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.

The Power of Namaste

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I didn’t grow up with a namaste greeting tradition. It wasn’t for any disrespect – it just wasn’t a form of our cultural practices. It wasn’t because we were NRIs but possibly because within the community, we largely socialized with the Catholic Mangalorean folks and as friends, there was an open blend of Indians from different states and even people from other countries. There was absolutely no derision towards the practice, but there was also no compulsion or education to apply this – except for greeting the Hindi teacher when she entered the class room in school (I studied in a CBSE convent school).

So, growing up, we really didn’t know the significance of namaste apart from understanding that it was an Indian cultural practice and we were familiar enough with it from Indian movies and our national and cultural events at the Indian embassy.

Well, truth be told, not many urban Indians, both local Indian residents as well as NRIs,  really know the relevance of this gesture today. I know this to be true from the many yoga practitioners & workshop participants I meet at my various talks and events. So I stopped giving myself a hard time over my cultural ignorance around it a long while ago.

That didn’t mean I stopped the process of learning more about it.

The yoga journey gives us ample opportunity to bow down into namaste. The expected culture of a yoga class often begins and ends with a namaskar mudra, but except for a few schools, not many taught about the significance of this gesture.

Let me begin by speaking for myself. I don’t greet my own teacher with a namaste and this is someone I respect immensely and look up to as a mentor, friend and guide. I am respectful and courteous (when I’m not cracking up about something and being my usual firecracker self), but I’ve not greeted him with a namaste. I will make it a point to greet him with a namaste the next time and see what our reactions are.

Not many of us greet our teachers with a Namaste either – definitely not if they are contemporary, urban yoga teachers…. and well, the teachers don’t always ask for it or greet in that fashion either.

Namaste

The divinity within me bows down to the divinity within you.

So without going into the specifics and etymology of the word, very simply put, the language of Sanskrit and culture of the ancient vedas and yoga have infused a lot of significance into namaste. Unfortunately, not many people really feel that spiritual connection when saying namaste, and the greeting itself is often said in such casual and colloquial intonation and inflection that one is left wondering, if it is of any relevance at all.

My fellow desis would know of numerous other traditional gestures that are now practices with hilarious insignificance, and sometimes irreverence too – the ‘touching elders feet‘ practice, for example, where many people barely bend enough to reach the elder’s kneecap – but well…

Here’s why I’m writing about it despite it not being my culture or tradition by birth.

When I moved to India, there were a number of senior people taking their morning and evening walks in my residential complex. I didn’t know these people, but we would often make eye contact and soon progressed to exchanging smiles. With some women who didn’t speak English or Hindi, we moved on to a generally comprehensible, “Good morning, aunty” and for the rest, a polite nod of acknowledgement as I went on my way to drop the kids to the gate for school or on my way back home from the supermarket.

With some people, however, there was a different energy to the interaction. I couldn’t pinpoint it and the instinctive greeting that was evoked was the humble namaste.

I didn’t do anything dramatic with it. Like I didn’t, you know, join my palms or anything as I said it, but I just smiled and said, ‘Namaste‘. I’m guessing there was a slight bow to my head, and my eyes probably softened or something and my tone must have been softer.

I said namaste… and there was absolutely no discomfort in it.

Gradually, I stopped noticing it, but just for long enough to realize that I only greeted certain people with a namaste…. so I assumed it was the vibe I experienced around them – or that I only spoke to them in Hindi and perhaps that was why a ‘Good morning/ Good evening’ didn’t seem appropriate or in context – but that was odd because that was what I did with some others.

So it got me thinking a bit and made me smile… because I liked to experience namaste in my life that way, although I couldn’t really understand what that experience exactly was.

Then last month happened.

It happened at the next door supermarket where I make my daily pilgrimage to. I enjoy making small talk with the cashiers and the shelf staff, so I know them fairly well. I was standing with my daughter peering at the shelf for some Haldiram snacks when suddenly one of the staff passed by, but not before pausing to look at me and say, “Namaste, Madam ji!

I can’t quite explain how deeply touched I was at his gesture. He didn’t join his palms in a namaskar or anything; his hands were full with 2 shopping baskets he was probably going to home-deliver, but he stopped to greet me. I was full of an unexplained emotion that I am feeling even now as I type these words remembering and reliving that moment. (That was when I knew this blog was on its way.)

And then sometime last week something else happened.

There is this little stall outside the supermarket (the same daily pilgrimage site) where an elderly Sikh gentleman sells kathi rolls and momos as an extension of his son’s restaurant further down the street. The family knew us in passing – regular supermarket customers, etc. and his momos are delicious! It was the day that I went up to him for a plate of momos and this very composed gentleman stood up, smiled at me, joined his palms and said, “Namaste, ji

Again, there was deep sense of something that words couldn’t quite explain.

Over the days, I was warmed by these exchanges of namastes that never demanded anything beyond it, but still made me feel special enough to receive them in the midst of other shoppers, or sometimes when the Silk gentleman would pause in the doorway as we passed each other to join his hands and say, ‘namaste‘.

I grew used to it although I couldn’t explain it then. Today I think I recognize it – a little – although it is still largely incomplete in expression – but maybe enough to share the feeling in its incompleteness?

It was a sense of presence, a powerful sense of belonging of sorts. These people were not family, I don’t even know their names (well, I’m guessing one of them must be a Mr. Singh), but the greeting fostered a sense of connection – a grounded sense of respect. What was it that I felt? A sense of support. I still don’t know where this is coming from, honestly, but it was comforting feeling of family and trust.

Perhaps this came from the time when Mr. Singh told me that I could Paytm him later for my 3 plates of momos as my phone was left charging at home and I didn’t carry cash. Or maybe it was his smiling customer relationship skills of telling me I really didn’t need to worry about payment. Or was it the time he brought in a plate of special biryani that his wife made and packed a takeout for us to taste knowing he would meet us in the evening? Or perhaps it was that time when we didn’t take our grocery bag and that store staff told me to leave it behind and he would get it delivered at home?

Or was it the sheer presence of goodness and goodwill that was present in the humble namaste? A power that has the ability to reach beyond the confines of what is proper and what isn’t and connect us to the deeper fabric of life – and deeper still to the underlying essence of what it means to be a spirit taking a human form?

Whatever it is…. it just is.

तत् त्वम् असि or तत्त्वमसि

Tat tvam asi

That art thou….You are that

Namaste

Naked Yoga? To be or not to be…

This thought’s been long brewing but last week something snapped. I came across an Instagram post of a yogi I followed and she was naked. Completely naked. But here’s the thing.

1. Nothing on her body surprised me – I had all those bits on my body too.

2. Nothing about the image surprised me – I’ve seen naked bodies all my life – personally & -professionally – naked bodies – alive & dead – in the room, on the lab table, in text books images as well as media showcasing highly graphic & provocative imagery as well as body positive movements. Well, an anatomy teacher really can speak body parts without flinching… but… this was different.

This one upset me…. on a very different front.

I felt offended as a yogi.

The picture was supposed to be a symbol of body positivity, acceptance and a rebellious act against body shaming, etc Her body, her pictures – I didn’t care about that. But the caption included a reference and gratitude to yoga for allowing her the courage to do that & the ongoing conversation and comments with people signing up to practice with her or learn from her to be able to come to that level of courage and/or body acceptance.

Now, hang on a minute.

I agree with a lot of people working in various ways to make peace with their bodies and learn acceptance and self-love, but…. that is not yoga. Yoga can help amplify the process, but it is not the reference point for nudity and instagram following.

Anyway, the algorithm apart, I was offended for the culture of yoga.

I felt hurt & sick to my gut that a practice that comes from a place of conservative society is used to navigate body positivity through nudity.

Like, seriously?

Do we have to be naked to truly accept our bodies?

And more importantly, why did one need to connect the power of yogic practice with the attitude shift to pose in the buff on IG?

While I’m quite the liberal for an Indian or even for an Indian yogi, I do understand the culture of my roots and of heritage. And this felt offensive & disrespectful. I may be your liberal Indian yoga teacher in contemporary times, but I’m not radical to disregard the sanctity and devotion – the honor and respect that I was trained to offer to the practice or the culture of my practice. I do not mean ritualistic – I mean respectful.

What I fail to understand is how some of the yoga teachers seem to talk yoga philosophy and yogic wisdom, but it seems rather textual instead of fully living it. And others take a very tangential approach by making references to certain yogic terms and terminology, but basically working on other aspects of holistic wellness and referring it to yoga – but painfully, not practicing yoga or honoring it.

Practicing yoga doesn’t mean you suddenly dress in Indian clothes, put on a bindi or tilak and dress in a sari or dhoti – heck! even I don’t do that! But it certainly does not mean you work on body acceptance, post nude pictures and claim that to be a result of yoga. It is not.

I’m not suggesting that yoga teachers across the world observe a set code of conduct that includes behavior, but a certain level of decorum especially attributing it to the origin and roots of yoga could certainly be worked in…?

As for me, I pose for the camera, yes…and I love it… but  most certainly, I am not going to pose naked in the name of yoga. I would probably feel it disrespectful to my teachers, my lineage and my students to do that. I may be liberal, but not at the cost of disrespecting a tradition and culture of the practice.

Too Stuck For Yoga

Some months ago I experienced a major upheaval. It was a personal thing but it was major – life-changing – and not in a good way. It was one of those major ‘life-altering’ life events – the moments where Life plucked me out from straight un-forked road I was trundling on and unceremoniously  tossed me on some unfamiliar dusty road and grunted, “Off you go, Luvena!”

endless road

Anyway, as is my wont, I straightened myself, looked around, got my bearings in order, looked to the North Star for guidance and continued the slow and heavy walk – the trundle.

What’s this got to do with yoga?

Let’s see….

Everything!

For me, yoga is not just my time on the mat, it is a way of  life and a blueprint for living. It guides my thoughts – helping me make peace with the crappy ones and soothing my mind when better sense prevails. There’s no line between my asana practice and my thoughts….

But here’s what happened….

I stopped moving.

I stopped my asana practice.

No matter what I did I couldn’t go to asana.

I felt stuck.

I would go to bed every night with a sense of what I would do the next day, how I would ‘show up’ on the mat and how I would practice my chosen asanas for an hour…. and then I would wake up every morning, send the kids to school, teach some classes, deliver some lectures, meet my friends, do the mom-thing, do the dog-mom thing, do do do…. and find myself in bed at the end of the day beating myself silly about how I had not shown up on the mat – not shown up for myself…

And not have moved.

I kept thinking that my body needed movement. And then I kept counter-thinking that my body needed the rest. Ugh! It was confusing and it was petrifying – this constant thinking – of these confusing thoughts.

Wait a minute….

Thoughts… thoughts…. thoughts..? Wasn’t that what all of us yogis were on the path to master? These thoughts – these vrittis, the ripples of our mind?

And here I was with this overload of thoughts – of panic, fear, doubt, self-doubt, survival…. thoughts that were an aftermath of definite trauma – trying to force myself to move and pitifully failing…. and beating myself up mentally for failing.. more thoughts!

Or was I failing after all? Because as much as my ‘should’ voice was nagging me to move, my body and my ‘wait-a-minute‘ voice was surely but strongly heavying itself down to pause, to still and just stay put. I was, for lack of a better word, rebelling against my choice to move and instead succumbing to my subconscious, wise need to still.

As a philosophy, yoga isn’t as much of what we want for ourselves but more of what happens to match what we need. And even then, there is no right answer to surely know what we need v/s what we want and desire especially in the aftermath of trauma. I mean, think about it, we have a cold or the flu and as we recover, we rest it out. But after trauma, emotional upheaval and mental turbulence, we plough on full-steam without taking a moment to catch our breath, or look at our wounds and bruises. We don’t stop long enough to even see if we need any mental bandages or antiseptic!

Well, I didn’t…. until I paused to hear what this mental trundling was all about. And then I heard.

I just needed my savasana after all – because some days savasana is all that is available to us – and all that we truly need.

Guess what happened after that?

By simply allowing myself my time to pause and still and savasana, I started moving. The mental demand to a 90 minute personal practice was met with the rebellion to shut down, so I started taking a few minutes of ‘forward fold immersions‘ as I started calling them. I would get off my laptop frequently (like I did just now 🙂 ) and walk a bit around the house with deep belly breaths and neck rolls and hip rolls and whatever it is that seemed like a simple and easy response to my body’s need.

I started moving.

I slowly moved from being stuck to being yoga.

I assumed I had fallen back 5 steps, but actually I had just turned around and walked forward 10! I had learnt 15 new things about myself and I had thrown light on the pain and hurt of the trauma and confusion. I had dislodged myself from my rut.

That stuck-ness had saved me – and moved me deeper into my asana – my yoga – even if it was savasana…. because that is what I needed.

savasana

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.

Image result for consent cards yoga
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 13: Healing the Wounds of Supremacy

How many of us have felt we didn’t belong in a studio space?
How many of us have felt that our practice wasn’t “good enough” because we weren’t flexible enough or we couldn’t “land a pose”
How many of us critique our own bodies or others bodies for not fitting into a norm?
How many of us dim or put out our light because we don’t feel like we should shine it?
How many of us compete or compare and despair with the next yogi on the mat over?…. These are all elements of white supremacy culture in yoga. 
Healing our white supremacy culture problem in yoga takes all of us. 
What do I mean by healing white supremacy culture in yoga?
I mean examining the way we present ourselves as well as how we idolize others. I mean what we post and who we platform. I mean who we buy from and listen to.

Today’s prompt confused me a little bit.

Yoga practitioners in India also fret about an ideal pose, awesome ‘alignment’ & super ‘flexibility’ – comparing themselves with the next-mat yogi, but by and large our classrooms have an Indian audience. The comparison here is probably more ‘belief’ & conditioning than comparing immediately to white yogis on the internet.

But I am also not ignorant of the generic trend in India to assume that anything imported, even if it was originally Indian, but is now decimated, repackaged and sent back to us, is probably better since it is shinier and glossier, at the very least, than the original desi version. I am concerned that perhaps the Indian version of ‘body image’ perhaps is worsening with the idea of yogis on the internet demonstrating asanas in bodies that are clearly not Indian or desi or of POC – so bone structure, fat distribution and even mindsets are very different.

Yes, we do have supremacy issues even within Indian culture, but with an already fragile sense of self-identity, perhaps it makes it shakier to hold on to resolve when we constantly see yoga being portrayed the way it is every time we open a social media app – white, able-bodied, super-toned, super athletic, lean, tight, lycra clad in teenie tiny sizes… yes, I can see the mismatch and the need to succumb to that sheen… or at least lean towards that because it seems to ‘in‘ and ‘right‘.

So the next part of today’s prompt was ‘How to heal these wounds?’

How to heal this?

I’ll admit I get frustrated at times at the sheer enormity of the task. Educating an entire sub-continent – I get it, it isn’t necessarily a one-person task, but it starts somewhere!

So, I persevere – every drop makes an ocean and all that. From this side of the fence, the best that I can do is speak up, create awareness, aim to walk the talk as best as I can. I’m looking at more speaking and being engagements and also raising other Indian teachers to add their voices to the global conversation.

Hopefully the movement in itself is a good starting point to create more ethical and wholesome spaces for more honorable yoga.


 

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

Day 12: White Supremacy in Yoga

white supremacy yoga માટે છબી પરિણામ

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

Wrong!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

Yoga Mom – The Ethical Quandary

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The past few days all I have been speaking about at my lectures has been on Teaching Methodology and Ethics and what it takes to be a good teacher. Today was supposed to be my last class of this teaching program and I was going to close it with a heartfelt interactive, deep-dive into values and teaching with integrity and on purpose.

The Ethics classes are my favorite. I actually surprised myself when I started enjoying them as much or even more than my Yoga Anatomy classes! But that’s another story… So, I was really looking forward to teach this class today.

Then, last night happened. My youngest had a bad tummy – and woke up this morning with a pale, sallow face – unaffected with my enthusiastic, ‘Happy Childrens Day!‘ and not caring for any breakfast.

I knew he was unwell, because he had taken the effort to shower and get ready for school but was still complaining about his tummy.

I also knew that I had to get to class in a couple of hours – which meant one of two things: either Avi accompanied me to class (and struggles with being unwell and car sick) or Avi stayed back at home – alone. Or I could reschedule my class…. (while my brain shouted, ‘but it is the last class today!! and another part of my brain retorted, ‘No! There is another class next week!!‘)

Not to forget, that a sneaky voice in my head was also gloating, “Teaching ‘Ethics’, are you?”

It was getting late, I was multi-tasking – dressing up, desperating refreshing the cab app that only showed, ‘No cabs available at this moment. Try again‘, feeling Avi’s forehead for a fever, planting guilty kisses on his soft cheek as he slept.

I felt torn – torn between the ethic and integrity of being a teacher readying for class and being mom.

My cab was finally booked and 17 minutes and I still wasn’t comfortable with what I was about to do. And realized that there was, after all, one more thing I still could do.

I called the yoga school.

It took all of 3 minutes and 2 calls – 1 that I made and 1 that was returned.

And it was sorted.

I sit here at home watching my baby rest, his forehead warm, his cheeks slightly flushed, but both our hearts happy and comforted that we are next to each other. The class was managed, my lecture was rescheduled, my team-mates assured me to be with Avi – it was clearly my priority.

Values play a huge part of who we are and who we choose to become. Our values help us resonate with the kind of people who support us in shining those values, that become our ethics – both for work and for life. They become our code of conduct and truly shine light on the integrity of what we stand for – what we believe in.

I am today because of my children. Everything I do, every choice I make, every ordeal I am faced with has them as my centerpiece. It isn’t being where I am today –  but I love it. Even though there are times when it feels like I’m rowing a full boat with a single oar – possibly broken even – I recognize that there others in the boat who are helping it move ahead by paddling with their hands – supporting me. Friends, family, near and far.

Today, it was my yoga community – who supported me – not once making me feel any pressure or guilt – helping me act in accordance with what my inner compass was guiding me to do. My core that wanted to stay with my child – that ethical code of conduct, that yama and niyama – that was nudging me to stay true to my dharma and not pushed into karma.

The quandary is real, so is integrity… but the support system around us that helps us stay afloat living that life of integrity runs deeper still.