I often hear people argue that it doesn’t matter what brings people to yoga.
If it’s the promise of a yoga-butt, so be it. Eventually, yoga will sink in beyond the surface and transform the person. Such is the power of yoga. But what if what you are practicing just looks like yoga, but is not really yoga at all?
Remember the Chinese melamine in the milk scandal? Melamine is a toxic substance that was used to adulterate milk in order to give the illusion of protein content and density to watered down milk. Parents gave it to their children with complete trust in milk as a source of nourishment considered to be sacred and pure, even divine in some cultures. Many babies died.
If we believe that anything goes in the name of yoga—that somehow yoga will transform the beast from within—my story suggests that we are wrong.
It is yoga that is being corrupted by the system, not the system that is being purified by yoga.
The thing that hurt the most about all this is that I am Indian and this is yoga we’re talking about here. Yoga is a treasured part of my spiritual heritage. I really grew up with yoga being a huge influence in my life. My father’s parents were both Ayurvedic doctors, and so my father grew up with a strictly Ayurvedic lifestyle.
As a young man, my father rebelled, as young people often do. Instead of following the family tradition, he became an engineer, which gave him the opportunity to expand his world beyond the small city in Kerala where he was from.
His first engineering job took him to the exotic locale of an even smaller town in West Bengal. There, my father, along with his other bachelor friends, experimented with other rebellions—eating meat, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes. Later, his engineering path allowed him to ride the late ’60s immigration wave of Indian professionals to the U.S., where I was born.
At 35, when I was five years old, my dad was fat, tired and depressed. His youthful rebellions had become a lifestyle and they took their toll. But because of his upbringing, he knew how to restore himself to health. He gave up meat, drink, and smoke and began a diligent yoga practice.
Now at 70, my father is one of the healthiest, most active people I know of any age. His level of dedication to his practice is hard to match. At present, he wakes up at 3 a.m. daily to begin his yoga practice, which consists of asana, meditation, kriya, and prayer, ending at 6 a.m. He retires for the night at 7 p.m. daily for one hour of scripture study before going to sleep. This is the man I was raised by.
Now, I’m not saying that this makes me an expert on all things yoga.
I’m not anywhere near as disciplined as my dad. After all, I was also raised by my mom, who is a sweetie who loves sweets and hates exercise. But my mom too is an ardent bhakta (devotee). She recites the entire Lalita Sahasranamam (1,000 names of the Goddess) and the Mahalakshmi Ashtaka Stotram (eight verses on Lakshmi) daily without fail, no matter where she is or what she is doing.
But I also know there are plenty of people out there who have studied a lot more about yoga than I have. I just bring all this up to say that yoga is part of the clay from which I was molded. I may not know all properties of the clay as well as someone who has studied the clay, but it is part of my being. It is part of my deepest sense of home. And right now, I feel robbed and displaced. Like an invading army has taken and occupied my home.
There is a saying that the final stage of colonization of a culture is complete when its spirituality has been colonized. I am feeling like we may have arrived at that point. It’s evident that India today has been utterly subsumed by capitalistic interests to the detriment of the poor whose lives have not gotten better, but worse.
If I sound like a big ol’ stick in the mud, well, it’s because I’m pretty depressed about all this. I feel bereft and lost. I’m in spiritual crisis. I’m that friend who just got dumped and is a total bummer to be around, but you have to listen because we’re friends or maybe even just because it’s the nice thing to do.
I feel like I don’t know where to turn. I keep coming back in my mind to our namesakes—the Indians (feathers, not dots!). The Natives of this land and Indians have a lot in common besides the moniker “Indian.” Native peoples know all too well about the dangers of cultural appropriation. Many elders and their communities have condemned appropriation of Native spirituality.
Of course, it is still commonplace in the New Age community to borrow from various indigenous traditions to create a generalized homogenous “Native” spirituality that has little to do with the real traditions of the peoples of this land. Yet, I feel that the fact that the Native community has taken a strong stance against co-optation has helped keep the dominant culture from completely remaking “Native spirituality” in its own image.
I know that many people feel it is unfair, even un-spiritual, to close off access to spiritual traditions.
They feel that people are attracted to Native spirituality out of deep appreciation of for its fundamental principles—respect for nature, community, Mother Earth, sustainability, etc. But I don’t think the keepers of Native traditions ever say no to genuine seekers.
They do say no, however, to the bullsh*tters. They do say no to those who seek to cloak their wolf hearts in sheep’s clothing, hiding their ego-driven intentions under layers of benign and exotic spiritual jargon.
But what does it mean to be a genuine seeker?
It would mean having at least as much respect for the people whose traditions you wish to learn from as you do for their philosophies. It would mean respecting their ongoing struggles with injustice and oppression.
You cannot love a people’s spirituality, but ignore the suffering of the people.
When the shooting happened at the Sikh gurudwara in Wisconsin, I did not see a very noticeable outcry or even show of support from the yoga community, not even the Kundalini yoga community, though their teachings are directly borrowed from Sikhism. I think it’s okay for Natives to ask seekers to prove that they are worthy of receiving the highest teachings of their people. In fact, I admire that. In doing so, they have made it easy to identify the real from the fake.
In yoga, we have no such protective stance. Anything goes. If we criticize anything at all, we are accused of being judgmental. If an Irasna Rising talks about the lack of people color in a room full of people practicing yoga, someone will insist that it is unyogic to see people in terms of “color” at all. That yoga should make us colorblind. This is a false understanding of what yoga is about.
Yoga is not meant to cast a lovey-dovey, feel-good peace fog over our eyes so that we can ignore real issues of injustice and oppression and happily go about the business of pursuing our own personal bliss with no thought of collective responsibility.
Yoga is not about obscuring reality. Yoga is about opening our eyes. One of the fundamental teachings of yoga is that we are all one. That does not mean let’s just get over all this downer stuff like racism and be happy! It means, let’s stop oppressing each other and be happy! If you oppress others, you oppress yourself.
As long as injustice continues to exist in our world, no one can be truly happy, no matter how awesome their yoga-butt is.
The starving child with the distended belly is also you because we are all one. Naming oppression is not unyogic. Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King named oppression, but they still had compassion for their oppressors. They condemned the actions, not the beings.
Their eyes were open and their yoga had the power to shift the world into a higher consciousness.
So yes, I have been tempted to give up on “yoga,” feeling like there’s no place of authenticity for me anymore. But I can’t. I can’t give up on yoga because yoga is my spiritual and cultural heritage, but that’s not to say I won’t share. I know that yoga is a powerful healing medicine of my people.
I know that there are many others of all nationalities who have struggled much more than I have and who have healed much deeper wounds than mine with the aid of yoga. I would no sooner deny my brothers and sisters of the world access to this great medicine than I would deny anyone anywhere access to life-saving medicine.
But if you want to be healed, you must take the true medicine and beware of the spurious. They may look identical on the outside, but their intentions are completely different. Spurious medicines are sold by people looking to make profit by preying upon innocent people’s faith. Spurious medicines do not heal, nor are they intended to heal. They may sometimes even do real harm.
True medicine is for healing only, not for profit or fame or any other purpose. Healing is not just for the individual self, but for the whole world. Any practice which functions well within the dominant structures of the Kali Yuga, in which most people of the world are oppressed, is not yoga.
It is the “yoga” machine—which is exactly as it sounds—the soulless robot evil twin of yoga.
Giving up on yoga would be like giving up on love just because my heart got trampled on by some jerk who doesn’t know what love is. After a few months, who knows? I may be able to find it in my heart to call that jerk a restless and wounded soul instead.
Love is still love and yoga is still yoga.
They can never be tainted. A few heartbreaks along the way only help us to learn who or what is truly worthy of our trust and faith, our hearts and souls. Who are the true yogis and who are the imposters? We who practice yoga know the essential importance of breath. It was “yoga” that knocked the wind out of me, took the wind out of my sails for a time, but it is yoga that will give me the inspiration to keep on going.
-Lakshmi Nair, Satya Yoga Collective
originally written for Elephant Journal September 2012