Yoga – The Commune With Nature

The ‘Day 1’ definiton of Yoga as Union is something most yoga practitioners are given as a standard lecture – both in their teacher trainings as well as in their studio practice at times. Beyond that, if prodded to explain, they describe it with their own imaginative description of defining yoga with various forms of unifying adjectives and adverbs – union of mind, body and breath (though they often get stumped if you asking them what that looked like in practice or if their teacher has demonstrated that to them… ever!?)… They’re right in getting flummoxed, though, as novices, this philosophy is deep work – and steeped in many centuries of tapas and sadhana. So a simple word translated to union doesn’t always get the essence of the practice out to the new aspirant.

But, on a mystic, philosophical lead, after studying various scriptures and listening to various teachers speak on the darshanas as the various commentaries of discourse, there seems to be a common reason to accept that in it’s most basic essence, there is a union involved – and that seems to be elusive as a practical experience.

A lot of philosophy includes the application of thought and discernment. One philosophical thought around union is the movement of consciousness from the manifest to the unmanifest. A few of my teachers over the years (different schools) helped me unearth an understanding of the movement of awareness / consciousness from the unmanifest to the manifest (here & now) and uniting back to the unmanifest – knowing and recognising that underlying commonness with everyone & everything around us.

And so it is with nature – we are a part of nature (not just as animals), in our ouexistence, our density and our matter. Taking care of our environment is taking care of ourselves. Even if we take the yamas & niyamas – every single one of them applies to our relationship with Mother Earth – our connector to the manifest from the unmanifest. It gives us time to pause – pause for thought.

In short, although yoga is spiritual pursuit, there is much of yoga to experience in the physical and tangible realms too. The experience of connecting our body with our environment – in communion with nature – begins at the gross level, the annamaya kosha, to stir deeper levels of union of the manifest with the unmanifest.

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 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.