• Caste, Hindutva, and Yoga

    The reason this blog post has been written is to work towards making the practice inclusive, trauma-informed and accessible. There is no room for a practice that continues to further systems of oppression (either veiled or otherwise).

    India is the birthplace of Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism. Undivided India is also the birthplace of Yoga, which draws from many ways of life, practices and eastern mysticism.

    Over the centuries, human migration has manifested as immigration, colonisation, trade, war. Those who settled in India also brought their culture, practices and religions like Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Islam.

    No single ethnicity marks the Indian subcontinent. Instead an ethnic diversity does.

    This diversity is found in language (over 122 major languages & more than 19,500 dialects), religion (Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Bahai, Animism, Bon, Sanamahism, Meitei, Santal, KiratMundhum & various other indigenous religions) music, dance, food, architecture, literature, clothing, festivals, customs, traditions, art forms and cinema.

    The true definition of that cliché – ‘a melting pot’ – to be Indian today, is to enjoy and be proud of a dynamic culture borne out of accepting, welcoming and assimilating so many cultures, religions, ethnicities and practices over the centuries.

    We know India’s diversity comes both in broad strokes and subtle nuances. To be Indian is the sweetest of paradoxes. At heart, we acknowledge our differences and more importantly, celebrate our oneness. We are the same.

    If you grew up in India, you will remember partaking in each other’s ritual celebrations, fasting, feasting and mourning. Our communities were marked for their texture, their involvement beyond family. Thriving, codependent, warm – our neighbourhood fraternities took to the streets at every momentous occasion, immediately inclusive.

    Cultural diversity has helped us recognise and respect ‘ways of being’ that are not necessarily our own, so that as we interact with others we can build bridges of trust, respect, and empathy across cultures.

    “Atithi Devo Bhavo” – The Guest is God; this is one of the tenets of Indian culture. Irrespective of creed, culture and ethnicity, we welcome everyone into our land and accept their practices and ways of life. ‘Live and let live’ with acceptance of all – that is the beauty of India and its culture. (According to me, this is also what Hinduism is.)

    Today, sadly, this idea of India – the inclusive, secular, democratic entity – is under threat.

    To begin with, Hinduism is not the static monolith it is being made out to be. And it certainly is not what some of its so-called proponents are re-branding it as – knowingly or inadvertently – a violent, nationalistic Hinduism aka Hindutva.

    For someone new to the term, let me offer a simple parallel. Hindutva is Hindu Supremacy, like White Supremacy. And now we are beginning to witness that both ideologies are two sides of the same coin.
    Hindutva seeks to evict us from our fraternal co-existences, box and label us. We are no longer ‘Indian’. Instead we are reduced to our religious identities or worse, our castes. This racism manifests as all racism does – your religion, your caste automatically allows people to make assumptions about your intentions, your behaviour as an individual or community and of course, “justifies” the need to exclude you from a space.

    The polarisation that has followed is tangible and is evident in the bitter loss of courteous, productive, nuanced discourse. Many in India have paid an unduly high price for their desire to maintain the values of India. Some with their lives. Journalists, students, activists, dissenters, even comedians and poets, are jailed under draconian, non-bailable laws (UAPA), and many face harassment online, or at their workplaces and businesses.

    This culture that thrived on our ability to ‘agree to disagree’ can no longer agree on anything except mutual distrust. The hate, divisiveness and fissures in society have gone beyond social media to the real world. It is everywhere. It’s tearing us apart.

    People said the hate was the fringe. Today the fringe is – mainstream.

    The loss of nuance and intelligent, empathetic discourse means we ignore the fact that several realities and truths co-exist.

    You can love your country and criticise aspects of it.

    You can hold a culture/religion/community in high esteem and still call out the harm and injustices some interpretations of it may perpetrate.

    You can be oppressed and be an oppressor.

    You can be a Christian and be fully immersed in Yoga.

    There is no binary of belief systems. No one right and one wrong. We cannot lose our sense of nuance. We need room for this and this is the space, I hope you can read this in now.

    Hindutva seethes in every aspect and sphere of society – including Yoga. Let’s begin with acknowledging that caste is critical to understanding Indian society from a contemporary and historical perspective. All manifestations of the caste system, through history, have been an irredeemable, indefensible playing out of social hierarchy and oppression based on horrific notions of ritual pollution and exclusion.

    Casteism is a widespread failing of Indian society across all religions. It is not limited to one religion and it is certainly evident in the world of Yoga. Yoga has been interlinked with Brahminical oppression, upper-caste hegemony and systematic marginalisation of lower castes. For example, Hindu Dalits who attempted to learn or speak Sanskrit had their tongues cut off or ears burnt with hot oil.

    And caste is no longer an, ‘only in India’, problem. Caste impurity in various forms has even been exported to the West.

    Our yoga practice should not be, and cannot afford to be, oblivious to these discriminatory and oppressive systems that cause discrimination, oppression, injustice, and harm to others. How can we attain our goal of knowing our higher selves by ignoring or being in denial of the systemic casteism and oppression, perpetuated by the dominant culture?

    It is our duty, as those from South Asian Savarna (upper caste) backgrounds, to make the changes in our families and our communities and to also be critical of how religious fundamentalism and casteist oppression are embedded in Yoga. Yoga is meant to shine light in uncomfortable places, within and outside, of ourselves. Speaking about caste and introspecting on it, will make us uncomfortable, especially if you are privileged, but it is necessary work.

    In the same way, as damaging as the whitewashing of Yoga feels to South Asian people of colour (POC), the solution to make Yoga accessible by offering POC sessions may still promote harm. Due to so much diversity of caste, creed and culture within POC communities; chanting mantras in Sanskrit may still inflict harm on South Asians who have experienced violence and discrimination from Hindus. South Asian yogis have a unique responsibility and duty, to intersect critiques and go beyond condemning Western cultural appropriation.

    Westerners need to be mindful of the content that they are teaching, consuming and learning from. Just like one would be wary of the lens a neo-nazi, White supremacist, teaching you the Bible and Christianity, the same applies to the lens of learning & teaching texts and scriptures of Yoga. There are so many Hindu Indian yoga teachers who may be upper caste but, are true allies of lower caste and denounce Hindu supremacy, religious fundamentalism and casteism. Seek them out along with others across the world who teach with similar inclusive values.

    The reason this blog post has been written is to work towards making the practice inclusive, trauma-informed and accessible. There is no room for a practice that continues to further systems of oppression (either veiled or otherwise).

    Practitioners must be aware of the emergence of Hindutva in the yoga space via usage of white yoga teachers and spiritual Anglophone ‘Gurus’ from India in the West or on social media, as “props”, to further Hindutva and to bypass the contradictions of Hindu nationalism. There is a normalisation of the usage of Hindu supremacist language to conceal human rights violations in India. Anyone who raises social justice causes, casteism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, bigotry, hate crimes, caste-based violence, human rights violations, governance failures etc. is labelled “Hinduphobic”.

    We have to listen to the voices of marginalised sections of society who have suffered historical oppression and violent discrimination. The discourse presented by upper-caste Indians is replete with denials of caste and caste-based violence, religious intolerance, human rights violations, or hate crimes. You wouldn’t ask a white person if racism exists, and in the same vein, asking the dominant culture/caste if casteism, racism, discrimination or intolerance exists, would be an exercise in futility.

    Find the “Truth.”

    Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth. Truth stands, even if there be no public support. It is self sustained.

    Mahatma Gandhi

     

    Macro patterns of society are mirrored in the micro-world of modern Yoga.

    Social media has allowed hate and vitriol to flourish. Let’s find ways to limit harm and hate, including towards yoga practitioners and teachers of other faiths and castes.

    Let us not let our religions be used to further hate and violence on other human beings in thought, word, speech or action.

    Remember that not everyone is privileged, and it is our duty to step up, speak up and make our spaces inclusive. There are many socio-political-religious-gender-class-economic-caste-cultural aspects at play, with practitioners that may bring up trauma in yoga spaces.

    How can we make yoga spaces healing spaces – that are inclusive, egalitarian, accessible and trauma-informed?

    Yoga is a beautiful healing practice. It has changed so many lives for the better, including mine.

    Let us take its best practices forward, and leave inequality, dietary practices rooted in oppression, and violent discrimination in the past.
    There is a lot of work to be done by all of us. Let the healing begin.

    Every serious practitioner will want to read and research beyond. Here are a few topics to explore. Learn. Un-Learn. Re-Learn.

    • How were lower caste Hindus (Bahujan, Dalits), indigenous tribals and religious minorities (Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis) excluded from Yoga in India?
    • Which people had access to the knowledge and learning of the Vedas, of Sanskrit and of priestly duties? Who was excluded and why?
    • Was the study and practice of Yoga reserved only for a certain sliver of the population? Who was, and is allowed, to be ‘liberated’?
    • What is ritual pollution and caste impurity?
    • What is the Varna system, who are the Dalits, Bahujans and Adivasis?
    • How is Yoga being used as a political construct for fascism in India?
    • How is Hindutva creeping into yogic spaces creating exclusion and discomfort among practitioners of other faiths and marginalised communities? (We should not erase Yoga’s roots, but we need to move forward with sensitivity to be inclusive and trauma-informed.)
    • How can chanting in Sanskrit (even religious chanting, unrelated to Yoga) bring up trauma for those who have faced historical oppression, discrimination and violence because of their caste/religious identities? Especially to those who have faced riots, hate crimes, targeted violence, slurs and micro-aggressions.
    • Explore the works of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (Annihilation of Caste), Jotibha Phule, Dalit Literature
    • Read up on the racism faced by North East Indians by mainland Indians, human rights violations across the country and internet shutdowns
    • Read up on AFSPA in Kashmir and North East India, the UAPA laws
    • Where does India stand in rankings in Press Freedom, Democracy, and Hunger Index etc.
    References/Credits:

    https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/30281/Ghosts-of-Yogas-Past-and-Present

    https://escholarship.org/content/qt0wn4p090/qt0wn4p090.pdf?t=pkk7ld

    https://sojo.net/articles/how-appropriation-yoga-masks-violence

    https://qz.com/india/969970/everybody-has-an-opinion-on-what-yoga-is-for-and-no-ones-got-it-right-says-devdutt-pattanaik/

    https://www.byrdie.com/casteism-in-yoga-5119378

    https://yogainternational.com/article/view/how-casteism-manifests-in-yoga-spaces

    https://qz.com/india/433356/on-international-yoga-day-yoga-is-just-politics-by-other-means/

    https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/11/india-america-caste/620583/

    https://velivada.com/2017/05/31/casteist-quotes-verses-manusmriti-law-book-hindus/

    https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/opinion/caste-cisco-indian-americans-discrimination.amp.html?0p19G=0232

    https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/explainer-new-jersey-temple-case-labour-trafficking-and-caste-exploitation-148980

    https://medium.com/@Bahujan_Power/the-dalit-bahujan-guide-to-understanding-caste-in-hindu-scripture-417db027fce6

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/325793445_Indian_feminism_as_Brahmanical_feminism_A_Dalit_Bahujan_feminist_critique

    https://caravanmagazine.in/books/twelve-books-dalit-writing

    https://www.npr.org/2019/08/21/751541321/this-is-it-im-going-to-die-indias-minorities-are-targeted-in-lynchings

    https://religionnews.com/2021/09/10/hinduphobia-is-a-smokescreen-for-hindu-nationalists-dismantling-global-hindutva-conference/

    https://www.countercurrents.org/sikand150204.htm

    https://uscatholic.org/articles/201302/caste-off-the-plight-of-catholic-dalits-in-india/

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_incidents_of_caste-related_violence_in_India

    https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/07/can-bollywood-survive-modi/619008/

    https://thewire.in/film/bollywood-target-right-wing-groups-hinduphobia-tandav

    https://gulfnews.com/opinion/op-eds/why-hinduphobia-is-a-myth-1.80738197

    https://www.equalitynow.org/press_release/india_caste_system_preventing_justice_nov2020/

    By Protima Rodrigues

    Protima Rodrigues is the founder of True Bay India – India’s first homegrown Ashtanga Yoga Workshop and Retreat Organiser, bringing top International Ashtanga yoga teachers to India, since January 2019.
    Protima creates awareness as a yoga practitioner, on mental health, social justice, inclusivity, equality, diversity and believes that, yoga is for all, devoid of any barriers. She quit her corporate career as a Vice President in Private Equity after 15 years in banking & finance, to start True Bay India in end 2018.
    True Bay is a solo, POC, woman-owned small business, based in Mumbai, India. https://www.truebayindia.com/our-story

    Website: https://www.truebayindia.com

    Instagram: True Bay India

    Image by Varun Kulkarni from Pixabay 

  • Exploring Yoga & Body Image with Omstars – The Yoga Network

    Welcome to the “Exploring Yoga & Body Image” Blog Series on Omstars!

    We’ve gathered yoga teachers, social justice activists and inspiring critical thinkers to lead us on a deep dive into yoga & body image! Our new blog series gives you the opportunity to learn from the top thinkers and activists in the field of body positivity, plus,  join a bigger conversation that will create lasting change, both in your life and in the world. This free blog series holds space for this work with inclusivity and compassion. But, it’s not only blogs—we will also be hosting IG and FB lives with each of these powerful voices. The path then culminates with a live discussion panel, hosted in Miami at Miami Life Center which will also be filmed for online viewing and made available via the Chat & Chai podcast. This weekend event, taking place June 7th-9th 2019, will be accompanied by a weekend of workshops for those able to attend. Many of these workshops, if not all, will also be recorded and available on Omstars thereafter, so as to make these vital and potentially world-changing workshops accessible to all.

    Discussing yoga or movement, diet culture, or basically any conversation about body image can be challenging; whether you feel the effects of negative or hurtful comments yourself, or you are unsure how to approach the issue and learn more about the topic. Either way, having clear guidance to navigate both the inner and outer work is needed. Think about this blog series as a kind of community re-education. We seek to bring the discussion of beauty, body and culture to the forefront of awareness, and in doing so, we hope to crack the myths of privilege and mainstream beauty norms. Relying on solid facts and research, our expert team of leaders guide you through a powerful process of self-discovery. We hope you will be engaged with us each step of the way and share your own stories, be active in the comments and join as many of the livestreams as possible.

    REAL inclusivity means being willing to have difficult conversations AND hold each other in a space of vulnerability, tolerance and kindness. When we learn to sit with and hold ourselves in this way, it teaches us how to then hold this space for others. This isn’t just a blog series, this is about creating a movement towards waking people up, opening up an important conversation and creating a safe, caring and supportive space for people to explore their thoughts, feelings and ultimately a chance for people to support each other in a meaningful way.

    But more than anything, we want you to know this— We hear you, we see you and we are here to support you.

    Without further ado, we’d like to introduce you to our esteemed group of experts from the Yoga & Body Image Coalition who are leading the charge on this series for us.

    LAURA BURNS

    Laura Burns is the fierce, fat, feminist founder of Radical Body Love Yoga. She’s obsessed with bringing body-affirming yoga and self-love coaching into as many lives as possible. Her commitment is to helping folks honor their bodies in each moment, regardless of size, ability, age, gender expression, ethnicity, and experience with trauma. She feels called to help people become more present in their bodies, more loving toward themselves, and to move forward toward living the life they want and deserve.

    Through her online courses, workshops, classes, and radical body-love activism, Laura is sharing her personal experience with the life-saving power of yoga and body-positivity with the world. Accessibility, trauma-sensitivity, and body-autonomy are the guiding principles of all her work and interactions with the world. Laura is an E-RYT 200, YACEP, trained and certified by Curvy Yoga, a Certified Punk Rock Hoops Instructor, a Community Partner with the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, and the creator of the HoopAsana and Radical Body Love Yoga philosophies and practices. She lives in Houston, Texas and sets up shop online at radicalbodylove.com.

    DIANNE BONDY

    Dianne Bondy is a social justice activist, author, accessible yoga teacher, and the leader of the Yoga For All movement. Her inclusive approach to yoga empowers anyone to practice—regardless of their shape, size, ethnicity, or level of ability. Dianne is revolutionizing yoga by educating yoga instructors around the world on how to make their classes welcoming and safe for all kinds of practitioners.


    Dianne is the author of Yoga for Everyone (DK Publishing, Penguin Random House) and a frequent contributor toYoga International, DoYouYoga, Yoga Girl, and Omstars. She has been featured in publications such as The Guardian, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan, and People. Dianne’s commitment to increasing diversity in yoga has been recognized in her work with Pennington’s, Gaiam, and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition, as well as in speaking engagements at Princeton and UC Berkeley on Yoga, Race, and
    Diversity. Her writing is published in Yoga and Body Image Volume 1, Yoga Rising, and Yes Yoga Has Curves.

    Find Dianne online on IG, Facebook and Twitter or at diannebondyyoga.com and  yogaforalltraining.com

    CELISA FLORES

    Celisa Flores: Since obtaining a Master’s degree in Counseling in 2007 at CSU Fresno and a PsyD in Clinical Psychology from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology in 2013, Dr. Flores worked as a therapist and program director in a wide variety of mental health treatment setting. This diversity of experience allowed research and training to expand her skills as a Feminist therapistwith emphasis on Eating Disorders, Mindfulness and women’s issues.

    With a history of providing individual, group, family, and couples counseling services, as well as therapeutic yoga services, Dr. Flores has focused on evidence-based practices, providing guidance and support in Mindfulness in Recovery, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and other self-empowerment strategies. In addition to training as a therapist, she is a Certified Yoga Teacher, also trained in Mindful Stress Reduction, Reiki and as a doula. By integrating a variety ofholistic tools into recovery and wellness, she works to create a long-lasting, sustainable wellness plan.

    Now proudly with Center for Discovery, providing clinical outreach for Orange County and the Central California region.  This role has included national and international training and speaking engagements on eating disorders, mindfulness, yoga, body acceptance, and professional wellness, as well as facilitating accessible, body-affirming yoga annually at the Los Angeles NEDA walk.  With a passion to support other therapists and community members with understanding eating disorders and treatment as well as self-care and overall wellness, she is always working to share information, research and training.

    MELANIE KLEIN

    Melanie Klein, M.A., is an empowerment coach, thought leader and influencer in the areas of body confidence, authentic empowerment, and visibility. She is also a successful writer, speaker, and professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies. Her areas of interest and specialty include media literacy education, body image, and the intersectional analysis of systems of power and privilege. She is the co-editor of Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery + Loving Your Body (Llewellyn, 2014) with Anna Guest-Jelley, a contributor in 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Horton & Harvey, 2012), is featured in Conversations with Modern Yogis (Shroff, 2014), a featured writer in Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Mindful Living (Llewellyn, 2016), co-editor of Yoga, the Body and Embodied Social Change: An Intersectional Feminist Analysis with Dr. Beth Berila and Dr. Chelsea Jackson Roberts (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016) as well as the editor of the new anthology, Yoga Rising: 30 Empowering Stories from Yoga Renegades for Every Body. She co-founded the Yoga and Body Image Coalition in 2014 and is the co-founder of The Joy Revolution. She has been practicing yoga and meditation since 1996 and currently lives in Santa Monica, CA.

    Connect: melaniecklein.com, ybicoalition.com, yogaandbodyimage.org, yogarisingbook.com

    JENNIFER KREATSOULAS

    Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT, is a certified yoga therapist specializing in eating disorders and body image. She is an inspirational speaker and author of Body Mindful Yoga: Create a Powerful and Affirming Relationship With Your Body. Jennifer provides yoga therapy via online and in person at YogaLife Institute in Wayne, PA, and leads yoga therapy groups at Monte Nido Eating Disorder Center of Philadelphia. She teaches workshops, retreats, and specialized trainings for clinicians, professionals, and yoga teachers. She also mentors professionals who wish to integrate yoga into their work with eating disorder clients. Jennifer is a partner with the Yoga & Body Image Coalition and writes for Yoga International and Yoga Journal and other influential blogs. She has appeared on Fox29 news and WHYY’s “The Pulse,” and has been featured in the Huffington Post, Real Woman Magazine, Medill Reports Chicago, Philly.com, The Yoga International Podcast, and ED Matters Podcast. Connect with Jennifer: www.Yoga4EatingDisorders.com.   

    SUZANNAH NEUFELD

    Suzannah Neufeld, MFT, C-IAYT, is a licensed psychotherapist, certified yoga therapist, and mom of two who has specialized in supporting people coping with eating disorders, body image concerns, and maternal mental health since 2003. She is a co-founder of Rockridge Wellness Center, a counseling and health collective in Oakland, CA, where she has a private practice. Suzannah is the author of the book Awake at 3 a.m.: Yoga Therapy for Anxiety and Depression in Pregnancy and Early Motherhood (Parallax Press, 2018). She is also a contributing author in the anthology Yoga Rising: 30 Empowering Stories from Yoga Renegades for Every Body. Learn more at www.suzannahneufeld.com

    SABRINA STRINGS

    Sabrina Strings, Ph.D. has always wanted to write. As a young girl, her parents gifted her a little desk so that she might have a proper place to sketch out the tiny imaginative stories she passed to them when the inspiration struck. Today, Sabrina is constantly seeking ways to combine her love of writing, her passion for yoga, and her devotion to teaching and community service. As a yoga teacher, she offers free and dana-based yoga classes and workshops in low-income, POC-dominant communities like Oakland, Richmond, and East Los Angeles. She the co-founding editor of the first-ever publication dedicated to interrogating the link between race, gender and the modern practice of yoga, Race and Yoga Journal. As a professor, she travels the world giving talks on race, yoga, and women’s history. She teaches courses on feminist theory, social inequality/collective liberation, race/gender and embodiment, and food justice. She is on the Community Resilience Project Faculty Advisory Board, where she helps to organize and promote local actions for environmental and climate justice. As a writer, her social commentary has been featured in The Feminist Wire, Truth-Out Independent News, and Yoga International. Her writings on the nexus of fatness and blackness can be found in Fat Studies, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, and the Oxford Handbook of Body and Embodiment. Her new book, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia (NYU Press 2019) explores how the phobia about fatness has been historically related to fears of racial integration.

    MELANIE WILLIAMS

    Melanie Williams 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, Melanie 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.

    By Kino MacGregor, Anna Wechsel and Melanie Klein