An Indian Yoga Teacher Speaks

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A large part of this year has been opening up the Yoga Industrial Complex and the various facets of yoga today. I think it would be honest to say that with the various conversations, I must have been naive – very naive, actually, to all that was happening. There were times when I even felt reticent in the face of the aggressive debates and controversial arguments and at other times, I just felt emotionally torn that ‘others‘ were fighting a seemingly just cause on my behalf.

For all the unity that yoga is supposed to be, I felt pretty much isolated and watching in from the outside of the inside – does that even make sense?

But, as it happens with constructive conversations, including some heated discussions, I started drawing in on the various perspectives of the larger issues as well as a smaller ones. Aggressions, transgressions, blatant abuse, appropriation and microagressions. I started being aware and sensitive, not just to those matters that were obvious, but also those in which I seem to be involved and affected but until then, largely unaware.

Earlier this year, Yoga Journal was in the spotlight for racist and exclusive narratives by issuing split covers for the same issue – sharing the cover between a larger bodied, person of color and an able-bodied white yoga teacher. This month, Yoga Journal released their Travel & Culture issue with interviews and features of some of my very accomplished desi yoga teacher friends – that was a great start.

A few weeks ago, an article was published of 19 yoga teachers to watch for in 2019. The article received a bit of heat for highlighting an article where all but one or two were white and able bodied. Needless to say, a big part of the ‘international‘ yoga community made themselves heard around these instances and conversations happened. Some of the voices that made themselves heard were South Asian teachers and persons of color.

Last week, in response to that Instagram list, two yoga teachers (Sophie Griffiths of @feral_and_true & Jesal Parikh @yogawalla) proactively took on the effort to collaboratively issue a fabulous list of 19 Women of Color to watch in the Yoga World in 2019.

This list was brilliant… for a lot of the conversations and conversation starters and the multidimensional approach of the practice AND the narrative. This was important stuff.

Until, I noticed that a lot of the narrative was still focused on the western ideal or western narrative of the desi or South Asian yoga teacher. It was a start and a bloody wonderful start, but in a world where news and culture across countries is so easily accessible and connections are forged with one well-timed and/or well-received Facebook/ Instagram comment, the narrative from an Indian yogi, let alone an Indian yoga teacher, was missing!

If you’re wondering why this is important, it is because of one simple fact – an Indian yoga teacher in the West is a part of the Western narrative – a part of that ecosystem, with all its issues and drawbacks, but still fits into the parameters of the Yoga Industrial Complex & capitalistic view – even if they don’t necessarily subscribe to it.

An Indian yoga teacher, well, may have many views and experiences that are similar to their desi contemporaries in the West, but also have many other views, experiences and perspectives that are not being heard…. because in the entire collective voice in the west, even in the conversations around bringing the focus back to the indigenous South Asian faculty, the actual platform is missing. The work done by many local desis is comparable and so is, perhaps, the point of reference – training-wise or even effort-wise. But…. there is still a distance to cover.

I’ll be the first to agree that I have an advantage here by way of exposure and partnerships with teachers in the West, but there’s only so much one can do with prior exposure, industry connections and friendships. The rest is just as organic as everything else. I mean, how do we get to know each other, and all that, right? The larger game players and narrative shifters are all defining the way from the Western perspective – and those, may not necessarily be what the ground reality back home actually is.

From the Honor Yoga Collective conversations, I realized that there was much to share and learn in terms of cultural exchange as well as cultural honor and an awareness and sensitivity to appropriation. I also recognized that the onus to teach from my experience was not necessarily on me.

So it got me thinking about the missing link in all of this.

I realized that many NRIs or Indian-American or citizens of other western countries (of Indian origin) were already living a life far removed from the daily life & story of their resident Indian counterparts experienced. The common ground was a culture that may or may not be conveyed down generations, but the deeper connection exists despite the distance.

This distance is even larger between the stereotyped white person / white yogi (or white yoga teacher) and the average Indian yoga teacher.

The purpose of this post was to start sharing the experiences of what an average (or well,  maybe a little more than average) Indian yoga teacher experiences in India. As I type this I realize that this may not cover all the experiences in one post, so I’ll be consciously considering putting these out in a series of posts as and when I have enough to elaborate on some points or if something more relevant comes up in the process.

So what is it like being an Indian Yoga Teacher?

  • It is hard work & competitive.

I refer to the inconsistency in teaching opportunities and the varied systems of teaching and practice where some communities believe that yoga ought to be taught for free and others feel that they need to compete with their batch mates to make a living. The yoga industry is suffering from the effects of ‘Colonial Extraction‘. By now, not everyone in India is a yoga practitioner so the community really needs to be educated on the value of yoga and answer the ‘why yoga?’ question – but, the same starry-eyed community members will happily entertain the glossy repurposed & repackaged yoga that teachers get trained in the West to share in India. So sorry, the yoga teachers in the West who apply the western lens of modernity and rebellion to all things yoga because ‘yoga is for everyone’ and can be approached differently by different people – sorry, but your misinformed practice (or malpractice) is slowly eating into what little remains of the culture it originates from.

  • It’s hard to make a living with yoga.

Unless you’re working with an established organization where the essence of yoga is not a priority or if you work at an ashram or other well established school where your immediate & personal needs are taken care of, you can forget about making a living from yoga. I speak for the regular yoga teachers, who teach regular yoga asana classes. The few who super specialize and offer personal classes may probably make a decent income but if you’re the sole bread winner and have a family to support, it… is…. very…. hard.

The average teacher offers a quality asana class in India for about $1-3 per hour (yes $1 per class!). I honestly feel sick to my gut when I read the average class rates of mediocre and/or highly appropriated classes in the West starting at $30 and upwards. Sometimes fresh graduates of a YTT start at $30 when the draw is a flexible body and an Instagram account fully loaded with highly contorted bodies.

  • They’re losing their essence.

With all the Instayoga in da house, it is such a pitiful sight to have so many asana oriented teachers, especially the new graduates who immediately lock down their Insta profiles and flood their feed and stories with intricately ‘perfected’ asanas. Sadly, even the graduates from ‘good’ schools end up going the asana way and move away from the purpose of ever stepping on this journey. At the same time, Indian yoga schools are looking to meet the demand of the West and offering watered down ‘yoga courses’ and amping up the yoga tourism business with a flurried rise in yoga certification mills all over the country, especially in the yoga centers of India – Bihar, Rishikesh, Goa, Mysore, Kerala…

  • They’re lacking representation.

In the wake of the modern postural yoga identity, a lot of yoga teachers, like I mentioned in the previous point, tend to identify and exemplify yoga to be a postural aspiration and that too of the stereotyped western able bodied narrative – the ‘love & light’ narrative, as I usually call it. The philosophy of yoga is threatened by the constant application of the able-bodied supremacy with a culture that is promoting fitness, weight loss and an urgency to be outwardly well even if it means they’re breaking on the inside.

The idea of a larger bodied yoga teacher, or one with physical limitations or disabilities is an anomaly – it is disruptive to the common place stereotype.

  • They don’t really actively work towards social justice.

Believe it or not, this one just came up to me. I really, really had to scratch my head & think if this was a point I wanted to add here and I realised that I did want to. Why? Because of all the teachers that I know, I’m still not really sure how many actively move beyond their on-the-mat practice to off-the-mat advocacy of matters beyond asanas & philosophical debate, perhaps. To be fair, Indian yoga teachers are largely focused on their practice and their teaching and hardly know of the larger yoga conversations and controversies outside of the country – even if those conversation are actually about them and may affect them. So when the Western yoga communities engage in social justice, very few of them actually go beyond the shores of their countries and residence and seek to make a difference to the land of the origin of yoga.

  • We are diverse.

Most yoga teachers in India are asana teachers. But there are also many teachers devoted to their self study, svadhyaya, as well as their purpose to teach & learn. We have teachers of the different schools of yoga as well as the different limbs and approaches. It is a pity that while the Indian-American (or South Asian or equivalent BIPOC) teacher is given a platform to engage in diversity in yoga and yogic thought, no one goes back to India to reach out to those voices that have as much to share in terms of content, context, nuance and experience. They could and would definitely benefit from the exposure too with their work!

  • We are contemporary teachers.

Which means that we are very similar to most other teachers around the world with one exception – we are desi. We are practicing an art and a science that comes from a wisdom tradition that is ours and is home grown. We are global citizens, aware of what is happening around the world, but also struggling to come to terms with the generational inadequacy that many of us are not even aware of – a residue of colonization and an inherited trauma scarred in our historical, collective karma. In the process, we often forget that we are the inheritors of this practice, this wisdom – and many times inadvertently are complicit in how yoga is treated and misrepresented in the western world.

  • We are undervalued.

And in all this, the average Indian yoga teacher places a nominal value on their service. And the western world knowingly or unknowingly add fuel to that by continuing to take what this country has to offer by means of yoga – by way of an ‘economical’ exchange. Yoga Teacher Trainings in India come at a fabulous price to western aspirants! We have teachers who are happy to share our culture, norms, thoughts and learnings – sometimes even for free – because many of us believe that knowledge flows… and then have that freely offered knowledge priced and sold onwards. In the end, the disparity between the give & take remains.

There really is a lot to unpack here – and I still have many thoughts billowing in my head trying to settle and blow up at the same time. I also have the real uneasiness of witnessing appropriation and mispresentation of yoga and yogic thought on a daily basis – and the unpleasant taste of defensive, refusal to acknowledge harm when it is called out.

Yet, I do the one thing I really know to do to remain true to the practice and the values that make me ME – values that I have received through my practice, through my teachers and through the timeless scriptures that I have studied – all of which have opened up timeless wisdom as and when I may have been ready to see it. Am I a warrior to stand up for this? Maybe, maybe not… I may not necessarily be a custodian of my culture, but I most certainly can use my space, my personality and my words to share what I experience.

Again, I’m still unpacking all of this – and know that when asked, I usually have something to add on what it’s like to be an Indian yoga teacher living in India… because, well, I am one myself after all!

Day 13: Healing the Wounds of Supremacy

How many of us have felt we didn’t belong in a studio space?
How many of us have felt that our practice wasn’t “good enough” because we weren’t flexible enough or we couldn’t “land a pose”
How many of us critique our own bodies or others bodies for not fitting into a norm?
How many of us dim or put out our light because we don’t feel like we should shine it?
How many of us compete or compare and despair with the next yogi on the mat over?…. These are all elements of white supremacy culture in yoga. 
Healing our white supremacy culture problem in yoga takes all of us. 
What do I mean by healing white supremacy culture in yoga?
I mean examining the way we present ourselves as well as how we idolize others. I mean what we post and who we platform. I mean who we buy from and listen to.

Today’s prompt confused me a little bit.

Yoga practitioners in India also fret about an ideal pose, awesome ‘alignment’ & super ‘flexibility’ – comparing themselves with the next-mat yogi, but by and large our classrooms have an Indian audience. The comparison here is probably more ‘belief’ & conditioning than comparing immediately to white yogis on the internet.

But I am also not ignorant of the generic trend in India to assume that anything imported, even if it was originally Indian, but is now decimated, repackaged and sent back to us, is probably better since it is shinier and glossier, at the very least, than the original desi version. I am concerned that perhaps the Indian version of ‘body image’ perhaps is worsening with the idea of yogis on the internet demonstrating asanas in bodies that are clearly not Indian or desi or of POC – so bone structure, fat distribution and even mindsets are very different.

Yes, we do have supremacy issues even within Indian culture, but with an already fragile sense of self-identity, perhaps it makes it shakier to hold on to resolve when we constantly see yoga being portrayed the way it is every time we open a social media app – white, able-bodied, super-toned, super athletic, lean, tight, lycra clad in teenie tiny sizes… yes, I can see the mismatch and the need to succumb to that sheen… or at least lean towards that because it seems to ‘in‘ and ‘right‘.

So the next part of today’s prompt was ‘How to heal these wounds?’

How to heal this?

I’ll admit I get frustrated at times at the sheer enormity of the task. Educating an entire sub-continent – I get it, it isn’t necessarily a one-person task, but it starts somewhere!

So, I persevere – every drop makes an ocean and all that. From this side of the fence, the best that I can do is speak up, create awareness, aim to walk the talk as best as I can. I’m looking at more speaking and being engagements and also raising other Indian teachers to add their voices to the global conversation.

Hopefully the movement in itself is a good starting point to create more ethical and wholesome spaces for more honorable yoga.


 

This blog is a part of a very unique yoga challenge led by my dear friend and fellow yogi, Susanna Barkataki – the Dare to Discuss Yoga Challenge. Both of us feel quite deeply about cultural appropriation and bring an authentic purpose to shine through constructive discussion, dialogue and education to make people (yogis & non-yogis) aware – to ‘lessen the appropriation and up the honor’, in Susanna’s words. In support of the challenge and the work, I shall be blogging my introspection and reflection here to share the conversation and build the cumulative effect.

Yoga Mom – The Ethical Quandary

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The past few days all I have been speaking about at my lectures has been on Teaching Methodology and Ethics and what it takes to be a good teacher. Today was supposed to be my last class of this teaching program and I was going to close it with a heartfelt interactive, deep-dive into values and teaching with integrity and on purpose.

The Ethics classes are my favorite. I actually surprised myself when I started enjoying them as much or even more than my Yoga Anatomy classes! But that’s another story… So, I was really looking forward to teach this class today.

Then, last night happened. My youngest had a bad tummy – and woke up this morning with a pale, sallow face – unaffected with my enthusiastic, ‘Happy Childrens Day!‘ and not caring for any breakfast.

I knew he was unwell, because he had taken the effort to shower and get ready for school but was still complaining about his tummy.

I also knew that I had to get to class in a couple of hours – which meant one of two things: either Avi accompanied me to class (and struggles with being unwell and car sick) or Avi stayed back at home – alone. Or I could reschedule my class…. (while my brain shouted, ‘but it is the last class today!! and another part of my brain retorted, ‘No! There is another class next week!!‘)

Not to forget, that a sneaky voice in my head was also gloating, “Teaching ‘Ethics’, are you?”

It was getting late, I was multi-tasking – dressing up, desperating refreshing the cab app that only showed, ‘No cabs available at this moment. Try again‘, feeling Avi’s forehead for a fever, planting guilty kisses on his soft cheek as he slept.

I felt torn – torn between the ethic and integrity of being a teacher readying for class and being mom.

My cab was finally booked and 17 minutes and I still wasn’t comfortable with what I was about to do. And realized that there was, after all, one more thing I still could do.

I called the yoga school.

It took all of 3 minutes and 2 calls – 1 that I made and 1 that was returned.

And it was sorted.

I sit here at home watching my baby rest, his forehead warm, his cheeks slightly flushed, but both our hearts happy and comforted that we are next to each other. The class was managed, my lecture was rescheduled, my team-mates assured me to be with Avi – it was clearly my priority.

Values play a huge part of who we are and who we choose to become. Our values help us resonate with the kind of people who support us in shining those values, that become our ethics – both for work and for life. They become our code of conduct and truly shine light on the integrity of what we stand for – what we believe in.

I am today because of my children. Everything I do, every choice I make, every ordeal I am faced with has them as my centerpiece. It isn’t being where I am today –  but I love it. Even though there are times when it feels like I’m rowing a full boat with a single oar – possibly broken even – I recognize that there others in the boat who are helping it move ahead by paddling with their hands – supporting me. Friends, family, near and far.

Today, it was my yoga community – who supported me – not once making me feel any pressure or guilt – helping me act in accordance with what my inner compass was guiding me to do. My core that wanted to stay with my child – that ethical code of conduct, that yama and niyama – that was nudging me to stay true to my dharma and not pushed into karma.

The quandary is real, so is integrity… but the support system around us that helps us stay afloat living that life of integrity runs deeper still.

Day 10: Shining Light – Celebrating Diversity

I’ve always believed that yoga teachers need to be a community first and foremost, lifting each other up, supporting & referring each other. I’ve found that trusting and entrusting in each other builds a community based on oneness and inter-dependency where the whole community and the society at large benefit.

As part of my Dare to Discuss Yoga Challenge, today is to really shine light on some of those teachers who lift me up and those who need a major shoutout for the work they do and are not normally in the spotlight. I have a few to name & many of them are not even on Social Media – so this is what I’m going to do – I’m going to showcase their work periodically for the awesomeness that they bring into the world & community. Today, this is all about this lovely yogi who brings everything she has to the work she does. Our relationship evolved from a teacher-student one to a present-moment fantastic friendship and I love her all the more because she probably started the Luvena Fan Club (hahahah!) –  Annelise Piers is a hippi-by-heart yogi with a deep driven passion to help women through yoga and aromatherapy. She creates magic potions and always, ALWAYS gives from her heart. She is one of my dearest friends and I think her touch is beautifully healing – on and off the mat! Love you, Anna!!

 


 

This blog is a part of a very unique yoga challenge led by my dear friend and fellow yogi, Susanna Barkataki – the Dare to Discuss Yoga Challenge. Both of us feel quite deeply about cultural appropriation and bring an authentic purpose to shine through constructive discussion, dialogue and education to make people (yogis & non-yogis) aware – to ‘lessen the appropriation and up the honor’, in Susanna’s words. In support of the challenge and the work, I shall be blogging my introspection and reflection here to share the conversation and build the cumulative effect.