Inclusion Matters – Even in a Yoga Studio!

I had an interesting discussion with some of my mentees yesterday. A question was raised about the religious implications of the “Om” mantra. Some of the teachers had noticed that in select yoga studio locations, their practitioners were not participating in the standard end-of-class chanting. It was unquestioningly assumed that the Om mantra might not be congruent with some of the practitioners’ religious beliefs.

Now, while this article is not to discuss the religiosity of the practice (that conversation demands its own article space), it is however an important one to have when it comes to the inclusiveness of the studio practice itself.

Yoga studios, by themselves, are not places of worship. They are spaces dedicated to a mind-body practice which involves spiritual connection, depth and focus. Today, most studios cater to a posture-heavy ‘asana‘ focus. The teachers leading the studio classes, more often than not, are just getting onto the path of exploring the practice and not necessarily experts of the philosophy or even the pedagogy. Well, how much can a 2 month (or lesser!) yoga teacher training program actually instill in the participants?

Anyway…

Most current yoga teacher training programs, in their bare minimum requirements, have a core element of teaching methodology – teaching teachers how to teach! Many schools are now recognizing the need to include a component on keeping classes inclusive. Well, to be honest, not all schools & studios are inclusive, but the efforts are on to make them so.

So this discussion with my mentees highlighted and observation of full classes of maybe 30-40 students where the majority would refrain from chanting. We weren’t speaking about the usual case where one or two were not included – we were talking majority!

This observation brought out two important points as far as I could tell:

  1. The teacher was at a loss to explain how the nature of the practice was not necessarily religious. And..
  2. The classes were consistently not inclusive.

Many of us tend to sometimes follow ‘rules’ or prescribed ‘formats’ verbatim to ensure compliance and avoid conflict with management – especially where standardized procedures are concerned. Where all outcomes are not carefully considered, this approach usually stands the risk of causing discomfort and harm to a section of the stakeholders. And well, it also creates and perpetuates an impression of the organization not being open to change (although in reality it may very well be open to it!). A learning organization would do well to constantly be on the lookout for ways to improve processes and evolve.

The observation of this chanting incident was not something that couldn’t be fixed. The teachers were proactive in enriching their own understanding of the philosophy and reached out to me to clarify how to answer this question.

So that took care of the first issue. The teachers now know the theory and philosophy (to some extent).

Still, this was just theory and only the beginning.

Addressing the situation at the studio needed a relatively different approach.

If indeed the practitioners were resistant to chanting Om because it clashed with their religious beliefs, then that needed to be addressed – and yes, there was a way to go about it.

Communicate & give options! And keep it inclusive!

A studio session isn’t exactly the place to lecture at length about the secularism of the mantra, but short proactive sentences to assure them with correct information was one way. If people were still uncomfortable, the best way would be to avoid chanting Om altogether! Better still, replace it with humming instead – the sound of bees! Still created a tranquilizing vibration and there was no religious connection with the humble bumble bee either!

Oh, and it still is a yoga practice!

Keeping yoga classes inclusive is an hot topic in the yoga industry recently. But it doesn’t have to be a drag trying to keep things inclusive. Inclusive and accessible don’t only refer to physical inclusion and accessibility towards people with disabilities (that is also very important and we’ll get it that, too, some other day)… In yoga spaces, Diversity, Inclusion Equity and Accessibility also are a huge component of what we say and do and how we say and do it. This also involves making the practice and wellness accessible to people of all body shapes, sizes, physical and cognitive limitations, race, gender, orientation, economic status, etc. Inclusion includes recognition of the trauma experienced by being Othered and not fitting in with the norm.

Inclusion requires empathy. It is not a check in the box. It is when we draw in our audience to be a part of what we offer – through words, deeds and mannerisms.

Inclusion is not just a business requisite.

It is a human requisite.

What do you think of this? Have you experienced something similar in a yoga studio / wellness center / gym or any other space? What other ideas would you offer that I haven’t mentioned here?

Let me know in the comments below! Stay well!

First published on LinkedIn here.

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

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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

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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.

The Carrot Halwa Insight

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As I was prepping to make a surprise carrot halwa for the kids this afternoon, I got into one of my spellbinding webs of thought. This time, I found myself getting immersed into the dish I was preparing. Mind you, I’m not an Earth Mother and I really do not enjoy standing and cooking for long hours although my efforts are always very kindly appreciated and enjoyed with much pleasure.

I have also of late revisited many of the traditional Mangalorean recipes that have been handed down from my great-grandmother and have enjoyed observing the way my children have enjoyed the goodness of wholesome flavours – all from clean ingredients and spices from our own surroundings. It’s been a beautiful experience… and yes, I digress…

So back to the carrot halwa.

This web that was drawing me in gradually into my usually simultaneously multi-faceted thinking pattern (I really don’t know how else to explain the way my aha moments appear!) As I pounded the green cardamom while the grated carrots slowly cooked in ghee, the gorgeous aroma of the seeds just lifted my senses up a notch. I looked around at the orange carrots looking so vivid and bright against the vessel and I was reminded of a class I often teach – Healing Through The Senses – a class that taught Ayurveda 101 and brought into consideration the various elements and principles of Ayurvedic biology and physiological influence.

My halwa recipe is entirely organic – in the sense that I wing it every time. There is not set ratio or proportion to the ingredients, instead, I go with what I sense is required on the day I make it. So it is a largely intuited one. However, the basic requirements are the staple carrots, ghee, milk, sweetener of choice (I don’t use refined sugar any more, so I replace it with jaggery powder) and powdered green cardamom. Add-ons by others include raisins, powdered pistachios, slivered almonds, silver foil, saffron strands, etc. My family is not that fond of dry fruits, so the basic ingredients suit our palate just fine. In an effort to bring in an Ayurvedic quality to milk, I try to bring in desi gir cow A2 milk when I can – and when it isn’t available (because it shouldn’t be made available beyond what little can be spared for human consumption), I make do with regular milk. I also used to make my own ghee, but now get some desi ghee from friends who source it from the farm.

Cooking halwa isn’t that hard – the only physical effort is the grating of the carrots. After that, preparing halwa is a labour of love and teaches us patience and perseverance – to keep an eye on the carrots so they don’t burn and the milk so it doesn’t stick to the pan as it evaporates. The mindfulness of being with the food as it cooked gently because you can’t rush it takes the experience to a whole new level along with the gradually deepening aromas emanating from the slow cooked dessert.

Now, to the Ayurvedic significance (because that’s what this post is all about!)

Carrots, root vegetables, are the fruits of the earth produced in the dark winters. Their nature is such that they store the energy within them while the world outside is moving to cooler temperatures and seasons. They are a storehouse of pitta and are ushna is potency which makes them ideal to warm the body during the damp and cold, kapha and vata of fall/autumn and the Indian monsoons. The idea of carrots in many winter vegetable stews is not a new one!

The grounding effect of the ghee, jaggery and milk also have a soothing, nurturing quality while the ghee also adds a good element of fluidity and unctuousness to the dish. The earthy jaggery was a rustic element of connection to prithvi and the cardamom was both heat and air of moving exhilaration and crisp lightness.

All in all, the appreciation of the wisdom of our food and the consideration that our traditional recipes carry simply astounded me. I was amazed at what I was able to understand when only I paused to listen to the wisdom and be receptive to how this artful, yet philosophical blend of ingredients created a symphony for the senses – a visual delight of vibrant colors, sensory orgasm of all the tastes of ayurveda. It has the balancing act for all the doshas and it has the fulfilling satiety that accompanies the experience of having explored all the six tastes of ayurveda in one dish itself!

Beat that!

Apart from breaking down the recipe for all the ayurvedic insights, I couldn’t help but be WOWed by the specificity of our ancestors in the foods they ate and served because of their primarily tendency to affect one’s psychology, mood and temperament. There was and still remains the effort to constantly bring our mind and body back to a state of balance and food was a tool to address that. The connection between what we ate and what we comprise of (annamaya kosha) and the effect of that layer on the deeper sheaths of our energy (pranamaya kosha) and mind (manomaya kosha) was significant in co-creating a structure of balance in society – in their citizens’ bodies and minds…

The responsibility of this structure was on everyone. The comparison to our responsibility to create a better society around us today in 2019 was not lost on me – the poignancy was deep.

Food unites people – within themselves and without, with others.

Union – yoga.

Food for thought this…. all because of carrot halwa that took a good 45 minutes to prepare and 5 minutes to be polished off by two very grateful and happy children.

This… this conversation with myself – on halwa… my thoughts for today.

Here’s the recipe:

  • Cook the grated carrots in ghee over medium heat till they are nice & soft. Be patient now & mindful enough to stir it often.
  • Lower the flame & pour in the milk, jaggery powder & green cardamom powder. Allow it to cook. Keep stirring as the milk evaporates and the mixture thickens. Here’s where you remember why you love the one’s your making this for… especially if it is for yourself!! Perseverance. Stir often & mindfully so the halwa doesn’t stick tot he bottom of the pan.
  • Don’t over cook it or it may end up too dry and the carrots overcooked. I sometimes put in some ghee a little towards the end too…

Note: You may add those optional extras that I mentioned in the blog above… but it tastes delicious this way too!!

Last part of the recipe: Enjoy it… savor it… Smile..

An Indian Yoga Teacher Speaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what is it like being an Indian Yoga Teacher?

  • It is hard work & competitive.

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

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

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

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

  • They’re losing their essence.

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

  • They’re lacking representation.

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

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

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

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

  • We are diverse.

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

  • We are contemporary teachers.

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

  • We are undervalued.

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

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

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

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

Yoga – The Commune With Nature

The ‘Day 1’ definiton of Yoga as Union is something most yoga practitioners are given as a standard lecture – both in their teacher trainings as well as in their studio practice at times. Beyond that, if prodded to explain, they describe it with their own imaginative description of defining yoga with various forms of unifying adjectives and adverbs – union of mind, body and breath (though they often get stumped if you asking them what that looked like in practice or if their teacher has demonstrated that to them… ever!?)… They’re right in getting flummoxed, though, as novices, this philosophy is deep work – and steeped in many centuries of tapas and sadhana. So a simple word translated to union doesn’t always get the essence of the practice out to the new aspirant.

But, on a mystic, philosophical lead, after studying various scriptures and listening to various teachers speak on the darshanas as the various commentaries of discourse, there seems to be a common reason to accept that in it’s most basic essence, there is a union involved – and that seems to be elusive as a practical experience.

A lot of philosophy includes the application of thought and discernment. One philosophical thought around union is the movement of consciousness from the manifest to the unmanifest. A few of my teachers over the years (different schools) helped me unearth an understanding of the movement of awareness / consciousness from the unmanifest to the manifest (here & now) and uniting back to the unmanifest – knowing and recognising that underlying commonness with everyone & everything around us.

And so it is with nature – we are a part of nature (not just as animals), in our ouexistence, our density and our matter. Taking care of our environment is taking care of ourselves. Even if we take the yamas & niyamas – every single one of them applies to our relationship with Mother Earth – our connector to the manifest from the unmanifest. It gives us time to pause – pause for thought.

In short, although yoga is spiritual pursuit, there is much of yoga to experience in the physical and tangible realms too. The experience of connecting our body with our environment – in communion with nature – begins at the gross level, the annamaya kosha, to stir deeper levels of union of the manifest with the unmanifest.

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.