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.


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!

Embracing our unique ways of contributing – our dharma!

You can also view this post on Elephant Journal at:–dharma–chetana-panwar/


Lately I’ve been writing and thinking a lot about the concept of dharma: how we use our time, what activities and ways of contributing to our society are very intuitive for us, and the importance of embracing our strengths while honouring those of others.

This reminded me of a line from Chapter 3 of the Bhagavad Gita that has always intrigued me.  Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda translated it as “it is better to do your own duty, however imperfectly, than to assume the duties of another person, however successfully”. Even if something comes up again and again in our lives as a way that we are particularly called to serve, even if it is very intuitive for us, that does not mean it is necessarily easy. Sometimes out of fear, and a feeling of inadequacy, we try to become meticulous at other duties, rather than embrace a potential calling. I would say this is the case for me with writing.

Recently I enrolled in a creative writing course, after many years of wanting to do so. I have published some poetry in the past, and other pieces of writing in many forms. And yet, in the first few weeks of the writing course, and while doing the homework, I struggled with overwhelming feelings of resistance. One of them was the feeling that I was wasting my time, and that I should be doing something more useful and productive with my time – serving the community. I even convinced myself that I should write a yoga fable, or an inspiring yoga-related story, a feel-good story with a particular message. Then I stopped. Wait a minute? Why was I trying to engineer my writing to a particular theme? Did I not believe in the value of stories of all kinds, and diverse explorations of human experience, suffering, search, conflict, epiphany etc.? I believe in writing, painting, music, dance, cooking and various other arts. I believe that they are worthwhile and add something very important to life. Further, I could feel the momentum of the story I was already working on  – that this is the writing I’m meant to be doing right now. It was very identifiably ‘my voice’, as we say.

Funnily, I just happened to see a clip of the 1980 Woody Allen film Stardust Memories in which Woody has a conversation with luminous beings. He asks, “Why am I bothering to make films?…The human condition is so discouraging… Shouldn’t I do something that counts like become a missionary or something?” The luminous being responds, “You’re not the missionary type. You’re a comedian. You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.” This is a quintessentially Woody Allen exploration of dharma. Do what you’re meant to do. Let go of the guilt, and explore!

Of course we are multi-facetted being, and of course we contribute to our families and communities in many ways. That said, sometimes we may over manage ourselves and neglect to make time for our richest gifts to flourish. In my previous post Yoga is like a Good Masala, I mentioned the liberation of seeing yoga as a process, and a way of being while doing any activity. And here, another twist: rather than find ways to consciously insert yoga into my creative writing, I can simply understand my writing as my dharma.

The Natural Pluralism in Yoga

You can also read this post on Elephant Journal:–chetana-panwar/

I have been feeling concerned lately about some of the discourse surrounding yoga and social action, and yoga and its intersection with business, advertising and particular socio-economic philosophies. I am troubled by a presumed homogeneity of socio-political perspective that is being attributed to yogis and yoga philosophy.

It seems so innocent, and I am sure I have used the phrase before, to say “yoga philosophy says…”. Perhaps as teachers we might use this kind of short cut or generalization when exploring a very specific aspect of yoga thought, the context of which is understood, such as when explaining the yamas in fairly non-contentious, straight forward terms. But even here, if we stray into saying “Patanjali says…” and then give a more interpretive statement about the Yoga Sutras, it is misleading. We really should only say Patanjali says… when quoting the Sanskrit text, or a translation of an aphorism while at the same time making clear the interpretive decisions of the translator. Otherwise, the looseness of discourse implies that we can clearly outline what yoga is in a few simple, uncontested statements with which all yoga practitioners and teachers would agree. I doubt this could be done except in the most broad and generalized terms, because, in fact, yoga in its wider sense includes an incredible pluralism.

Stephen Cope mentions that we often teach a diverse jumble of yoga teachings without too much concern for the inconsistencies or different textual origins. We teach a bit of Vedanta, a bit of Tantra, a bit of Samkhya, and us the term yoga to include all of these in its broader sense. In fact, I don’t mind this approach and preserving the diversity of the various aspects of the yoga tradition. AND, I feel it would be wonderful if even more yoga teachers were aware of the complexities and could guide group explorations of different positions of different streams of yogic thought on some of the more contentious or divergent aspects of the tradition (i.e ideas that were not agreed upon, why, the distinctions and how they may affect our interpretations in the current context). This way, rather than people rejecting ‘yoga’ due to a particular perceived failing of a certain school of thought, they could simply discover and explore other equally authentic schools of yoga thought.

For example, yoga is often presented as a tradition of literal renunciation in which the focus on the body was viewed as an obstacle to enlightenment, and that this had to be overcome. In our modern context it is common for this to be interpreted as body-negative. There are layers of issues I’m alluding to, but suffice it to say, that this is not an accurate description of the whole of the yoga tradition, but is most common to a more extreme practice and expression of Vedanta that I understand to have flowered around 1500 BC along with Sannyas Yoga, and to have peaked again with Shankaracharya in the early Middle Ages. Although Tantra and Vedanta share one of the same basic tenets, and that is Monism, Tantra is typified by the recognition that if there is only one fundamental essence, it is here within all situations and within the body as well; as such the body and all of its actions can be ritualized as tools for realization. Tantra Yoga and early Shamanic Vedic tradition can be viewed as body positive, and not requiring literal renunciation. Krishna makes this case when he synthesizes action and renunciation in his presentation of Karma Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita. I use this as an example of how it is simply very limiting to ignore the plurality in the wider yoga tradition.

Having briefly presented the pluralism inhering in the broader yoga tradition, I would like to come back to the issue of yoga teachers currently using discourse which suggests that we can establish a common socio-political world view for yoga practitioners and yoga teachers to fall in line with. When we say, “All yoga teachers should support the Occupy Movement,” or imply that a philosopher like Ayn Rand has nothing to say to anyone in the yoga community, and that her novels and other writings are fundamentally un-yogic, we begin to walk down a road where there is no dialogue, and no diversity of opinion or social action is acceptable. If leaders in the community put out this type of message it ironically goes against the more post-modern, popular, democratic movements which in essence are in favour of decreased power disparity, increased circle dialogue and working through collaborative management. Inspiring guilt and subtly suggestion a ‘party line’ that yoga teachers must toe is a dangerous step and one I feel I must speak up about. I believe we can work together even more richly through navigating and celebrating our diversity of practices, philosophies, backgrounds and ideas of how to bring various aspects of yoga into our lives and into our society.

This week in various Facebook posts, blogs and newspaper blog comments, I have seen an incredible and categorical condemnation of Lululemon and Ayn Rand, which has come about due to the yoga wear company’s putting the controversial “Who is John Galt?” phrase from Rand’s Atlas Shrugged on their shopping bags. The comments were mostly aggressive, black and white and belittling. Yes, Lululemon is a corporation. Yes, their clothes are no longer made in Canada. Yes, their clothes are probably more expensive than necessary, AND they offer free yoga classes several times a week in their stores. There is inevitably light in the darkness and dark in the light. This is not an article in defense of a corporation. For me it is all about how we inquire, how we listen to all of the sides, and how we express ourselves even when there is emotion. What change might we most like to inspire in the company. Surely not simply the dropping of a bag slogan. What about a clear statement of intent to use some of the profits to better the working conditions of overseas workers?

The founder of Lululemon’s explanation of why he used the phrase on the bags has been summarily rejected. For me, it is one of the interesting aspects of this: Rand’s concept of rising out of automatism and mediocrity. Further, I have not seen anywhere any attempt to understand where Ayn Rand might have been coming from as a Russian emigrée in the earlier part of the last century, with her distaste for state controls and her belief that art, ideas and inventions flourish when they are not controlled by an oppressive state or the guilt of coerced altruism. In fact, yoga is often seen as a process of de-socialization, the process of getting at our authentic responses un-encombered by the layers of armour we develop over the years of self-protection and influence. We cannot say that there is nothing at all in Rand that can be understood through the yogic lens. Rand makes her case against totalitarianism and for free will, and she was a capitalist. Probably most yoga teachers are not in favour of totalitarianism either.

And so it seems that the vicious distaste for Ayn Rand expressed recently in the yoga community has to do with her promotion of capitalism and the pursuit of individual happiness.  On Facebook, I made a case for the concept that in order to facilitate yoga sessions where we hope to lead experiences that are designed to be integrative and help people embrace and discover wholeness, we have to have glimpsed contentment, integration and wholeness ourselves. And so, yoga is both an individual exploration in wholeness and transformation (of the way we see things), and a social one. But, individual processes are there alongside collective ones. The pursuit of individual happiness is not evil, it is simply a part of a larger process and a wider engagement. Further, at the moment economic recession is giving a large nudge in opening up discussion of modifications of our current capitalist and mixed social-capitalist systems. This is our current reality. But, I imagine that not all yoga philosophers and teachers have exactly the same ideas on economic reform or how to achieve social and economic equality. I personally am what I would describe as a social liberal interested in post-modern educational and dialogic methods. And yet, I am not willing to label those more fiscally conservative as un-yogic.

In my view, we do not need a separation between Ayn Rand or any philosopher and yoga, we need to be open enough to understand different views and to see and speak to our perception of their benefits and limitations in a respectful and undogmatic manner. Perhaps skill in action is the yoga here.

What I think perhaps we ought to collectively consider is what common ideals we hope for the yoga community and teaching community, such as accessibility, fairness, non-violence or abuse etc. For this we could look closely at:

a) how power shows up in yoga teaching, and how we can create more safety, fairness, equality in the teaching/learning experience.

b) how yoga teachers can effectively provide for themselves as well as make yoga accessible;

c) how we as a community can create arbitration in cases of ethical problems, breeches or concerns possibly through an ombudsperson; et cetera.

First, our community and communities of yoga teachers and practitioners needs to find ways of coming together as a community to address issues of immediate concern in yoga teaching, as well as to find ways of doing outreach in a more cooperative and effective manner, and increasing public awareness about yoga and concerns in teaching etc. If people are speaking to the public on behalf of yoga teachers, they should be elected spokespeople and there would need to be ways of having broad-based dialogue within our communities. These are desperately needed first orders of business which we have been speaking about in some forums lately, but which is difficult given that we are an unregulated profession with no clear ways of organizing collectively.

It’s all in the method, people! If we look at popular yoga teaching methods, we can find clues to why we have not been entirely successful in coming together as a community. Do we teach in a way that allows for diversity, or do we promote one way, and use methods of delivery that squash dialogue? Are yoga teachers strongly encouraged to follow rank and file? I have seen this very dynamic recently in classrooms where a teacher says a contentious statement at the very end of a talk, such as “and obviously this would not be appropriate, right,”  followed by automatic replies of “right”, suppressed “I’m not sure’s”, and the lecture is closed – time to go. I call this the slip-in-a-personal-philosopic-position-at-the-last-minute-so-no-dialogue-can-happen technique. Does that sound familiar? Suppressing dialogue and pluralism, or guilting groups into certain thoughts or behaviours is not new. It creates fear that our inner thoughts and ideas are unacceptable. This is not what the 99% is calling for, is it? Just the opposite, I think. In terms of teaching methodology, we can bring in more dialogue by recognizing that the group has a greater collective wisdom than as singular members, and that discussion and skillful disagreements in classes are rich and important and we do have time for them. We can make time for them, and learn how to skillfully facilitate such dialogue within focussed class sessions. Kripalu Centre really excels at this and has really taken seriously the importance of method. Increasingly, I experience myself and my colleagues bringing more inquiry and sharing into yoga education.  This is exciting – it is the demonstration of non-agression, fairness, equality and honouring.

When I first started teaching yoga, I feel that I was encouraged to teach in black and white maxims, and to present yoga as a monolithic entity. The more I teach and live, the more I recognized yoga as a paradoxical this…, and… I cannot say this is un-yogic, or that is un-yogic. An action or method of coming to a decision is skillful or unskillful, or a bit of both. And all this is part of our individual and collective evolution.  It’s all part of the process. I recognize yoga (in part) as a method of inquiry and a state of harmony which arises when one allows oneself to explore the multiple aspects of one’s identity, and opens to one’s best-suited role in society (dharma).

My intention in this post is not to criticize, but rather to promote the idea of pluralism in yoga, dialogue as an educational methodology, and to promote textured understandings of philosophies and lifestyles as very often multi-facetted.

The Enveloping Approach

Virginia Woolf’s narration is cyclical, looping between past and present, in and out of the minds of various characters. It is feminine in its enveloping nature.

Reject nothing. This Tantric maxim comes alive for me in this way. Perhaps in Tantra the worship of the goddess, the Divine Feminine, of the Mother, exists to honour that ability to channel everything and anything into the quest for wholeness. A masculine approach may be more focussed, direct and intense, but launches toward a perceived goal, and later falters when the trickiness of ‘no path, no goal’ dawns. The archetypal feminine is more at home in multiplicity, with perceived incoherence, and can get beyond the duality of light and dark that axes off so much of our lived experience.

The path is not progressive, a knight’s tale of triumph over evil. It is a soothing expansion in all directions, that claims everything as its very own.

Yoga is Like a Good Masala

You can also see this post on Elephant Journal at:–chetana-panwar/
I woke up this morning thinking of yoga as masala. Cinammon gives sweetness to masala, nutmeg and cloves an earthy savory, ginger a bit of spice. Together they are a nurturing, balancing blend of various tastes. When we reduce yoga to asana, it falls flat. The various aspects of yoga provide balance to one another, and also spice things up: mantra, visualization, relaxation, asana, pranayama, savouring through the senses, mindful nature walks, walking meditation, seated meditation et cetera. There is a veritable cornucopia of ways to practice yoga in the sense of active practice.

Then there is the aspect of yoga that is based in contemplation or mindfulness. Mindfulness is something that is ‘practiced’ throughout the regular day, as it is. In other words, we don’t have to stop our lives to practice yoga – rather, yogic mindfulness is a part of our lives as they are. It is a way of encouraging being-ness.

[a moment ago, I just typed mind-fun-ness by mistake. This is actually something I want to say – yoga and mindfulness is fun! Bearing witness to our lives and communities through being more mindful of each moment, each interaction, makes these interactions more meaningful, and therefore more pleasurable no matter what they are.]

In the past, I moved away of some of my other creative pursuits and hobbies to have more time to practice yoga and meditation. I think this is part of an organic process. As I surrendered to where the yogic process was taking me, I noticed over the years, that I had come back to many of my creative pursuits: creative writing, cooking, reading fiction, exploring dance, going to the theatre, et cetera. I realized that I did not need to reduce or suppress these parts of my life; now I experience creativity, nature appreciation, and relationship as yoga.

With the masala analogy in mind, we could say that even to look at yoga as something that we stop our lives to practice, is reductionist. When we bring all of the spices, all of the practices together, they create also a whole. That whole has another existence – not as the combination of parts, but as the blended whole. In yoga, I would call this blended, unselfconscious whole, simple being-ness.

We see this type of discussion in Tanta, which is non-dualist. We don’t need to escape the body to become the spirit. Spirit and body (purusha and prakriti) are one. The mundane is the sacred, and the sacred is the mundane. There is nothing to become, we simply drop into (surrender into) witnessing what is.

Preserving that wholeness of practice, life and self is the masala of yoga!

New York Times described Sri Vivekananda’s wide appeal

Today’s New York Times published a review of the influence of Sri Vivekananda on Western writers, philosophers and celebrities after his lecture at the Parliament of World Religions as part of the Chicago World Fair on Sept. 11, 1893. It is wonderful to have such meaningful reviews on yoga that remind us of the influence of Indian thought on late 19th and early 20th century thought. You can view the brief article here:

The article is entitled “How Yoga Won the West”. There is no doubt that Vivekananda’s influence was vast. And yet, for me this title seems to negate the very profound influence of ,for example, the translation of the Bhagavad Gita in about 1850 on beloved American writers like Thoreau and the Boston Transcendentalist. For this is when yogic thought began to percolate in the American consciousness in that century.  Of course, Indian philosophy has always been a part of Western thought since the Sermon on the Mount, since the time of Buddha.  But this is another post…

The writer draws a link between Vivekananda coming to America to teach Vedanta philosophy and contemplative practice with the now popular asana classes, as if it were a pre-cursor to the incredible popularity of Hatha Yoga in the West.  I disagree with this perspective, especially in that Vivekananda was not a practitioner or promoter of asana and certainly not as a primary aspect of yoga as a whole.  Vedantist tend to see excessive focus on the body and mental identity as a barrier to recognizing the Supreme oneness of all things.

Rather, I believe that pieces of yoga were brought over and popularized separately by different teachers from diverse lineages of practice.  This is fairly natural given the incredible diversity in the yoga tradition.  As such, yoga continues to be quite fragmented today.  There have been holistic or integral yoga traditions and schools, but it seems that the separated parts also took off as such. Just as Vivekananda spoke primarily about advaita vedanta, the Iyengar teachers in America taught asana, Sri Prabhupad inspired many followers in the 1960s to chant the Maha Mantra, and of course there have been many meditation teachers both Buddhist and Yogic. Holistic teachers (of a blend of asana, pranayama, mantra, meditation and philosophy) from the late 1950s/early 60s include Swami Sivananda Radha, Swami Satchitananda and Swami Vishnu Devananda of the Sivananda lineage; Yogi Bhajan; Swami Kripalu and Amrit Desai, Baba Hari Das, Ram Das, etc.

But most astounding to me has been the incredibly informative recent book, The Great Oom, about an American, Dr. Bernard, and his Indian guru, who taught very diverse aspects of yogic cleansing, meditation, asana and philosophy starting in the 1890s through the 1920s when they had yoga studios in Manhattan, through the 20s and 30s at a Yoga Country Club in Nayak, NY, that had long term residents in the Vanderbilt family, and visitors like teenage Pete Seeger. It is an amazing story of a teacher who captivated many, and whose students were the earliest teachers of Hatha Yoga across America. The book came out last year and was also reviewed in the New York Times, but I have not heard much comment about it in the yoga community. And yet, it is such an American tale of a young, un-formally-educated boy, meeting a mystical teacher and dedicating his life to learning from him and teaching, reinventing himself and his credentials for the high society of a number of cities from coast to coast. Why do we not seem as interested or nearly as informed about such very early 20th century home-grown teachers? Why do we not more often make the connection between Thoreau and the Boston Transcendentalists and the yoga tradition?

A photographic glimpse into family history

In my last post, I wrote about a 1905 photograph that moved me. Seeing a young girl sitting on a rock in the Thousand Islands, along a path I have often trod, I felt the continuity of the human experience, and the power of images to convey our cultural, spiritual and social heritage.

Interestingly, I recently happened to open a box containing a few photographic mementoes of one of my great aunts. There were pictures of family homes in Boston and Halifax, pictures of a cousin in Manchester in the 1920s wearing pleated pants and round glasses. Half way through the three dozen photos, I found a familiar image of an Indian man in long flowing robes standing next to an American woman; it is Rabindranath Tagore! Immediately I set about trying to discover why my great aunt held in her possession a personal photograph of the mystical poet and Nobel Laureate. So far, I have discovered that the woman in the photograph is Mary Woolley, long time President of Mount Holyoke College, the oldest women-only university in the United States. It turns out that Tagore gave a poetry reading there in 1930, when my great aunt would have been a student.

It is difficult to explain in few words why this discovery was both astonishing and yet not implausible; why it is a symbol for me of my family’s tortuous spiritual history.

I grew up as a third generation agnostic. Not only my parents, but both sets of their parents were so-called non-believers. It was not until my twenties that I discovered I had two great aunts on my father’s maternal side who were both extremely active ‘karma yogis’, one deeply involved in the Service wing of the Quakers for over sixty years. It was about then also that my intellectual agnosticism and my poetic sense of the mystical, which had co-existed in me untroubled for about ten years as parallel pieces of myself, collided. I embarked on the path of meditation, and it was as natural as taking a deep breath, reading an ecstatic poem, looking at a still lake at dusk.

Seeing this photograph brought together two worlds – those of spirituality and poetry.  I realized my parents and grandparents did not necessarily abandon their inner faith, only Christian theology. They had simply shifted their search for meaning away from the Church and towards literature, and the expression of mystical experience in literature. My father’s aunt on the paternal side having attended a poetry reading with an Indian mystic brought sides of the family together, and re-forged for me a very palpable connection between ecstatic poetry and explicit spiritual practice, whether it be faith-fueled service, the adoration of nature or the sublime.

copyright Chetana Panwar 2010

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