The way we practice, why we get on our mats, the directions we explore to experience something. There are so many possibilities. Do the differences matter? I think so. Whatever it is that’s getting you onto your mat or guiding your explorations needs to feed your soul. If it doesn’t, then we risk losing the motivation to practice and assume that means “it’s just not for me.”
Think about the first time you fell in love with the practice. Did you need to find the motivation to go back to class? It seems to be less about cultivating discipline and more about stripping the practice down until all you’re left with is love for it because this practice really is an experience to fall in love with. We step on our mats because we want to. We want to experience the movement of energy and feel what’s going on beneath the surface. There will be moments of difficulty but if love is there, we’ll have the courage to go into those moments. For me, the process of coming back to a place of love for this practice when I’ve forgotten involved simplifying the practice, slowing it down and making it less physically intense so I could allow space for genuine connection to the practice to take root again. Many times it was about re-discovering the depth and potency of surya namaskara and allowing that to support the rest of the practice.
Don’t practice because you’re bad, and it’ll make you good, a mindset that takes us out of the present and further from where we are right now. Practice because the experience itself is pulling you towards it. Whatever that means for you on any given day. Whatever length of time that means. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we’re making it to the mat to explore and hold the body in ways that facilitate more balanced pathways. We’re restructuring those energy pathways in subtle ways so that new patterns of relating to ourselves and the world show up off the mat in more tangible ways.
We don’t need to cultivate the discipline to practice 6 times a week because we should. We’re falling in love with the breath, tapping into a curiosity for it so that when a new day starts, we want to greet it by stepping on the mat – a space to connect to it more openly and meet ourselves exactly where we are. To feel what the breath is telling us in each moment. To settle into each moment and stay open to its spontaneous unfolding, rather than keep our sights outwards on where we think we should be.
If that genuine excitement and curiosity is there, you don’t need a structure telling you when to practice. I think that’s the potential danger in following a structure or format for practice too rigidly – you’re told exactly what to practice and when to practice it and how many postures to do each day. Following a specific structure that’s been given to everyone can distract you into applying the effects of a practice without connecting with the cause of it; without going in to do the work yourself and allowing whatever comes from that process to inform what the practice looks like on the outside. Applying aesthetic – like length of time you’re on the mat and external form – from the outside in will burn you out. For most people, it’ll eventually take them to a place where they feel they have to practice and forget why they fell in love in the first place.
Find what naturally pulls you to your mat, don’t just adopt a reason because someone who you think is spiritual said it was their reason. It can be to experience the intelligence of the breath or energy moving in sensation. It can be to feel the body opening and stabilizing. Or something totally different and unique to you. Then, allow the practice to look however it needs to in order to connect to that curiosity and interest. At first, they might seem like simple things, but that’s the mindset yoga is bringing us back to. One that is in awe of the simplest and most seemingly mundane things. Like a child, we go back to our roots. Go back to the foundations in asana and find out for yourself how exciting they can be. Deconstruct the basics, take them apart, stay a little longer than you normally would, move into them using a new approach. What do you find? Look again. And then don’t stop looking again because that process IS the practice, and that’s where you’ll find the inclination to get back on the mat tomorrow. Who knows maybe it’ll make you want to start practicing asana 6 days a week. Maybe not.
If the genuine desire to practice isn’t there, then ask yourself why. If something feels off in the practice, it’s because something probably is. For me, when I’ve been in unmotivated moments, it’s been because I’m doing more than I should be doing. Pushing my body to do a practice that, when I looked closer, was too much physically during a particular time in my life. I was in pain and left feeling depleted. If you’re down, in pain, or going through something hard in your life, let the asana practice be soft and perhaps shorter. Allow yourself to feel those things. Let them in to allow the practice to be a reflection of where you are. Don’t force the practice to be a reflection of where you think you ‘should’ be. The path of pushing through and enduring doesn’t work long term.
Other times the practice felt forced because I was doing things off the mat that didn’t support a healthy body and mind. In that way, the practice becomes a mirror for what I was doing outside asana practice, a space for compassionate confrontation. A gentle reminder that we should make the effort to practice yoga all day. On the mat, if we’re open to feedback, we’ll be guided into developing a practice that uniquely works for us and one that can blossom into a state we tap into all the time, in everything we do.
Monica Arellano is a Level 2 Authorized teacher in the Ashtanga Yoga Method; a formal blessing received by her teacher R. Sharath Jois in Mysore, India. She first connected to the practice of yoga in 2010, looking for a more peaceful way of being. When she found her way to Miami Life Center in 2014 she began a regular Ashtanga Yoga practice and soon after completed a 2 year apprenticeship program under Tim Feldmann. Today she continues to practice, teach and travel regularly to Mysore, India to learn yoga directly from the source. Monica’s teachings are informed by the knowledge carried on from her teachers and the first-hand experience from her daily asana and meditation practice. Her classes emphasize the breath, alignment, and methods of concentration; in hopes of exploring the deeper experience of asana and the resulting expression in each student’s unique and mind. In this space, she believes we can deconstruct unhealthy patterns, facilitate healing on many levels, and find our way back to the most honest version of ourselves.
Both Hinduism and the caste system cannot co-exist since Vedas refute the birth-based caste system. Therefore, if one identifies themselves with a specific caste discriminating against others, they shouldn’t consider themselves a Hindu and vice versa.
This article mainly focuses on debunking the ‘Hindu caste system’ narrative used to spread Hinduphobia in the yoga fraternity and the Western world, especially in American academia. I will also be demystifying the Varna system by providing various references to verses in Bhagavad Gita and stories mentioned in different scriptures.
What is Hinduphobia?
Hinduphobia is a set of antagonistic, destructive, and derogatory attitudes and behaviors towards Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) and Hindus that may manifest as prejudice, fear, or hatred.
Some of the instances of Hinduphobia in America are Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma) had been grossly misrepresented in the middle school textbooks of California. Some of the professors from esteemed institutions spread false interpretations, translations depicting it as misogynist and racist. Also, the very same professors had tried to associate Nazi Hakenkreuz with the sacred symbol of Swastika in Sanatana Dharma. The Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, made the same attempt in the Canadian parliament by quoting Hakenkreuz as Swastika. Pranayama, which has been practiced in India for centuries, is termed ‘Cardiac Coherence Breathing’ rather than its original name, thus disassociating and severing it from its Hindu roots.
Sanatana Dharma, currently called Hinduism, is a way of life. Sanatana means which has existed for eternity, and Dharma, a complicated term with a broad scope, can be briefed as a set of principles, cultures, and philosophies that can be practiced in harmony with nature to understand the true nature of an individual. Therefore, it is not a religion but a way of life.
What are Srutis, Smritis & Puranas?
I think it is essential for everyone to understand the nature of the scriptures. Sanatana Dharma scriptures can be classified into Shrutis, Smritis & Puranas. It is not just the textual classification; instead, it is the philosophical classification.
Shrutis: These texts are considered basic principles. They are Sanatana Dharma, i.e., They are always applicable to all people, i.e., eternal. These are directly heard from the cosmos and recorded by rishis. Sruthi is something that was heard.
Vedas openly declare that any form of blind belief devoid of intellect and reasoning is a recipe of sorrow. Vedas are the ultimate truth, and they are the benchmark.
Smritis: These texts apply to some people at some times. Smriti means what you remember. They were the opinions of sages, do’s and don’ts, moral and immoral laws based on society and social norms prevailing in different times. These are opinions or statements given at times to deal with particular problems. They do have an expiry date, unlike Shrutis. Smritis doesn’t represent religion for eternity as they have expiry. Smritis change according to Yuga dharmas.
Ex: Manu Smriti, Bharadwaja Smriti, etc.
Itihaas: Itihaas in Sanskrit can be broken down into Iti=like this, iha=here, aasa=happened previously, i.e., recorded history through different periods.
Ex: Bhagavata purana, Mahabharata purana, Ramayana, Skanda purana etc.
Puranas and Smritis also consist of the philosophy obtained from the Shrutis, like how Mahabharata mentions Bhagavad Gita. However, ideas or laws present in Smritis will not appear in Shrutis as they are subject to change based on time. Dr. Janki Santoke says a sage tells us which are eternally valid and tells us things that are particularly applicable to us. It is for us to distinguish which statement is an eternal principle and which statement was an opinion given to certain people in a specific geographical location in a certain period and context. Religious conflicts arise when we mix these two concepts.
Varna System in Ancient India
As opposed to the popular belief that the caste system is innate to Sanatana dharma, the Varna system is inherent. Varna system is natural in any civilized society. There are multiple interpretations of the word ‘Varna.’ Varna’s literal meaning is ‘color,’ which refers to the character’s color and not the physical color of an individual. According to Hindu scriptures, a character comprises three qualities (gunas), namely Sathva, Rajasic, and Tamo, which are depicted with different colors: White, Red, and Neelam (dark blue or black. Physical color of Lord Rama and Lord Krishna as described in scriptures). Varna comes from the word ‘Vrinja,’ which means ‘choice,’ i.e., which Varna an individual belongs to is his choice and not based on birth.
As Lord Krishna says in Bhagavad Gita,
chātur-varṇyaṁ mayā sṛiṣhṭaṁ guṇa-karma-vibhāgaśhaḥ
tasya kartāram api māṁ viddhyakartāram avyayam
I created four Varnas based upon people’s qualities and activities. Even though I am the creator of these Varnas, know me to be the non-doer and eternal, which means that these Varnas are innate to nature and formed as a societal evolution.
It clearly says that Varna is not based on birth, contrary to popular belief; instead, it is based on one’s character or deeds. Let’s assume that these Varnas were not present in nature. Does that void the fact that every civilized society has classes of Intellectuals, administrators (or kings, rulers, military men), entrepreneurs, and workers?
brāhmaṇa-kṣhatriya-viśhāṁ śhūdrāṇāṁ cha parantapa
karmāṇi pravibhaktāni svabhāva-prabhavair guṇaiḥ
The duties of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras are distributed according to their qualities based on their gunas (innate nature of an individual).
These gunas mentioned above are of three types, namely Sathva guna, Rajo guna, and Tamo guna.
And the duties of these Varnas were mentioned as follows.
śhamo damas tapaḥ śhauchaṁ kṣhāntir ārjavam eva cha
jñānaṁ vijñānam āstikyaṁ brahma-karma svabhāva-jam
Serenity, control of the sense, austerity, purity, straightforwardness, knowledge, insight, and faith in the Supreme Being – these are the intrinsic qualities of work for Brahmins and are predominantly Sathvic in nature.
Valor, strength, fortitude, skill in weaponry, resolve never to retreat from battle, large-heartedness in charity, and leadership abilities, are the natural qualities of work for Kshatriyas and have Rajasic nature.
Agriculture, dairy farming, and commerce are the natural works for those with the qualities of Vaishyas. Whereas serving through work is the natural duty for those with the qualities of Shudras.
The Vaishyas were those whose natures were predominantly rajasic with a mixture of tamo guṇa. They were thus inclined toward producing and possessing economic wealth through business and agriculture. They sustain the nation’s economy and create jobs for the other classes. They were also expected to undertake charitable projects to share their wealth with the deprived sections of society.
The Shudras were those who possessed tāmasic natures. They were not inclined toward scholarship, administration, or commercial enterprise. The best way for their progress was to serve society according to their calling. Artisans, technicians, job-workers, tailors, artisans, barbers, etc., come under this category.
yo māṁ paśhyati sarvatra sarvaṁ cha mayi paśhyati
tasyāhaṁ na praṇaśhyāmi sa cha me na praṇaśhyati
For those who see me everywhere and in everyone and see everyone in me, I am never lost to him, nor they ever lost to me.
vidyā-vinaya-sampanne brāhmaṇe gavi hastini
śhuni chaiva śhva-pāke cha paṇḍitāḥ sama-darśhinaḥ
The truly learned sees a humble brahmin with a sense of humility possessing divine knowledge, a cow, an elephant, a dog, and a dog-eater with equal vision, i.e., a truly learned person endowed with spiritual knowledge sees them all as eternal souls and hence views them with a similar eye.
It says that everyone is born as Shudra. One becomes a Brahmin, Kshatriya, or Vaishya based on an individual’s education. The decision to get educated and enrolled in an ashram is considered rebirth called ‘Dwija.’
Neither Vedas nor Bhagavad Gita, a concise version of Vedas, supports the view that the Brahmins (priestly class) are of higher caste, while the Shudras (labor class) are of lower caste. The caste system doesn’t have any basis in Vedas as not even one mantra has justified the current birth-based caste system. The knowledge perspective is that even though the Brahmins conduct worship ceremonies, conduct research in various fields, the Kṣhatriyas administer society, the Vaiśhyas conduct business, and the Shudras engage in labor. They are all eternal souls who are tiny parts of God and hence alike.
A verse from the 2nd chapter of Garuda Purana says that among the Brahmins (based on intellect and not based on birth), the ones involved in the studies of Vedas and understanding of the Puranas lead a better life than one’s leading mundane lives getting embroiled in day to day living and squabbles. Much better lives are led by those who live steady lives along the path taught by scriptures come under the category of ‘mahamanya,’ and the most exalted lives are led by persons who have attained Brahma Gyan by leading dharmic life. Therefore, it is evident that only Brahma gnana, intellect, and practice with wisdom have been given paramount place rather than birth.
Stories from various scriptures which are against discrimination
I want to mention a few stories taken from Vedas, Maha Bharatha, which indicate that Sanatana dharma is against discrimination and God is omnipresent and present in everyone.
Story of Jabala Satyakama:
Jabala Satyakama is a Vedic sage mentioned in the Chandogya Upanishad, part of Samaveda, one of the four Vedas. Satyakama, unaware of his lineage, was born to his mother Jabala, a prostitute. When SatyaKama was a boy, he wanted to attend a gurukulam (an ancient traditional education institution) and went to Gautama Maharshi’s ashram. He expressed his desire to study under Gautama Maharshi. When asked about his whereabouts, he tells Gautama Maharshi about his mother and that he is unaware of his father and lineage. As soon as he said it, a few other children started ridiculing him about his ancestry and suggested that Gautama not accept Satyakama as his student.
Maharshi Gautama was very much impressed by Satyakama’s personality. Gautama said, “He who is not a Brahmana wouldn’t tell the truth. Since you told the truth without hiding anything, you not only proved your truthfulness but also proved that you are a Brahmin. Hence, I accept you as my student.” Maharshi Gautama had declared Jabala Satyakama as a Brahmin based on his exhibited qualities and not because of his birth.
Uttanka Maharshi meets Lord Krishna:
This story is taken from the Ashvamedhika Parva of Mahabharatha. When Uttanka Maharshi meets Lord Krishna after the Kurukshetra war in a desert, he is furious. He starts blaming Lord Krishna that he could not stop the war by bringing a compromise between Pandavas and Kauravas and was about to curse Lord Krishna. It is then that Lord Krishna explained the efforts he had put in to make a compromise between both sides and explained the necessity of war to restore Dharma. Convinced with Lord Krishna’s explanation, Uttanka bowed down to Krishna and asked him to show his Vishwa Roopa. Krishna then displayed his vishawaroopa and granted a boon to Uttanka Maharshi. Uttanka Maharshi asked Krishna to provide a water facility in the desert. Krishna agreed to Uttanka Maharshi’s request and vanished. When Krishna disappeared, Uttanka was waiting for a water facility to be created. From nowhere, a chandala (chandala is someone who deals with corpses) appears in the vicinity with a few dogs, dirt on his body, blood, and flesh oozing out of his body. When the chandala approached Uttanka, he opened his mouth, and water started flowing out. Out of disgust, Uttanka backed away without accepting that water. Now that the chandala vanishes, Sri Krishna appears and asks Uttanka if he has found water.
Lord Krishna then says that he appeared as chandala, and he says that he is present in everyone irrespective of their Varna. He wanted to give him water with elixir (elixir called amrutam in Sanskrit makes a mortal an immortal) had he accepted it from his chandala avatar(form). However, he grants him a boon that rainclouds would appear and bring rain showers whenever he wishes for water in the desert. This instance depicts that discrimination was not acceptable in any Sanatana dharmic scriptures.
Like any other religion, Hinduism also had a section of people who misused the system. They used the Varna system to assert their dominance and superiority over others. They had done it by propagating social evils like discrimination and untouchability based on either jaatis or fifth artificial Varna (which is nowhere to be found in any scriptures) in the olden days and caste currently for their benefit. Famous spiritual personalities like Ramanujacharya, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Swami Vivekananda, etc., arose inside the dharmic fold and actively worked to eliminate such practices.
‘Jaati’ was first mentioned in Nyaya Sutra and not in Vedas or Puranas. According to Nyaya Sutra, entire humanity forms a single jaati. It refers to classification based on the source of origin. According to Nyaya Sutra, those with a similar birth source form a jaati, and a jaati share identical physical characteristics. Over time, ‘Jaati’ was used to infer any classification, and thus different communities are called different jaatis. According to Rajiv Malhotra, a renowned Indologist jaatis are the thousands of indigenous social-occupational groups which had dynamic nature, i.e., it allowed social mobility and occupational diversification.
It is one of the instances where the deity of Ranganatha Swamy (a form of Lord Vishnu) himself played the role of social reformer in eliminating discrimination. Thiruppan Alvar was a Tamil saint who lived probably 2700 years ago. This incident took place in Srirangam, Tamil Nadu, at the bank of Kaveri River, where a Brahmin priest named Loka Saranga Muni carries Thiruppan Alvar (who belongs to the current day backward caste) on his shoulder. Thiruppan Alvar was playing Veena on the banks of Kaveri River in Srirangam and was ecstatic when the Brahmin priest from the temple came out of the temple to get water from the river. Since Thiruppan Alvar was in his way, he asked him to move out of his way (three stories are being told, and the one I am narrating here is the most popular one). Since Thiruppan was ecstatic, the priest threw a stone at him, which hit his forehead, blood started dripping from his forehead, and he moved out of the way. When the priest goes back inside the temple with water, he observes that blood leaks from the idol’s forehead. He then prays to the deity and hears a voice that says, “you hit and hurt my devotee, and he should be brought into the temple.” The priest runs back to Thiruppan Alvar and begs him to come into the temple, describing everything that happened inside the temple. Thiruppan Alvar doesn’t want to create a controversy by stepping into the temple due to the prevailing discrimination based on birth and refuses the priest’s request. So, the priest convinced him and took Thiruppan Alvar inside the temple by carrying him on his shoulders from the bank. After seeing the deity of Ranganatha, he started singing ten poems on Ranganatha out of devotion and ecstasy. In the end, he leaves his mortal body and immerses in the Ranganatha diety. Since then, Thiruppan Alvar has been worshipped.
The list can go on and on with several instances where God himself was against discrimination based on Varna or jaati of an individual.
Many Marxist ideologists and anti- Hindus argue that all the scriptures in Sanatana or Vaidhika dharma were written by Brahmins, thus propagating their anti-brahmin stance. This anti-brahmin propaganda started in the colonial era to destroy India’s cultural and knowledge systems by attributing the spread of social evils like the caste system and untouchability in India to Brahmins. Besides, it is being used to propagate colonial power’s mythical Aryan invasion theory. They even went on to call out every practice of Sanatana Dharma as Brahminical, which is a derogatory term used to spread anti-brahmin and anti-Hindu sentiments. On the one hand, they say that discrimination is unacceptable, and on the other hand, they promote anti-brahmin and anti-Hindu ideologies. It is not fair to blame a single section of the society when everyone in the community was equally responsible for spreading the social evils. Prerna Thiruvaipati, a Dalit & women rights researcher, specializing in Dalit studies, expressed a similar opinion. Besides, Sanjeev Newar, founder of Agniveer, in his book titled ‘Dalits of Hinduism,’ also echoed the same view.
However, on careful observation, one can notice that one of the most revered sages, like Krishna Dvaipayana, known as Veda Vyasa, Suta Maharshi (narrator of Puranas), Valmiki, and poets like Kalidasa falls into the backward caste of the colonial caste system.
Krishna Dvaipayana, also called Veda Vyasa, was responsible for bringing all the rishis together to divide the Vedas into Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharmana Vedas. Maharshi, who had also written Mahabharatha, Bhagavatham, was born to Satyavati, a fisherwoman, and Parashara Maharshi (Mahabharata Adi Parva, chapter 104). Even though he was not a Brahmin by birth, he was termed Brahmin because of his intellect and Brahma gnana. Veda Vyasa summarizes the essence of 18 Puranas in Sanatana Dharma in two sentences:
Paropakara punyaaya paapaya parapeedanam
It means that helping others is good and harming others is sinful.
Similarly, the author of Ramayana, Valmiki Maharshi, was also not a Brahmin by birth. He was a hunter and was born in a tribal household. He later became Brahmin through his gunas and karmas by attaining Brahma gnana. He went on to pen Ramayana, one of the most revered scriptures in Sanatana dharma.
Kalidasa, a famous Sanskrit author, was not a Brahmin by birth. He was differently-abled, born in a shepherd household. Nevertheless, his works became one of the critical works in Sanskrit literature, and he is called the Shakespeare of India.
Vishwamitra, another well-known sage in Sanatana-dharma scriptures, was not a Brahmin by birth. Instead, he was a King, i.e., Kshatriya, who eventually became a Brahmin (Mahabharata Adi Parva, chapter 71(30), chapter 136(14)). Several examples in Vedic scriptures clearly show that Varna is not based on birth; instead, it is based on qualities and work.
A section of people argues that there have been discriminatory verses in a text written by sage Manu called Manu Smriti, which is used to tarnish entire Hinduism. I want to bust some myths that agenda-driven individuals have been propagating.
Myth 1: Manu Smriti propagates a rigid birth-based caste system.
Manusmriti chapter 10, verse 65:
A Sudra attains the rank of a Brahmana, and (in a similar manner) a Brahmana sinks to the level of a Sudra but know that it is the same with the offspring of a Kshatriya or of a Vaisya.
Myth 2: Manu Smriti advocates 5th Varna, i.e., untouchability.
Manusmriti chapter 10, verse 4:
Brahmana, the Kshatriya, and the Vaisya castes (Varna) are the twice-born ones, but the fourth, the Sudra, has one birth only; there is no fifth (Varna or caste).
Different stages of spiritual evolution are Shudra, Dwija, Vipra, and Brahmana. Everyone is a Shudra by birth. Once they decide to get educated and enroll in an ashram (or today’s school), it is considered a rebirth, called ‘Dwija.’ When they graduate after eliminating ignorance present in an individual, that stage is called ‘Vipra.’ The final stage is called Brahmana, which is attaining Brahma gnana. It is a complex term that can be simplified as a stage where an individual can see God in everyone and everything and see everyone in God, as mentioned in Bhagavad Gita (6:30).
Manu himself announces in the Manu Smriti that Vedas alone form the foundation of Dharma and that Manu Smriti has an expiry. There are many such verses in Manu Smriti, which were explained in detail by Sanjeev Newar in his book. He also mentions that the current day Manu Smriti had been interpolated, adulterated by the British empire in 1794 through William Jones, and 60% of the current version is a sham. He mentions that Dr. Surendra Kumar, who authored a detailed translation of Manu Smriti in Hindi, had concluded that 1485 shlokas out of 2685 shlokas were adulterated. Many western Indologists Macdonnell, Keith, Buhler, American historian Thomas Roger Trautmann, etc., have expressed the same. Both pro-casteist and anti-casteist groups use this fake Manu Smriti, which was already expired, to justify their prejudices. The irony is that most Hindus (99.99%) neither follow Manusmriti nor have it in households. It is primarily the agenda-driven individuals who carry the interpolated versions of it and use it against Hinduism.
Debunking interpolations in Purusha Suktha
Whenever an individual searches on Google with keywords ‘caste system,’ the first picture they get to see is a triangle and hierarchical structure mentioning different Varnas from top to bottom. Another common misinterpretation made by both Western Indologists starting from Max Mueller to current day Marxist school of authors to malign Sanatana Dharma. This is based on Purusha Suktha from Yajurveda. Purusha Suktha describes the origin and continuation of creation, including human society. It consists of 16 shlokas which appear in all four Vedas with slight variations. It is the 11th shloka that is grossly misrepresented and depicted as a hierarchical division. It says:
“Brahmin was his mouth.
Kshatriyas were created from his arms.
Vaishyas came from thighs and
Shudras were born from his feet.”
The previous shloka 31.10 asks who the mouth, hand, thigh, and leg are, and 31.11 shloka answers the question.
Brahmins form the brain, head, or mouth that think and speak in society. Kshatriyas include the hands that protect, Vaishyas or business people create the thigh that supports and nurtures. Shudra or Labor force forms the legs that lay the foundation and make the body run, i.e., to provide support and basic infrastructure for the society. It must be noted that according to Vedas, a hard-working individual is a Shudra (Yajurveda 30.5), and that is the reason Shudras are considered as the foundation of human society. Also, according to Vedas, everyone belongs to all the four Varnas since the same person exhibits the traits of four Varnas in different situations. Besides, according to Vedas (Yajurveda 40.8), God is formless and omnipresent. So, if God doesn’t have a form, how can he have a body with head, arms, thigh, and feet? Therefore, this shloka should be taken as a symbolism instead of a literal meaning. It was neither mentioned that one Varna is greater than the other nor is it based on birth. (‘Dalits of Hinduism’ has a clear and further explanation on debunking this narrative which also cites ‘Introduction of Vedas by Swami Dayanand Saraswati’ for a more logical and detailed description.). Moreover, one must note that Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra should be interpreted in terms of qualities and not individuals, i.e., Brahmin represents intellect, Kshatriya represents strength, and valor, Vaishya represents management, balance, and stability. In contrast, Shudra represents the rest of the qualities.
Caste System and Its Origin
The word ‘Caste’ was derived from the Spanish – Portuguese word ‘casta,’ which means lineage, race, or breed. It is a social construct to classify the society into self-contained units or ‘castes.’ Herbert Hope Risley, a British civil servant, introduced the caste system to India under British colonial rule. In his book ‘Breaking India,’ Rajiv Malhotra states that as a staunch advocate of scientific racism, Herbert Hope Risley used the ratio of the width of a nose to its height to divide Indians into different castes. Risley’s work was the aftermath of the invention of ‘Race Science’ by European scholars, which was ultimately used by the colonial powers to divide and rule the colonized communities.
Another colonial administrator and scholar whose work formed Risley’s basis were Max Muller. Max Mueller and Risley tried to fit their Caste framework based on their distorted view of jaati.
Max Mueller was primarily responsible for distorting Hindu scriptures with inaccurate translations to support his evangelical motives. In his view, caste:
‘Which was hitherto proved an impediment to the conversion of the Hindus, may in future become one of the most powerful engines for the conversion not merely of the individuals, but of the whole class of Indian society.’
Initially, Risley had a strong resistance from the native Indians. However, with time native communities had to give up because to get any services from the British government, one had to be classified into a specific caste. The caste system was forced on the Indians to the extent that people who resisted it, saying that they did not fit into the description of a specific caste proposed by the British government, were declared as ‘criminal tribes.’ Unfortunately, this colonial-era system is still practiced in India due to political lobbying.
Influence of Vedas on American Transcendentalists
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who were the pioneers of transcendentalism in the USA, were influenced by the Vedic philosophy, namely Vedas and Bhagavad Gita. In his book ‘Walden,’ Henry David Thoreau even mentioned that Transcendentalists owe to Indian religions. Besides, he followed various Hindu customs, played flute, and practiced Yoga. Similarly, Ralph Waldo Emerson was influenced by the Upanishads and Vedanta.
This article intends to provide various stories and verses from some of the scriptures to counter the propaganda of the ‘Hindu caste system.’ My motive is not to discount that the colonial era stratified caste system is still being practiced in Indian society and the challenges or discrimination some castes, especially those at the bottom of the system, have been facing today. According to Prerna Thiruvaipati, caste discrimination is not just present between current-day upper and lower castes but also present among different communities in the lower castes. Not only the lower caste but everyone in the society had been suffering due to constant criticism from propagandists identifying the current generations as accountable for the caste system. In contrast, a significant portion of the current generations are against it.
It is time for the truth and reconciliation efforts to occur, have civilized dialogue, and end the caste system rather than different communities continuously being at loggerheads or blaming other communities. Many Hindu spiritual gurus were clearly against the caste system and called for eliminating it. Spiritual gurus like Ramanujacharya, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, and Swami Vivekananda (who in a particular instance had eaten food offered by the so-called untouchables in those days), etc. were against untouchability and caste-based discrimination. It is time to decolonize our minds, follow in their footsteps, and work towards creating a better tomorrow free from the artificial, birth-based discriminative caste system. Both Hinduism and the caste system cannot co-exist since Vedas refute the birth-based caste system. Therefore, if one identifies themselves with a specific caste discriminating against others, they shouldn’t consider themselves a Hindu and vice versa.
I want to reiterate that Sanatana Dharma neither endorses discrimination nor a birth-based caste system. Instead, it subscribes to the Varna system based on the qualities and work of an individual. The caste system practiced in India today is a product of Colonization. Attributing the caste system to Hinduism is like attributing Slavery in the western world entirely to Christianity instead of viewing it as a social evil. Slavery was also spread by the colonial powers using the Hamitic myth from Bible. (According to this, the descendants of Ham were cursed by Noah into everlasting Slavery. This was abused and exploited by colonial powers to such an extent that an estimated 20 million Africans were captured and transported to the Americas between 1517 and 1840). I want to end this article by mentioning a quote said by Swami Vivekananda, ‘Sanatana Dharma is not about believing. It is about being and becoming.
Loka Samasthaha Sukhino bhavanthu = Let the entire world be happy.
Anyone interested in Sanatana Dharma should understand it better from a Sanatani perspective through a guru (not a professor) and not from the esteemed institutions with Abrahamic lenses that are neither spiritual nor the Sanskrit experts. It is not just the language expertise but also the semantics that plays a crucial role in interpretation/interpolation. Furthermore, the difference between symbolism & taking the literal meaning would be explained better in a Hindu guru tradition with a dharmic lens. Besides, several words in Sanskrit do not have an exact translation in English, including the word ‘Dharma.’ All these factors combined with an agenda and many other factors had contributed to the misinterpretations/interpolations to malign Sanatana Dharma/Hinduism.
Sri Sivani Charan is an Indian Hindu belonging to Sudra Varna who currently lives in the US. In response to the growing Hinduphobia and anti-India propaganda in the Yoga fraternity, academia, and some media outlets, Sri chose to stand up and speak against it.
Your practice might begin on a yoga mat but undoubtedly will ripple into every other aspect of your life and every single interaction you come across.
I was introduced to group yoga classes by a friend around 2003. The class was held at a local gym. I walked into the studio with the excitement of learning something new that I knew was supposed to be good for my body and mind. I still remember setting up my mat and being curious about how we were supposed to use it. Part of me felt like a kid with a new toy.
Many thousands of teaching hours later, I feel reminiscent about those days. I didn’t know how important and meaningful the decision to take that yoga class and many others would be for my future, growth, and peace of mind. In fact, my whole life these days revolved around yoga.
I would like to share with you what has helped me in the past to build a consistent yoga practice, and it is my hope you find this helpful.
Which yoga style is best for me?
You can be sure that there is a style of yoga that suits your needs. So it is important to ask yourself what is your first motivation for starting a yoga practice.
Each of us is different, and there are many different styles of yoga. You can be sure that there is a style of yoga that will be the best one for you.
You might not find the style of yoga that is best for you right away. You might have to do some exploring, whether in person or online.
After your initial exploration of what your options are, I suggest you, at least for the first little while, stick with a particular style. See it unfold on your mat. There is beauty in repetition. There is beauty in consistency.
You can see the changes in your mind and body when the movements and the pace of the practice are familiar. You will not only learn sequences, postures, and breathing exercises, but you will learn from the time spent with yourself. Our practice of yoga can be profoundly meditative.
What should I expect from my yoga practice?
We all are, in some ways, eternal perfectionists. There will be moments of great satisfaction from discovering the potential of the body in certain postures or the hidden secrets of the breath in certain exercises, but remember, this practice is a practice of coming back to ourselves for connection. It’s this connection that helps us to see the world through a different set of eyes.
Be okay with the days you are full of energy and welcome the days where simply being on the mat and doing a less demanding practice can provide comfort and nurture your soul. Be okay when the practice feels flat. Be okay when the practice feels sparkly and full of life.
The role of moderation in my yoga practice
You probably heard before about doing everything in moderation. And yoga is not an exception. Be attentive to how your body feels after your practice, including the day after. Tune in to the wisdom of the body to know when a practice has been demanding, and you might need to balance it out with something more soothing.
Yoga is not only the beautiful postures but also meditation, breathing, and self-study. Yoga can permeate every aspect of our lives, bringing a new sense of appreciation to the human experience.
How do I find freedom in my yoga practice?
It is important when you take the first steps, and you had made a connection with a particular approach of yoga and a knowledgeable teacher that you trust in that bond and connection. At the same time, give yourself the freedom to embody the movements, the postures, the breath in your own unique way.
This is a practice of exploration, and it might look different for each one of us. As long as we enter this world with sincere intentions, the rewards are always sweet.
Yoga is love
One of the most important realizations in my years of practicing and teaching yoga is that yoga is an act of love. We feel this first hand in ourselves. Our relationship to our bodies improves by acceptance, understanding, and the time we spend with ourselves. Our understanding of our ups and downs becomes less of a roller coaster ride because we have a set of skills to help us ride the emotional waves.
Your practice might begin on a yoga mat but undoubtedly will ripple into every other aspect of your life and every single interaction you come across. Yoga has the potential to make the world a better place by reminding us that our essence is love. When we are next to each other, whether online or in person, that recognition that we are both made of the same universal love speaks for itself.
Enjoy your journey into yoga. For me, it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I hope it is for you as well.
By Adrian Molina
Adrian Molina is the founder of Warrior Flow. With over 15,000 hours of classroom teaching experience, Adrian is renowned for the sophistication and depth of his teaching style and the degree of mindfulness, compassion and precision he brings to asana practice. He is also a writer, massage therapist, Thai Yoga Bodywork practitioner, Reiki master, and a Kriya Yoga meditation practitioner in the lineage of Paramahansa Yogananda.
Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor. ― Thich Nhat Hanh
What is conscious breathing?
Why do we need to be conscious of our breath?
Doesn’t the body know how to breathe just fine without having to think about it?
We usually don’t pay attention to our breath until there’s trouble. We get a cold, suffer from allergies or have a deviated septum. Then we beg to breathe better, to feel better, to feel normal again. When we don’t breathe well we don’t live well, and everything becomes more challenging.
When we study the breath, we become aware that breathing is both voluntary and non-voluntary, both a physical process and a circulation of a LIFE FORCE called Prana by the yoga tradition.
Beyond sending oxygen to every one of our cells, breathing circulates Prana throughout our bodies. Becoming conscious of this process allows us to tune into the vibrating force that animates everything in the universe. Why wouldn’t we want to know more about this power?
We are all unconsciously tuned to the power of the breath. For example, we inhale when we need courage, and we sigh the breath out when we feel safe and loved. We turn our breath into sound when we sing, chant, or talk. We can tell when our partner is having a tough day just by the sound of their breath. Some of us hold our breath in or out, and some of us only breathe into our upper chest due to fear or anxiety.
Conscious breathing involves observing and working with the breath in a knowing way to change our lives. We can learn to ride the power of Prana for increased energy or to quiet us when we need to rest and reflect. We can use the breath to change our mood, our frame of mind, our level of energy.
Conscious breathing brings us into the present again and again. Each breath takes place in the NOW. We can’t breathe for the past or store breaths for the future. We can only breathe this breath now, and to do so with awareness allows us to become intensely present.
Conscious breathing also expands the role of choice in our lives. One of the greatest gifts of the breath is the introduction of a pause moment between breaths that offers a moment of reflection and choice.
The pause between breaths can be approached like a fork in the road. In the pause, we can consciously choose to go down a familiar path that no longer serves us or to venture toward something new in our lives. Beyond sustaining our life, the breath offers a path toward fulfillment.
The Goddess whispers a lullaby of love in the form of the mantra SO HUM, which translates as I AM. This mantra rides every inhale and exhale 22,000 a day, serving to remind us of our divine light.
Conscious breathing allows us to cultivate this light within us. Close your eyes, breathe, become present and listen.
Among Miami’s most experienced and sought-after yoga teachers, Anamargret Sanchez is a global citizen of Jamaican, Cuban, and German heritage. She is a dedicated teacher and student of the yoga tradition, and has been blessed to study with many respected teachers, including Rod Stryker, creator of Para Yoga, Manorama, founder of Sanskrit Studies, T.K.V. Desikachar, Leslie Kaminoff, Marlysa Sullivan, and Judith Lasater. She is Cofounder of the Enhanced Healing Yoga Studio, located in Miami’s Upper East Side, and Cohosts YOGAMI, a podcast originating in Miami and focusing on “yoga and stuff.” As part of her commitment to giving and service through yoga, Anamargret also founded the Legion Park Community Yoga class, East Miami’s most successful and long-running yoga outreach effort. Anamargret’s classes are challenging, fun, compassionate, and create space for students to shine in their own light.
“If you’re trying to ‘social justice’ yoga without addressing, acknowledging, or disrupting the Christian/Western onto- epistemological hegemonic framework of social justice, you’re literally, actually advancing colonization.” – Indu Viswanathan
Hinduphobia manifests itself in many ways and, unfortunately, it is also common in the yoga world. Whether conscious or subconscious, this is very disturbing to practicing Hindus across the world. The selective pick and choose from Dharma and the call for social justice to reform dharma that suits the western lens is ever prevalent in yoga in the West and has once again come up during the Covid crisis.
As a person who practices and believes in Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy, “All life is yoga,” a Dharma practitioner from birth, a student of Ashtanga yoga, an Indian currently residing in the US, and a mother of a 5-month old, the erasure of my ancestral history through Hinduphobia distresses me and the millions like me. The idea that my daughter would hear the same colonial distortion that we have been force-fed is extremely unsettling. That is why I am compelled to speak up every time I see it.
Speaking of the second-wave Covid situation in India, there is no denying the mismanagement by the central state government. However, the way this has been covered in North America and Europe is with a neo-colonial gaze. India was in very bad shape during the second wave and just starting to recover. The reason it got to this state is a lot more nuanced and not as single-pointed as it has been shown in western media.
As though our collective trauma right now isn’t enough, our pain is now showcased by the Western Media sharing our sacred death rituals and cremation photographs captioned crudely as “Stunning.” This is sensationalism and bias at its best. Shown below the example referenced.
Instead of the Western Yoga Industry calling out the Western Media for showing our “exotic” crematoriums, some (mostly white) yoga teachers have been sharing these very images for their own fundraisers and classes without realizing that they are perpetuating distress porn that harms people of Indian descent, both within India and in the global Indian diaspora. The western gaze still looks at the funeral pyre as a barbaric ritual while leering at our tragedy. Anyone practicing Dharma knows that these Indic rites are sacred to Hindus and have a deep personal meaning. In India, both life and death are sacred. Sharing these images shows a complete lack of respect for the dead and is extremely dehumanizing. It shows a complete disconnect to life. Calls for help showcasing these images stem from the common troupe of white saviorism and do not serve the path to true equality.
Most Western yoga teachers have not commented on how the Biden administration withheld the raw material necessary for vaccine manufacturing in India and only released these materials after the NSA intervened The Western Yoga Industry that benefits from India’s knowledge stayed completely silent instead of calling out their own governments’ faults.
Worse, when Hindus have protested and spoken out on social media about this we have been labeled as Hindutva, a word that is being used negatively against Hindus instead of having a scholarly data-driven debate on the issue at hand. That’s that, and people move on. But, this label is problematic because Western scholars, who rely heavily on colonial-era scholarship, are quoted in pop culture for anything Hindu and then cry Hindutva whenever Hindu scholars confront or critique their work. Western yoga teachers and scholars appear to do everything in their power to maintain colonial privilege and weaponize Hindutva to attack their Hindu critics and hide their shortcomings. These very Indologists’ scholarships are used to further propagate colonial narrative and destroy the Dharma back home. This same pattern of crying Hindutva when Hindus protest the Western yoga world’s treatment of Hindus during the Covid crisis is evident.
Cry Hindutva can be seen when practicing Hindus say that casteism isn’t Hindu, that Brahmanical Patriarchy isn’t Hindu and Sanskrit is not elitist. If Hindus talk about it and defend it, Western social justice warriors and yoga teachers just cry Hindutva. The neo-colonial narrative prevalent in most Western discussion about Covid in India focuses on the Indian government’s mishandling and uses the above terms that are not native to the land. This is virtue signaling in the guise of help. This is telling us, “you don’t know how oppressed you are from time immemorial, hence, your past thousand years of colonization is totally justifiable.” This is the same argument that the British used to “civilize” our “heathen culture.” This is also the same argument used by our very own brown Babus and MemSahibs, who are the elite reminiscent of the continued British education system leaving us mentally colonized to this day. This is a complete erasure of who we are.
This erasure is observed over and over again and it hurts. For example, in a popular yoga conference, any voice that questioned the presenter’s apparent Hinduphobia was shut down. The organizers conveniently hid behind people appearing of “South Asian” descent.
If you’re trying to ‘social justice’ yoga without addressing, acknowledging, or disrupting the Christian/Western onto- epistemological hegemonic framework of social justice, you’re literally, actually advancing colonization. – Indu Viswanathan
The deafening silence and complete lack of awareness of the erasure of Hindus is another major issue the dharma practitioners have. Western yoga teachers hardly ever acknowledge the atrocities that have been committed on Hindus. One of the biggest Genocides and Exodus in history, the 1971 Bengali Hindu Genocide where 2-3 million people were killed, a hundred thousand women raped, and 10 million Bengalis fled, just for practicing Dharma. This is hardly common knowledge in the Western Yoga Space. This was systemically whitewashed and gaslighted to have zero media coverage in India and elsewhere.
See this video to find out more about the “Bengali Hindu Genocide” (NOTE: This video cannot be embedded in the post click the video title to watch it directly on YouTube.)
What can Western yoga teachers and students do?
Western Yoga must start looking beyond Western Anglophone Media and focus on center Indigenous Dharmic voices by honoring Yoga Stewards.
Follow Kaya Mindlin, Shivani Hawkins, Indu Viswanathan and Hindus for Decolonization Facebook Group who are actively working towards decolonizing the yoga space.
Speak out when you see Beer yoga, Goat yoga, Bible compatible yoga and the likes to preserve the sanctity of the practice.
Educate yourself about the atrocities faced by dharmic folks.
Call out Yoga journals and influencers who try to alienate Yoga from its Dharmic roots.
Come forward and give back to the land that you benefited so much from in its time of need.
Please use discretion while donating. India has the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act 2010 (FCRA) to ensure foreign funding does not affect the internal security of the country. NGOs who have indulged in forceful religious conversions, incited communal tensions and embezzled funds are no longer approved.
I hope, through this, at least some indigenous voices are understood. I wish, this critique will act as a small step in encouraging the Western yoga space to begin its introspection of its unconscious bias. I dream of the day this neo-colonial gaze ceases to exist. And as a practitioner of Hindu Dharma, I pray for the Light to encompass the Darkness, always.
Sushma is an Indian Hindu, currently living in the US. She moved to the US at the age of 21. Having practiced yoga from early on in life, her exposure to yoga in the US and the associated Hinduphobia came as a shocker. Now, as a mother of a young child and understanding how detrimental the effects of Hinduphobia on Hindu children in America can be, she is speaking up.
Mantras are sacred words or phrases with a specific meaning and vibrational power. They come from an ancient tradition of using sacred sounds to shine light on aspects of ourselves and of life that we wish to heal, transform, manifest or understand deeper.
In our busy world, it’s easy to feel anxious. We’re constantly bombarded with information everywhere we turn, and although technology is a wonderful tool, it also carries its burdens. It seems in a world where we’re “so connected,” many of us feel isolated, anxious and alone. This is when chanting mantras can help.
As a sufferer from ongoing anxiety, I came to mantras 18 years ago through the paths of Yoga and Sufism. At the time, mantra chanting became a tool to help me detach from external distractions and calm down. It was an easy-to-use technique I could employ at any time to transform anxious thoughts and return to myself no matter what was going on around me. In this space, I felt more joyful, trusting, and more connected to life’s possibilities. Understandingly, I was hooked, and since then I’ve chanted mantras almost daily!
So what, you may be asking, are mantras?
Mantras are sacred words or phrases with a specific meaning and vibrational power. They come from an ancient tradition of using sacred sounds to shine light on aspects of ourselves and of life that we wish to heal, transform, manifest or understand deeper.
The word Mantra is Sanskrit and is made of two parts:
Man – mind
Tra – vehicle/instrument
When put together, Mantra becomes an instrument to help cross over the fluctuations of the mind. It’s a tool we can use to help us overcome the busyness of our thoughts, emotions, impulses, desires and tendencies. By chanting mantra, we pierce through these distractions and come to rest in the stillness of Being, in our true nature. There is freedom and transformative power in this.
And how exactly does mantra chanting help us with anxiety?
Chanting involves repetition. As we recite our mantra over and over again, our concentration on our experience of the mantra increases, whilst at the same time decreasing our focus on the triggers of our anxiety. Nervous feelings, worried thoughts about potential future scenarios, or the replay of past situations in our head – they all decrease as we give ourselves over to the mantra.
In this way, mantra chanting helps us focus our mind, connect to our body, and it brings us into awareness of the present moment. This is a place where anxiety doesn’t exist.
What are some tips we can use to chant mantra?
When we chant, we can focus on different sensations and ideas in order to strengthen our alignment with the mantra and through this reduce anxious feelings:
1. The meaning – Every mantra has a specific meaning we wish to align with. So we can hold this meaning in our mind as we recite the mantra to help us align with it.
2. The vibrations – We can tune into the vibrations resonating through our body from the fundamental frequencies created in our vocal cords. Some mantras even encourage us to focus on feeling the vibratory sensations in different parts related to the different parts of the mantra.
3. The pronunciation – As we chant, we can tune into the way we vocalise and pronounce each element of the mantra. Feeling it inside our mouth and concentrating on the specific pronunciation.
4. Breath – Focusing on anchoring our breath in our pelvis can help ground us whilst chanting. This also serves to bring us back into an embodied state and out of an anxious one.
5. Sound – We can focus on the sound coming out of us as we chant. And if we’re in a group, we can concentrate on our individual voice, blending into that of the group until it sounds as though we’re one voice chanting.
6. Love – Mantra chanting is a form of Bhakti or Devotional Yoga. When we chant, we get to give all of ourselves – all of our thoughts, emotions, and our current energetic state – into the mantra. I think about it as bowing before the altar of my own heart and chanting intentionally, from this space.
How to choose a mantra to chant?
What I love about mantras is that they are so diverse. There exists a mantra for almost every aspect of the human experience you can think of. From helping us move through fear, to allow more abundance into our life, from connecting to our inner strength to deepening our self-confidence, mantras to me are like little friends we can call upon whenever we need support.
When searching for a new mantra, I recommend finding one whose meaning or energy resonates with you. For instance, sometimes I look for a mantra that can help me with a specific issue I’m facing, and then I begin chanting it daily for a number of weeks. Other times my voice coaching clients, and online course students, present mantras to me in our live sessions whose vibe simply speaks to me. In these situations, I often find myself unconsciously chanting the mantra after our session, and I feel like the mantra has chosen me. So then I begin chanting it for a few weeks and I observe what unfolds in my life through this practice.
There are many ways you can find new mantras to chant, from books to blog posts, from YouTube videos to listening to mantra music on streaming sites like Apple Music and Spotify. I have many of the mantras I’ve personally worked with online for you to listen to under my name Kirbanu, and there are many other mantra musicians whose interpretations of classic mantras deeply inspire. As someone who suffers anxiety, what I appreciate in listening to mantra music, is that the music itself has an added soothing effect upon me in addition to the actual mantra.
If you’re unsure, you can begin by chanting a classic mantra like Om, Hare Om, or Om Shanti. Regardless of your choice, try chanting the mantra for a short time, like 5-minutes per day, to start with. From there you can build up to longer if you wish to. And the best part is that by doing this, over time you’ll have an entire range of mantras that you can go to, whenever you need them. And this for me is their magic. Mantras are vibrational medicine we can use at any time to regulate and heal ourselves. They offer us healing, support and insight for any situation, and they teach us to live a conscious life.
Kirbanu is an Australian-born, German-based mantra singer, voice empowerment coach, and yoga teacher. Her qualifications are in science, life coaching, and yoga, along with 15 years of experience as a professional singer and musician. Her unique body of work uses sound, therapeutic techniques, and the voice as tools for transformation and profound healing. Kirbanu came to sacred chanting through Sufism. Initiated into the lineage of Hazrat Inyat Khan in 2006, she lived with her teachers in America and New Zealand for 3 years, learning about the power of sound and mantra as a spiritual practice and developing herself through chanting. Her mantra practice has since been deeply guided by the works of Thomas Ashley-Farrand and Krishna Das. To date Kirbanu has performed over 600 concerts, and given over 100 workshops and masterclasses, in the last 7 years across Europe and Australasia including Festival appearances at: 2020 Berlin Digital Yoga Conference (DE), 2019 Yoga Vidya Music Festival
(DE), 2019 Darmstadt Yoga Festival (DE) 2019 Summer of Love (CH), 2017 Maifeld Derby (D), 2017 Adelaide Fringe (AU), 2017 Perth Fringe World (AU) and 2016 Blue Balls (CH).
Is depression centered in the brain? The “broken brain” or “chemical imbalance” model is too simplistic. As you can already assess, there are multi-layered processes in both body and mind that factor in the development of depressive symptoms.
Depression is a prevalent mental health condition worldwide and is the leading cause of disability in adults under the age of 45. The mechanisms underlying depression remain poorly understood even though stress and its correlates contribute to multiple aspects of the phenomenology of depression. Based on an emerging picture of how stress and mood are regulated within the nervous system, we can understand depression as a complex response to extreme stress. Exposure to chronic stress, whether physical or psychological in nature, has cumulative effects on the body and mind.
The demands of “modern” life – requiring us to be constantly on the go, propelled by caffeine and perfectionism—seem to elicit a chronic over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA). As we saw in the anxiety article, a chronically activated sympathetic response will eventually lead to a complete shutdown of the body mediated by the dorsal vagal parasympathetic branch – leading to symptoms of major depressive disorder (MDD):
a) depressed mood or loss of pleasure (anhedonia)
b) feelings of guilt or worthlessness because of negative interpretations of the immobility response which comes in conflict with societal demands.
c) cognitive slowing, further eroding self-confidence and self-worth.
d) changes in sleep, which increase inflammatory influences in the brain.
e) changes in appetite, which may lead to eating inflammatory foods and interfering in the modulation of the nervous system.
f) potential suicidal ideations if the weight of the self-judgment becomes unbearable and hopelessness ensues.
Ongoing arousal of the SNS/HPAA has both physical and psychological consequences. Psychosocial stress can activate peripheral and neural inflammation, which is exaggerated in individuals with MDD. Individuals experiencing depression have higher circulating levels of proinflammatory cytokines. High levels of these cytokines are associated with fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, and altered sleep. Symptoms of depression seem to emerge as cytokines activate neural pathways that influence the basal ganglia, an area of the brain involved in motivation and motor activities. This could explain the low motivation and motor movement inhibition associated with depression.
Other brain regions involved in the control of mood, including components of the PFC and limbic system are also affected by these inflammatory pathways, which is leading researchers to hypothesize that the release of stress hormones (corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH), adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), and cortisol) are a major factor in depression. Psychiatrists are experimenting with anti-inflammatory medications in patients who do not respond to common antidepressants – anecdotally with great success.
Is depression centered in the brain? The “broken brain” or “chemical imbalance” model is too simplistic. As you can already assess, there are multi-layered processes in both body and mind that factor in the development of depressive symptoms. They involve multiple organ systems and a variety of hormones and neurotransmitters. However, emerging evidence implicates dysfunction in a circuit including cortical areas and limbic areas that regulates mood, learning, and memory processes. Research suggests that symptoms of depression may result from dysfunctional asymmetry of activity between the left frontal lobe (causing decreased positive affect) and the right frontal lobe (causing emotional lability, difficulty with emotional information processing, and decreased arousal). This is particularly true in individuals who experienced childhood abuse and developmental trauma that impaired the proper development of these emotion-modulation areas. This development occurs after birth in the dyadic interactions between infant and caregivers.
A key individual factor in the effect of stress may be the degree to which an individual perceives the stress to be significant and to what degree the individual thinks she/he has control over the situation. Anything that helps an individual experience a sense of mastery over their internal experience and external world will help reduce depression. Paraphrasing Indu Arora, yoga is not a feel-good practice. Yoga is a practice that requires self-study, svadyaya, and consistent practice, abhyasa while cultivating qualities of non-judgment, self-compassion, and lovingkindness. The bad news is that quick fixes (demanded by a “rapid results” culture) do not exist. The good news is that healing is possible through effort mediated by santosha, or contentment for patient improvement.
We begin by reducing the stress response that ultimately leads to depression. So, in addition to the outline on the eight (8) limbs of yoga outlined in the anxiety section of this 3-part blog post series, the following considerations should be taken for people experiencing depression:
1. Goal: Establish the observer, a capacity to witness and deconstruct phenomenological experience rather than identify with it. Slowly increase sympathetic arousal through movement and deeper inhales. Expand the capacity to tolerate the potential “distress” of higher arousal states by shifting frequently between movement and restful phases – which will invite the natural rhythm of the nervous system.
2. Attitude: Support motivation to practice by highlighting mastery of the foundational aspects of yoga. Facilitate continuity of effort by offering simpler, step-by-step practices that provide an experience of gradual change.
3. Strategies: Begin slowly and gradually increase activity to break up inertia. Use mainly brahmana practices that emphasize dynamic movement coordinated with breath. Titrate entry into more energizing poses by starting with supine poses and move slowly to standing or balancing poses.
4. Asana: Categories that are helpful: extensions, laterals, gentle backbends, and twists followed by a long savasana to help increase cardiovascular capacity, “digest” the sympathetic arousal that emerges, and integrate the balance of sympathetic/parasympathetic arousal. Savasana with rhythmic breathing has been shown in research to relieve depression.
5. Bandhas/Chakras: Uddyana bandha is particularly important to awaken the dorsal vagus nerve (which is subdiaphragmatic and enervates digestive organs), activate the 3rd chakra (willpower, determination, self-awareness), build the energetic “fire” (agni) that supports transformation and the digestion and assimilation of food and psychological states.
6. Pranayama: Focus on ujjai which is warming and centering; increase length of inhales with short holds after inhale to build energy and stamina; create heat with bhastrika.
7. Meditation: Concentrate awareness at the navel center with the seed mantra for that region, RAM, to build courage and positive self-identity. Learn the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra to dissolve fear and darkness.
Current research supports the idea that various yoga interventions can help participants improve self-reported perceptions of stress and well-being. Little research, however, exists on physiological or neurological mechanisms that could mediate the positive effects of yoga on mood and symptoms of psychological depression. Below is a summary of some potential explanations for yoga’s benefits:
• Yoga may influence the inflammatory processes involved in depression by influence on the vagus, the 10th cranial nerve. Efferent (brain-to-body) vagal nerve fibers, via the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, exert anti-inflammatory actions. Thus, because inflammation is implicated as contributing to depressive symptoms, activation of the vagal anti-inflammatory pathway could be an important mechanism by which yoga practice could decrease symptoms of depression.
• The yoga components of slow breathing, relaxation practices, mindfulness of sensations in the body, and physical postures may influence drive on brain pathways to the limbic and cortical areas involved in mood regulation, influencing parasympathetic outflow.
• Rhythmic breathing practices have been shown to affect heart-rate-variability (HRV) and decrease blood pressure. In addition, slow breathing patterns that stimulate the vagus, have been shown to increase levels of prolactin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which are often depleted in depression.
• There have been few studies investigating the effects of yoga on brain chemistry; however, practicing the physical postures of yoga has been shown to increase levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter in the brain that can have anti-depressant and anxiolytic effects.
• The repetitive practice of yoga, over enough weeks, may provide a sense of accomplishment, positively reinforcing healthy coping and self-mastery, as well as increasing positive self-regard and identity.
• Another way yoga may help is the focus on bringing attention to present-moment thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in a non-judgmental way, helping to decrease self-criticism and increasing the experience of thoughts, feelings, and sensations as transient and not permanent events.
• Researchers have also hypothesized that yoga may have a positive impact on related autonomic functioning and in reducing hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activation. Change in these pathways interrupts the underlying stress physiology and decreases inflammation.
• Exercise, as well as meditation, also influences the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal responsiveness and leads to adaptions in endocrine secretion of substances such as cortisol and adrenocorticotropic hormones.
This is part 3 of a 3-part series. Subsequent blogs will deconstruct anxiety and depression as well as outline how yoga has been proven by research to help with these conditions. Inge Sengelmann is a licensed clinical social worker and certified ParaYoga teacher who specializes in disorders of extreme stress and is committed to anti-oppression practices and decolonizing mental health.
Inge Sengelmann, LCSW, SEP, RYT is a licensed psychotherapist and certified ParaYoga teacher who promotes a practice of embodied psychology and spirituality. Visit her website at www.embodyyourlife.org.
Our work as yoga practitioners is to remember that refraction is not division and that how we show up in this lifetime is not who we are, but one of many projections. I am not red or purple, I am light.
As a publicly Queer and non-binary person, June is the busiest month of my year, and I don’t mean socially. In fact, June is quite possibly the least social month of my year, because when I say that it’s the busiest, I mean it’s the busiest professionally. Whenever Pride month rolls around, my inbox is suddenly flooded with invitations from organizations, many of which have never reached out to me before, asking me to teach a class, sit on a panel, train their staff, be interviewed on their podcast–the list goes on. I’ve heard about similar patterns others experience whenever their heritage months come around.
When these opportunities are not degrading and pay equitably, I usually accept. I know that what I have to share, and even more particularly, that which I’ve gleaned through lived experience, is valuable. The invitation to share those experiences as teachings is affirming. Queer and Trans people have so much to offer this world, so much perspective to share, much of which integrates so easily with the teachings of yoga. I choose to share of myself in these offered moments, vulnerably and honestly, because I believe it has the potential to benefit everyone, regardless of gender or sexuality.
I think it’s perhaps a fact of duality that our diversity is what gives each of us our individual purpose, identity, and sense of self. Just like our bodies, made of hundreds of parts, billions of cells, all serving the whole through their various differentiated functions, it’s precisely because we are different that we make up a greater body, the spiritual union of all, the dharma. The fact of our union is not proven by uniformity or ability to assimilate, it’s proven by our differences. Sameness is unrecognizable if difference doesn’t exist–they rely on one another to have any meaning at all.
Imagine looking at a splash of color on a painting, asking yourself, “Is that a deep red or warm purple?” You might look at the rest of the painting for reference–if you’re able to spot a color that you identify as red, you might use that as a reference point, a neutral point of comparison, to determine your approximation of an answer. Our perception, in the visual sense and the more nuanced sense, is literally colored by context. The presence of red, the knowledge of what it looks like, is what allows you to see where it is absent. But there is also more than a binary–more than red and non-red. You need more than one reference point in order to start discerning the other colors from one another. Differentiating red from non-red is not enough to experience the spectrum, and we, as beings, are the products of one infinite light shining through a prism, refracting us into a never-ending rainbow of appearances, identities, and experiences.
Our work as yoga practitioners is to remember that refraction is not division and that how we show up in this lifetime is not who we are, but one of many projections. I am not red or purple, I am light. And/but, I am light having a red experience (or purple, or green, or blue, etc.). Both can be true. Both are important. How can we ever fully realize our true nature, if we don’t have reference points that allow us to clearly discern our human nature? And how do we get to know our human nature, how we show up in this life individually, if not through relationships?
Sexuality and gender are two distinct facets of our human experience. Like all of our facets, there’s as much diversity in these identities and experiences as there are people to embody them. While we may encounter others with similar experiences, no two experiences of gender or sexual or romantic attraction are exactly the same. What I’ve realized from having thousands of conversations about gender and sexuality in all types of settings is that each time I listen to someone else share their experience, I learn at least as much about myself as I learn about them. I now see the same in any conversation I engage in around any facet of identity–race, religion, class, body size, ability, and all of the other ways we label ourselves.
Sometimes, when I talk about being Queer or non-binary, I’m met with an uncomfortable response. I think that often, people’s discomfort with my identities stems not from them having to reckon with my existence, but with their own. Not from their uncertainty about my experience of gender, which has no real bearing on them, but from the glimmer of uncertainty that is sparked within them when I invite them to see me, and in doing so, to see themselves in relationship to me. To see themselves in relation to a new point of reference.
The easy–and dangerous–way out of that discomfort is to bypass it, to project it onto the other person, to deny their existence or wholeness. This is exemplified in the extreme by the fact that the LGBTQ+ “panic” defense is still legal in 35 U.S. states as of the time of this writing. It’s exemplified by the overwhelming slew of anti-trans legislation currently moving through state governments. It’s exemplified in every system of oppression we have built and continue to build. It’s exemplified anytime we hear someone share their experience and approach it with denial or defensiveness instead of curiosity and self-inquiry. To fear or deny someone else’s wholeness is really to fear or deny your own. To avoid someone else’s truth is to avoid your own. This is not how any of us reach liberation, whether worldly or spiritual, and it demonstrates why yoga and social justice are inextricable.
What if we released the fear of our own wholeness long enough to meet our self-uncertainty and move through it instead of around it? What if, instead of taking our fear out on others, we each took on our individual responsibility, and inquired with it? What if we saw each and every vulnerable offering of experience and expression of truth as a gift, a point of reference that can help us know ourselves, as well as one another? Maybe even to know ourselves well enough to start discerning what is human nature, subject to duality and temporality, and what is true nature, infinite, timeless, and unrefracted? Every relationship is an opportunity for svadhyaya.
This is why my calendar fills up every June, when society decides it’s the month to platform Queer voices. I know I benefit when I open myself to all kinds of relationships, including with people I’ve never met and never will meet. It’s part of my yoga practice, and I see value in offering myself as a point of reference for others’ self-study. I have witnessed the expansion of minds and the depth of self-inquiry that can evolve from relationships, even and especially those that challenge you. I wish that for others. I wish that for you.
Ultimately, while I hope that the reflections above are useful to you in your practice, this is also a call to action for the yoga community at large. Representation matters year-round. My value as a Queer, Trans teacher is not higher in June (unless, of course, you are trying to package and sell me for your own profit because this month my identities are #trending. And, for the record, I have written for OmStars before, at other times of the year–this is not intended as a meta-critique). Do you know what I would really love to do during Pride month? Rest. Love on my Queer and Trans family. Engage with my personal practice and my art-making and dedicate it all to my Queer & Trans ancestors. Replenish myself before moving into the next 11 months, which I will inevitably spend trying to fight for and build a world where Queer, Trans, and other marginalized folks have access to even a scrap of the platform that is suddenly offered up every June 1st. I’m not saying we shouldn’t recognize heritage months–you can still invite me to teach a Pride class in June. But before you hit ‘send’ on that email, please stop and consider: are you still planning to book me when my response reads, “Yes, but let’s do it in July”?
No matter the date, we have no meaning without each other. And as yoga practitioners, I think we even long for each other. To experience liberation in our oneness. If this is our aim–if yoga is our practice–we need to honor and attend to our differences as part of our regular, ongoing practice. We need to cultivate non-exploitative relationships for mutual benefit. All of these labels we take on are constructs, yes–none of them are the truth of who we are. But that doesn’t mean they’re not important or valuable. Because if who we are, our truest nature, is undifferentiated oneness, then noticing and acknowledging our differences and temporality is the only way to see what remains when all of that is stripped away.
By M Camellia
M Camellia is an East-Coast-based, fat, queer, non-binary yoga teacher and self-love advocate, called to create profoundly accessible spaces for self-inquiry and the inward journey by integrating mindfulness and adaptive movement practices with the spirit of social justice. They believe that the goal of yoga, as of life, is collective liberation and in turn challenge contemporary yogis to dismantle the systems and beliefs that hold us all back. In addition to teaching group and private yoga classes, M offers workshops that explore queer identity and body image, leads adaptive yoga teacher trainings, helps coordinate trainings internationally for Accessible Yoga, champions diversity and inclusion in the yoga industry as a member of the Yoga & Body Image Coalition leadership team, and serves leading industry groups as an expert advisor on diversity and accessibility.
Featured photo by Blueboy Photographer, @blueboyphotoco on Instagram
Profile photo by Cinthya Zuniga, @cinlife on Instagram
All fears eventually lead to abhinivesha – the fear of death and the will to continue to exist. This is considered one of the five kleshas, or obstacles to attaining the state of yoga. The eight limbs of yoga are designed to eradicate the obstacles to this union with the eternal and entering nonduality.
Anxiety, one of the most-commonly reported mental health disorders in the general community, is the body’s natural response to stress. It is the mobilization of metabolic energy towards necessary action, dominated by the autonomic nervous system’s sympathetic response – the body’s innate accelerator. Chronic anxiety is the inability of the autonomic nervous system to flow between sympathetic arousal and parasympathetic calm. A conditioned feedback loop has been established that keeps the system in chronic activation.
When the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated, our heart rate and respiration accelerate, blood flow moves from the skin and visceral organs to muscles in the extremities, and pupils dilate to take in more of the environment. Under threat, this part of the nervous system is responsible for activating fight and flight responses necessary for survival. Under normal conditions, when there is no threat to life, it makes energy available so we can stay alert and meet the demands of daily life, engage in recreation and vigorous play or exercise, and for sexual activity.
In a nervous system that is operating optimally, if sympathetic activity reaches a certain threshold, the parasympathetic nervous system (PPNS) response engages, slowing things down and returning blood flow to the viscera to support digestion and organ function. This intrinsic balance creates heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of the variability in the heartbeat in relationship to the breath (on inhale, heart rate increases, on exhale, heart rate decreases). High HRV is associated with better physical and mental health. Low HRV is the opposite—a marker of poor health and mental health.
In anxiety disorders – from generalized anxiety to panic disorders to posttraumatic stress or PTSD – the nervous system has lost this reciprocal relationship between SNS and PPNS and has become sympathetic dominant. It is as if a car’s engine was constantly revving, burning up fuel unnecessarily, and eventually overheating and melting down the system. The associated constriction in the blood vessels creates tension in the body and in the mind, and eventually generates inflammation and impairs immune function. A chronic cascade of stress hormones activated by the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal axis further creates endocrine disturbances.
On a psychological level, this physiological state sends warning signals to the brain, which through a process coined “neuroception,” begins to interpret danger and threat – even when there is none. The body is responding to a scary movie playing on the screen of your mind, replaying the painful past or anticipating disaster in a yet-to-occur future.
This vicious loop of hypervigilance and hyperarousal generate distorted or intrusive thoughts or images, emotions of intense fear, anger, and mistrust, further impairing our self-perception and our ability to relate to others and seek support and regulation in social engagement. It is important to note that these are automatic responses that have been conditioned by overwhelming life experiences. Over time, the responses – a panic attack or “flashbacks,” for example – become disconnected from their origin creating a sense of helplessness. Yoga’s self-study and witnessing practices help us gradually uncover the patterns so we can have the choice to change them.
Eventually, because of the body’s innate intelligence, the system will shut down all activity by engaging in a high parasympathetic response leading to immobility, numbness, dissociation, lethargy, apathy, impaired digestion, pain, and other symptoms we have come to equate with depression (more on this in the next installment focusing on depression). Chronic stress can enhance susceptibility to inflammation. Increases in inflammatory markers, such as CRP and IL-6, are associated with decreased parasympathetic nervous activity and are reflected in low HRV. In extreme cases, some people may develop autoimmune disorders or medical syndromes.
The experience of anxiety, as with every other human experience, may be different in each individual and uniquely sourced in their embodied lived experience. In other words, anything from early experiences of trauma (including pre-natal experiences and the ancestral trauma of oppression) to the chronic stress of living in a world that does not value rest and overvalues performance and achievement, can create this internal demand for SNS energy that is not needed in the present moment.
Include in this category are the stress and trauma of living in a culture of patriarchy and white male supremacy. Socio-economic status, class, gender identification, and racial or ethnic background all impact how safe or unsafe we feel in the world because of systems that privilege some and marginalize others. If you are a woman, person of color, gender non-conforming, differently-abled, or not neurotypical, chronic anxiety might be a more common experience. There are significantly more stressors to which the nervous system must respond, explicitly or implicitly, if you live in these intersections. Undoubtedly, socioeconomic stressors, cultural definitions of health and illness, lack of social support, and the general social environment influence the stress load. These disparities were made abundantly clear by the COVID pandemic in the way it affected people of color.
Yoga also explains that we experience fear because we are disconnected from our eternal essential nature, and therefore fear that we will lose our existence if we die. All fears eventually lead to abhinivesha – the fear of death and the will to continue to exist. This is considered one of the five kleshas, or obstacles to attaining the state of yoga. The eight limbs of yoga are designed to eradicate the obstacles to this union with the eternal and entering nonduality. In yoga philosophy, anxiety also would be considered an excess of rajas, one of the primordial forces of creation responsible for activity. So, let us see what yoga offers as solutions to anxiety.
1. The yamas invite us to approach life with honesty, generosity, non-stealing, moderation, non-attachment, and an attitude of non-harming. As we make a lifestyle choice to live by these principles, we might begin by lowering the high demands of perfectionism, by being truthful about our limitations, and by eliminating harmful negative self-judgments. We can moderate stimulants, whether caffeine or drugs, as well as excessive negative mental stimulation that robs us of peace.
2. The niyamas teach us to engage in self-study, to investigate what is helpful and unhelpful in our quest to reduce internal suffering. They also teach us to surrender to a higher spiritual force which can be both a source of strength as well as nourishment. The niyama of santosha, or contentment, teaches us to cultivate this quality of appreciation for the simplest of things, like our breath. We begin to think of the wellbeing of others and not just ourselves, invigorating selfless action.
3. Western yoga has become synonymous with asana or physical postures. Asana categories that can help reduce anxiety/rajas include extensions, forward bends, twists, inversions, and backbends on the abdomen – with the goal of purifying the body and igniting the digestive powers that will help us process metabolic energy and psychic disturbances. Perform these poses by slowing down the movements and finding stillness and stability, anchoring the mind in the present moment. Mulabandha and uddyana bandha or the pelvic and abdominal locks can help us get grounded and centered. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali specify that the perfection of the pose is accomplished when we find sthiram and sukham, stability and ease. It is not about excessive effort and wasting precious energy or prana. Then we can contemplate the infinite and move beyond our limited sense of self. The most important asanas are the seated meditation poses when the soul and the mind take a seat in the body.
4. Pranayama, the expansion of prana by cultivating sensitivity to the subtle breath, can also help us anchor the mind so it is not scattered. Where mind goes, energy flows. Ujjai breath with focus in the throat can stabilize mind and prana. Sama vritti, equal inhale and exhale can center us and increase HRV. Longer exhales further engage the calming parasympathetic response. Alternate nostril breathing or nadi shodhana will further increase a sense of balance by bringing the right and left hemispheres of the brain into equanimity.
5. Pratyahara – or the withdrawal of the senses, begins to draw the restless mind away from the external world, the past or the future (which only live in our imagination) and brings it into the present moment. This can be accomplished throughout the practice of asana by coordinating the attention of the mind with the movement of the body and the cycle of the breath. Or it can be further enhanced in a long restful savasana or yoga nidra practice.
6. Samyama encompasses the remaining three limbs of yoga: prana dharana, dhyana and samadhi. These three steps are what we would consider as meditation. Meditation, according to sage Patanjili, is the step that dissolves the obstacles, eliminates suffering, invites transformation, and introduces us to the eternal light of our inner teacher, Ishvara, a special Purusha, the primordial source of all spiritual traditions and of all creation, pure Consciousness. It is therefore the most important, albeit the least utilized of all the limbs of yoga. Dharana is the concentration of prana in a particular location, maybe with a particular mantra or Sanskrit sound. Dhyana is the penultimate state when mind merges or dissolves in the light of prana and the sound of mantra, entering an abiding sense of calm. These steps then lead to the final step of Samadhi, where observer, the object of observation, and the act of observing merge. Samadhi is more the by-product of the previous steps than a step itself. How samyama can help with mental distress is that it progressively helps us identify with Purusha/Ishvara, the observer of experience, the witness – creating a distance between the distress of anxiety in all its forms (sensations, emotions, thoughts, and images), and our real or essential self that is untouched by experience. Again, sage Patanjali states that when Purusha is established, we cease to be affected by the world of duality. Over time, we are more identified with Awareness, the Witness of experience, and less identified with our likes and dislikes, our limited self-perception, our past traumas, or our future fears. This distance gives us the choice to move awareness to the present moment and toward more helpful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—thereby increasing self-control and reducing impulsivity and compulsivity.
Modern neuroscience research is beginning to quantify the benefits of yoga and has identified that even short interventions of moderate yoga practice:
a) increase the production of GABA in the brain, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that induces calm.
b) Increase heart-rate variability (HRV) by re-patterning the breath from rapid and shallow to smooth, un-interrupted and even.
c) Increase vagal tone, a measure of health in the PPNS response.
d) Reduced activation of the HPA axis.
According to reviews of the research, if yoga does produce an anxiolytic and antidepressant effect, the exact causal mechanism is likely to be complex, affecting multiple body systems. Yoga may best be delivered as a complete intervention, and if different aspects are delivered separately, such a reductionist approach may result in loss of efficacy or effectiveness. As such, yoga practices also should be delivered skillfully by experienced practitioners who can adapt the interventions for various age groups and abilities, as well as address any emerging psychological or emotional presentations.
This is part 2 of a 3-part series. Subsequent blogs will deconstruct anxiety and depression as well as outline how yoga has been proven by research to help with these conditions. Inge Sengelmann is a licensed clinical social worker and certified ParaYoga teacher who specializes in disorders of extreme stress and is committed to anti-oppression practices and decolonizing mental health.
Inge Sengelmann, LCSW, SEP, RYT is a licensed psychotherapist and certified ParaYoga teacher who promotes a practice of embodied psychology and spirituality. Visit her website at www.embodyyourlife.org.
Yoga is not a feel-good practice; it is a practice of self-accountability. It asks us to be responsible for our inner experience and learn to divorce it from the outside world (vi-yoga). It further propels us to grow rather than to remain stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking (vikalpas) and behaving (vasanas).
The past year has been a reckoning for most of us as we faced:
A life-threatening global pandemic, lockdown, and quarantine
Global economic meltdown because of businesses shutting
A rapidly worsening climate crisis that puts all life on the planet in peril
A tipping point in the collective awareness of the ravages of racial oppression, white supremacy, and colonialism
An ever-widening political divide that put the US on the brink of civil war
The growth of extremism, conspiracy theories, and fringe cult groups unable to deal with these realities, perhaps as a form of counterphobia
There is plenty to be anxious and depressed about, and data shows that anxiety and depression rates skyrocketed early in the pandemic lockdown. To top it off, the SARS-CoV-2 (or Coronavirus 19) also seems to have neurological and psychiatric impacts on those who have been infected, with 1 in 5 people who have had COVID meeting criteria for a mental health disorder after the infection. Given these facts, I propose that we cannot center problems in the individual without addressing also the social, cultural, economic, and political realities that influence people’s fears and hopelessness. Healing must happen in community.
The year 2020 has challenged many of us to question in what unconscious ways colonialism, white supremacy and white privilege have shaped us personally and professionally. Asked to write a blog on yoga for anxiety and depression, I struggled to identify a context that felt satisfying. Finally, I understood that I wanted to bring a new perspective to these very real and disabling, but also all too common human experiences.
Disease, according to Yoga Sutra 1:30, is one of nine obstacles that obstruct progress on our path to experiencing the state of yoga. The yoga tradition understands disease as a misalignment with the rhythms of nature. We are increasingly out of harmony with the natural universe. After industrialization, even less so. The planet’s rhythms and our individual circadian rhythms are out of sync. Conditioned by a white supremacist culture that tells us our worth is dependent on performance, achievement, and amassing material wealth, we resist rest. The brain then sends us signals that something has gone awry, and we become anxious and depressed.
Anxiety and depression are not new phenomena. They have affected humans through millennia because they are natural responses to an over-taxed nervous system. In a way, they are both a warning, and an attempt to re-regulate the human organism when it has become dangerously imbalanced due to extreme stressors. Anxiety is the mobilization of metabolic energy towards necessary action, and depression is a demand that the system rest, so it goes into shutdown for energy conservation. These processes will be explained further in subsequent blogs detailing the neurophysiological and psychological or cognitive components of these experiences.
Unfortunately, 20th century psychiatry, to categorize these phenomenological experiences as mental illnesses, began to reify these constructs and give them a life of their own—so we are no longer human beings having a transitory experience, but we become defined by our anxieties or our depressions. For many, their diagnoses begin to define their identities. Instead of seeking more complex explanations and taking corrective lifestyle actions, we look for a simple external agent (i.e., medications) to rapidly fix our distress. Our locus of control is outside of us, rather than within us. The yoga path, on the other hand, asks us to do self-study (svadyaya) and to engage in practice (sadhana) to shift states of consciousness and overcome the causes of suffering (kleshas).
Yoga is not a feel-good practice; it is a practice of self-accountability. It asks us to be responsible for our inner experience and learn to divorce it from the outside world (vi-yoga). It further propels us to grow rather than to remain stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking (vikalpas) and behaving (vasanas).
Another disservice of modern psychiatry has been the simplification of solutions, so people (including some physicians) now commonly believe that depression is “a serotonin imbalance” to be rapidly resolved by a selective- serotonin-reuptake-inhibitor that will flood your brain with “feel good” neurotransmitters. But if that were the case, wouldn’t psychotropic medications have reduced the incidence and prevalence of anxiety and depression, and put a dent in the number of suicides recorded annually? Instead, what we are seeing are skyrocketing rates of all of these issues, especially in the more industrialized nations. And health and mental health professionals are bracing for a post-COVID wave of all of these “diseases” including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Clearly, our angst is a lot more complex than this simple neurotransmitter.
Medications are fine as an adjunctive support, especially during times of extreme stress, but they will not “cure” the underlying causes and conditions that led to our “disordered” thinking, feeling, and behaving. They work best as a short-term salve to help us do the necessary work of change. In fact, most research done to get drugs approved is short term, and the bulk of the data shows that antidepressants, for example, only work better than placebo in cases of very severe depression. And many of these medications have undesirable effects and are difficult to withdraw from. Some Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), for example, have FDA black-box warnings about the potential increase in suicidality in certain age groups. Education on the pros and cons is imperative before agreeing to introduce psychotropic medications.
The reality is that we are complex, multi-faceted beings whose unique and individual experiences require multi-faceted solutions. To decolonize therapy, we must humanize our experiences and bring back ancestral ways of healing in community by creating “communities of care.” We must de-mystify our experiences and put them in the context of social, cultural, economic, and political experiences and not “broken brains.” We must acknowledge the role of current and transgenerational, individual, and collective traumas. We must acknowledge all the ways that racist, sexist, fatphobic, transphobic, ableist, and capitalist ideologies impact individuals and communities – increasing anxiety and depression rates due to realistic fears and hopelessness regarding change. We must bring healing (the process of ecoming whole) to the center of treatment.
Decolonization is now used to talk about restorative justice through cultural, psychological, and economic freedom. Racial equality and eliminating wage disparities, for example, would do more for reducing depression and anxiety in certain groups than psychotherapy and anti-depressants. Decolonizing therapy means empowering individuals rather than making them dependent on a medical infrastructure designed to profit from illness. It means offering solutions that work for people within their cultural contest, even if they are not “evidence-based.” And finally, it means we must establish systems and institutions that understand dis-ease as just that: an attempt of the body and psyche to return to ease, flow, and coherence.
This is part 1 of a 3-part series. Subsequent blogs will deconstruct anxiety and depression as well as outline how yoga has been proven by research to help with these conditions. Inge Sengelmann is a licensed clinical social worker and certified ParaYoga teacher who specializes in disorders of extreme stress and is committed to anti-oppression practices and decolonizing mental health.
Inge Sengelmann, LCSW, SEP, RYT is a licensed psychotherapist and certified ParaYoga teacher who promotes a practice of embodied psychology and spirituality. Visit her website at www.embodyyourlife.org.
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