Decolonization and Diversity

On Sunday, I shared what I heard at the talk on Cultural Appropriation and Yoga. First I wanted to share the discussion we had, and I think it is very important for us to recognize discrimination and colonial power structures which create barriers within yoga. That said, I anticipated that this could be read as promoting one type of yoga practice or space. Actually, I feel this discussion about acknowledging the riches of yoga and acknowledging the diversity and complexity of the South Asian wisdom traditions points to creating positive, textured yoga spaces and practices in Western contexts that are accessible to people.

I have long been a proponent of the idea that if we explain why we are bringing sounding and mantra, or some use of Sanskrit, symbolism, that most people understand the very human, welfare-based message of them, and that it is not a barrier to participation, but makes participation deeper and more meaningful. But, as the discussion we had on Saturday implied, this needs to be done skillfully, and explained and explored. If people are truly resistant to any form of yoga symbolism or the mere mention of its incredibly rich development in South Asia, this is likely a barrier caused by a misunderstanding and fear of Hinduism or other traditions in general. Again, gently working with this and trying to address and approach it through information and cultivating awareness is really what the de-colonizing discussion leads is towards.

The yoga tradition is not monolithic – it is diverse, and there are different paths and processes for different stages of life, contexts, purposes etc. Many of the texts are inherently non-dogmatic in that they contain choice and diversity within them. The Bhagavad Gita is a great example of this, and is where we first see the outline of the different paths: bhakti, karma yoga, karma sannyas, and jnana. Acknowledgement of the rich history and diverse technology of yoga should also be freeing rather than constricting, and in that sense is very post-modern.

One of the big issues for some people is anthropomorphic deities. And, as I often stress in training, these are not universal within the broader yoga tradition. Where they are found, there may be an understanding of them as rich representations of energetic pathways, or as the embodiment of divinity. And so, having spaces/classes that use Vedic symbolism like Om or the swasti symbol is also very true to the more niirguna schools. Arya Samaj, for example, which is a Vedic revival organization, does not use anthropomorphic symbolism because in the Vedas God is repeatedly described as vast and formless. This is also true of Sikhism and Kabir(ism). I personally have diverse sacred objects and symbols in my teaching spaces, and I often explain that thi is to give access to the diverse methods and approaches across traditions in the broader Sanatana Dharma. Though I tend more towards niirguna practices myself, I have had rich experience in saguna bhakti practices. So, just very briefly, I want to make clear that this is not the promotion of one monolithic type of space or practice. It is about acknowledging and not denying or obfuscating the depth and heritage of a practice due to continuing colonial ethos.

Cultural Appropriation and Yoga

I went to a talk last night by Nisha Ahuja at Kula Yoga about cultural appropriation and yoga. It was a really helpful evening for making us more aware of the continuing effects of colonization, how this manifests in some of the ways we approach yoga in the West, and how to minimize this appropriation.

Firstly, I thought it was really helpful to name the forces of colonialism: denial, destruction, eradication, surface accommodation and tokenism. In yoga this may manifest as the denial of the rich heritage of yoga, or even the denial of its origins in South Asia. Destruction and eradication began during the colonial regimes that disallowed and suppressed the practice of the wisdom tradition and other linguistic and cultural aspects. If we teach yoga asana without mentioning or giving some access to students of the rich, plethora of yoga practices, giving some context to the heritage of yoga, we continue with this eradication. Surface accommodation and tokenism may manifest when we have spiritual objects or mantras that we don’t explain or treat as trinkets during class, thus paying lip service to yoga’s rich heritage without sincerity or real knowledge. This also gets into the area of access, and diversity in the yoga spaces in the mainstream.

I admired Nisha’s bravery when at the beginning of the talk she explained how growing up hearing a bindhi and tilak referred to as a ‘Paki dot’ creates a painful separation, or making it painful to think about connecting to the Third Eye. This and the knowledge of how yoga and Ayurveda were suppressed during the colonial regimes in India may also make the mainstream, decontextualized yoga fad also painful and may distance South Asian people from wanting to participate in yoga classes or studios that don’t full represent them. This creates a continuing disparity in who has access to yoga (even in a diminished form). One participant mentioned that in a way this caused her to search out authentic offerings of the wisdom tradition, which made me think of the many very authentic, holistic and non-commercial yoga missions, such as Chinmaya Mission, Ananda Marga, Shri Chinmoy et cetera. I am often surprised how little awareness there is of such longstanding organizations in the mainstream. But this talk gave a different insight into that successful mechanism of commodification of a highly diminished yoga. I hope I have represented this piece of the talk. I am recounting what I heard and understood. It was live streamed, so I will post where/if it becomes available online.

Nisha asked us to write out what we thought cultural appropriation was, and who benefitted. The group put out words such as decontextualized, exploitative, gratuitous, entitlement.  There was difference of opinion on who benefits. In a very real sense, no one benefits from failing to acknowledge the rich heritage of the Indian wisdom traditions, or of the burying of huge aspects of it in the popular consciousness. I do believe there are derivative benefits to the popularization of yoga. They are diverse, but that still doesn’t mean we should not continue to work towards de-colonization. One participant mentioned that even though people were getting access often to highly diminished forms of yoga that did not acknowledge yoga’s roots, the glimmer of it may cause them to search further. The issues here are with exploitative commodification (gross overcharging for yoga teachings, attempts to make proprietary measures over sequences or things like medicinal use of turmeric!), and often the mainstream lack of understanding of the history of discomfort with Hinduism in relation to Abrahmanic religions. I won’t go into this here as I’ve written previously on this, but lack of understanding of this and the colonial legacy obfuscates the real negative effects and perpetuate anti-Indian stances and gross generalizations about Indian history within the yoga community.

One thing I mentioned in the evening was that ironically the yoga boom in the West and the success of the yoga industry have had an echo in India. This is not un-problematic, as it partly due to the legacy of colonial power disparity and internalized racism (feeling lesser than the colonizers). As yoga became popularized in the West, it created more interest in yoga in South Asia. Also, business people have propagated the ‘yoga for health’ model creating TV-gurus like Baba Ramdev, giving millions of South Asians access to teachings on pranayama for example, to which they previously had little access. Although it is not un-problematic, it does tie into the cultural revival of aspects of the wisdom tradition in India. 

At the end of the evening Nisha offered a list of things to reflect on and commit to decolonizing yoga, and I’d like to say that some of these were already important to me. The discussion re-enforced and gave texture to the reasons.

- humility

- acknowledging where something comes from and at the limits of what aspect you are sharing

- acknowledging the sacred objects in the space and explaining what they are (if you don’t know, that is problematic and you should consider how it may be tokenism

- acknowledging mantras, their meaning and why we do them and where they come from

- acknowledging the privilege we have in access to this teaching when some don’t have access or have historically been denied access due to colonization

- cultivate relationships with people who are related to the heritage tradition

I am grateful to have had such a skillful facilitator of this meaningful and important discussion. Thank you Nisha Ahuja. 

 

Being More Fully Present by Acknowledging the Past

Within the practice of yoga and mindfulness, we often stress not dwelling on the past, or being present. This is an incredible practice, as anyone can experience, when they let the thoughts of regret, or what if, and take a few moments to savour the crisp, fresh breeze, or the sun on the land, or whatever they are experiencing in that micro-moment. But/And, do we sometimes use the practice of yoga to avoid the past, and therefore fail to learn the lesson? My last post was about seeing through drama in order to learn from it, as opposed to avoiding it. Here, we’re looking at a similar balancing act: how to learn from the past without being obsessed by it.

Firstly, I think it is helpful to understand different aspects of the broader Indian wisdom tradition. While in Classical Yoga there is more of an emphasis on stilling the thoughts, including thoughts of memory, rather than exploring them, and a paring down of identity, in other areas of the tradition, we see family, calling and connection to the land etc. as grounding and stabilizing. I think the Bhagavad Gita, which is a vastly integrative text of various wisdom schools within the broader tradition, explores these different kernels of wisdom and how they apply depending on who we are and where we’re at on our journey, and what we’re looking for or need. This may depend on stage of life, stage of development in consciousness, family situation, Ayurvedic dosha or affliction. Further, letting go of attachment (read clinging) to family, social identity, and geo or cultural sentiment is different from having an aversion to it. Our sense of who we are and where we’re from can be grounding and stabilizing if we are also able to understand that this is just one aspect of the self, and we are aware of how it may affect our choices and decisions. Aversion to the past, however, or disallowing the grounding effects of heritage and community are even more likely to create obscurity rather than clarity. Sometimes I think it is important here to note the context of teachings and texts. Classical Yoga teachings were intended for people who were from an incredibly long, stable socio-cultural tradition. The lesson was to cultivate the ability to see outside of that. In our modern society, we tend to be dislocated from family and the sense of heritage culture and tradition, we are often distanced from nature as urban dwellers, and due to many moves throughout life, change of jobs, and communities, there is even further dislocation from our histories within communities we have been a part of. This is why, I believe, along with Patanjali’s amazing teachings about clarity of mind and emotional peace, most of us are drawn to the teachings of Ayurveda and Vedic ritual. We are seeking balance between Patanjali’s radical discontinuity with the past and with socialization as a method for clarity, and the grounding and healing practices of Ayurveda and other Vedic practices.

So, memory, awareness of what we’ve come through as a person, these are very important things on our journey. When we first come to the path of yoga, we might be tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater – make radical changes, and departures from people, places, ways of living, and even thoughts or memories of who we’ve been. It is important to acknowledge this as part of our desire for clarity and peace, but also to see the aspect of aversion in it. Aversion of guilt maybe, or of taking responsibility for slow and integrated change within the context of community. It can be easy to make change when we step away, on retreat for example, but then the challenge is to support and nurture that within the context of a community that impacts us and that we also play a role in. To hit the nail right on the head, our tendency to want retreat and discontinuity plays right into our individualistic and ungrounded social context. In the long term it cannot be sustained, or it fails to produce a sense of wholeness or integration within a larger social context. There is a lovely recorded talk of Shobhan Faulds talking at Kripalu about the history of the Kripalu lineage, and the purpose and process of utopian communities. He concludes that a commune, or a utopian community is a stage in a process at the conclusion of which, the community then attempts to integrate what they have learned with the surrounding society. They do not seek to continue to be a micro-community in isolation, and if they do, dissolution ultimately comes. We can look at this with individuals also. Retreat and soaking in a yoga community is a beneficial stage in which we remove ourselves from our context in order to learn and grow, and hopefully gain insight into blind spots that were covered by a given context. Staying in perpetual retreat mode for one thing simply harbours different blind spots (though we may not realize this), and does not allow us the integration of past and present, yoga community and wider society.

As I mentioned above with blind spots, in our yoga practice it is important, as with any healing journey, to have a multi-pronged approach. Holistic yoga, if we take advantage of all of its diverse practices, is just that, a multi-pronged approach. Mantra is great for shifting obsessive thinking. Asana is great for revitalization and detoxification. Pranayama is great for importing prana, and detoxification and clarifying thinking. Visualization and energy work are great for connection to the Vast. Karma Yoga integrates the practice with work in society. Bhakti Yoga roots us in Divine connection. Jnana Yoga is the work of rooting out patterns, erroneous judgements and diminished thinking. Understanding this, I come back to this concept of acknowledging the past. Recently, though journaling and creative writing, I recognized again how powerful this type of exploratory practice is. One takes a symbol or story that seems to continue to come up, and indulge and unpack the symbol or the story through flowing creative writing. If this is done over a month period, for example, though it may seem like dwelling on the past, this practice, if balanced with other practices after each session to keep one present and to integrate what comes up, can really reveal blind spots or aspects of our past that continue to clandestinely influence our thinking and our beliefs about ourselves today. We can categorize this as a type of Jnana Yoga perhaps. If we are always doing practices to replace troubling or patterned thoughts, we may not be allowing for a key insight to rise up, before proceeding with an integrative process. Journaling about recurring symbols from dreams is a similar type of practice. 

To sum up, as always, I’ll give credence to the idea of yoga as a path of balance in which being fully alive in the present requires that we’ve also taken time to heal, acknowledge and integrate the past. 

Is there a role for drama?

In the yoga community we talk a lot about eliminating un-necessary drama in our lives. But today I’ve been thinking about the useful role of drama, and not missing the lesson.

One of the first problems is that we may project the cause of drama on another person. Of course, drama is often created by an intersection of two (or more) people, and events. So the solution is not just about moving away from someone and ‘their’ drama. In fact this may just exacerbate the problem, because it will just inevitably return and even intensify.

Rather, I think we need to move in closer and look at what has happened so that we don’t repeat or recreate the patterns. Sometimes fleeing or trying to move away from situations, we don’t allow ourselves to examine what has really gone on.

The flip side of fleeing drama is stuffing it down, or disallowing it. For me, this is part of not allowing ourselves to fully feel. Again, in the yoga community we talk about evenness and contentment. But do we misunderstand these traits to as the process as opposed to the end result. What I mean is that the process toward clarity in out thoughts, words and actions may at times be turbulent. This is after all a powerful cleansing. A cleansing of the mind, and a cleansing of the body, and a cleansing of the samskaras at our deeper layers of being. Learning to fully feel, and to release patterns requires that we be open to their rising up for processing. At first this disturbs the mind, and often the whole system, and we can use techniques to manage this. We are on the road to witnessing and bearing witness. I wonder if by disallow the turbulence, and the feelings, we may actually be blocking the process to clarity.

So, I come back to my common refrain: yoga is a textured balance and a sophisticated process of coming towards clarity. Simple maxims and pat phrases can often be interpreted in ways they are not intended. Through mindfulness we can get clarity on un-necessary drama in our lives and how it is created and co-created. But, it is also through paying close attention, and giving ourselves a chance to notice and track feelings and patterns that we can unpack and learn the message that drama is there to teach us.

Yoga and Transformational Experiences at the Anglican Studies Program Retreat

Interestingly, I have met in the past two years in India two long-standing Christian ministers, both of whom have been practicing yoga for decades. The conversation and sharing has been so rich and insightful.

Along with other synchronicities I will explore later, these meetings led up to my co-facilitating a retreat this past weekend at the Galilee Retreat Centre in Arnprior with a group of twelve in the Anglican Studies Program at St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, aspiring to be ordained as priests. Rev. Kevin Flynn asked me to co-facilitate this retreat about a year an a half ago, and since then, we had been discussing ideas for the retreat which settled to a very experiential program including morning yoga practice, and various Transformational Experiences, and discussions about diverse contemplative and mystical practices in our lives. Firstly, the group was incredibly sincere and open, and many of us shared interests and expertise in history, literature, education, social action, music, rare books, and manuscript restoration, as well as of course theology and religious studies and practices. So, the experience was so rich on many levels.

Quite a few people who knew I was heading to this retreat, or saw my post prior to leaving on Facebook, expressed interest in knowing how the weekend went. It has taken me a week to be able to even contemplate writing this piece. And perhaps I will have to come back to it again later, but today being Sunday, I have been inspired to share a little bit about it today.

Firstly, I must say that upon arriving at the Galilee Centre, and taking a few breaths of fresh air on the breeze off the majestic Ottawa River, scented with the aroma of huge heritage pines, I felt I was in for a grounding stay, supported by the elements of creation. That night, after a Kripalu-style getting-to-know-you activity with matching pair discussion slips for partners to find each other with words such as ‘ritual’, ‘transformation’, ‘practice of silence’ et cetera, we enjoyed a lovely service in the chapel. Behind the altar was a large arched window overlooking the river. That evening, led by Kevin, we sang by candle light, sparse, mystical phrases, ”Come light of light into my heart. Come spirit of wisdom into my heart”. At this point, the richness and the coming together of contemplative traditions that we were embarking on, was already so palpable. Such that going to bed that night in a very clear, retreat room with single bed, desk and chair, I felt buoyant, lifted up by spirit in nature, spirit in community, and spirit in joined voices and silence. And also a deep gratitude for all of those things, as well as being able to facilitate in this way.

On Saturday, after yoga and prayers, we shared porridge and broke our silence with a very social breakfast. The rest of the day unfolded with ritual, sharing and the discussion of contemplative practices. I am so glad that we began with the journey of the walking of the labyrinth. The centre has a beautiful, large, flat labyrinth which consists of grass and inlaid bricks to mark the path to the centre of the labyrinth. Four diagonal directions were marked with benches, and from the entryway one looked out to a statue of Mother Mary and the river beyond. The practice of labyrinth walking is very similar to a walking meditation, which I often lead. The walking is slowed to promote mindfulness. We synchronized the breath also with the movements of arms and legs. The added bonus of the labyrinth is that there is a centre to the journey, and to the healing contemplation. And on the way back, a kind of integration of the experience in which we focused not only on the healing, but on ‘bearing witness to each other’ as we journeyed back out of the sacred space together. For me, this was one of the most profound experiences of the retreat, and got so much to the heart of what I feel contemplative practices have to offer.

Later, we discussed common elements of such practices in diverse traditions, such as silence, slowing down, singing or cooperative movements or dances, rhythm and repetition. I gave some examples of each on a handout, and will offer a snippet of that here.

Experience or Ritual: The facilitator, and possibly the group will co-create an experiential activity. An experiential activity is any process or inquiry that causes the participants to gain new insight about something simply from engaging with the group and the process/space created by the ritual. Facilitators can design experiences or activities to demonstrate philosophical or spiritual concepts, or help participants get in touch with states of union between body, mind and higher mind, and to connect with states of wonder, bliss, absorption or devotion. These might include:
• Slowing down to enter a more intuitive and receptive state;
o Through deep breathing or patterned breathing,
o Slowed movements or gestures (including mindful eating activities),
o Moment of silence or witnessing
• Collective singing and observing its effects;
o Hymns,
o Mantras,
o Devotional songs,
• Use of rhythm and repetition;
o Recitation of short repeated phrases,
o Repeated movements like circle dances or Sufi dances, Tai Chi etc.
o Drumming,
o Walking meditation, or Labyrinth walking,
• Visualization or harnessing of attention;
o Meditation on an icon or chakra,
o Prayer with an icon, or meditation on the heart of Christ,
o Candle or full-moon gazing,
o Moment-to-moment mindfulness,
o healing circles,
• Soaking in nature and/or reflecting on the primordial elements;
o Evoking the directions, elemental rituals like fire/water rituals,
o Canoeing or kayaking,
o Gazing at uniform fields of vision like vast, still lake or clear blue sky,
• Formal religious rituals like Holy Communion or visiting stations of the cross.

I also mentioned new scientific research on how cooperative movement and collective singing/chanting cause us to release oxytocin and thereby have a bonding effect helping us feel connected as a group, but also causing us to feel greater oneness with All-that-is. Secondly, we spoke about research in education such that movement enhances the ability to concentrate. This helped to demonstrate the inner wisdom of rituals involving slowing but not stilling completely, the use of rhythm and repetition, and cooperative movement and song. And so we brainstormed examples of these, perhaps not all in wide use, from our traditions.

After this very rich discussion of the doorway of silence, breath, mindfulness and repetition of ecstatic phrases, we practiced anuloma viloma and meditation. As many of you know, I usually perform these practices with the Ham-so mantra and am a big proponent of bi-syllabic mantras. For this context, we used an Aramaic ‘mantra’ which is said to have been used by Jesus, meaning ‘Come Lord’, which was also 2 syllables: Maranatha. This also felt like an amazing coming together of cultural or tradition-specific components to create a wonderful inter-faith experience that I really do feel helped to create safety and accessibility to a practice, a doorway to mystical/contemplative experience.

In conclusion, the retreat offered me an opportunity to again experience (after all my travels and years living in other countries), that having a chance to get to know someone from another tradition, and explore the many points of commonality, or the common human experience and how we journey through in unique but comparable cultural ways, removes distance and the un-known, and brings us together to the enrichment of all.

If I could put in a note here – I have long been a proponent of more inter-cultural and inter-religious studies in schools. It is more exposure and understanding that will help us in society and community building, not less. For this, I am excited about doing more such work on universal rituals, and also blending rituals as an educational, inter-faith experience, and also introducing people to the yoga tradition who already have a primary identification with another faith.

Other Experiences of the Past Year

Last winter at the Ashram, we had an Ash Wednesday ceremony led by Robert Bryant, an Episcopal minister from Portland, OR, who was in teacher training at the time. It was held for anyone who wanted to join in, and took place in the garden with ash anointed from that morning’s fire puja. This was a very moving experience for the 7 or 8 of us who participated, I believe in part because it allowed us to freely practice a sacred ritual within the sacred space of another tradition. As such, it signaled that we do not have to divide things up and sector off parts of ourselves. I feel that this is the way of the future – understanding and exploring diverse spiritual practices from historical and current human culture, as well as understanding these and other more secular mindfulness practices are hugely beneficial to our physical, mental/emotional and spiritual/inner wellbeing.

Sometimes Less is, Well, Less: Consumer guilt, self denial and financial woes in the yoga community

I recently read an article about ‘spiritual bypass’ by Buddhist teacher John Welwood. It resonated with me, and I felt I could relate it to what seems to be finally coming to the fore in the yoga community also – the way we use our spiritual path as a means of neglecting to deal with our personal baggage. You might say, “but yoga is all about working through our karma.” Yes, but it can also play into our blind spots if we are of a more reclusive nature, for example, or have patterns of lack of self care, and self deprivation.

I don’t want to make it sound like I think we yogis are all self-flagellating hermits who subsist on nettle tea (actually, I probably need three articles to unpack that image), but I’ve seen and experienced yoga practitioners who:

  • spend so much time alone they exacerbate their already-underdeveloped ability to feel at ease with other people;
  • fast easily, and slip into very minimal eating and fasting that is not beneficial to their body type;
  • but most prevalent and extreme of all, myself included, yogis who have long standing issues with artha, or wealth/abundance:
    • feeling undeserving of care,
    • neglecting self care,
    • denying themselves things others might consider basic needs,
    • ambivalence about financial instability, and
    • financial mismanagement.

We say we believe in abundance, and yet, the yoga community is riddled with scarcity and poverty consciousness, and guilt surrounding possessions and prospering. This can show up in so many ways from people (myself included) not pursuing careers they really want, to feeling uncomfortable about charging clients for services. And this is why I have trouble with pithy maxims like “less is more”. Yes, this phrase does accurately represent a part of yoga: aparigraha, or non-hoarding, non-aquisitiveness. And people often really feel so benefited by de-cluttering, not taking on too much, consuming less and experiencing more. I get it! And yet, in yoga circles, I’ve often heard monastics preaching non-consumerism to a room full of dedicated abstainers. Many of us are very good at abstention – we’re minimalist addicts. And so for us, less is really just, well, less. It may affect our full participation in society, it may affect our health, and it may keep us ensnared for years in a cycle of believing that we don’t deserve a home, or a vacation, or a new coat, or to earn anything much above the poverty line. This is where we need to see the shadow side of our yoga culture, and also perhaps of our own tendencies that led us to yoga in the first place. We need to be skillful. As is taught in the Bhagavad Gita, yoga is balance: yoga is not for the keeper of excessive vigils or fasts. Yoga is skill in action.

Recently I heard a report on the CBC about female foreign correspondents who decided to have children. I was gripped by the story which described women who had lived for years out of a suitcase and were ready to leave town at a moment’s notice to go on assignment. It was a story about a career exacerbating a tendency not to cultivate community ties, to live on a shoestring and without allowing oneself to have a sense of home and family. Most of the women who had decided to have children initially believed they would be able to have a child and continue working and living as they were doing. After all, it was their chosen lifestyle. Of course, children bring with them an incredible sense of home and grounding; having them often makes us recognize how much we have neglected self care, because to continue to do so as a parent leads fairly quickly to breakdown. Though that’s not to say that people don’t break down and then continue to do the same again in a cycle.

As a long time overseas English teacher, yoga teacher and new parent, this rang a bell. I’d moved overseas four times, living abroad for five years out of eight. When I decided community was important to me, and I wanted to live in a place where people weren’t as transient as expats tend to be, I was 30, and owned nothing that didn’t fit into an old ruck sack and a suitcase I got when I was 17. I went to Honest Ed’s and bought a garbage can, a set of cutlery, 3 glass mixing bowls, a set of stainless steel pots, a few wood spoons, and carried it all home in the garbage can by subway. With the cast off furniture of family members, I set up a neat home for myself in a one-bedroom flat in an old house in mid-town Toronto. I invited a yogic nun to move in with me for a year, and it was one of my best years. But alas, old habits die hard, and I moved rented apartments almost every year over the following five years.

I was frugal, I thought. My mother kept a budget. Her father was a travelling sales man who went colour blind and could no longer drive in mid-life. So, she understood the value of money, how to save up for something special, and not to fall into regular excessive spending. She taught us to work for things in high school, and to live on a strict budget at university. Of course I was budgeting money my parents were giving me! I don’t want to make out like I worked my way through college or anything like that. I had a very privileged upbringing. But in some weird twist of my pervasive consciousness of my certain downward mobility (due to my own artsy nature, and because as a woman there was very little likelihood I’d ever make as much as my own father), and a socialist tendency, I mentally accepted being paid much less than even other educators, and constantly living on a shoestring. I was a good budgeter, and it didn’t prevent me from paying for weekly yoga classes, saving up for a year and a half for a trip to India. Of course it did impede me for quite a number of years from being able to afford a Yoga Teacher Training course!

It was my husband, who grew up in a small village surrounded by sugar cane farms in Northern India, who showed me the extent of my issues with money and stability. “You can’t sustainably help others until you can help yourself,” he told me. “What do you mean, help myself. There’s nothing wrong with me,” I thought, “I’m perfectly fine”. The truth was, I was chronically underemployed as an ESL teacher (which one colleague described as the Cinderella of the education profession – don’t get me started!). Of course I recognize the social forces that played into the situation, and have written on that in this blog previously. I would probably have happily taken on the same as an itinerant yoga teacher. Heck, I’d already long given up on perceived luxuries like regular dental cleanings (in spite of a family history of gum disease).

My husband had other ideas. “Yes, you can help people through your teaching, but you can help the community more by also generating opportunities for others.” This was revolutionary to me. I began to recognize that no one was benefitting from the fact that I darned my underwear multiple times before reluctantly throwing it away. No one else was conversely benefitting from my sacrifices. Expecting more steady and fair remuneration would not automatically cause another person’s exploitation, just the contrary. But, I would never have thought of starting a business, or that I could create contracts for others.  Later an Indian businessman told us strictly: “Stop teaching for free! Charge a fair rate to people who value your services and can make yoga a priority in their lives. Then give discounts to people who truly can’t”. Again, we see this in the Bhagavad Gita: a balanced type of service is an appropriate thing, at the right time to a person who needs it.

And so, I set my experience at budgeting to the creation of a business plan, and to figuring out the feasibility of workshops: how many people fit into the space, balanced with the cost of the space, the expected remuneration of the teacher to find the optimal cost (within my clients’ range) of a workshop. It actually all worked out very well, my running a business. We own a home, participate in neighbourhood organizations, support two children, and earn a decent salary for our time and expertise.

But something in me tweaks when I hear yoga teachers-in-training talking about the perceived ideal of not charging any money for yoga teaching, or of downsizing, dropping out of society, moving to an intentional community of yurt-dwellers, or challenging me for having a rotation of Indian outfits I wear to teach as if owning several cotton block-print dresses were automatically, ironically, un-yogic. I’m drawn to attention when I hear a yoga lecture on how we consume too much by a monk who is known for not believing in much physical self care. It reminds me of the raincoat I left in Korea in 1997 because I couldn’t fit it into my luggage – why didn’t I just suck it up and wear it to the airport in the 35-degree heat. But, I guess I don’t really need to buy another one since I’ve done without one this long. If I have to walk the kids to school in the rain, I can use the umbrella that someone left here one day after a satsang…

Yes, I still notice consumer guilt, areas of imperfect self care, and odd incidents of excessive minimalism. You might be thinking that we should have some consumer guilt – we should be cautious that we use our money actively to support businesses that are ethical, and are not just buying into the capitalist machine. You may have heard that halitosis was only really made widely socially unacceptable after the marketing of mouthwash. Yes, yes, yes. I’m not arguing for more denial, or for fewer ethics, or for buying things you’re never going to use from TV infomercials designed to fabricate their own utility. Neem twig, anyone? I’m saying that rather than use yoga philosophy to avoid looking at our issues with money, value, social acceptability, relative deservingness, self care, sense of home and stability etc., we may need to take extra care to cultivate clarity in these particular areas. And if we’re teachers…take time and care in showing the texture of yogic teachings, and the helix like nature of how it works on us. Because sometimes less is more, and sometimes less is just less.

Chetana believes in self-sustaining socio-economic zones, small family businesses, and communities co-generating wealth. She still has an aversion to “being big” – not small doesn’t mean bigger than other people. She still wears shoes until they’re falling off her feet, but relishes providing herself with new pairs, some of which are unpractical.

Daily wonder, everyday moments

I really appreciate this post by David Frawley on the solstice and the fact that there is no magic pill [my words], and that a shift in consciousness is the work of a decade, a generation. We participate in this through our dharma, personal and social. Moments can be auspicious, and the alignment of planets surely has an influence on us, just as the phases of the moon. Ritual, celebration and symbolism are very important parts of life and human culture. 

That said, we do not live in or for a moment; just as we do not live our marriage on the wedding day. Celebratory, auspicious moments give life texture and bolster us for a new day. But they are not more important really than the many moments that make up our days. The ordinary days in which we rise, give thanks, make breakfast for the kids, and/or ourselves, contemplate non-independent existence, move out in the society, do some work, some days inspiring, some days basic and routine. We still take out the garbage, walk the kids to school, or take out the dog (in the rain or sleet, and even when we don’t feel like it), we feel fully the range of human emotions that pass through, see ourselves as both infinitely small in the scale of the universe, and infinitely vast. Life and inspiration are also in the daily greeting of the crossing guard, and the conversation with an elderly neighbour. 

Lately, I’ve been noticing a lot of talk about grandiosity. I posted about this a few months ago. I would challenge us as a yoga/wellness community, and/or local community, to find meaning in the ‘small’, meaningful, everyday interactions in our lives that give daily life texture, and enrich our sense of community, belonging, purpose. Here’s to the people serving and sharing every day in what may seem ‘small’ or un-grandiose ways. Being and sharing in these daily moments and series of moments is a big part of our dharma. For this I am grateful. And please do read the following by David Frawley, who never ceases to inspire me with his grounding work in the vast tradition of Sanatana Dharma. Om!
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Powerful Winter Solstice December 21, 2012 The winter solstice is always an important event in the Vedic calendar. It marked the beginning of the New Year and new cycle of rituals in the ancient Vedic system of fire worship. Astronomically, it marks the time at which the solar energy reaches its lowest ebb in the nort…See More

How to Pack for a Trip to India

Foreword: This post is intended to be humorous, if also somewhat practical. It is not intended as medical advice. I personally have gotten the hepatitis vaccine. If you have been to India, please read, and hopefully enjoy. If you haven’t been to India, it is a country of incredible diversity, and these are travel snippets of a certain type. I’ve laughed or smiled through a lot of it, and continue to be India bound!

 

How to Pack for a Trip to India:

First and foremost, you’ll need a large backpack. You might think this obvious advice for any young shoestring traveler. But in India, unless you’re staying at high-end hotels like the Oberoi, and being chauffeured absolutely everywhere you want to go, you’d benefit from a backpack no matter what your age. In another country, you could probably get buy with a good, wheeled suitcase. In India, the terrain just about everywhere but the marble inlay floor of the Taj Mahal, is unsuitable for wheels: rubble, uneven pavement, ox-cart tracks, and of course the rolling train stop, meaning in smaller villages, you just jump off the train while it is still moving. Try doing that with a hard-sided tote!

Next, you should not omit to pack a thermal cup of some sort. You never know when you’ll be offered tea, and trust me, boiling and straight from a pot is how you want it. You’ll be looking over the make-shift counter of a tea stall, and see the chai walla banging a slice of ginger on the cement floor with a rock, and scraping the smashed bits of ginger into a pot of boiling water on a portable gas range. The only comfort in such a situation, other than that the boiling water will kill all of the parasites, germs and other unmentionables from the floor and the maker’s fingers, is that you won’t have to drink it from one of the small shot glasses he’s got soaking in dishwater on the side. He’ll take the nice boiled tea, dump the murky water out of one of the shot glasses, and pour away. Instant contamination. Even if you drink bottled water on the whole trip, you’ll get sick guaranteed from wet dishes. Forget the Hepatitis A vaccine – just bring your own mug.

Thirdly, and in no particular order of importance, you’ll need a bed sheet sewed into a sleeping pouch, quick-dry palazzo pants and a long-sleeved shirt, a run-of-the-mill pair of flip flops, and a bottle of activated charcoal. Since you’re not staying at the Oberoi, you should know that there is really no such thing as 3- or 4-star in India. At pretty much any hotel in Delhi, you’ll arrive to find other people’s hairs on the pillow case (why torture yourself by looking further down), because the previous occupant likely stayed only one night, and the boys who work there weren’t going to change and wash the sheets after just one use. If you go down to the desk to complain, they’ll send someone up to brush off the offending hair, and send you back up to your newly-cleaned room. Hence, under all circumstances, you’ll need the sleeping sheet-bag.

As mentioned above, the streets are mostly unpaved, meaning you’ll get dustier than a cowboy wrestling the Lone Ranger, and have to wash your pants every evening. Long, culturally appropriate dress that’s easy to wash in a hotel sink is the only way you’ll avoid having to lug 40 outfits in that pack of yours. Culturally appropriate, because let’s face it, you’re not Emma Peel, and Rome wasn’t changed in a day. If you expect India to change, you’ll have to come back in another one of your gazillion future incarnations. Flip flops are the footwear of choice, despite uneven terrain, because you have to kick them off every time you go indoors (sometimes even in government offices and the like, because no one wants cow dung on their polished marble floors). If you take a nice pair of Rebok hiking sandals, you’ll just have to bend down to take them off every five minutes, that is, until someone else decides they look comfortable, and you have to walk home barefoot.

The activated charcoal is for traveler’s complaints of the excretory type. Even if you follow strictly the second piece of advice outlined here, you’ll be glad you found a corner of your backpack for this handy little remedy. Bon Voyage!

Motherhood and the Practice of Abiding in Yoga – Radio Clip

In my last post I described a radio interview I gave recently. It was an incredibly energizing experience talking with Madhuri on this topic. For the next few days you can listen to this interview free at: http://drishtipoint.ca/women-motherhood-and-yoga/. I hope some of you have a chance to listen! Om!

Motherhood and the Practice of Abiding in Yoga

While I was in Rishikesh this year I had the lovely opportunity to speak to Madhuri Phillips in the context of an interview for Drishti Point Radio out of Vancouver. We had discussed an interview about motherhood and yoga and the more yin, contemplative practice that I feel is very natural to mothers. I had a wonderful time with Madhuri sussing out my thoughts on moment-to-moment awareness practice as the other face of the contemporarily popular practice-practice aspect of the yoga tradition.

During the interview we speak about savouring the moment, spending time with small children and recovering the awe-inspiring mystery of nature. I remember many wonderful teachings and teachers – like Dr. David Frawley’s descriptions of pratyahara in nature such as gazing at the clear blue sky above our heads. Which incidentally also reminds me of EM Forster’s nod to Emerson in A Room with a View in which his character George Emerson reports, “My father says the only perfect view is that of the pure blue sky above our heads”. I could hear in the back of my mind, but don’t have a chance to mention Candace O’Denver’s beautiful description of the “small effort that it takes to rest as awareness”. Ah, that tangential description gives you a bit of an idea of the lyrical nature of the conversation.

I’d love to transcribe the interview here, if I’m able, but for now, here is the link to the live streaming:

Monday April the 9th 5-6pm PST on Vancouver’s Drishti Point Yoga Radio. You can also live stream this from anywhere in the world!
http://www.coopradio.org/

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copyright Chetana Panwar 2010

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