly stand for regardless of how others would see it. And be kind to yourself in the process.

Political agenda includes your power to support in thought and action as well as with your financial resources. Please be mindful that your financial resources, in all your goodness, are not being manipulated into the wrong hands / the wrong organizations.

Finally, I ask you once again, to please stay tuned. Do your own research – not all Indian media is reliable or unbiased – and the far right / far left media are anyway both biased and unethical in their reporting. And of course, not everything your Desi friends post on social media is unbiased. However, I personally find it interesting to check those very websites that one side strongly castigates as it usually shines light on an aspect that the they seem to be denying. It also gives me insight into the way I think & process information and the kind of information I accept as well as the different ways my friends, acquaintances and those of opposite mindset think.

Politics aside, we still need to live with people and understanding each other will never have a down side.  My faith in people, hard though it is, hopefully will stand the test of time!

I’ve been quietly simmering and sitting with my fears for the past many days. It hasn’t been easy. Some days I’ve wanted to just let go of it all. But yoga is much more than emotional balance for me. It is also much more than its political influence. It makes me who I am. It pushes me to anger and frustration but it also gently coaxes me back into its fold.

I close with some of my notes from my Sankhya lessons that I opened up this morning. These are notes from 2018. The pages spoke of perception (pratyakṣa) and how non-perception occurred when one was either too close or too far from the object perceived. He also spoke about how yogin who have put in the earnest work have no emotion and hence no bias to perception ie they are Yogajapratyakṣa – yogic perception, something I know I am still far away from that – that many of us are still far away from achieving. It remains an aspiration in the face of what we face today.

The Ayurveda of Ash Gourd Stew

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Ash gourd stew served over steaming rice

A few months ago I shared The Carrot Halwa Insight after a random mood to make the dessert to surprise the kids! My penchant for all things Mangalorean is still strong. Our dinner frequently includes coastal recipes and last evening was no different. We had a simple dinner of ash gourd stew with rice.

Firstly, I love ash gourd. I love it as a raw raita, or ash gourd juice, as Agra ka petha or with prawns. I just love the delicate flesh of the gourd that melts in the mouth and leaves you with the gentle and light taste of freshness. But beyond the taste, there are so many more reasons to love it.

Ash gourd also known as ash pumpkin or Winter melon is so called because of the ash-like waxy coating on it’s skin. It is easily digested, has a cooling effect on the body and hence great for acid reflux or other inflammatory GI conditions. It is used extensively in preparing various Ayurvedic remedies.

One of the coolest things (pun intended) is that it is one of the vegetables of highest prana (superfood for yogis!) and is a wonderful addition to those convalescing from illness.

Some folk tales often told of prana being offered to Brahmins in exchange for priestly work. Even today, you’ll see many temple offerings and sacrifices involve ash pumpkins. A side story involved Brahmins actually ensuring that this high prana (and high brain power inducing vegetable) came only to them (controversy alert!) Anyway, today, the ash gourd is available to all, at least in India. It is also a vegetable that can last for a very, very long time.

In winters, it is best consumed as stew as it balances Pitta but more importantly Vata (something we need in winters) and better had for dinner, being Pitta and later Vata times of the day.

Now, for my Mama’s stew recipe – it is super simple!

  • Cook diced ash gourd along with finely sliced onions in 2 cups of thin coconut milk.
  • Add some salt, stew mix (turmeric, Kashmir chili, cumin, coriander, cinnamon stick, cloves, ginger, asafoetida all ground together).
  • When it is almost cooked, add 1 cup of thick coconut milk.
  • Temper with mustard seeds and curry leaves in coconut oil.
  • I sometimes stir in a little bit of kasuri methi.

The reason this stew is such awesome winter dish has got loads to do with the lovely blend of spices – the crown jewels of Ayurvedic cooking! The lightness and simplicity of the gourd along the grounding kapha nourishment of coconut milk and their combined effort to balance vata & pitta… omg! I think I feel some cravings rising already!

And when you use all your senses, a dish of that simple pale red/orange color starkly contrasting against the white steamed rice – the fragrance of the herbs and spices – your digestive agni is definitely stoked & ready to tuck into this wholesome loveliness!

To me, this stew is a reminder of home – of my mother and grandmother and their kitchen of nurturing warmth and nourishment. It makes me feel loved with their tenderness of serving with love and care. I connects me with my culture, the smell of earth and raw goodness. It tastes of love and reminds me of who I am and where I come from and that I belong.

Inclusion Matters – Even in a Yoga Studio!

I had an interesting discussion with some of my mentees yesterday. A question was raised about the religious implications of the “Om” mantra. Some of the teachers had noticed that in select yoga studio locations, their practitioners were not participating in the standard end-of-class chanting. It was unquestioningly assumed that the Om mantra might not be congruent with some of the practitioners’ religious beliefs.

Now, while this article is not to discuss the religiosity of the practice (that conversation demands its own article space), it is however an important one to have when it comes to the inclusiveness of the studio practice itself.

Yoga studios, by themselves, are not places of worship. They are spaces dedicated to a mind-body practice which involves spiritual connection, depth and focus. Today, most studios cater to a posture-heavy ‘asana‘ focus. The teachers leading the studio classes, more often than not, are just getting onto the path of exploring the practice and not necessarily experts of the philosophy or even the pedagogy. Well, how much can a 2 month (or lesser!) yoga teacher training program actually instill in the participants?

Anyway…

Most current yoga teacher training programs, in their bare minimum requirements, have a core element of teaching methodology – teaching teachers how to teach! Many schools are now recognizing the need to include a component on keeping classes inclusive. Well, to be honest, not all schools & studios are inclusive, but the efforts are on to make them so.

So this discussion with my mentees highlighted and observation of full classes of maybe 30-40 students where the majority would refrain from chanting. We weren’t speaking about the usual case where one or two were not included – we were talking majority!

This observation brought out two important points as far as I could tell:

  1. The teacher was at a loss to explain how the nature of the practice was not necessarily religious. And..
  2. The classes were consistently not inclusive.

Many of us tend to sometimes follow ‘rules’ or prescribed ‘formats’ verbatim to ensure compliance and avoid conflict with management – especially where standardized procedures are concerned. Where all outcomes are not carefully considered, this approach usually stands the risk of causing discomfort and harm to a section of the stakeholders. And well, it also creates and perpetuates an impression of the organization not being open to change (although in reality it may very well be open to it!). A learning organization would do well to constantly be on the lookout for ways to improve processes and evolve.

The observation of this chanting incident was not something that couldn’t be fixed. The teachers were proactive in enriching their own understanding of the philosophy and reached out to me to clarify how to answer this question.

So that took care of the first issue. The teachers now know the theory and philosophy (to some extent).

Still, this was just theory and only the beginning.

Addressing the situation at the studio needed a relatively different approach.

If indeed the practitioners were resistant to chanting Om because it clashed with their religious beliefs, then that needed to be addressed – and yes, there was a way to go about it.

Communicate & give options! And keep it inclusive!

A studio session isn’t exactly the place to lecture at length about the secularism of the mantra, but short proactive sentences to assure them with correct information was one way. If people were still uncomfortable, the best way would be to avoid chanting Om altogether! Better still, replace it with humming instead – the sound of bees! Still created a tranquilizing vibration and there was no religious connection with the humble bumble bee either!

Oh, and it still is a yoga practice!

Keeping yoga classes inclusive is an hot topic in the yoga industry recently. But it doesn’t have to be a drag trying to keep things inclusive. Inclusive and accessible don’t only refer to physical inclusion and accessibility towards people with disabilities (that is also very important and we’ll get it that, too, some other day)… In yoga spaces, Diversity, Inclusion Equity and Accessibility also are a huge component of what we say and do and how we say and do it. This also involves making the practice and wellness accessible to people of all body shapes, sizes, physical and cognitive limitations, race, gender, orientation, economic status, etc. Inclusion includes recognition of the trauma experienced by being Othered and not fitting in with the norm.

Inclusion requires empathy. It is not a check in the box. It is when we draw in our audience to be a part of what we offer – through words, deeds and mannerisms.

Inclusion is not just a business requisite.

It is a human requisite.

What do you think of this? Have you experienced something similar in a yoga studio / wellness center / gym or any other space? What other ideas would you offer that I haven’t mentioned here?

Let me know in the comments below! Stay well!

First published on LinkedIn here.

My Unpopular Opinion: Christian & Yoga

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Image by congerdesign from Pixabay 

So we have yet another post on social media that is ringing the bells – church bells this time! This post from Yoga Faith claiming that yogic practices & postures are from the Bible and they are out to reclaim them.

Faith Yoga

Ok.. so this is so not done. SO not done that it is hilariously ridiculous. And if it weren’t for the flu then I would have responded to this earlier – but then yesterday happened. The whole morning & much of the afternoon I sat with this ugly feeling in the pit of my stomach because the day opened me up to various facets of this conversation and the experience of hurt, harm & pain was direct.

I’ll be honest, I’m not usually this sensitive, so maybe it had something to do with the Autumn Equinox. Jokes apart, though, I was very disturbed over the many comments that this post generated to the point that I was eventually reduced to tears of hurt & pain. I recall telling myself that this was just another appropriation incident and that it was absurd for me to take it so personally. But I just could not bear it. Eventually, my 17-yr-old noticed my tears and realized that somewhere, somehow,  something that wounded me quite deeply.

It had.

So as is my wont, I chose to share it here – because sometimes it is this raw pain when shared brings hope for change.

Firstly, about this whole Christian Yoga / Yoga Faith spiel – I think it is definitely a case of misunderstood scriptures by a group of (probably) well meaning folks who picked the wrong practice to appropriate. I think dragging in yoga was uncalled for. Yoga is a spiritual practice long established and existing way before the documented Vedic period in the Indo Gangetic plains. For Yoga Faith to claim, with much audacity, that the roots exist in the Bible because of the meditation & chanting practices mentioned there is preposterous. Blatant appropriation by a white Christian outfit needed calling out and I see that it did happen – a number of my friends and colleagues voiced their feelings ranging from outrage to hurt through various channels of social media.

I was nursing my children back to health after a nasty flu episode. I followed the comments occasionally, but I passed joining in.

But then a couple of very interesting dynamics started playing out. As the dust around the immediate post reaction settled and Yoga Faith issued their quasi apology (pfft! another #eyeroll accompanied by a #facepalm), pockets of conversations on my groups & social media all started with the post-incident chatter.

I woke up to a chat window full of enraged comments at the Yoga Faith apology note and later saw that same apology note torn apart in some other social media groups & threads as well. To some extent it was sensible critique, but soon enough the criticism moved away from specifics to include a generalized group of people – Christians. Mockery and wordplay around christian words and practices including a fair amount of blasphemy directed towards Jesus & other christian terms. I recall sharing outrage in the past over Hindu deities images on bathroom mats but was surprised at having these same people wilfully engaging in exact same volleys without a moment’s hesitation or… empathy… because it is a different religion now? An eye for an eye….

Here’s the punch line – I am Christian by birth. I may not be a 100% actively practicing Christian and may have a 99% leaning towards spiritual philosophy instead of organized religion, but, my faith and deeply personal contemplation does happen as a Christian. And to that effect, those conversations caused pain – and not just tiny wound flecks, but larger hurtful ones.

So, although I still believe that Yoga Faith messed up and hope that they offer a better response and apology eventually, I’ll share here again what I have always said – numerous times. Since my yoga journey, and having read the Bhagvad Gita, I have found immense understanding of my faith – not my religion, my faith. Maybe a part of it is Christian faith, and so be it, but it has not got anything to do with the rites & rituals of the church.

I came across Yoga Faith’s Facebook page and posts indicating yoga asanas captioned with Bible verses as if to equate one with the other. Now, while drawing a connection to yoga from personal experience is open to all, but claiming its heritage to a Biblical verse for ustrasana – no thank you. This is when I’d like to remind Yoga Faith that a great many churches have been spending many years vilifying yoga and yogic practices – so no, save the story… really.

Having said that, there is one part of Yoga Faith’s initial post that I understood – the part on meditation & chanting being in the Bible. And that is true… but that is also true of any other spiritual tradition and/or religion where communing with the Higher self, the Divine involves deep meditative and contemplative practices. Hymns are sung, prayers chanted, and repetitive prayers akin to mantras are chanted on a rosary or maala or tasbih or dhikr. This is true of Hindu, Christian, Muslim practices. I can’t  speak for other religions as I do not know. They are not wrong to say that these practices were mentioned in the Bible – especially in the Old Testament – but again, they are silly to claim that the seated postures are described in any details in the the Bible. Sitting at the feet of a master, kneeling or standing do not in any way indicate that Biblical characters were practicing yoga asanas (please allow me another #eyeroll).

What needs to be also remembered is that Jesus was from the Middle East in Asia and I feel that there were many practices that Jesus performed that are rememble yoga. Yoga and yogic philosophy is a Vedic darshana. The arrival or origin of yogic or other practices to/in the Indo Gangetic plain or their spread from the Indo Gangetic plain spread it to other places is still unclear. But the commonality of the region makes is quite possible to have very similar postures of reverence and spiritual obeisance. But conjecture aside, yoga as we know it today, remains to be the practice that has been preserved and conveyed down lineages and traditions from India and Indian sources and as an Indian Yoga teacher (although Christian), I would ardently stand by that to refute Yoga Faith’s unbased claims.

Now, there is also my own personal reflection of how I was able to connect the esoteric and thought philosophies of the Gita and yoga to Christian philosophy – both being very different from Hindu or Christian or other religious rites & rituals. As a philosopher, there are numerous schools of thought, including teachings of Yogananda Paramahansa and other core Krishna schools, where Christ consciousness & Krishna consciousness are considered similar, if not the same – any differences being attributed to the culture of the geographies.

All of this is accepted history and ongoing debate & I get it. Yet, what hurt me was the intensity and harmful statements that were made. The ones that were made without knowing my background allowed me to see the anger, some of it without having full facts and yet allowing me space to share and speak. Those didn’t cause me as much pain. Yet two specific experiences did, and both included me voicing out the harm I was experiencing at the choice of words and sentiments from the majority in the conversations – Hindus (some yogis others not).

It is important to this blog post to specify that the narrative took a Hindu rhetoric instead of a yogic or an Indian one – because the argument cannot stand as Indian v/s Christian (national v/s religious) – to be on par, it had to get to the the Hindu v/s Christian narrative of this entire yoga story.

I could handle that part too.

Until things got ugly. Because it really didn’t take long for the usual suspects of mockery, name-calling and bigotry to start its play. I have seen enough of this sectarian instigation over the course of Indian politics earlier this year and seen many social media trolls hijack innocent posts and engage in bullying and groupism – all in the name of saving ‘yoga’ or ‘Indian culture’ as if to say that if you weren’t a Hindu you were ‘lesser than’ or that you were in a way ‘less Indian’ or ‘less patriotic’ or whatever. The assumption that by way of being born a Christian, I was being supportive of Yoga Faith was just the start of it. My yogic perspective and/or my other points of intersection was cast aside – especially as they were potentially going to defuse the anger that they wanted to continue stoking.

And then came the gas-lighting. Mind you – no apology was ever offered for the harm that I just voiced having experience – not even a half-assed one. Instead there was something on the lines of, “How dare you point a finger at my friends who were mocking you? They are free to voice their opinion on my page since I may agree to some parts of it.” What was left unsaid is that, ‘Since my friends’ bigoted views match mine and we can laugh about it, they are free to opine, but your opinions are not welcome here and you are not supposed to take offense, even though you are also supposed to be my friend.’ Other comments were on the lines of, ‘I’m a Christian and I didn’t feel offended by these jokes so why should you? My faith is stronger & can withstand such mockery….’ And the priceless one, ‘I thought you are a mature and light hearted soul….but….

Then there was a last attempt at drawing sarcastic, dark humor at my ancestry and ethnicity – another very common engagement, if not in public forums, then most definitely in private groups and chambers. Anyway, that stung. And my ‘friend’ found nothing wrong in any of it – except for a last comment asking that since she didn’t mean disrespect to anyone and least of all to me, for being her teacher. I think that is what dug the nail right in. The sentimentality of it all – the last straw. I broke.

The conversation went on to democracy and their individual’s right to mock others if they felt like it. This is where it started really making me physically sick. This group of people felt it was their constitutional right to freedom to mock others.

Now here’s where the political needle spins. This conversation is happening in India. And these are Hindus – the ethnopolitical group in power, the majority. And on the other side two of us on the receiving end of this mockery – the minority. It was this dynamics that was in play – whether they knew it or not, it was… because everything that happened on that thread is what everyone in the west calls a supremacist attitude of oppression due to the power of privilege – make that unchecked privilege.

As an audience it is important for us to work against supremacy and unchecked privilege. Please bear in mind that I always speak for yoga, but in this skewed yoga industry where everything in the WEST seems to be of relevance, the Indian narrative is often forgotten. The Hindu narrative of yoga in the West where Indians & South Asians are considered the marginalised minority, in India they are not – they are the majority and engage in as much of a supremacist attitude just like the larger white population in the western world do. It is this unchecked privilege that is used every.single.time. and they can get away with it – and in the western context, the marginalized are being given a platform to speak.

I have tried on various forums to indicate how many NRIs (Non Resident Indians) engage in this political instigation by gathering white allies who have let go of their Christian identity by their own choice (good for them!), who have found renewed faith in Hindu philosophy (again, great going if they’re happy, go for it!) but who then go on to blindly follow these individuals with skewed supremacist views without knowing the cultural politics that occur on ground in India – they’re just removing white supremacy and replanting it with their allyship in India. I once mildly suggested that people watch out of the ‘brainwashing’ to which I was patronizingly replied, ‘Don’t worry, Luvena, I can’t get brainwashed that easily!

Yeah.. right…

Gosh! Did I just vent? I guess I did…  it was just too much… too much for me to handle yesterday. I cried from the hurt of being shamed and for the refusal of a ‘yogi‘ to see the harm that was being perpetuated. I was hurt by a student who pulled the rug from under my feet. I don’t know which one was worse – was it the mockery, the humiliation or the open agreement by liking the mocking posts and at the same time continuing to victim shame. Maybe the romantic in me felt humiliated by a student, who was also a friend. Regardless, I took it personally. I was offended. I was hurt.

This is ugly – this happens.

So, to the white people reading my blog post – here’s an invitation. The next time an Indian/SA yoga teacher speaks, please use your discernment. We all have diverse views, ideologies and sentiments. Some of us are far right-wing fundamentalists, others are far left leaning, yet others are neutral and many others just don’t care. Not all of us are Hindus – we have Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, atheists, etc too and some of us are yogis others are not. There are a group of severely marginalized communities in India who are not even considered in organized religions – the dalits, the bahujans and the adivasis – who are not included in these conversations of social order and hierachy. (I am aware that many DBA speak for themselves and I have better privilege in comparison and I do not wish to bring their story in to gain any advantage at their expense. But do learn about them.) It is beyond Hinduism but it is contemporary Indian.

Make an educated and informed call about how you would engage with us – what about us speaks to you? Is it our authenticity or is it our vulnerability in situations? It is OK if it is the lack of either too 🙂  Recognize that the ones considered a minority in the U.S. / UK / developed Western countries are largely the very affluent and privileged majority here in India and compared to the local residents and are not necessarily engaging in equitable practice always. Many of them live well cushioned lives in the west and assume a place of authority to speak on behalf of all Indians – especially the ones living in India! The do not! They also don’t necessarily give back to their country as you would think they do but then they are often not expected to either.  Do your homework. Ask questions. Be wary of the ones who gang up and bully others who do not agree with their POV or those who label any one with an alternate opinion as antinational or Hinduphobic. That is again not true, yet it is a commonplace argument. The moment you say anything that could pose as an alternative perspective it is labelled as Hinduphobic to shut down the conversation and effectively get the individual to second guess themselves and stimulate sympathy in the western audience. This, even if the person in question is Indian.

And to all of us, it would never hurt to be kind. Making a point, even a strong one doesn’t have to make anyone stoop so low that below the belt slurs and pejoratives are the only means with which you can operate. Slander and libel are not the way to create any kind of positive change – or is it that positive change is something that is not the goal?

India is diverse and the narrative is as diverse as her people. If you’re standing in solidarity with us, then please do add this to your list of work in this space. Until then, yes, Yoga Faith needs to do better.

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.

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.