The thing about Gurus

I just spent the past week, like many other disciples, sadhakas, in the lineage, in remembrance of the Master teachers of my tradition. The period between the 8th & 12th of September is celebrated annually with the Sri Lakshmi-Narayana Mahayajna at the Sannyasa Peeth in Munger. This year, due to the pandemic, the sadhana and aradhana were livestreamed and aspirants were able to participate remotely. The celebration itself commences & ends between two significant dates for those in the lineage – the 8th of September being the birthday of Sri Swami Sivananda Saraswati and the 12th of September is the sannyasa day (initiation into sannyasa) of Sri Swami Satyananda Saraswati.

It was a personal practice – it felt deep, personal, powerful and significant. I am not going to share those emotions here; they’re too personal. However, I will share about one aspect that Swami Niranjanananda presented on the third day’s satsang after the Mahayajna.

He spoke of gurus.

He also didn’t just speak of gurus, he spoke with an intensity that really called out for responsibility and a sense of introspection on who we really were posing to be!

I felt a deep sense of hurt in myself as I listened to the carefully chosen words from Swamiji – words that were meant to be direct, precise and relevant.

If you’re in the Western world, desi or non desi, you would be familiar with a lot of controversy around yoga or spiritual Gurus. India, too, has a abundance of gurus. Let me rephrase that, an abundance of self-proclaimed gurus with a huge following of ‘devotees’ many of them blind devotees too! Yet, in a land of existential esoterism, such unflinching faith often is synonymous with the very essence.

Still, we come back to ‘Guru’ and all the hype and wrath that the word draws – especially in the West. Unfortunately, in the digital age, a lot of that expressed fury is also reabsorbed by the native people – either through capitalism or the sensationalism of media – in both ways, a reconditioning of thought & understanding to align it with a western centric understanding of a principle that in every sense of the word cannot be naturally understood by a western mind.

For one, because it is a not a rational principle. It is not a ‘ touch & feel’ / ‘show & tell’ principle. It is not a, “This is my Guru, who is yours?’ principle.

So who is a Guru, then?

I cringe at my own question…. because I may actually want to ask, “So, what is a Guru, then?” But I’m blogging in English, aren’t I? So the personified Guru should answer to ‘Who?” shouldn’t it?

Actually, to the rational mind, regardless of geographical location, esoteric concepts may sometimes seem like an Orientalised and exotic system. Honestly, these concepts are difficult to understand by many Indians and South Asians too.

It is because the path of discipleship is not undertaken by all. The spiritual path is not lucrative and has no perks (unless the idea is to market & benefit from it, that’s another story). But the spiritual path is a conscious choice to step into a lot of inner mess.

The path of discipleship is not something that every Indian has to take. In some communities, certain rites of passage may form an illusion that a sacrament initiates the child into the path of discipleship. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. This is similar to the sacraments in various religious rituals and sacraments. It is a societal tradition, but not necessarily one where the child is entrusted to a rishi in a gurukul to promote the ancient guru shishya parampara.

Oh and while we cannot deny the social tendency to uphold a patriarchal representation of the guru shishya relationship, it is important to clarify that in the tradition children were sent by their parents to be raised with life and moral values by rishis and rishi patnis (the rishis’ wives) as their parents. To this day, many spiritual teachers in many lineages are women.

The Guru is a different principle altogether.

As I pause in frustration at this blog post, I realise that I am trying too hard. Trying too hard to explain something that cannot be explained in words. It has to be felt. It is like me trying to explain that honey is sweet but not being able to explain to you what sweetness is if you’ve never ever tasted anything sweet before. Sweetness is not honey. Sweetness is the principle and honey (or chocolate or candy or ice-cream is the conduit)

So an individual may be a teacher and for a moment might be the conduit for the wisdom of the principle of the Guru, the Guru tattva, conveyed through the lineage, the tradition, scriptures, (workshops & classes…??). And after their passing from this mortal world, their life and work may be referred to as deeper, powerful, potent works of wisdom. They may be gurus, even…. but that recognition is in their legacy.

However, our penchant for labelling persons, the conduits as the Guru is both misleading and damaging to the whole system – let alone to the ego of the individual. The pressure to conform to the perceived (or marketed) image is immense and the backlash of falling from grace when they err is harsh.

Gurus, today, are centered and platformed as the principle. The tattva is personified to make sense to a population or a group of people who essentially are not able to grasp the concept of the principle. This over simplification leads to all sorts of problems – least of which is connecting the principle to a very mortal, menial, frail human existence of the individual – who for the reasons I just mentioned, has to live up to the ideal of being called a ‘Guru’.

In the process, the gap between the truth of the Guru tattva and the misinformation / mispresentation of what a Guru is (because of how certain people, who either call themselves Gurus or are called a Guru by their followers, behave or behaved) is ever widening.

Here’s the thing, though. Even if we were to posthumously recognise the gift of certain personalities as great teachers, master teachers of the wisdom, in all aspects, while they live they remain human. They goodness is a conscious cultivation, their acts of generosity and a choice they make, their careful compassionate speech and deeds are a means to stay on their path…. And just like that, their flaws are human, the abuse some of them perpetrated is human, any oppression caused is human, all their faults are human. Because they are human.

Call out the abuse, the crimes, the trauma, etc. and call out their actions. If they are alive, they need to be tried in a human court of law for their crimes….

Because they are just human beings – they may have had the opportunity to study and share some wisdom to some people. But that doesn’t stop them from being human and from succumbing to human frailty.

The assumption that any teacher – yoga, spirituality, traditional art & culture, or others from a guru parampara is automatically cleared for ethics is flawed. The assumption that the self proclaimed gurus with mass followings are beyond reproach is blind faith and ignorance.

The patriarchal mess that is left in the wake of a capitalist, reductionist, over simplified, white washed & ignorant approach to an esoteric system of an intangible concept is the root cause of the shame and mistrust of the Guru today.

What do people know of the Guru before they embark oo being wary anyway?

The assumption that teachers are infallible is where the principle of the guru, the guru tattva, is defiled and shamed.

The guru tattva is not a guru – not your guru or mine. The guru tattva is the principle, the essence that is available for all humanity.

The guru is eternal and is an intimate non-personal experience. The teacher is just the channel – maybe momentarily, in many moments, channeling the tattva even, so deserving of gratitude. The wisdom is always through the parampara – from one teacher to the student teacher to the next student teacher….

It is not personified. It cannot be personified.

It cannot always be explained either! To some extent, I feel even this blog post has not completely succeeded in conveying the depth of that feeling because some feelings cannot be expressed in vocabulary (that is limited anyway!)

I close with a lot of gratitude to my teachers who constantly teach and learn themselves staying true to the teachings of the tradition as well as remaining observant to our own shortcomings.

This blog post dedicated to

Sri Swami Sivananda Saraswati,
Swami Satyananda Saraswati,
Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati,
Swami Satyasangananda Saraswati,
Pradeep Sattwamaya,
Swami Yogaratna Saraswati
and
Swami Dharmakeerti Saraswati
for their teachings, mentoring and grace
for which I am very grateful.

Yoga Teachers & Burnout

Present times are quite unnerving. Yoga teachers are not lesser immune to these changes. The stress is real, and the so-called ‘solutions’ can also be quite daunting to many us for whom life and work has taken a turn into this colloquial, ‘new normal’. The truth is that not many yoga teachers are ready for this abrupt change and burnout, in yoga, may sneak up on us just as easily as we go about teaching our students to navigate change and calm through life’s ups & downs.

Burnout is real.

The sudden change in routine has done to us has thrown many yoga teachers is a whirlwind of activity especially around work and the generation of income. While some yoga teachers may be associated with local studios or fitness chains, many (if not most) traditional yoga teachers serve the community through private classes (individual or group).

The employment contract may cover earnings during this period of social distancing for their contracted staff & employees. But for yoga teachers who work for themselves, the pressure of generating income as well as shifting to a new medium of instruction online may prove to be downright stressful.

Even if businesses may be supported, the perception of competition in an online jungle or even the logistics of getting online to create programs or teach can take a toll.

And then, we have the influence of the coronavirus news, extended proximity with familiar faces, the pressure to stay calm, political squabbles and civic disruptions all adding to our woes. I, personally, wasn’t too bothered with the change form offline to online, but the constant drive to create new things, figure out messaging tools, newsletters, classes, what to teach, when to teach, marketing material … and raising kids & dogs, cooking, cleaning, attending zoom calls, etc…

In this whirlwind of activity, a couple of things suffered terrible – my practice, my self study & any semblance of self care.

I was giving too much.

I was doing too much.

I was sitting too much.

I was not listening to my body.

I was unable to make time for my practice or my self-study.

My routine was all over the place.

There was too much screen time.

It felt like I was ON at all times.

I was not slowing down.

I could hear my body tell me to make all these changes, but I didn’t pause to listen and heed the advice. Until the body did the only thing it could to get my attention.

It slowed me down.

Thankfully, it wasn’t a total burnout, but it was close enough. My body couldn’t really take a lot of the pressure, so it showed up in my weakest spot – my back. I had no choice but to listen – and apologize to my back for the lack of attention and promise to do better.

And I did. I’ll write another post later this week with my insights from the recovery process. But I did take it easy. I stayed in bed. It took me a whole week to get back to my feet! A whole week and lots of ice! I also took the time to read, make very late crochet Easter eggs, play Uno with the kids, supervise my 13yo (from my bed) as she explored the kitchen & cooked our meals. I meditated, taught my morning meditation from my bed (I told my students & kept my video switched off). I explored my essentials oils, I reflected, I creatively expressed, I rested… and I healed.

I recognize that I am susceptible to this.

We all are – it is a fault in our human-ness to succumb to a lack of attentiveness to ourselves. Self care is important. How else would we expect ourselves to be of service and fulfill our purpose?

Here are some pointers for yoga teachers:

  • Schedule it.Your practice may falter, so schedule some time in for it – even if it is just 15 minutes.
  • Online calls & meetings get us to sit for longer than we are used to. Incorporate movement & stretching throughout the day. 10-15 minutes mini stretches.
  • Stay hydrated – can’t say this enough. A well hydrated body reduces the accumulation of cortisol (stress hormone) in the body.
  • Eat well. Eat on time & have a balanced diet. Too many dry foods may increase your vata causing more imbalance, especially if you are not moving much.
  • Establish a routine. Creating a sense of predictability allows for a more measured and conscious approach to staying in control.
  • Get your Zzzs. Sleep well, on time.
  • Let go of perfection. You may not have that perfectly edited video for your classes, but rest assured, your students are there because of what you offer.
  • Find your sangha. Social isolation is not emotional isolation. Stay connected with other yoga teachers and business owners. You may have more in common to share – the good times as well as the challenges. This is a time to stay connected.
  • Do non yoga things. This is a too-much-of-a-good-thing point. Take a break – get off your yoga mat and experience the joy of art, craft, color, a movie, a book, journaling, decluttering, anything that takes your mind off things but still remains joyfully creative.
  • Tap into nature’s goodness. Essential oils worked wonders for me in my self care routine! Sandalwood & jasmine are a wonderful oil for all doshas. You may have your favorite blend. Go for it! Herbs & essential oils have deep wisdom!
  • And finally, take frequents moments to just do nothing at all! Doing nothing is an art – one that is deeply healing & immensely nurturing. No rules, no regulations – just.do.nothing.

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Teaching Yoga Through Science (or the other way around?)

I mainly teach yoga anatomy as well as the history & philosophy of yoga in the YTTs (Hatha/Prenatal/other)…but I’d like to weigh in on the idea that some folks hold of having a sole focus on anatomy & physiology in a yoga teacher training especially coming from an Indian standpoint and returning the focus of the training back to yoga.
Yoga is not just asana – in fact, in the most relevant of yogic texts, the focus isn’t even on physiological well-being, let alone body parts and wellness. I disagree with the clubbing of yoga with what ‘modern yoga’ needs (physical & physiological correctness) because that’s just another way of breaking an ancient practice to suit commercial or dominant culture. Yoga is an ancient wisdom science that works on the spiritual body through the mind and there is no modernization of it by shifting the focus towards body, body and more body. Whitewashing it to suit the logic of the western understanding and demanding strict adherence and understanding of A&P or the hard sciences of movement dilutes and takes away from yoga as a practice and a lifestyle and limits it to suit the agenda of a dominate culture. If one is looking to train as a body movement specialist, then by all means train to the utmost and demand for training in movement, biomechanics, physics and such, but then that is not a yoga teacher training…. at all… not even if the trainer wants to call it that… make that ‘especially if the trainer wants to call it yoga’. It is not yoga and not a yoga teacher training. It is something else.
Essentially yoga needs to have a foundation in the yogic science and philosophy and in itself is a complete science without western science entering to validate it. Saying that you would rather teach a yoga of biomechanics and not give due importance to nadis, chakras, culture, nuance or any other more subtle philosophical sentiments and topics is being selective and isolating… and well, harmful. One can choose to learn & teach what one wishes to based on one’s leaning, but one cannot and should not choose to define yoga and its practices on a whim or personal belief or selective definition – and definitely not when there is a financial gain involved by way of a teacher training program. You cannot defile yoga by eliminating certain parts of it and then teach that modified something as a ‘yoga’ teacher training.
My request to students who would like to take up yoga teacher training – if you are willing to fully immerse in the practice and philosophy and culture of yoga as it is as well as find ways to integrate your study alongside the logical, critical thought process, then please dip into it. If you are looking for a body work or body movement and dynamics training & qualification to only suit the logical side of your understanding and are a willing to have ‘a bit of the philosophy’ for added flavour, then you may want to reflect on why you are signing up for a ‘yoga’ teacher training. They are two different things and yoga is being commodified, diluted and misrepresented in such trainings to suit a more commercialized agenda.

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….

This thing called ‘Consent’

As part of Teaching Methodology, I’ve been talking about ‘Consent’ in my recent YTTs (Yoga Teacher Trainings) over the past few weeks. As an Indian yoga teaching in India). All I can say is that as a concept the whole idea of consent in the Indian culture, is sadly, just raising its head. In my observation, there are 2 major things at play here:

  1. The realization that an individual (as well as a yoga practitioner) has agency. (considering the rampant patriarchal bias), and,
  2. The status of a teacher in Indian culture – very elevated (all the more for spiritual gurus and, well, yoga teachers.)

In the Indian context, somewhere along the line, women have been objectified and the basic sense of body boundaries seems to have been lost. This is not the general rule – but socio-culturally, this has been an after-effect of patriarchy. And we see this in varying shades across economic strata.

For women (and yoga practitioners) to become aware that they actually do have a say in who can touch them, where, when and how much, how often, etc, is a new thing. Almost all women who come into yoga studios have a history of abuse, eve-teasing, being groped, cat-called, molested, sexually assaulted or even raped. Sadly, many of them have usually normalized the injurious and traumatic touch with a ‘cant-do-anything-about-it’ attitude. So teaching them about consent and that they can refuse touch is a big thing – novel approach, but much needed.

Even if it means saying no to touch – with sexual connotations or not.

Secondly, the Indian culture, even in modern education systems, largely place teachers on a very high pedestal. This is true even, or more so, for yoga teachers, who are confusingly seen as highly evolved beings who can do no wrong. The irony, of course, they also see them are individuals who possibly do not need to be paid for their seva. (“Wait, isn’t yoga supposed to be free?”)

Anyway, this is important in a yoga class setting, especially in an Indian yoga class context because many practitioners come in with both these beliefs – that they can’t say, ‘No’ to touch and/or manual adjustments if they feel uncomfortable and definitely not say, “no” to a yoga teacher!!

So the western yoga community has come up with this innovative tool, a prospective accessory that yoga classes may choose to use – consent cards – offered to practitioners in studios with the intention of allowing them to let the teacher know if they welcome hands-on adjustments / touch or not.

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Picture Credit: https://kindyoga.com.au/

I’ve raised the concept of consent cards with my YTT students and they seem to be confused in how to use them – the application of consent is tough. I wonder myself how convenient they would be for me to use, because I can be very clear with making my consent or dissent known, but consent cards / stones, might be a distraction. Plus, and this is more important to note that a card can only give so much consent – further experience in the adjustment is only when it happens – how much adjustment is too much? When does the practitioner refuse the adjustment? Is it Ok to refuse adjustment after agreeing to it earlier or even after turning the YES face up?

Well, like all things consensual, the practitioner has the right to refuse manual adjustment or any touch at any point in time

I cannot stress this enough.

Here’s what I suggest teachers do:

Seek consent at the beginning of the class, and definitely during class if you want to offer an adjustment. But my #1 philosophy to train them in is – to simply avoid manual adjustments altogether.

Also, I feel that a 200-hr (RYT200 / YTT200) certification is just not adequate to fully understand manual adjustments and how to offer them because bodies are so different and yoga teachers learn a lot from experience and deeper training. It helps to learn from classroom continuing education as well as self-study and experience, about trauma-sensitivity, mindful teaching and the fact that people are not just their bodies, they are a body with a mind, a spirit and deep and rich emotional history to consider.

So, with the Indian context, I believe we have to address two things here.

Firstly, to educate our practitioners about boundaries and agency (though this doesn’t always come under yoga teaching), but it is important to empower them that way… and secondly, more importantly, to be sensitive to the fact that our society in itself is looking at change – and changing a culture can only happen by engagement, education and walking the talk.

Day 10: Shining Light – Celebrating Diversity

I’ve always believed that yoga teachers need to be a community first and foremost, lifting each other up, supporting & referring each other. I’ve found that trusting and entrusting in each other builds a community based on oneness and inter-dependency where the whole community and the society at large benefit.

As part of my Dare to Discuss Yoga Challenge, today is to really shine light on some of those teachers who lift me up and those who need a major shoutout for the work they do and are not normally in the spotlight. I have a few to name & many of them are not even on Social Media – so this is what I’m going to do – I’m going to showcase their work periodically for the awesomeness that they bring into the world & community. Today, this is all about this lovely yogi who brings everything she has to the work she does. Our relationship evolved from a teacher-student one to a present-moment fantastic friendship and I love her all the more because she probably started the Luvena Fan Club (hahahah!) –  Annelise Piers is a hippi-by-heart yogi with a deep driven passion to help women through yoga and aromatherapy. She creates magic potions and always, ALWAYS gives from her heart. She is one of my dearest friends and I think her touch is beautifully healing – on and off the mat! Love you, Anna!!

 


 

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.

From the student’s heart

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PC: Isha – Sadhguru

Today is Guru Poornima – a festival widely celebrated in India and Nepal, signifying the expression of reverence towards the Guru. Indian culture has always upheld the guru’s place – socially as well as in mythology. Growing up, and not coming from the essential Hindu culture, I was a bit removed from the concept of subscribing to a teacher, let alone a guru. However, the Indian fabric of culture did instill in us, a sense of respect towards our teachers and educators.

Over the years and through my yoga and spiritual journey, I had the opportunity to meet and interact with many teachers and thought leaders – people of significance who helped shaped my personality, my beliefs and my sense of integrity, values and purpose. Not all of them directly influenced this transformation, but some of them did. Some teachers were a glaring example of what I chose not to do in life and others were grounding examples of purpose, compassion and mission.

The days leading to this Guru Purnima I was contemplating on far I had come in my own journey as a  yoga student and as a teacher. I saw growth spurts as well as moments of inertia – I saw traction as as well as propulsion. I saw a line that I was following and I also noticed the hand that I was offering my students when they were stuck. There was this sense of give and take.

And in that moment, I realised that even without being directly in touch with my  teachers of significance, I was living my life on purpose with what I had learnt from them – and through them, from a lineage that goes back to significant source of grounded wisdom, energy and wholeness. Through my teacher, my lineage and that of my students was being moulded and strengthened. The power of that lineage had the tendency to spill over into my personal life has a householder, a mother, a woman, a friend, a civilian – an individual – an individual on purpose.

Omg! I’m getting the shivers as I share this now – this organic, in-the-moment, straight-from-the-heart sharing…

So here goes…

Today, I offer my heartfelt gratitude to my teachers. My teachers – my parents and grandparents who made me who I am, to my children who teach me every single day of how much more I have to work on to get there, my teachers in school, in college & University, trainers who have given me the tools to reach out to do the work that I do, to my students who see the light in me that I would see in my teachers, and to my mentors and teachers at The Chopra Center, Dr. Deepak Chopra. Dr. David Simon, Pandit Vamadev Shastri, Yogini Shambhavi…. thank you for your guidance and support.

But on the path of the yogi, my teacher, who was the first one to bring to me the teaching that definitively makes me the teacher who I am today, who has given me the numerous opportunities and freedom to be who I am and bring my skills to the fore, to establish myself in who I am meant to be and who was with me when we had the collective vision to build community in Bangalore. We’ve shared deep discussions, silly laughs and spent weeks and months over events, programs and courses. He invited me into the fold when I needed that space and he allowed me the space to leave when I felt I had to move on. He’s been a friend, a sounding board and my source of frustration when I needed to work my way through a challenge. He was with me when I had the biggest accident of my life so far, his comforting smile was the last I saw as they wheeled me away to the Operating Theatre and he gave me the gift of my lineage.

Pradeep Sattwamaya – forever in gratitude. Thank you!

10 Tips for Inclusive Yoga Classes in India

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I’m a yoga teacher. I teach in India. I’m an Indian.

There, I’ve checked all the right boxes to assure you that I am speaking from the corner of the play arena where I hope to see change in.

My reasons are simple – if yoga is defined as ‘union‘, then there’s all the more reason for the teachers to bring in a sense of inclusive unity in the classes they teach. I know for a fact that not all yoga teachers out there are trained in the soft skills that they would do well to embody. And, well, not all schools and yoga teacher training programs in India have a curriculum that goes beyond expertise in asana and teach the deeper aspects of what it takes to be a yoga teacher.

So I thought today, being Accessible Yoga Day, I’d put together a few pointers to help yoga teachers make the Indian yoga studio experience a world-class one – inclusive and accessible to a diverse audience, while still maintaining it’s heritage, integrity and authenticity.

1. Smile

It couldn’t get simpler than that. During my earliest studio experiences as a practitioner, it was unnerving to get into the studio where the teacher was grumpy. And grumpy, disconnected, haughty teachers created grumpy, disconnected cultures and left their students (all of them) grumpy and disconnected. A smile emits the energy of friendliness and approachability allowing your students to feel safe to be in your class.

2. It’s not all about asana

I’ve noticed that many yoga teachers focus on asana – on themselves and with their students. Go deeper and invite your classes to take away more than the physical practice. Give them insights on the philosophy and energy of the asana. Educate them throughout the class so they have a little something more to take back with them that just the ‘workout’. Speaking of workout…

3. Make the asanas accessible.

Yoga doesn’t have to be challenging every step of the way. And no asana has to be done only in the way of the one text book example image. Recognize what the asana is intended to achieve and find options for your students to explore. Understand that different bodies may need to approach asana differently – even through props, if required. Allow them to really experience their asana as well its energy!

4. Keep your classes safe.

Ok, well, I love my yoga anatomy – but that doesn’t make it any less important for any other yoga teacher. It is really important for you to know the structure and function of the human body and how to address any limitations your students may bring into class. When you’re in front of the class, leading a class, it becomes your responsibility to keep your students safe (of course, the students also carry the responsibility to inform the teacher of any health conditions and/or concerns). But, when someone comes in with a limitation, be prepared to know how to present safe options for your chosen asanas.

5. Ask permission to touch.

Yes, Indian culture does put teachers up on a pedestal, but let’s face it, contemporary yoga practitioners are aware practitioners. They read, have access to the internet and are a more present and conscious lot. Even if they weren’t aware of their right to refuse manual adjustment, it would be safe to understand that a teacher does not know the story behind every student who enters the studio. Many of my students have shared their fear of refusing manual adjustment from their teachers. If you need to adjust to keep your student safe, a verbal cue could be just as effective – perhaps even more potent for your student.

6. Go easy on the Sanskrit.

Terminology is important – but honestly, your students come from diverse backgrounds. Not everyone would be able to pronounce the Sanskrit names but many new practitioners would probably have Googled their way to the first yoga class and are expecting to hear ‘Downward Facing Dog’ instead of ‘Adhomukha Svanasana‘. It’s OK to switch.

7. Improvise with a touch of dramatics.

Everyone loves an engaging class – even if it is a yoga class. Adding a touch of humor in your classrooms will lighten your classroom and dissipate any lingering tension.

8. Build your speaking skills.

Monotonous instructions in a yoga class can be drab and a jarring voice instructing the class to come out of savanasa  (dead man’s pose) or kaya sthairyam (body stillness) Learning some verbal cueing options along with tone, inflection and voice modulation would go a long way in building the class energy. Be  mindful, however, of talking too much or too little in your class. Be mindful of the language you use – keeping it encouraging, uplifting and inclusive.

9. Build community through yoga.

People love to be included. Practitioners come in all shapes, sizes, faith, gender identity and sexual orientation. Unless you choose to work in one specific niche, you most likely teach a general yoga class. Upskill yourself with teaching techniques, read up on current affairs, and incorporate sensitivity and compassion in your classroom. Learning to make yoga available to the entire diversity that society presents helps us truly advocate for our community members.

10. Humility

As yoga teachers, we are not faultless. We are human too and it helps to remember that. Not every teacher is able to demonstrate every asana, but they most likely can teach their students how to safely and correctly practice it themselves. And it is fine to accept and acknowledge that. We don’t have to beat ourselves up for not being able to. And most students would appreciate the honesty and integrity.

This isn’t an exhaustive list – everything else comes just from being present and experience. It does take effort and the intent to hold space for yourself and your class, but at the end of it all, it really makes the practice much deeper and beautiful – we really do get an opportunity to inspire transformation… and of course, transform ourselves in the process too.

Best of luck!

Feel your yoga

Forget about the pretzelasanas! Yes, I’m telling you that – just forget about them. One of the biggest misconceptions people have about yoga is that it involves twisting the body into ridiculously impossible positions. Well, some postures may do that, but they are not your average starting point.

For most of us simplicity is key – and that is where it helps to begin.

I keep my classes fun and engaged – I challenge the practitioners when I feel they need it and yes, sometimes it also depends on how I feel on that particular day. If most teachers were to share their thoughts, they would agree with that. Of course, many of also go with a basic class plan in mind (or paper), but again, it may be one of those days when the class is just not meant to have that planned session and the teacher has got no choice but to think on her feet!

So here’s one of my keys for beginner classes – I accept that many of us come in with an inbuilt idea of how and where our  bodies are positioned. I also understand that many of us exhibit varying shades of distorted body image. While we can address those issues over time, we start by offering simple tools right from the first ever class.

My pet cue in class is to feel.

feelings_wordcloud

I haven’t yet closed a class where people have not felt different from what they started off with. This is not a self-pat-on-the-back moment, thought it might as well be one, but it is a cue that I feel many teachers would do well to incorporate into their classes.

Why?

Because many practitioners, including some long-time ones, have simply bought in to the idea that a good yoga session is similar to a good workout. Well, it is, in a way, but it is also much more with a scope of going even deeper – at all levels. Most people, yogi or non, have lost touch with how they feel. I know this because although I have a very strong sense of knowing what is happening in my body and any changes – I had, over time, and as a defense mechanism, shut down some very deep parts of myself – the parts that felt the feelings!

And still, it was not that difficult to reconnect – but it took dedication and showing up. In other words, to make my classes authentic enough for my students to walk away with a feeling of difference, I should have walked the talk. Right? Right!

So here’s a tip to try when you practice next time (and don’t worry about what level of challenge you are in):

Part I

Whenever you remember, mid asana, and no matter what state of ‘alignment’ you are in, think a part of your body – any part. Think about what the part feels like. Don’t try to correct or shift it – unless that is what you need to do to avoid any injury. But just stay with it.

Part II

Practice Part I when you are off your mat – on your way to work (not unless you are driving or operating machinery!), before / after you have a bath, before / after a meal.. in other words, any time!

What we’re looking at here is reconnecting our mind to our feelings through our body… Reconnection is the word and best way to make that happen is to begin by relearning how to feel.

Let me know how it goes!