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.

What This YJ Issue Got Me Thinking About

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Earlier this month, a lot of the Western Yoga community expressed their upset and displeasure at Yoga Journal’s split covers on their Leadership Issue – some issues having plus size, queer, teacher of colour, Jessamyn Stanley and others featuring Maty Ezraty another fabulous able-bodied, white teacher. Both teachers are wonderful in their own spaces and in the work they do, but yoga activists in the community, many of them known to me, called out Yoga Journal for this because it had been observed over numerous occasions in the past that YJ was being exclusive in their coverage of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) teachers or other teachers from marginalized, minority sections of the yoga community.

I expressed my upset on Instgram & Facebook as well….and some of my other teacher friends – prominent and well respected in the western yoga community (Jivana Heyman, Amber Karnes, Susanna Barkataki, Dianne Bondy, and many others) – raised it to YJ, who eventually issued a statement on the matter.

Well, when I read that statement, I felt that it just used all the essentially ‘politically correct’ words in a group of sentences – words that perhaps Jivana or Susanna must have said in their conversations and posts, and then issued a statement to hopefully settle the matter with the masses.

Anyway, after my initial frustration with the incident – I eventually realized that was even though the exclusion extended itself to me too (as an Indian / brown/ plus-sized teacher lacking representation) technically, my feelings on the matter, might not actually matter to YJ. That didn’t stop me from voicing my feelings.

But, I thought about a couple of things:

  1. We lack yoga glossy magazines in India. And the ones that we do have lack in quality – both aesthetic as well as content. Magazines like YJ glamorize and beautify the yoga industry to the extent that when we desi yogis travel internationally, we pick these publications.
  2. These magazines highlight a very able-bodied asana approach of yoga, interspersed with a few points here & there on wellness & spirituality, but largely commercialized consumerism of yoga-wear (usually not the plus sizes, but can find something), yoga bars, packaged teas, props and asana classes – all wayyyy to expensive for the average Indian yoga teacher, who… cough cough… anyway earns wayyyy to little to afford those programs.
  3. These programs may complement Indian yoga teachers who generally face a dearth of quality educational programs (with structure and regulation) – but unfortunately, the expense (not to mention visa, travel, accommodation, etc) that makes it highly inaccessible. The research put into a lot of yoga-related aspects in the West can be a great add on to Indian yoga teachers’ practice, teaching & training – and of course so much more knowledge sharing that can happen the other way round too.
  4. There were a few comments on Social Media that said, “YJ is a publishing house” and “I wouldn’t worry too much about what YJ thinks and prints because they’re only printing about yoga – they’re not necessarily yogis…”

Now this is where I actually got uncomfortable. YJ is a published magazine – printing issues and e-magazines about yoga. They have subscribers all over the world – including in India. They were making money printing and publishing stuff about yoga (yogic or not) but they had a responsibility to uphold the values of yoga.

It really got me thinking – within India, we have our fair share of exclusivity – both within and outside of yoga. We didn’t have as much as BIPOC issue, but we certainly did buy in to the ableism that is perpetuated in mainstream media. I was looking for an image of an Indian teacher in ashwasanchalanasana (equestrian pose) on Google this morning (Go ahead and try it! This is what I typed: Indian yoga teacher ashwasanchalanasana / equestrian pose) and any guesses on what I came up with?

We are just so under-represented in the yoga world despite being from the country where yoga originated and are buying into the supremacy of ableism and further allowing it to define who we are as teachers ourselves.

I can imagine that not many Indian teachers may be dipping into the history of yoga to resonate very strongly with the effects of colonialism and cultural appropriation that I am referring to – but they wouldn’t deny that we have bought into the idea that yoga is a huge business in the western world and the consumerism of it is slowly seeping into the Indian yoga community too.

I find so many Indian teachers tagging superstar yogis of the US and being a part of asana challenges and getting their bracelets and tights and all of that. Yes, it builds community and I’m all for that, but I can’t help but feel that this is largely coming from the place of ‘acceptance’ or just not feeling accepted and falling into that vicious cycle of succumbing to a stronger power.

What would it take for the yoga industry to bring the focus on the land, people and culture where it originated? The source from where they make their millions from? Or what would it take for us, Indian teachers, to actually behave in a way of being accepted by ourselves?! Taking full ownership of our skill, our exposure and our heritage.

This isn’t the part where we say if we’re Indian so we’re born yogis – no way! We’ve had our fair share of those kinds. We’re talking about Indian teachers of substance. Teachers who really live and work their purpose in the way they teach, practice and continue to learn. Indian teachers who really contribute to modern yoga with a strong foundation of knowing their roots and heritage – and if they don’t know of their yogic roots & heritage, then to at least begin the inquiry! Not many TTCs & YTTs in India spend adequate time on teaching about the history of yoga to their teachers in training. I guess even the schools assume that asana is the way.

Well, a lot more where that came from – but for now, I’ll leave it at this… and remain with my thoughts….