Teaching Yoga and Meditation as a Brown Woman in the West – Angie Tiwarinotyourwife1214
Do you love getting your sweat on in downward facing dog? Well you know what? I do too! But what you’re about to read is going to show you that yoga is so much more than your downward facing, upward facing and three legged dog.
This is not an asana (postures) bashing piece. This is not a discussion to exclude white yoga teachers or students. This is a discussion on how we can unify and consciously represent Indian teachers in the world of yoga. This is about holding ourselves accountable in ensuring studios and online platforms represent Indians and other people of colour. Let’s discuss how they, and we, can promote spiritual practices other than solely asanas. Do you want to know how you can practice with an awareness that honours the roots of yoga? You’ll learn more about that here, and don’t fear, you’ll still be able to get sweaty in your arm balances and inversions.
After exploring the world of Yoga in London, it soon became apparent that the multifaceted practice of Yoga had been condensed into one practice – the practice of poses. Now don’t get me wrong, I love the physical side of yoga, practising and working towards asanas is humbling, it teaches you how to take control of your mind and body, it makes you stronger, and of course it increases your flexibility. It makes you feel like a kid again.
However, I was surprised that deep pranayama (breathing techniques), chanting, pratyahara (sense withdrawal) and much more have mostly been excluded from the portrayal of Yoga in the West. Many of these rituals have been heavily ingrained in me since I was young, as an Indian Hindu woman, they are second nature to me. However, some parts of the traditions of yoga are still considered ‘weird’ and therefore not what you see in your average yoga studio, or when scrolling through social media.
This is of course until they have their ‘moment’ and are reappropriated, validating the promotion of practices such as kavala (oil pulling), chakra cleanses and garshana (body brushing). Sadly, more often than not, it’s not Indians bringing these to the fore, but instead it’s the whitewashed world of Yoga. This is an example of cultural appropriation. Myself and other Indians I know have been made to feel ‘odd’ when talking about these things, but when our culture becomes a trend, it is suddenly approved. There is a clear issue with the lack of Indian representation in yoga studios and online, which has nothing to do with a lack of Indian yoga teachers.
Let’s rewind. Yoga, Meditation and Ayurveda is an over 5000 year practice written in the ancient books from India. These practices have taken place for thousands of years and were brought over to the West much later. There were a few Indian yogis whose mission was to share yoga and meditation with the rest of the world as directed by their master’s vision. Paramahansa Yogananda and Swami Vivekananda are two to mention, they have the most incredible stories on how they travelled far and wide sharing spiritual wisdom of the East with the West. These practices started becoming more popular, and towards the end of the 60s, The Beatles famously ventured to Rishikesh which then popularised it even more. It was in Rishikesh where they practiced transcendental meditation at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram (which is now a stunningly beautiful, deserted ashram that still holds its magical energy).
With the popularity came neglect, and now it’s common to hear Sanskrit words incorrectly pronounced, classes focusing on asana alone, yoga teachers generally being white and slim (oh, the irony) and meditation being thought of as ‘woo woo’. The perception of the latter has definitely changed, most likely that’s down to the scientific research and studies proving meditation can alleviate chronic pain, reduce anxiety and give us more energy. It’s fantastic that so many more people are open to meditating, practising yoga and have experienced the benefits of both. But how do we expand on the types of yoga practiced, show the faces of Indian teachers and other people of colour, and ensure the practice doesn’t lose it’s Eastern magic?
Yoga teachers:We all learnt about ‘The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’, Ashtanga (the 8 limbs of yoga) and of course we learnt about the meaning of Ahimsa (non harm/non violence). We chanted together holding hands in a circle, practised bhakti (devotion) yoga, had a transformative experience – and this is the magic we should be passing on when we teach. Don’t shy away from being spiritual when teaching, create a space for those you are teaching to move towards self acceptance, and the very meaning of yoga – unity. Not just within themselves, but with the practice. You are not uniting with the practice if all you can think of is how to nail pincha mayurasana (peacock feather pose).
Use of Sanskrit: I’ve heard a few studios and teachers say they avoid using Sanskrit so as not to isolate those who are practising. The reality is that the lack of Sanskrit further widens the gap between East and West. There is a way to teach and use Sanskrit, taking time to learn the correct pronunciation of the words you use, and ensure it’s not done in an isolating way. I often use Sanskrit and follow it up with English so that practitioners start to learn the right words themselves.
Yogis: Here are a few things to take into consideration when practising:
- Indians shared yoga with the world! Practice with a sense of gratitude for the incredible insight that has been shared into this sacred, ancient practice
- Check your feed and the source of where you learn about yoga. Follow and support teachers of colour. Yoga is not for ‘this type of person’, it’s for everyone. If you practice with a studio, ask to see more teachers of colour being represented. Diversify who and where you practice with, if all the teachers you follow and practice with look the same then make some changes.
- Be aware of wearing deities on leggings or using sacred symbols if the meaning is not fully understood. If you wish to honour the Hindu deities, dedicate a shrine area in your home for your prayers.
Connecting with the divine within you, and learning more about all aspects of yoga, will seriously enrich your experience, and allow you to get deeper than just the surface level of this beautiful, fascinating practice. How do you do that? Books, the internet and practising or learning from a variety of yoga teachers is a good place to start. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and enjoy the process of learning!
By Angie Tiwari