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.

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