Opening Out Of Silence

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

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

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

In all of this, I struggle with me.

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

But this time, I struggle.

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

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

And it was because of yoga.

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

Then I saw this…

Source: Anonymous

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

In their yoga.

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

Everyone was still on about tight hip flexors and pinchamayurasanas.

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

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

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

We are a complex people.

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

Why?

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

Every time we spoke about supremacy,

…every time we spoke about cultural appropriation,

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

…every time we spoke of any controversy….

we said, ‘Yoga is Political’

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

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

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

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

I ask you to be cognizant of that.

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

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

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

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

Yoga is political because yoga is unifying.

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

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

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

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

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

That is important. It really is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is political.

Yoga is political.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is just wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

It is my history and yes, it is horrifying.

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

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

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

Seriously, how stupid is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not the only one.

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

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

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

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

Use your discretion.

Use your sensibility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Said What I Said

After my blog post last week, I was overwhelmed by the supportive comments. It was a whirlwind of activity – and many shared the blog – possibly because the post contained raw emotion and anger. I couldn’t really explain all of it, but the parts that I could I did. While some of my other desi friends and I sat with these shared thoughts, we were all in agreement over the hurt and anger we felt. We were also deeply aware that the pain and rage – sacred rage – was towards a deeper, more historical and inherited past. It was the pain of our ancestors – one that has not necessarily healed with time.

As a people, we come from a region that is rich in spiritual nuance and tradition. It has also been a place of deep esoteric richness along with indigenous wisdom and knowledge that is beyond a place of logical cognition. Our land has been geo-politically transacted with over the centuries and by way of being ‘open‘ to external influences perhaps left the door open for too long with the idea of atithi devo bhava – अतिथिदेवो भव: – ‘The guest is God’.

Nevertheless, the colonial history of India is one that defines a lot of present day Indianness – the way we are presented to the world and also largely how we are ourselves. And we are not just what you see us to be. We are complex and diverse in what makes us the way we are. By and large, despite and in spite of all the domestic challenges in our country of origin, our inheritance is a deep imprint of that colonial past. Sadly, the generations immediately post colonization were left to barely pick up the pieces as the next few generations slowly tried to make sense of things . Not many of us recognize that our inherited trauma is slowly showing up today – some of us are unable to deal with the microaggressions that trigger this unindentifiable sense of violation, others see it but are not equipped with the tools to deal with it or challenge it… and then there are those, that slowly but strongly recognize the violation and voice out the inherited pain that is born of our history but presented in our today.

That is why we speak out. That is why I spoke out and said what I said.

And I am not done speaking just as yet.

We are defined by our history. We are sentimental about it too.

Colonization was not a joke – not even a dirty one dripping in dark humor. It was a period of demeaning humiliation, thievery, dominance, supremacy and an ongoing, deeply painful process of breaking down our confidence and making us strangers in our own land, deeming us undeserving of the right to our own property and constantly being at the mercy of the white saheb. The guest we welcomed into our homes had turned into a lord who systematically tore away at our sense of individuality, culture, belief and identity. Our ancestors lived this reality and never really had an opportunity to claim the reparation for those crimes.

They just moved on, but the imprint of those aggressions have been conveyed down the generations initially by way of grudging ambivalence and the obvious social, psychological and cultural sense of inferiority. However, one lasting impact of colonization and the post-colonial experience is that while the colonized people are still reeling with their inherited postcolonial trauma and learning how to deal with it in the current generation, the attitude of supremacy amongst those who were conditioned to benefit from it has not been dismantled. The bias, micro and macroaggressions continue to happen, unconsciously as well as intentionally – often coming from a place of strong denial and resistance / reluctance to see the harm that one has caused. Many of us are all too familiar with present day descendants of the colonized who have an attitude of inferiority around white people. I have seen it often in many of my parents’ generation. I think I may have observed it in some instances with my parents too. But, it happens. All.the.time.

That condescension well smothered in the wrapping of logic and movement science is exactly where that blog post went last week and had gripped us right where it hurts the most. The frustrating part is that the OP as well as her supporters are all seemingly logical academics who choose to defend the original article. They are also very likely the ones who choose to continue this humiliation and continue to sell their brand and benefit from yoga – the term as well as the bastardized practice that is left in their possession. Their tendency seems to exclude from the practice any and all spiritual context, nuance or sentiment and a refusal to see that the yogic culture is based on just that.

Yoga cannot be explained through a logical movement science process. Asanas may be approached by body movement science principles, but body movement can not and will not be yoga. Especially not the modern innovated practices. The reason is that yoga is not just the asana version of postural practice that the left-brained western world wants it to be – so that it can make sense to them. So, most of the western teachers who are looking at yoga are looking at it solely as a physical practice to understand the accessibility of asana and it stops them right there. They are stopped at the rupa of the practice where the whole purpose of yoga, and even asana for that matter, is to get in touch with the arupa and no amount of movement science and anatomy can help us figure that out. Building a yoga anatomy concept of breaking down asana into a logical buddhi based approach is only satisfying the kama manas and intelligence. Staying put there will keep the practitioner in a fragmented state of understanding the individual pieces of the jigsaw and not allow you to evolve into a meta Manas view. Yoga takes evolution away from the logic based fragmented ‘physical’ to the united, whole view of the non-local, non-logical.

So, while creating a brand new, innovative movement practice is seemingly available to all, please refrain from calling it yoga…. which has a systematic path in various lineages and traditions spread all over India. Some of these traditions are well known and others remain sacredly guarded wisdom. So, as far as Krishnamacharya’s influence goes, there is much that he knew and experienced as an Indian under colonial rule to know what he was doing when he gave yoga to the western world. A part of the world that was only interested in taking what was not theirs to take, to fragment it even further and still call it yoga. All in the name of logic.

I can feel my frustration here enough to say that if one wants logic, go pick on ballet and gymnastics – there should be sufficient practices from the Eurocentric white world that will benefit from this approach. Why not leave yoga to the illogical, emotionally charged desis who are the inheritors of the practice after all? Why go into our homes and say our interior decor is all wrong? And then go on to humiliate us after allowing you to come in and pilfer?

Not all critique needs to be logical. Nuance and sentiment plays a big role. And again, if one does not appreciate the energetics and emotions behind yoga, the practice, the culture and the history behind it all (yes, they all have to be considered in the same breath)…. well, why not just leave it and go do something else! Or.. just don’t call it yoga so you can sell an exotic practice steeped in Orientalism. Why is that so hard to get? Why do we have to keep hearing arguments on why it is OK for people to steal?

Phew! deep breath, Luvena…

Next, I spoke about the harm and hurt. Harm and hurt are not just physical. We all know that. Now, bring into the fold someone who finally, after generations of internalized pain and oppression, is strong enough to voice and shine light on hurt and harm caused by a white person.

Boom! What just happened?!

You see, this voice has been suppressed through oppressive behaviours for generations and eventually, someone would have to say, ‘Ouch! That hurts!‘ Right? Wrong!

When this voice is met with denial, resistance and a defensive explanation for why this hurt is misplaced, then the privilege is left unchecked and the individual has now, demonstrated to the voice that they are right in their actions, no apology offered, take a hike! The OP’s choice & style of response is open for everyone to see. It is not secret – the blog and other social media posts are all under public settings. This attitude of ignoring the voices of concern from the people who are voicing their hurt is problematic. I don’t need to explain the logic behind it now, do I?

It is disrespectful, condescending and outright haughty. The OP’s ready engagement with all the supportive comments from other white people who found nothing wrong along with the ready tip to ‘please ignore these voices that speak up‘ was … *lost for words here* – maybe my logic driven academic friends would help me find a word here for this feeling?

So yes, we are voicing hurt feelings and in the face of those who say, ‘Don’t just say you’re hurt, prove it with facts and figures and rational observations’. I wish I had words to express the deep shame and lack we feel when we are trying to say that there is no quantitative figure to the experience of what we are being made to endure.

A lot of yoga, yogic thought, our culture and practices are steeped in bhava – bhava that cannot be accounted for. We are finally voicing the hurt that our ancestors experienced and are looking to heal from it. It is our inheritance, this pain. And many of us, today, are looking to heal this wound for ourselves, our children and for our ancestors. It is how we are wired. It is what we do – as a people.

We do not expect you to fully understand it. It isn’t exactly logical to understand, but we do appeal to you to at least step out of your inherited sense of superiority and privilege and realize that we come from a place of non-logical sanskaras and for that, we ask that you respect our pain. Yes, you do need to sit with this discomfort but ignoring us and our concerns is not going to shun or shoo us away like a pest (yes, you made us feel that way – I’m speaking to you, Jenni Rawlings. You may have made a seemingly logical but ill-researched, self-serving post, but you made us experience deep hurt by picking on an old wound only to make it bleed afresh.)

And so, we speak up – our voices are getting stronger and one will not be able to ignore us completely for much longer. We exist. We ARE. And we are because we carry that legacy of doing right the way we see it… the way we feel it. Because we are called to. If you don’t agree, please step aside and make way. The victimization ends here. This is our journey to walk and complete and if you won’t help, then please don’t add to the obstacles.

On Ancestry

Credit to Jyoti Solanki (IG @jyotigini ) for helping me find the right image.

Edited by Jyoti Solanki

“Too Much” Ado Around Isms, Or Is It?

Yesterday, I sat for a very long time trying to understand what Jenni Rawlings’ blog, “What Makes Yoga Yoga? A Response to Social Media Critics” was bringing up for me. I was, all at once, feeling anger, shame, humiliation, belittling, fury and also experiencing a physical turmoil that I wasn’t able to settle. I was visibly upset – physically, mentally and emotionally. This was a pushback from a white teacher with so much condescension in her words simply because ‘self-appointed gatekeepers’ were calling out practices on Social Media that were clearly not yoga.

My upset was not one of intellectual debate and wordy back-and-forth, it was deeper than words – it was deeply personal and rooted in a sense of who I am and where I come from. It wasn’t for a sense of national pride as much as it was for a sense of resilience and fight for freedom and survival that my ancestors went through. It was an upset over the blatant disregard of the socio-politics at play hundreds of years ago and the residual supremacy and dominant culture syndrome. The stronger kick in the gut was the showcasing of relief by many at the assumed permission to continue the oppressive behaviour – relief at having been absolved of the discomfort of having to hear voices of the Desi / SA/ BIPOC community that have been silent for so many years. The permission was clear – practical tools were offered on how to shrug off these voices of concern when they were raised. People who wanted to appropriate and perpetuate harm could continue doing so – the people who are hurt by these actions can safely be ignored.

Yup! That was the slap on our faces… resounding slap…

So I messaged her on her blog and then when I couldn’t take it any more, sent her this email – all of 3 pages long. At the time of publishing this blog, I have received no acknowledgement for it and no response either. My letter was kindly edited by Sashah

Dear Jenni,

I am writing with deep concern about your recent blog post on “What Makes Yoga Yoga? A Response to Social Media Critics”

My name is Luvena Rangel, and I’m a yoga anatomy, physiology and philosophy teacher located  in Bangalore, India. My work involves teaching the above mentioned core subjects in YTTs as well as ongoing philosophy, teaching methodology, cultural norms and a deep study and practical research into Cultural Appropriation, Indian history, thought and socio-cultural bias – including racism, casteism and supremacist & systematic oppression especially in yoga. And I am an Indian woman.

I was hoping that your article, coming from a teacher who many of my friends & acquaintances from the “greater yoga community” look up to, would have presented an innovative, respectful, though-provoking  perspective. Unfortunately, I am deeply saddened that despite the efforts of so many Desis and BIPOC who tirelessly put in their emotional labour to have their voices heard (in your comments and otherwise)- it is evident that instead of doing the work of understanding internalized racism you have chosen to give a free pass to bigotry and prejudice by way of this dangerous piece of writing.

To begin, you have stated that the purpose of your post is to be highlighting the concern around social media users shaming yogis because of how an asana looks. However, your references are largely less to do with how an asana is demonstrated by people of different body types and abilities and seems to be more of a defense toward who is presenting them and how. 

Sexually explicit, intricate postures (not all yoga postures), demonstrated by white, able bodied people can and will be called out because the tradition of yoga is one of cultural respect – a bhava contained in a maryada – both concepts of deep significance to  Indian people and culture. This is not to say that there aren’t sexual connotations and traditions of nudity however,  the current western Instagram models touting body & sexual reclamation are activists of their own cause and rite of passage. It is not yoga.

And calling it out is not just possible, it is required. Bhava and maryada are both  concepts and values of Indic thought and upholding them is a part of the culture where yoga comes from and it is important that if we wish to be in the yoga world, that we respect and honour the roots of yoga. If the western ‘greater yoga world’ doesn’t want to accept these ideas of respect and sensitivity, then my opinion is that no matter how long they teach yoga, they are not entitled to it. Saying that  It is our ‘shared tradition’ totally erases the roots, culture and people from whom it came. 

That being said, I agree that there are a few self-appointed ‘gatekeepers’ to yoga,  but what you fail to acknowledge in your article is that the entire practice of yoga comes from a country and a culture that deserves to be acknowledged. This culture values something beyond authenticity & pronounced titles to safeguard a culture. It is called swadharma. It is a concept that every Indian regardless of religious and/or direct/ indirect yogic influence is seasoned in. Unfortunately, that understanding of swadharma is something your piece is absolutely devoid of. 

I want to be clear that  your assumption of a “shared tradition” simply by way of practicing asana is harmful, hurtful & culturally appropriative. We do not ‘proclaim’ our connection to authenticity. We do not need to. Our bloodline, heritage & culture is sufficient to entrust us to that connection. When my 16-yr-old son (who does not practice yoga asana)read your article today, he shared with me that he felt anger and hurt. When I asked him why, he said, “Why? Because I’m Indian and this makes me angry.”This hurt & anger we felt is felt by many other Desi yoga teachers who read your blog & responded to it, and I would name this as Sacred Rage.

This is because your article consistently humiliates the tradition of yoga by questioning its purity. Your statement of the three Krishnamacharya students who have gone on to teach “their own branch of modern yoga” is indicative of a failure to truly understand the nuance of Indian culture, wisdom tradition, education and yogic thought- despite having possibly taught  (yoga?) for as long as you have. Please do the research – deeply and not superficially – on the parampara of a guru shishya tradition.

Ashtanga yoga is NOT a fast-paced practice just because WP who wanted a love & light equivalent to calisthenics / high intensity aerobics. The obviousness of various poorly understood  ‘facts’ & ‘claims’ are terribly harmful and show a deep gap between your knowledge of the roots of yoga. This gap that is likely inadvertently causing you to harm others by totally erasing aspects of yoga and the culture from which it derives.

To be clear- Krishnamacharya did NOT invent any yoga. For someone who makes a living off teaching yoga, your statement that Krishnamacharya would have been inspired by modern movement based practices is based totally in your own assumption and privilege. Krishnamacharya’s choice to teach anyone was his alone and it is painfully evident that Indian men and women had to sacrifice considerably to be able to teach and preserve a  knowledge that today, many white people want to have a piece of simply because it has been available.

When you say that  “It is therefore literally impossible for someone to look at a person doing a movement on social media and declare whether what they are doing is yoga or not.” – I absolutely do not agree. While we may not be able to understand the thoughts behind the photographed model and if they are in ‘yoga’ or not, a sexually explicit, narcissistic proclamation of flexible ligaments in contorted body shapes is not yoga…. And it not necessarily asana either. And yes, we CAN tell if it is a yoga asana or not. Dismissing the perspective, knowledge and connection of those of us who have cultural knowledge you may not possess is grossly disrespectful and assumes that if you are not the authority- no one is. 

To address your points about medical advances & knowledge of the human body compared to what existed in “early 20th century India, this shows another gap in knowledge.  If WP needed a study in Anatomy for yoga, there has been a deep study of the human anatomy & physiology AS WELL AS the emotions & spiritual consciousness involved for health & wellness developed in India AGES before modern medicine and the concept of modern movement science. I would say the depth of science was well developed in India way before white man came to  “save us” from our indigenous wisdom by burning our books and destroying the connection to scripture (colonization). Only to replace it with a dependency on modern science and a reliance on buddhi based science ,severing the ties to the deeper aspect of yogic practices. 

We have had Ayurveda for a long time and Eastern Anatomy is a discipline modern anatomy would just not be able to comprehend. I speak from a place of professional bias here. I teach Anatomy myself and come with a background in both Eastern & Western anatomy as well as Ayurveda.

Using Anatomy as a benchmark, your article is leaning on an anti-Indian prejudice and the language and emphasis in your post all indicate an effort to justify appropriation,  disrespect and an allowance or free pass for white people to continue harming the culture and people who maintain the integrity of lineage, culture and tradition day in & day out. 

I highlight white people because on your Instagram and blog comments almost all the supportive comments are from white people. These readers now have your piece to refer to when they are questioned about their participation in  prejudice and harm to South Asians and BIPOC. 

You have much to gain from this article, but this has hurt and caused immense pain & grief to the origin culture and peoples. Your article is consistently taking the points of those who are working to keep the tradition pure and then knocking them down by saying they are insufficient to make these claims. Why? I do not see you acknowledging any of the pressing comments that indicate concern but only find you engaging pleasantly with those who agree, with relief perhaps, with your POV. There is tremendous privilege at play here, and your ignorance of the concerned comments adds to your erasure of South Asian voices and Indian culture. 

Finally I want to address your statement “The boundary around what makes yoga yoga is something that is continually being negotiated and will always be open to influence from new ideas. Experimenting with different approaches, unique props, or innovative sequencing in yoga classes is not somehow a threat to the institution of yoga as we know it.”

You have concluded your article with one of the most demeaning words in your entire article – one that gives yourself and the many other people who benefit from  white supremacy and dominant attitude of colonization – this self-appointed right to appropriate, steal and take from colonized cultures with the shameless excuse that yoga will always be open to influence from new ideas.

In conclusion, I invite you to reconsider this article and deeply reflect on the harm you have caused and will cause. My hope is that you will take this feedback and begin to examine the privilege and internalized white supremacy at play in this piece.

 

Luvena Rangel

 

 

What This YJ Issue Got Me Thinking About

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Earlier this month, a lot of the Western Yoga community expressed their upset and displeasure at Yoga Journal’s split covers on their Leadership Issue – some issues having plus size, queer, teacher of colour, Jessamyn Stanley and others featuring Maty Ezraty another fabulous able-bodied, white teacher. Both teachers are wonderful in their own spaces and in the work they do, but yoga activists in the community, many of them known to me, called out Yoga Journal for this because it had been observed over numerous occasions in the past that YJ was being exclusive in their coverage of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) teachers or other teachers from marginalized, minority sections of the yoga community.

I expressed my upset on Instgram & Facebook as well….and some of my other teacher friends – prominent and well respected in the western yoga community (Jivana Heyman, Amber Karnes, Susanna Barkataki, Dianne Bondy, and many others) – raised it to YJ, who eventually issued a statement on the matter.

Well, when I read that statement, I felt that it just used all the essentially ‘politically correct’ words in a group of sentences – words that perhaps Jivana or Susanna must have said in their conversations and posts, and then issued a statement to hopefully settle the matter with the masses.

Anyway, after my initial frustration with the incident – I eventually realized that was even though the exclusion extended itself to me too (as an Indian / brown/ plus-sized teacher lacking representation) technically, my feelings on the matter, might not actually matter to YJ. That didn’t stop me from voicing my feelings.

But, I thought about a couple of things:

  1. We lack yoga glossy magazines in India. And the ones that we do have lack in quality – both aesthetic as well as content. Magazines like YJ glamorize and beautify the yoga industry to the extent that when we desi yogis travel internationally, we pick these publications.
  2. These magazines highlight a very able-bodied asana approach of yoga, interspersed with a few points here & there on wellness & spirituality, but largely commercialized consumerism of yoga-wear (usually not the plus sizes, but can find something), yoga bars, packaged teas, props and asana classes – all wayyyy to expensive for the average Indian yoga teacher, who… cough cough… anyway earns wayyyy to little to afford those programs.
  3. These programs may complement Indian yoga teachers who generally face a dearth of quality educational programs (with structure and regulation) – but unfortunately, the expense (not to mention visa, travel, accommodation, etc) that makes it highly inaccessible. The research put into a lot of yoga-related aspects in the West can be a great add on to Indian yoga teachers’ practice, teaching & training – and of course so much more knowledge sharing that can happen the other way round too.
  4. There were a few comments on Social Media that said, “YJ is a publishing house” and “I wouldn’t worry too much about what YJ thinks and prints because they’re only printing about yoga – they’re not necessarily yogis…”

Now this is where I actually got uncomfortable. YJ is a published magazine – printing issues and e-magazines about yoga. They have subscribers all over the world – including in India. They were making money printing and publishing stuff about yoga (yogic or not) but they had a responsibility to uphold the values of yoga.

It really got me thinking – within India, we have our fair share of exclusivity – both within and outside of yoga. We didn’t have as much as BIPOC issue, but we certainly did buy in to the ableism that is perpetuated in mainstream media. I was looking for an image of an Indian teacher in ashwasanchalanasana (equestrian pose) on Google this morning (Go ahead and try it! This is what I typed: Indian yoga teacher ashwasanchalanasana / equestrian pose) and any guesses on what I came up with?

We are just so under-represented in the yoga world despite being from the country where yoga originated and are buying into the supremacy of ableism and further allowing it to define who we are as teachers ourselves.

I can imagine that not many Indian teachers may be dipping into the history of yoga to resonate very strongly with the effects of colonialism and cultural appropriation that I am referring to – but they wouldn’t deny that we have bought into the idea that yoga is a huge business in the western world and the consumerism of it is slowly seeping into the Indian yoga community too.

I find so many Indian teachers tagging superstar yogis of the US and being a part of asana challenges and getting their bracelets and tights and all of that. Yes, it builds community and I’m all for that, but I can’t help but feel that this is largely coming from the place of ‘acceptance’ or just not feeling accepted and falling into that vicious cycle of succumbing to a stronger power.

What would it take for the yoga industry to bring the focus on the land, people and culture where it originated? The source from where they make their millions from? Or what would it take for us, Indian teachers, to actually behave in a way of being accepted by ourselves?! Taking full ownership of our skill, our exposure and our heritage.

This isn’t the part where we say if we’re Indian so we’re born yogis – no way! We’ve had our fair share of those kinds. We’re talking about Indian teachers of substance. Teachers who really live and work their purpose in the way they teach, practice and continue to learn. Indian teachers who really contribute to modern yoga with a strong foundation of knowing their roots and heritage – and if they don’t know of their yogic roots & heritage, then to at least begin the inquiry! Not many TTCs & YTTs in India spend adequate time on teaching about the history of yoga to their teachers in training. I guess even the schools assume that asana is the way.

Well, a lot more where that came from – but for now, I’ll leave it at this… and remain with my thoughts….

Day 12: White Supremacy in Yoga

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As a yogi based in India, it is easy to assume that white supremacy in yoga does not affect us, right?

Wrong!

A few months ago I was teaching a private student. During our zero session, she was demonstrating the asanas that she knew and confessed that she was a self-taught yogi – self-taught from YouTube and other online free videos. Needless to say, she was a huge fan of some of the Internet’s Superstar yoga teachers and was pleased with a lot of the things she had learnt, but was missing out the human touch.

All that aside, I was busy self-managing my internal conflict. Here was an Indian student, who had never stepped out of India, looking to fine-tune & improve her practice – asanas that she had learnt from a teacher on the internet, asanas that she only knew the English names of. I’m not one to shame a student for not knowing the Sanskrit names – but I was offended… deeply offended.

Awhile later, when I was discussing teaching curriculum with another senior teacher in the yoga community, she happened to mention another popular online teacher who was ‘brilliant’! I’ll be very honest, I didn’t know who she was at the time. I had to come home and do a Google search to find a hot-pants or bikini clad, able-bodied, toned abs, blonde yogi teaching asanas all in good form…

And I thought to myself, ‘Hmmmm… These are the teachers we are studying from. What does this mean for us?’

I couldn’t quite tell what exactly I was feeling… I know brilliant teachers right here in India in various cities in India, who teach awesome classes, and I  know they teach is regular tracks or yoga tights. Some keep their classes highly engaging and help their students pick up on the philosophy of yoga while others, strictly focus on asana – regardless, these were ‘homegrown’ yogis.

Now, I’m not actually being offended at the choice of yoga wear. What I am concerned about it the repackaged version of yoga that India is importing…. and in the process losing out our own heritage of traditional wisdom.

Many years ago, when I was learning a mantra for a part of my studies in the US, I had offered them feedback that one of the words on their recording was incorrectly pronounced and should be corrected. I  had read the mantra is Sanskrit and knew that the recording was obviously incorrect. The response didn’t acknowledge my concern, instead, I was given an explanation that pronunciations in various parts of India differed! Which, by the way, is true for local dialects, but not true for Sanskrit and the sounding of an ending consonant. Anyway, it that wasn’t bad enough, I was told to learn it for the exam the way it was recorded and later on I could chant it however I wanted!

Back then, I knew I felt offended and dismissed when it was a part of my culture that was being dismissed. At another event, there was this couple selling mandala art that was being sold for hundreds of dollars – and I noticed that the art just had a bunch of Hindi / Sanskrit / Devnagari script letters and vowel matras just randomly thrown together. When I pointed it out to the vendor quietly, needless to say, I was rewarded with a hostile look and a clear indication to keep away from his potential customers.

Back then, I hadn’t even heard of cultural appropriation, but as I recall these incidents today, I realize that yoga has been traded off in some places where the colonization still is rampant…. and us desi teachers are either tokenized or marginalised – both in and out of our own country.

I see that I am bringing a very different conversation to India, but I am probably also at a very good position to engage in a very unique conversation outside of India too. Here are some of the ways that I can be a part of changing the narrative and this culture:

  • Active engage with the larger yoga community, globally, in bringing a homegrown desi flavour and Indian yoga heritage to the conversation.
  • Include Cultural Appropriation as part of the YTT curriculum discussions in India.
  • Consider cultural exchange  – online as well as in person – for yoga.
  • Really study the roots of yoga & culture deeper.
  • Encourage other yoga teachers in India to tap into their potential to be a stronger voice and face of yoga.
  • Make myself available for more international engagements – offer to teach, speak, share.

 


 

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.