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

jenni 2

Gosh! Believe me when I say this: I am not following Jenni Rawlings or her blog. But, this link to her latest blog post 7 Prominent Yogis Weigh in on Yoga Injuries and What to Do About Them was shared on a group I am a part of with the comment that the member found it concerning that there were no POCs of prominence featured here. Anyway, someone tagged me – yes, me, the Indian teacher, not a prominent one – and clearly not white or white-passing, so not eligible to have anything constructive to add to this blog, I suppose.

Turns out, to a query on Instagram for this blog post about the lack of POCs or larger bodied teachers in this article, the author replied, “I wish there was more diversity among high-profile senior yoga teachers who actively train other teachers.

So now, you clearly have me hooked because above and beyond the lack of sensitivity and the clear condescension that Jenni had demonstrated in her tone back in July, this post and comment more or less underscores her lack of desire to actually both consider POC (let alone mention them) and recognize or approach the diversity of practitioners and teachers in the community.

Questions that came up for me:

  • Does the author assume / believe that Indian / SA / POC asana teachers do not teach safe practice? Do we not consider injuries or know what to do about them? Do we not train other teachers actively? Is the Indian context of teaching safe asana different? Is it not relevant to the Western yoga context?
  • Do these 7 prominent white and white-passing able bodied yoga teachers know what it feels like to be a larger bodied yoga practitioner? Do they know by lived experience what injury in a big / fat / large body feels like and what to do about it?
  • What exactly makes a yoga teacher high profile? The number of Facebook / Instagram likes and followers? Don’t those numbers increase ideally when you are able bodied & white / white-passing anyway?

This blog disturbs me and I know I might do both Jenni & myself a world of good by just ignoring her posts. But I can’t do that today. Not just for this blog post but for any that continues to perpetuate the disparity and marginalization in the name of existing prominence. It would be so wrong on my part… on so many levels!

Firstly, I am familiar with just two of the teachers on the list – so the others I haven’t heard of. But then isn’t this the exact case for white supremacy and lack of diversity in ‘today’s yoga world‘? If yoga is continued to be represented by white & white passing teachers, and if no effort is made to even reach out & ask Indian/SA/POCs for their input, then needless to say, the playing field is skewed! And yes, so is prominence!

Secondly, the blog post on safety is also quite exclusive. It caters to the stereotyped able-bodied practitioner. In other words, the safety of bigger bodies doesn’t seemingly fall into the radar of the blog. I can understand that it is not the area of expertise of the author, but her insta comment indicates that she is aware of diversity that, in her opinion, is lacking prominence.

The author’s wish to see more of diversity in the ‘prominent’ list, those who are actively teaching safe asana is, well, quite fulfilled already if only she looked them up!

What is needed then? Because the problem is not this blog (although it is problematic as always), the problem is not one person’s obvious colored prejudice and the unadjusted bias against POCs or people of non-conforming / non-stereotyped bodies. It is simple.

It is about the lack of platforming. And it is about the privilege of supremacy that showcases, repeatedly and consistently white, able-bodied practitioners & teachers to supplement their benefits. In the process, the marginalized remain in the shadows, kept there with a pitiful ‘wish’ for more diversity because it is easier to say, “I don’t know they exist!” or “Do they even do this work to keep asana safe?”

And so, until then, we carry on with the pantomime by allowing the White Savior Complex to take us through asana and help keep it safe for us, even if they don’t really  know how to.

My Unpopular Opinion: Christian & Yoga

tea-lights-1901005_1280
Image by congerdesign from Pixabay 

So we have yet another post on social media that is ringing the bells – church bells this time! This post from Yoga Faith claiming that yogic practices & postures are from the Bible and they are out to reclaim them.

Faith Yoga

Ok.. so this is so not done. SO not done that it is hilariously ridiculous. And if it weren’t for the flu then I would have responded to this earlier – but then yesterday happened. The whole morning & much of the afternoon I sat with this ugly feeling in the pit of my stomach because the day opened me up to various facets of this conversation and the experience of hurt, harm & pain was direct.

I’ll be honest, I’m not usually this sensitive, so maybe it had something to do with the Autumn Equinox. Jokes apart, though, I was very disturbed over the many comments that this post generated to the point that I was eventually reduced to tears of hurt & pain. I recall telling myself that this was just another appropriation incident and that it was absurd for me to take it so personally. But I just could not bear it. Eventually, my 17-yr-old noticed my tears and realized that somewhere, somehow,  something that wounded me quite deeply.

It had.

So as is my wont, I chose to share it here – because sometimes it is this raw pain when shared brings hope for change.

Firstly, about this whole Christian Yoga / Yoga Faith spiel – I think it is definitely a case of misunderstood scriptures by a group of (probably) well meaning folks who picked the wrong practice to appropriate. I think dragging in yoga was uncalled for. Yoga is a spiritual practice long established and existing way before the documented Vedic period in the Indo Gangetic plains. For Yoga Faith to claim, with much audacity, that the roots exist in the Bible because of the meditation & chanting practices mentioned there is preposterous. Blatant appropriation by a white Christian outfit needed calling out and I see that it did happen – a number of my friends and colleagues voiced their feelings ranging from outrage to hurt through various channels of social media.

I was nursing my children back to health after a nasty flu episode. I followed the comments occasionally, but I passed joining in.

But then a couple of very interesting dynamics started playing out. As the dust around the immediate post reaction settled and Yoga Faith issued their quasi apology (pfft! another #eyeroll accompanied by a #facepalm), pockets of conversations on my groups & social media all started with the post-incident chatter.

I woke up to a chat window full of enraged comments at the Yoga Faith apology note and later saw that same apology note torn apart in some other social media groups & threads as well. To some extent it was sensible critique, but soon enough the criticism moved away from specifics to include a generalized group of people – Christians. Mockery and wordplay around christian words and practices including a fair amount of blasphemy directed towards Jesus & other christian terms. I recall sharing outrage in the past over Hindu deities images on bathroom mats but was surprised at having these same people wilfully engaging in exact same volleys without a moment’s hesitation or… empathy… because it is a different religion now? An eye for an eye….

Here’s the punch line – I am Christian by birth. I may not be a 100% actively practicing Christian and may have a 99% leaning towards spiritual philosophy instead of organized religion, but, my faith and deeply personal contemplation does happen as a Christian. And to that effect, those conversations caused pain – and not just tiny wound flecks, but larger hurtful ones.

So, although I still believe that Yoga Faith messed up and hope that they offer a better response and apology eventually, I’ll share here again what I have always said – numerous times. Since my yoga journey, and having read the Bhagvad Gita, I have found immense understanding of my faith – not my religion, my faith. Maybe a part of it is Christian faith, and so be it, but it has not got anything to do with the rites & rituals of the church.

I came across Yoga Faith’s Facebook page and posts indicating yoga asanas captioned with Bible verses as if to equate one with the other. Now, while drawing a connection to yoga from personal experience is open to all, but claiming its heritage to a Biblical verse for ustrasana – no thank you. This is when I’d like to remind Yoga Faith that a great many churches have been spending many years vilifying yoga and yogic practices – so no, save the story… really.

Having said that, there is one part of Yoga Faith’s initial post that I understood – the part on meditation & chanting being in the Bible. And that is true… but that is also true of any other spiritual tradition and/or religion where communing with the Higher self, the Divine involves deep meditative and contemplative practices. Hymns are sung, prayers chanted, and repetitive prayers akin to mantras are chanted on a rosary or maala or tasbih or dhikr. This is true of Hindu, Christian, Muslim practices. I can’t  speak for other religions as I do not know. They are not wrong to say that these practices were mentioned in the Bible – especially in the Old Testament – but again, they are silly to claim that the seated postures are described in any details in the the Bible. Sitting at the feet of a master, kneeling or standing do not in any way indicate that Biblical characters were practicing yoga asanas (please allow me another #eyeroll).

What needs to be also remembered is that Jesus was from the Middle East in Asia and I feel that there were many practices that Jesus performed that are rememble yoga. Yoga and yogic philosophy is a Vedic darshana. The arrival or origin of yogic or other practices to/in the Indo Gangetic plain or their spread from the Indo Gangetic plain spread it to other places is still unclear. But the commonality of the region makes is quite possible to have very similar postures of reverence and spiritual obeisance. But conjecture aside, yoga as we know it today, remains to be the practice that has been preserved and conveyed down lineages and traditions from India and Indian sources and as an Indian Yoga teacher (although Christian), I would ardently stand by that to refute Yoga Faith’s unbased claims.

Now, there is also my own personal reflection of how I was able to connect the esoteric and thought philosophies of the Gita and yoga to Christian philosophy – both being very different from Hindu or Christian or other religious rites & rituals. As a philosopher, there are numerous schools of thought, including teachings of Yogananda Paramahansa and other core Krishna schools, where Christ consciousness & Krishna consciousness are considered similar, if not the same – any differences being attributed to the culture of the geographies.

All of this is accepted history and ongoing debate & I get it. Yet, what hurt me was the intensity and harmful statements that were made. The ones that were made without knowing my background allowed me to see the anger, some of it without having full facts and yet allowing me space to share and speak. Those didn’t cause me as much pain. Yet two specific experiences did, and both included me voicing out the harm I was experiencing at the choice of words and sentiments from the majority in the conversations – Hindus (some yogis others not).

It is important to this blog post to specify that the narrative took a Hindu rhetoric instead of a yogic or an Indian one – because the argument cannot stand as Indian v/s Christian (national v/s religious) – to be on par, it had to get to the the Hindu v/s Christian narrative of this entire yoga story.

I could handle that part too.

Until things got ugly. Because it really didn’t take long for the usual suspects of mockery, name-calling and bigotry to start its play. I have seen enough of this sectarian instigation over the course of Indian politics earlier this year and seen many social media trolls hijack innocent posts and engage in bullying and groupism – all in the name of saving ‘yoga’ or ‘Indian culture’ as if to say that if you weren’t a Hindu you were ‘lesser than’ or that you were in a way ‘less Indian’ or ‘less patriotic’ or whatever. The assumption that by way of being born a Christian, I was being supportive of Yoga Faith was just the start of it. My yogic perspective and/or my other points of intersection was cast aside – especially as they were potentially going to defuse the anger that they wanted to continue stoking.

And then came the gas-lighting. Mind you – no apology was ever offered for the harm that I just voiced having experience – not even a half-assed one. Instead there was something on the lines of, “How dare you point a finger at my friends who were mocking you? They are free to voice their opinion on my page since I may agree to some parts of it.” What was left unsaid is that, ‘Since my friends’ bigoted views match mine and we can laugh about it, they are free to opine, but your opinions are not welcome here and you are not supposed to take offense, even though you are also supposed to be my friend.’ Other comments were on the lines of, ‘I’m a Christian and I didn’t feel offended by these jokes so why should you? My faith is stronger & can withstand such mockery….’ And the priceless one, ‘I thought you are a mature and light hearted soul….but….

Then there was a last attempt at drawing sarcastic, dark humor at my ancestry and ethnicity – another very common engagement, if not in public forums, then most definitely in private groups and chambers. Anyway, that stung. And my ‘friend’ found nothing wrong in any of it – except for a last comment asking that since she didn’t mean disrespect to anyone and least of all to me, for being her teacher. I think that is what dug the nail right in. The sentimentality of it all – the last straw. I broke.

The conversation went on to democracy and their individual’s right to mock others if they felt like it. This is where it started really making me physically sick. This group of people felt it was their constitutional right to freedom to mock others.

Now here’s where the political needle spins. This conversation is happening in India. And these are Hindus – the ethnopolitical group in power, the majority. And on the other side two of us on the receiving end of this mockery – the minority. It was this dynamics that was in play – whether they knew it or not, it was… because everything that happened on that thread is what everyone in the west calls a supremacist attitude of oppression due to the power of privilege – make that unchecked privilege.

As an audience it is important for us to work against supremacy and unchecked privilege. Please bear in mind that I always speak for yoga, but in this skewed yoga industry where everything in the WEST seems to be of relevance, the Indian narrative is often forgotten. The Hindu narrative of yoga in the West where Indians & South Asians are considered the marginalised minority, in India they are not – they are the majority and engage in as much of a supremacist attitude just like the larger white population in the western world do. It is this unchecked privilege that is used every.single.time. and they can get away with it – and in the western context, the marginalized are being given a platform to speak.

I have tried on various forums to indicate how many NRIs (Non Resident Indians) engage in this political instigation by gathering white allies who have let go of their Christian identity by their own choice (good for them!), who have found renewed faith in Hindu philosophy (again, great going if they’re happy, go for it!) but who then go on to blindly follow these individuals with skewed supremacist views without knowing the cultural politics that occur on ground in India – they’re just removing white supremacy and replanting it with their allyship in India. I once mildly suggested that people watch out of the ‘brainwashing’ to which I was patronizingly replied, ‘Don’t worry, Luvena, I can’t get brainwashed that easily!

Yeah.. right…

Gosh! Did I just vent? I guess I did…  it was just too much… too much for me to handle yesterday. I cried from the hurt of being shamed and for the refusal of a ‘yogi‘ to see the harm that was being perpetuated. I was hurt by a student who pulled the rug from under my feet. I don’t know which one was worse – was it the mockery, the humiliation or the open agreement by liking the mocking posts and at the same time continuing to victim shame. Maybe the romantic in me felt humiliated by a student, who was also a friend. Regardless, I took it personally. I was offended. I was hurt.

This is ugly – this happens.

So, to the white people reading my blog post – here’s an invitation. The next time an Indian/SA yoga teacher speaks, please use your discernment. We all have diverse views, ideologies and sentiments. Some of us are far right-wing fundamentalists, others are far left leaning, yet others are neutral and many others just don’t care. Not all of us are Hindus – we have Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, atheists, etc too and some of us are yogis others are not. There are a group of severely marginalized communities in India who are not even considered in organized religions – the dalits, the bahujans and the adivasis – who are not included in these conversations of social order and hierachy. (I am aware that many DBA speak for themselves and I have better privilege in comparison and I do not wish to bring their story in to gain any advantage at their expense. But do learn about them.) It is beyond Hinduism but it is contemporary Indian.

Make an educated and informed call about how you would engage with us – what about us speaks to you? Is it our authenticity or is it our vulnerability in situations? It is OK if it is the lack of either too 🙂  Recognize that the ones considered a minority in the U.S. / UK / developed Western countries are largely the very affluent and privileged majority here in India and compared to the local residents and are not necessarily engaging in equitable practice always. Many of them live well cushioned lives in the west and assume a place of authority to speak on behalf of all Indians – especially the ones living in India! The do not! They also don’t necessarily give back to their country as you would think they do but then they are often not expected to either.  Do your homework. Ask questions. Be wary of the ones who gang up and bully others who do not agree with their POV or those who label any one with an alternate opinion as antinational or Hinduphobic. That is again not true, yet it is a commonplace argument. The moment you say anything that could pose as an alternative perspective it is labelled as Hinduphobic to shut down the conversation and effectively get the individual to second guess themselves and stimulate sympathy in the western audience. This, even if the person in question is Indian.

And to all of us, it would never hurt to be kind. Making a point, even a strong one doesn’t have to make anyone stoop so low that below the belt slurs and pejoratives are the only means with which you can operate. Slander and libel are not the way to create any kind of positive change – or is it that positive change is something that is not the goal?

India is diverse and the narrative is as diverse as her people. If you’re standing in solidarity with us, then please do add this to your list of work in this space. Until then, yes, Yoga Faith needs to do better.

“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

 

 

Saved By The White Yogi

How many desi / brown yogis do you know?

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

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

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

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

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

This is what I heard instead:

“Where would we be without Yoga Journal?”

“Would we be successful enough?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

We’re talking about us.

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

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

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

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

We do not need white yoga saviors.

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.

Day 12: White Supremacy in Yoga

white supremacy yoga માટે છબી પરિણામ

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

Wrong!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

This blog is a part of a very unique yoga challenge led by my dear friend and fellow yogi, Susanna Barkataki – the Dare to Discuss Yoga Challenge. Both of us feel quite deeply about cultural appropriation and bring an authentic purpose to shine through constructive discussion, dialogue and education to make people (yogis & non-yogis) aware – to ‘lessen the appropriation and up the honor’, in Susanna’s words. In support of the challenge and the work, I shall be blogging my introspection and reflection here to share the conversation and build the cumulative effect.