Where Are The Indian/SA/BIPOC ‘Safe’ Asana Teachers?

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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.

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

Saved By The White Yogi

How many desi / brown yogis do you know?

Ok, so this question is not for the yoga teachers & practitioners in India.. lol…  So the context is more western… but do read on, either way, because it impacts all of us…

I recently spoke with a yogi of color who was associated, work-wise, with the pretty problematic lululemon & Yoga Journal. To the suggestion of divesting these whitewashed businesses of the opportunity to tokenise & monetize off desis & POC (and of course culturally appropriate), she asked me 2 very pertinent questions.

First, if there was a BIPOC brand with an equal global reach (comparable to lululemon and/or Yoga Journal)? And secondly, who would we have as role models to look up to if famous people of color like Naomi Campbell or Oprah had not connected to the labels and networks and brands that they did. She didn’t think she’d be where she is had she not seen brown faces on the cover of Yoga Journal.

Funnily enough, Yoga Journal is always in hot water with the desi / BIPOCs simply because of their tone deafness & refusal to actively create change and showcase Desi & POC faces. lululemon similar stories. I have had peers, friends who have been working with these organizations for years to help their management from the inside out to help effect sensitized change – but…. yeah… but!

But today my thoughts are really drawn to the second comment this teacher made. Where would we be if we didn’t see brown faces on the cover of Yoga Journal?

This is what I heard instead:

“Where would we be without Yoga Journal?”

“Would we be successful enough?”

“How would we have shot up to fame and fortune?”

Of course she didn’t say any of these words, but there is this undeniable sense of being saved by these white businesses because, hey! Are there any BIPOC businesses with that kind of reach?

Straight cut answer? No there aren’t!! But any guesses why??? Because the white washed YJs & lululemons have denied us that space – rightful space, if I may! The crumbs they offer by means of split cover images and the occasional brown face they sprinkle like seasoning being the few role models the community is expected to lap up in the name of diversity, inclusion and representation.

Her words bothered me – I felt the cut deep within.

So I’m going to say it out loud & louder one more time.

I’m a Desi yoga teacher. My voice is clear and needs to be heard. I am taking up my rightful space to speak up on behalf of myself and my community. This is a face & voice you need to hear in the conversation of yoga, culture & representation.

Why?

Because we desis exist! Because our contribution needs to be acknowledged and we aren’t just talking about asana here – we’re talking about a practice and a lifestyle.

We’re talking about us.

We don’t need the likes of Yoga Journal & lululemon to save us – but they do need to clean up their act. Don’t capitalize off us – UPLIFT us & offer a platform! Don’t tokenize by picking on one model who checks your box of corporate diversity, open your eyes & look at the wider array of people – real authentic people!!

But what am I getting at again? Is is a plea to white businesses to again take the cues and use it to strengthen their position without making the change? Maybe that is what would happen in some cases.. So what is the alternative?

Perhaps collectively supporting desi & BIPOC businesses and doing so consistently. We have all sorts of businesses – teachers, mental health providers, LGBTQIA+ activists, speakers, product craftspeople, educators, musicians….. so many of us doing such diverse things – inside & out of yoga. Support them… uplift them… engage with them…. with US!

I do see the need to work with whitewashed orgs, especially the ones who are looking at making changes from within and I am happy to help – as are many other teachers and activists in the field – but that alone is neither the solution nor the means. It has to be a multi-level and multi-pronged approach. Clean up the gentrification of yoga. Support, encourage and uplift the communities of the original people.

We do not need white yoga saviors.