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.

Freedom … to Yoga

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Album from 2016 [Picture Credit: Lionel Rangel)

It is India’s 73rd Independence today.

Yesterday, after my YTT lecture on the Nervous System, I delivered an impromptu message to my students on the significance of today. As a lead teacher of YTT, it becomes important to weave the sentiment of yoga, philosophy and values of the practice throughout the individual units and modules of the curriculum…. especially when it comes to anatomy (which runs the risk of being the very sthula & matter-based externalized aspect with the tendency to grasp the logical mind… and keep it there.)

So, at the end of the class, since today was going to be a day off, it just felt natural to gently draw the attention back to yoga and tie it with the holiday that the entire nation and its people would be celebrating – our Independence.

When I was about 4 or 5, I remember my father taking me along for the flag hoisting at the Indian Embassy in Kuwait. I remember standing alongside him in a sea of fellow citizens of all economic background, united with this feeling of patriotic unity. I also remember the endless platters of samosas, laddoos and other Indian delicacies for the citizens to feast on. We were celebrating together. In the years to come, my siblings and I were often a part of these celebrations at the Embassy. Those memories form the backdrop of my Indianness – my connection to the larger whole – my fragmented sense of identity as an NRI in this larger united fold of India.

It was this sense of union – yoga.

It pays to revisit our history – what it means to be able, free and have the privilege to do as we choose. As yoga teachers that cuts a little deeper and definitely goes way beyond asana. There are so many ways we can relate to contemporary practice today, but the fact remains that we practice freely on the backs of the many who sacrificed their lives, their pride and who endured the indignity of oppression for many, many years.

While we work on healing the wounds of the past, may we not forget or give in to the ignorance of letting go of these memories so easily. It is not just another holiday, it is a reminder to uphold and value what we have had to fight for.

Yoga is our inheritance, it is our legacy…. what remains from it, what was painstakingly and with great risk to life, preserved. With the many arguments that post colonial yoga teachers ‘sold’ yoga to the West – there are many of us who quietly smile at the knowing of what a man made to bow down to colonial pressure might have chosen then to offer to the West. It wasn’t selling, it was a choice – on what to offer and what to keep in house. There might have been great insight in how the choice to deliver asana was carefully delivered.

Look how even that offering has been ‘innovated’ in the West (others very kindly use the term ‘bastardized’). I smile.

It was never about asana – it was always about freedom – and I feel it was quite relevantly political this spread of yoga and yogic thought.

So why do I think of this today?

I think of it today as we still struggle with the demons left behind for us to work through – the demons of the residual post-colonial trauma and grief. I feel the pain as I observe the fact that so many Indians today are looking at the asana oriented yoga of the West as the blueprint to follow. I am not blind to the various YTTs that exist with a focus on asana and a gradual distancing from the essential values that the practice and culture of yoga have to offer – it, most proudly being ours for the taking freely – a legacy to wear and live with humble pride.

I wish you could sense the emotion – the lump in my throat as I type this. Freedom is not just of the body, it is of the mind. That is the liberation we all seek. We celebrate our Independence today, but are we really free of the cage? Are the colonizers freed from their mentality, especially if it is an attitude that is deeply imprinted in their minds? The journey to freedom is still on for all of us.

The journey is not with aggression though. The journey is with love and compassion – and this is the bloody hard part… to work through the resistance with love and compassion – every single time. Yoga is not just mine, it is for humanity. My evolution to freedom may seem like my own selfish goal, but evolution is pointless if humanity is not taken along.

The challenges we face ahead are real – resistance and pressure to clip our wings come in all shapes and from all quarters – in-house and from without. The political pressure still exists for many. So yes, this journey to freedom is still on – and we all move together…

Until then, I wear my freedom on my sleeve, with gratitude to our ancestors and the many lives that were lost to give me this freedom, this entitlement to call myself an Indian and to call myself a yogi and to be able to teach it with depth, emotion, sentiment and gratitude. It comes from knowing that I was entrusted to hold something far too valuable that one can humanly comprehend…. and to be able to convey it in just as much feeling and fervor as it was taught to me.

An Indian Yoga Teacher Speaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what is it like being an Indian Yoga Teacher?

  • It is hard work & competitive.

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

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

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

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

  • They’re losing their essence.

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

  • They’re lacking representation.

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

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

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

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

  • We are diverse.

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

  • We are contemporary teachers.

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

  • We are undervalued.

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

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

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

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

The Power of Namaste

namaste-hand-posture-background_23-2147707402

I didn’t grow up with a namaste greeting tradition. It wasn’t for any disrespect – it just wasn’t a form of our cultural practices. It wasn’t because we were NRIs but possibly because within the community, we largely socialized with the Catholic Mangalorean folks and as friends, there was an open blend of Indians from different states and even people from other countries. There was absolutely no derision towards the practice, but there was also no compulsion or education to apply this – except for greeting the Hindi teacher when she entered the class room in school (I studied in a CBSE convent school).

So, growing up, we really didn’t know the significance of namaste apart from understanding that it was an Indian cultural practice and we were familiar enough with it from Indian movies and our national and cultural events at the Indian embassy.

Well, truth be told, not many urban Indians, both local Indian residents as well as NRIs,  really know the relevance of this gesture today. I know this to be true from the many yoga practitioners & workshop participants I meet at my various talks and events. So I stopped giving myself a hard time over my cultural ignorance around it a long while ago.

That didn’t mean I stopped the process of learning more about it.

The yoga journey gives us ample opportunity to bow down into namaste. The expected culture of a yoga class often begins and ends with a namaskar mudra, but except for a few schools, not many taught about the significance of this gesture.

Let me begin by speaking for myself. I don’t greet my own teacher with a namaste and this is someone I respect immensely and look up to as a mentor, friend and guide. I am respectful and courteous (when I’m not cracking up about something and being my usual firecracker self), but I’ve not greeted him with a namaste. I will make it a point to greet him with a namaste the next time and see what our reactions are.

Not many of us greet our teachers with a Namaste either – definitely not if they are contemporary, urban yoga teachers…. and well, the teachers don’t always ask for it or greet in that fashion either.

Namaste

The divinity within me bows down to the divinity within you.

So without going into the specifics and etymology of the word, very simply put, the language of Sanskrit and culture of the ancient vedas and yoga have infused a lot of significance into namaste. Unfortunately, not many people really feel that spiritual connection when saying namaste, and the greeting itself is often said in such casual and colloquial intonation and inflection that one is left wondering, if it is of any relevance at all.

My fellow desis would know of numerous other traditional gestures that are now practices with hilarious insignificance, and sometimes irreverence too – the ‘touching elders feet‘ practice, for example, where many people barely bend enough to reach the elder’s kneecap – but well…

Here’s why I’m writing about it despite it not being my culture or tradition by birth.

When I moved to India, there were a number of senior people taking their morning and evening walks in my residential complex. I didn’t know these people, but we would often make eye contact and soon progressed to exchanging smiles. With some women who didn’t speak English or Hindi, we moved on to a generally comprehensible, “Good morning, aunty” and for the rest, a polite nod of acknowledgement as I went on my way to drop the kids to the gate for school or on my way back home from the supermarket.

With some people, however, there was a different energy to the interaction. I couldn’t pinpoint it and the instinctive greeting that was evoked was the humble namaste.

I didn’t do anything dramatic with it. Like I didn’t, you know, join my palms or anything as I said it, but I just smiled and said, ‘Namaste‘. I’m guessing there was a slight bow to my head, and my eyes probably softened or something and my tone must have been softer.

I said namaste… and there was absolutely no discomfort in it.

Gradually, I stopped noticing it, but just for long enough to realize that I only greeted certain people with a namaste…. so I assumed it was the vibe I experienced around them – or that I only spoke to them in Hindi and perhaps that was why a ‘Good morning/ Good evening’ didn’t seem appropriate or in context – but that was odd because that was what I did with some others.

So it got me thinking a bit and made me smile… because I liked to experience namaste in my life that way, although I couldn’t really understand what that experience exactly was.

Then last month happened.

It happened at the next door supermarket where I make my daily pilgrimage to. I enjoy making small talk with the cashiers and the shelf staff, so I know them fairly well. I was standing with my daughter peering at the shelf for some Haldiram snacks when suddenly one of the staff passed by, but not before pausing to look at me and say, “Namaste, Madam ji!

I can’t quite explain how deeply touched I was at his gesture. He didn’t join his palms in a namaskar or anything; his hands were full with 2 shopping baskets he was probably going to home-deliver, but he stopped to greet me. I was full of an unexplained emotion that I am feeling even now as I type these words remembering and reliving that moment. (That was when I knew this blog was on its way.)

And then sometime last week something else happened.

There is this little stall outside the supermarket (the same daily pilgrimage site) where an elderly Sikh gentleman sells kathi rolls and momos as an extension of his son’s restaurant further down the street. The family knew us in passing – regular supermarket customers, etc. and his momos are delicious! It was the day that I went up to him for a plate of momos and this very composed gentleman stood up, smiled at me, joined his palms and said, “Namaste, ji

Again, there was deep sense of something that words couldn’t quite explain.

Over the days, I was warmed by these exchanges of namastes that never demanded anything beyond it, but still made me feel special enough to receive them in the midst of other shoppers, or sometimes when the Silk gentleman would pause in the doorway as we passed each other to join his hands and say, ‘namaste‘.

I grew used to it although I couldn’t explain it then. Today I think I recognize it – a little – although it is still largely incomplete in expression – but maybe enough to share the feeling in its incompleteness?

It was a sense of presence, a powerful sense of belonging of sorts. These people were not family, I don’t even know their names (well, I’m guessing one of them must be a Mr. Singh), but the greeting fostered a sense of connection – a grounded sense of respect. What was it that I felt? A sense of support. I still don’t know where this is coming from, honestly, but it was comforting feeling of family and trust.

Perhaps this came from the time when Mr. Singh told me that I could Paytm him later for my 3 plates of momos as my phone was left charging at home and I didn’t carry cash. Or maybe it was his smiling customer relationship skills of telling me I really didn’t need to worry about payment. Or was it the time he brought in a plate of special biryani that his wife made and packed a takeout for us to taste knowing he would meet us in the evening? Or perhaps it was that time when we didn’t take our grocery bag and that store staff told me to leave it behind and he would get it delivered at home?

Or was it the sheer presence of goodness and goodwill that was present in the humble namaste? A power that has the ability to reach beyond the confines of what is proper and what isn’t and connect us to the deeper fabric of life – and deeper still to the underlying essence of what it means to be a spirit taking a human form?

Whatever it is…. it just is.

तत् त्वम् असि or तत्त्वमसि

Tat tvam asi

That art thou….You are that

Namaste