I just spent the past week, like many other disciples, sadhakas, in the lineage, in remembrance of the Master teachers of my tradition. The period between the 8th & 12th of September is celebrated annually with the Sri Lakshmi-Narayana Mahayajna at the Sannyasa Peeth in Munger. This year, due to the pandemic, the sadhana and aradhana were livestreamed and aspirants were able to participate remotely. The celebration itself commences & ends between two significant dates for those in the lineage – the 8th of September being the birthday of Sri Swami Sivananda Saraswati and the 12th of September is the sannyasa day (initiation into sannyasa) of Sri Swami Satyananda Saraswati.
It was a personal practice – it felt deep, personal, powerful and significant. I am not going to share those emotions here; they’re too personal. However, I will share about one aspect that Swami Niranjanananda presented on the third day’s satsang after the Mahayajna.
He spoke of gurus.
He also didn’t just speak of gurus, he spoke with an intensity that really called out for responsibility and a sense of introspection on who we really were posing to be!
I felt a deep sense of hurt in myself as I listened to the carefully chosen words from Swamiji – words that were meant to be direct, precise and relevant.
If you’re in the Western world, desi or non desi, you would be familiar with a lot of controversy around yoga or spiritual Gurus. India, too, has a abundance of gurus. Let me rephrase that, an abundance of self-proclaimed gurus with a huge following of ‘devotees’ many of them blind devotees too! Yet, in a land of existential esoterism, such unflinching faith often is synonymous with the very essence.
Still, we come back to ‘Guru’ and all the hype and wrath that the word draws – especially in the West. Unfortunately, in the digital age, a lot of that expressed fury is also reabsorbed by the native people – either through capitalism or the sensationalism of media – in both ways, a reconditioning of thought & understanding to align it with a western centric understanding of a principle that in every sense of the word cannot be naturally understood by a western mind.
For one, because it is a not a rational principle. It is not a ‘ touch & feel’ / ‘show & tell’ principle. It is not a, “This is my Guru, who is yours?’ principle.
So who is a Guru, then?
I cringe at my own question…. because I may actually want to ask, “So, what is a Guru, then?” But I’m blogging in English, aren’t I? So the personified Guru should answer to ‘Who?” shouldn’t it?
Actually, to the rational mind, regardless of geographical location, esoteric concepts may sometimes seem like an Orientalised and exotic system. Honestly, these concepts are difficult to understand by many Indians and South Asians too.
It is because the path of discipleship is not undertaken by all. The spiritual path is not lucrative and has no perks (unless the idea is to market & benefit from it, that’s another story). But the spiritual path is a conscious choice to step into a lot of inner mess.
The path of discipleship is not something that every Indian has to take. In some communities, certain rites of passage may form an illusion that a sacrament initiates the child into the path of discipleship. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. This is similar to the sacraments in various religious rituals and sacraments. It is a societal tradition, but not necessarily one where the child is entrusted to a rishi in a gurukul to promote the ancient guru shishya parampara.
Oh and while we cannot deny the social tendency to uphold a patriarchal representation of the guru shishya relationship, it is important to clarify that in the tradition children were sent by their parents to be raised with life and moral values by rishis and rishi patnis (the rishis’ wives) as their parents. To this day, many spiritual teachers in many lineages are women.
The Guru is a different principle altogether.
As I pause in frustration at this blog post, I realise that I am trying too hard. Trying too hard to explain something that cannot be explained in words. It has to be felt. It is like me trying to explain that honey is sweet but not being able to explain to you what sweetness is if you’ve never ever tasted anything sweet before. Sweetness is not honey. Sweetness is the principle and honey (or chocolate or candy or ice-cream is the conduit)
So an individual may be a teacher and for a moment might be the conduit for the wisdom of the principle of the Guru, the Guru tattva, conveyed through the lineage, the tradition, scriptures, (workshops & classes…??). And after their passing from this mortal world, their life and work may be referred to as deeper, powerful, potent works of wisdom. They may be gurus, even…. but that recognition is in their legacy.
However, our penchant for labelling persons, the conduits as the Guru is both misleading and damaging to the whole system – let alone to the ego of the individual. The pressure to conform to the perceived (or marketed) image is immense and the backlash of falling from grace when they err is harsh.
Gurus, today, are centered and platformed as the principle. The tattva is personified to make sense to a population or a group of people who essentially are not able to grasp the concept of the principle. This over simplification leads to all sorts of problems – least of which is connecting the principle to a very mortal, menial, frail human existence of the individual – who for the reasons I just mentioned, has to live up to the ideal of being called a ‘Guru’.
In the process, the gap between the truth of the Guru tattva and the misinformation / mispresentation of what a Guru is (because of how certain people, who either call themselves Gurus or are called a Guru by their followers, behave or behaved) is ever widening.
Here’s the thing, though. Even if we were to posthumously recognise the gift of certain personalities as great teachers, master teachers of the wisdom, in all aspects, while they live they remain human. They goodness is a conscious cultivation, their acts of generosity and a choice they make, their careful compassionate speech and deeds are a means to stay on their path…. And just like that, their flaws are human, the abuse some of them perpetrated is human, any oppression caused is human, all their faults are human. Because they are human.
Call out the abuse, the crimes, the trauma, etc. and call out their actions. If they are alive, they need to be tried in a human court of law for their crimes….
Because they are just human beings – they may have had the opportunity to study and share some wisdom to some people. But that doesn’t stop them from being human and from succumbing to human frailty.
The assumption that any teacher – yoga, spirituality, traditional art & culture, or others from a guru parampara is automatically cleared for ethics is flawed. The assumption that the self proclaimed gurus with mass followings are beyond reproach is blind faith and ignorance.
What do people know of the Guru before they embark oo being wary anyway?
The assumption that teachers are infallible is where the principle of the guru, the guru tattva, is defiled and shamed.
The guru tattva is not a guru – not your guru or mine. The guru tattva is the principle, the essence that is available for all humanity.
The guru is eternal and is an intimate non-personal experience. The teacher is just the channel – maybe momentarily, in many moments, channeling the tattva even, so deserving of gratitude. The wisdom is always through the parampara – from one teacher to the student teacher to the next student teacher….
It is not personified. It cannot be personified.
It cannot always be explained either! To some extent, I feel even this blog post has not completely succeeded in conveying the depth of that feeling because some feelings cannot be expressed in vocabulary (that is limited anyway!)
I close with a lot of gratitude to my teachers who constantly teach and learn themselves staying true to the teachings of the tradition as well as remaining observant to our own shortcomings.
This blog post dedicated to
Sri Swami Sivananda Saraswati, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, Swami Satyasangananda Saraswati, Pradeep Sattwamaya, Swami Yogaratna Saraswati and Swami Dharmakeerti Saraswati for their teachings, mentoring and grace for which I am very grateful.
I’ve changed.In more ways that I even imagined.. because I didn’t really expect or plan for those changes.
Yet, I changed.
One thing remained constant, but in it’s constancy, it deepened.
Not asana – no, there have been days (leading to weeks, sometimes) when I couldn’t get moving on the outside, but there was a lot moving on the inside.
Do I make sense? I’m guessing to some of you I do make sense.
Truth is, I changed.
And through me, my yoga, or, my experience of yoga changed.
What is yoga if not to change us?
To break us and to re-create us?
What is yoga if it doesn’t crush us to powder only to lovingly mould us again to a better form that before?
What is my yoga if I were to still hold on to old ideas, thoughts and battles?What is my yoga when I seek liberation but constantly trap myself painful mis-truths? When we are in the battle of righteousness, we need all our tools – mental, emotional, spiritual to get us through.
But once we are at pause, what good is it to hold on to those tools?
A boat is necessary until one gets to the other side of the river, but when a man once crosses the stream, the boat is no longer necessary for his purpose.
Uttara Gita 1.18
How long will be keep scratching open our wounds?I don’t know… it gets tiring, doesn’t it?
I’m different now.
I’ve evolved, I guess… whichever direction I have stepped up or down or side ways.
Present times are quite unnerving. Yoga teachers are not lesser immune to these changes. The stress is real, and the so-called ‘solutions’ can also be quite daunting to many us for whom life and work has taken a turn into this colloquial, ‘new normal’. The truth is that not many yoga teachers are ready for this abrupt change and burnout, in yoga, may sneak up on us just as easily as we go about teaching our students to navigate change and calm through life’s ups & downs.
Burnout is real.
The sudden change in routine has done to us has thrown many yoga teachers is a whirlwind of activity especially around work and the generation of income. While some yoga teachers may be associated with local studios or fitness chains, many (if not most) traditional yoga teachers serve the community through private classes (individual or group).
The employment contract may cover earnings during this period of social distancing for their contracted staff & employees. But for yoga teachers who work for themselves, the pressure of generating income as well as shifting to a new medium of instruction online may prove to be downright stressful.
Even if businesses may be supported, the perception of competition in an online jungle or even the logistics of getting online to create programs or teach can take a toll.
And then, we have the influence of the coronavirus news, extended proximity with familiar faces, the pressure to stay calm, political squabbles and civic disruptions all adding to our woes. I, personally, wasn’t too bothered with the change form offline to online, but the constant drive to create new things, figure out messaging tools, newsletters, classes, what to teach, when to teach, marketing material … and raising kids & dogs, cooking, cleaning, attending zoom calls, etc…
In this whirlwind of activity, a couple of things suffered terrible – my practice, my self study & any semblance of self care.
I was giving too much.
I was doing too much.
I was sitting too much.
I was not listening to my body.
I was unable to make time for my practice or my self-study.
My routine was all over the place.
There was too much screen time.
It felt like I was ON at all times.
I was not slowing down.
I could hear my body tell me to make all these changes, but I didn’t pause to listen and heed the advice. Until the body did the only thing it could to get my attention.
It slowed me down.
Thankfully, it wasn’t a total burnout, but it was close enough. My body couldn’t really take a lot of the pressure, so it showed up in my weakest spot – my back. I had no choice but to listen – and apologize to my back for the lack of attention and promise to do better.
And I did. I’ll write another post later this week with my insights from the recovery process. But I did take it easy. I stayed in bed. It took me a whole week to get back to my feet! A whole week and lots of ice! I also took the time to read, make very late crochet Easter eggs, play Uno with the kids, supervise my 13yo (from my bed) as she explored the kitchen & cooked our meals. I meditated, taught my morning meditation from my bed (I told my students & kept my video switched off). I explored my essentials oils, I reflected, I creatively expressed, I rested… and I healed.
I recognize that I am susceptible to this.
We all are – it is a fault in our human-ness to succumb to a lack of attentiveness to ourselves. Self care is important. How else would we expect ourselves to be of service and fulfill our purpose?
Here are some pointers for yoga teachers:
Schedule it.Your practice may falter, so schedule some time in for it – even if it is just 15 minutes.
Online calls & meetings get us to sit for longer than we are used to. Incorporate movement & stretching throughout the day. 10-15 minutes mini stretches.
Stay hydrated – can’t say this enough. A well hydrated body reduces the accumulation of cortisol (stress hormone) in the body.
Eat well. Eat on time & have a balanced diet. Too many dry foods may increase your vata causing more imbalance, especially if you are not moving much.
Establish a routine. Creating a sense of predictability allows for a more measured and conscious approach to staying in control.
Get your Zzzs. Sleep well, on time.
Let go of perfection. You may not have that perfectly edited video for your classes, but rest assured, your students are there because of what you offer.
Find your sangha. Social isolation is not emotional isolation. Stay connected with other yoga teachers and business owners. You may have more in common to share – the good times as well as the challenges. This is a time to stay connected.
Do non yoga things. This is a too-much-of-a-good-thing point. Take a break – get off your yoga mat and experience the joy of art, craft, color, a movie, a book, journaling, decluttering, anything that takes your mind off things but still remains joyfully creative.
Tap into nature’s goodness. Essential oils worked wonders for me in my self care routine! Sandalwood & jasmine are a wonderful oil for all doshas. You may have your favorite blend. Go for it! Herbs & essential oils have deep wisdom!
And finally, take frequents moments to just do nothing at all! Doing nothing is an art – one that is deeply healing & immensely nurturing. No rules, no regulations – just.do.nothing.
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…
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.
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.
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?
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:
The teacher was at a loss to explain how the nature of the practice was not necessarily religious. And..
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?
Gosh! Believe me when I say this: I am not following Jenni Rawlings or her blog. But, this link to her latest blog post 7 Prominent Yogis Weigh in on Yoga Injuries and What to Do About Them was shared on a group I am a part of with the comment that the member found it concerning that there were no POCs of prominence featured here. Anyway, someone tagged me – yes, me, the Indian teacher, not a prominent one – and clearly not white or white-passing, so not eligible to have anything constructive to add to this blog, I suppose.
Turns out, to a query on Instagram for this blog post about the lack of POCs or larger bodied teachers in this article, the author replied, “I wish there was more diversity among high-profile senior yoga teachers who actively train other teachers.“
So now, you clearly have me hooked because above and beyond the lack of sensitivity and the clear condescension that Jenni had demonstrated in her tone back in July, this post and comment more or less underscores her lack of desire to actually both consider POC (let alone mention them) and recognize or approach the diversity of practitioners and teachers in the community.
Questions that came up for me:
Does the author assume / believe that Indian / SA / POC asana teachers do not teach safe practice? Do we not consider injuries or know what to do about them? Do we not train other teachers actively? Is the Indian context of teaching safe asana different? Is it not relevant to the Western yoga context?
Do these 7 prominent white and white-passing able bodied yoga teachers know what it feels like to be a larger bodied yoga practitioner? Do they know by lived experience what injury in a big / fat / large body feels like and what to do about it?
What exactly makes a yoga teacher high profile? The number of Facebook / Instagram likes and followers? Don’t those numbers increase ideally when you are able bodied & white / white-passing anyway?
This blog disturbs me and I know I might do both Jenni & myself a world of good by just ignoring her posts. But I can’t do that today. Not just for this blog post but for any that continues to perpetuate the disparity and marginalization in the name of existing prominence. It would be so wrong on my part… on so many levels!
Firstly, I am familiar with just two of the teachers on the list – so the others I haven’t heard of. But then isn’t this the exact case for white supremacy and lack of diversity in ‘today’s yoga world‘? If yoga is continued to be represented by white & white passing teachers, and if no effort is made to even reach out & ask Indian/SA/POCs for their input, then needless to say, the playing field is skewed! And yes, so is prominence!
Secondly, the blog post on safety is also quite exclusive. It caters to the stereotyped able-bodied practitioner. In other words, the safety of bigger bodies doesn’t seemingly fall into the radar of the blog. I can understand that it is not the area of expertise of the author, but her insta comment indicates that she is aware of diversity that, in her opinion, is lacking prominence.
The author’s wish to see more of diversity in the ‘prominent’ list, those who are actively teaching safe asana is, well, quite fulfilled already if only she looked them up!
What is needed then? Because the problem is not this blog (although it is problematic as always), the problem is not one person’s obvious colored prejudice and the unadjusted bias against POCs or people of non-conforming / non-stereotyped bodies. It is simple.
It is about the lack of platforming. And it is about the privilege of supremacy that showcases, repeatedly and consistently white, able-bodied practitioners & teachers to supplement their benefits. In the process, the marginalized remain in the shadows, kept there with a pitiful ‘wish’ for more diversity because it is easier to say, “I don’t know they exist!” or “Do they even do this work to keep asana safe?”
And so, until then, we carry on with the pantomime by allowing the White Savior Complex to take us through asana and help keep it safe for us, even if they don’t really know how to.
Diet is the number one factor that impacts health status (Journal of the American Medical Association) & that healthier diets could save one in five lives every year! Even more than tobacco and high blood pressure. Workplace stress is an often cited cause for a lot of modern and urban lifestyle diseases and disorders. Poor diet and eating patterns are one of the largest contributors to increasing stress. Interestingly, while corporate wellbeing programs take into account employee physical and physiological health, nutrition and diet usually miss the spotlight. Beyond satisfying the taste buds food, nutrition plays an integral part not only in managing energy levels during working hours and ensuring optimized productivity but also towards general health markers overall.
Here are some tips to make eating well a part of your working experience:
Start with a good breakfast – Skipping breakfast or eating a sugary snack-bar on the run does very little to sustain energy levels during the day. A nutritious and balanced breakfast can go a long way to in managing them. Not all body constitution types would find it necessary to have a big breakfast. If you find yourself running low on fuel even before lunch hour strikes, then chances are a breakfast of slow-releasing energy would be a better option that a snack bar or sugary cereal that would create a sugar spike and crash.
Pack your own lunch – It’s a usual trend to and a very tempting one to just go out for lunch with your team mates or just order in something quick (and relatively unhealthy). Planning and packing in a quick lunch can be healthier where you can ensure that your daily requirements of carbs, protein, healthy fats and other nutrients are taken care of. There is also the opportunity to bond with team mates in the office itself! Which brings me to the next pointer…
Head to the office dining area! – Eating at your desk may be a tempting idea especially if you would be looking at multi-tasking. However, studies show that eating in a calm atmosphere is much better for the digestive process. Eating in the company of your colleagues (read pleasant company and ideally not discussing work!) adds to the experience of eating calmly and enjoying the mealtime. The break often does wonders when you get back to the task after the meal.
Focus on your food – Aim for at least one meal a week where you can eat in complete silence. Mindful eating can do wonders as a way of relaxation as well as a means to reduce the extra chatter from the mind. Of course, you can choose to dinnertime for this practice, but some time out from the work day is a great practice for concentrated mindfulness – paying attention to every bite, every morsel, the burst of flavors and textures, colors and aromas of spices or herbs. One step further would be attempting this with your eyes closed! I invite you to try it even if just for a moment! (and leave me a comment! 🙂 )
Snack smart – It is very tempting to reach out for the sinful, sugary (or salty) snacks when hit by a craving or sudden hunger pang. It helps to plan for these – let’s face it, we all have them, might as well plan for them. Keeping some small portions of fruit-nut mixes or trail mix in your drawer or packing some nuts, carrot / cucumber / celery sticks with a hummus dip along with your lunch is a good idea too!
Stay hydrated – Many of us seem to confuse the sensations of hunger with that of thirst – making us reach for a snack when we actually need water. Air conditioning also factors in with reduced urge to drink water and adds to dehydration. If you tend to forget, put in an hourly pop-up reminder on your calendar to ensure you have a glass of water.
Eat to De-stress – Make sure you include foods that can help to combat the effects of stress on the body. The Ayurvedic herb, ashwagandha (Indian ginseng) is a good supplement classified as an adaptogen to help the body manage stress. A variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables also add vitamins and minerals to the daily intake. Ensure omega 3s are a part of your diet as they can positively influence cardiovascular health as well as anxiety and depression.
Supplement when necessary – Stress has a way of depleting the vitamin reserves and/or the absorption of essential nutrients in the body. Vitamin C has been shown to deplete under stressful conditions. When excessive workplace stress may lead to insufficient nutrition from an average diet, it is worthwhile to supplement with high quality multivitamins, Omega 3s and essential nutrients – preferably organic. Read labels and research manufacturer guidelines taking care to watch out for heavy metals and fillers in the capsules.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but I’ve tried them and I know they help. Stress is one thing that we can all stand to benefit from managing, especially at the workplace. Start with choosing any one and gradually add some others to build towards your de-stressed working lifestyle.
And remember, if you do try the mindful eating tip one of these days or any of the other tips above, please leave a comment below to share your thoughts or experience!
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.
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.
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!‘
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 necessarilygive 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.
This morning, I came across a Facebook post from my friend, Kaya Mindlin. She was sharing her thoughts on how some spiritual teachers would suggest that “for the sake of spirituality, you must put your logical mind to rest” and in the process set the stage for bypassing and even inviting guilt for using logic and reasoning in an instance.
This was an intellectual thread and it was quite interesting to note that it was common for many yoga teachers to ask this of their students.
What I’ve observed is that many, if not most, yoga teachers today knowingly or unwittingly assume a place of spiritual high-ground. There is an assumption that if one is a ‘yoga’ teacher, then they have immediately received some spiritual secrets of life that are universal truths (along with their YTT200 certificate maybe). An assumption like that often, in my very humble (yet blunt) opinion, brinks either on stupidity or more seriously, on a lot of potential harm and danger.
This was my comment on Kaya’s thread:
Humans are gifted in that that have a mind that thinks like animals and also possesses the ability to discern with multiple facets – logically, intuitively (although this isn’t necessarily logical) and by taking into account sensations, feelings and emotions. All this is logic- and body/ personality-based judgment and subjective. The objective way is to go beyond these ‘personal’ and objectively look at it as the bigger picture – that takes the discernment to a Manasic level(higher order thinking) & tapping into inherent wisdom. Teachers who use spiritual cliches are usually unprepared to answer their students questions and end up making such statements as a way to shut them down using scriptural verses/ thought as a crutch. Viveka, vichara and dharma are all a part of human endeavor.
Our strength as human beings is our ability to sense, feel and emote and to make enough sense of it to express. However, our sensations, feelings & emotions are all subjective to our own experiences. In other words, they are purely based on the individual perceptions of our personality… and our ego. Ego here, referring to our individual self and not the attitude thereof. The experience is largely ‘I ‘based because it happened to ‘me‘. This experience also doesn’t hold true for everyone else and hence remains to be a subjective one and arising largely from the physiological & psychosomatic response to situations.
These responses and experiences are body-based and allow us to choose based on what our physical body, and our mind, wants, likes and desires because it feels good and nourishing. This is important. This is also discernment at a basic, personal level. This is where we use our ability to think and assess what is beneficial and what isn’t as it applies to us / our individual self and to some extent taps into our next level consciousness to include our immediate close ones (family & maybe very close friends). Everything is subjective. It is in this state when one doesn’t overly bother about the community or state or country because they align themselves with choices, policies, actions, etc that are beneficial to them and them alone.
Very subjective and rooted in the ‘Me, Myself & I‘
However, humans are higher order thinking beings – gifted not just with an intellect, but also with a higher sense of spiritual understanding and evolving wisdom. We have the ability to not just be stuck in the ‘me, myself & I‘ but also to move to a consciousness rooted in the ‘We, Ourselves & Us‘. It is, essentially, the philosophical path of righteous action – dharma – based on our elevated consciousness. It is an action based on an elevated level of consciousness when we can see the bigger picture of the series of incidents and situations and understand the larger perspective – the manasic perspective.
It is stepping out of the well and understanding that there is a whole world beyond it! It is important, though, to recognize that the process does not mean discounting or dismissing the subjective sensations, feelings and emotions, but acknowledging them as a part of the personality. Allowing ourselves to acknowledge the physical experience and emotional washing over and still be able to hold ourselves accountable to look beyond that subjective experience.
This is easier said that done.
But there in lies the work of the disciple, philosopher, aspirant and yogi. That is the austere work of our path to freedom and yoga – our tapas.
Many spiritual ‘teachers‘ – the ones who may have gathered various concepts from diverse self-help or healing modalities and traditions but lack a solid grounding on the existential philosophy and deeper meaning and wisdom of scriptures or even philosophy, often have a collection of quotes & cliches to offer their followers & students. The harm here is that the confusion the students may feel would be met by the poorly prepared teacher who offers a cliched statement as a bandaid instead…. only to either invalidate the student’s experience and natural questioning or dismiss it has being judgmental of yoga and yogic practices.
The risk is in assuming that everything about yoga, philosophy and the scriptures in abstract. To some extent it is – for that matter even science, to some extent begins with abstract assumptions and hypotheses (until proven). But using a partially understood abstract to shut away questions that students may have and by asking them to pause their thinking mind or be less judgmental and ‘go beyond‘ it is a ripe setting for physical, physiological, emotional, spiritual, mental and psychological trauma and harm. Not to forget, making a case for guilt.
At the end of it all, if the teacher is unable to connect the principle of ‘going beyond’ judgment to explain where exactly he/she is asking you to go to, it is just plain old spiritual bypassing. It is worth remembering that this ‘going beyond‘ will involve work, determination, commitment and a bit of sacrifice as it would mean letting go of the stronghold many of us have with our subjective feelings, emotions & sensations.
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.