Notes of an Ambivalent Yogi

 
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Bhakti Shringarpure

A.I. art by Poco Meloso

 
 

When I was ten years old, my mother made me attend a yoga class every afternoon. Nothing could have been more boring at the time. In the tree-lined mellow Mumbai neighborhood where I grew up, I would either walk or hail a rickshaw with my mother after school. I carried a tiny palm-size notebook and the teacher jotted down the Sanskrit names and the order of the postures as you learnt them. It was not unlike a report card, and everyone knew who was getting new asanas added to their notebooks based on how limber their bodies were or how much longer they could hold the position. Even then I knew that this teacher with her overly erect back, fixed gentle smile and soft cotton saris was only pretending to be patient and kind. Underneath this projection of calm lay an irritable and condescending disposition, and often she leveled humiliating criticism.

In a nearby bathroom, another child yogi was being cured of her asthma through what looked and sounded like an excruciating technique called “sutra neti.” This involved her putting a thin rubber tube filled with water up her tiny 10-year old nose as she sputtered and gasped in agony. The goal was for the rubber tube to come out from the mouth and if memory serves me right, it only rarely did so. It was a place of many difficult memories and the three or more years I spent there always had this underlayer of violence, whether it was overhearing my friend in agony or the anxiety produced by the mean-spirited teacher. But it wasn’t something I questioned nor did I have the language to question it. Any complaints were always met with a long list of yoga’s benefits. It was only as an adult that I realized why I couldn’t sync yoga’s image as benevolent, even spiritual with my own fairly typical experience of how yoga is taught in the land of its origin, India.

When I moved to the US, I was a broke grad student and adjunct lecturer for many years, but would take a sporadic yoga class because the postures had become imprinted in me and I would find a craving occasionally stirring up. I knew that taking a class in New York City was a luxury; but it was also a comedic experience with all kinds of cultural short circuits. Back in the early 2000s, yoga teachers, almost always white, began each class with preambles that could range from chants in Sanskrit, a parable or an explanation of a Vedic concept; one even played hymns she could barely pronounce on a harmonium. Many asked that we use the teacher’s given Hindu name. Sometimes they would find out my name and would go into raptures. “Bhakti” simply means faith or devotion. But it is also a philosophy espousing the truest love for god. It is also a type of yoga in the US, it is a famous chai brand and, nowadays, it is a yogurt too. This name, coupled with my brown skin and “authentic” Indian heritage, made me something of a celebrity in a yoga class. I may have enjoyed some of this cheap exotification now and again, but it was never lost on me that yoga validated an absurd strand of fetishistic racism and orientalism in the Western psyche. It gave license to freely express deeply lodged and patently false stereotypes about a mystic, magical, and spiritual India.

 
 

Today, yoga in the West is slightly more woke: it’s more conscious of itself and more aware of its own whiteness. Cynically speaking, this is partially a side-effect of yoga becoming an integral component of a billion-dollar wellness industry in the US and Europe. Yoga’s many problems have come under fire in the past decade, whether it’s yoga’s open orientalism, culturally inappropriate pedagogy, or the whiteness of its teachers. In some cases, even horrific sexual abuse cases have been exposed. Yoga has had no choice but to clean up its act. Corporate brand consciousness these days needs to engage with diversity and political correctness to generate a successful business model—“virtue signaling,” as it’s called—and thus, no surprise, yoga has begun to get a social-justice makeover.

But this new consciousness doesn’t even come close to comprehending yoga’s truly pernicious uses in the land of its birth. In India, yoga has become weaponized by the Hindu religious right wing and comes tinged with a distinctly sour taste as Prime Minister Narenda Modi pushes it down the public’s throat as part of his Hindu fundamentalist agenda. Modi declared an annual Yoga Day in 2015, launched a yoga campaign during the Covid-19 pandemic, and has claimed that yoga is a pillar of preventative healthcare policy. Riding upon the incredulous fame of TV yoga guru Baba Ramdev, Modi and his Hindutva cohort have created a new type of evangelism around yoga. As with all things evangelical, this one normalizes Hindu culture and Hindu heritage as Indian and along the way incites exclusionary, violent ideologies against Muslims, Dalits, women, and the poor. Modi has also managed to make the world bend backwards for him—or rather, spring into downward dog. In June 2023, he was allowed to host a yoga session on the northern lawns of the United Nations in New York. Modi’s yoga class was attended by two thousand people; international movers and shakers and a hysterically patriotic Indian diaspora.

For me, these yoga politricks mean that I am stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to something I have enjoyed over the years and that I know can certainly contribute to one’s fitness and wellbeing. I may have disliked the mean teacher from my childhood but I always liked doing the actual yoga. How then to defend and critique yoga at the same time? I’ve met the haters who run marathons and think yoga is something silly and boring; the athletic types who see it as an overhyped stretching routine; and the ones who are mainly there for the Lululemon #ootd (outfit-of-the-day) posts on Instagram. I’ve met the ones who complain that white people appropriate an Indian practice or that there are no women of color in their yoga classes. I’ve met the fanatics who feel that all Hindus have a divine yogic energy flowing through their veins and explain that this is why Muslims are naturally violent and Hindus are naturally peaceful. When I was living in Nairobi, I met a new type of yogi who lorded over a room heated at 107 degrees Fahrenheit. I swear it was 107, my mat was next to the thermostat. I begged her to let me leave because I thought I might throw up. She belligerently insisted that “yoga is pain.” I think this teacher unknowingly nailed it.

 
 

Once, I was leafing through a beautiful, illustrated book on BKS Iyengar, one of India’s premier yoga masters, and founder of the “Iyengar” style of yoga practiced widely in India and abroad. The book starts with a loving biography of the guru and gives the reader a tour of his institute based in Pune in Western India. The author introduces us to Iyengar’s daily routine to show how his lifestyle comprising yoga, meditation, pranayama (breathing exercises) and a vegetarian diet should be emulated for optimum physical and mental health.

Having practiced Iyengar yoga for a while but never having delved into Iyengar, the man, his photos caught my eye. Usually filmed in light shirts or even just shorts, he was never without the long vermillion mark on his forehead or the “sacred thread” that is wrapped either sideways or around his neck. This proudly displayed thread and the red line on the forehead are symbols of a casteist Brahmin belief system. Pre-adolescent boys must participate in a “thread ceremony” at a young age and wear this thread in order to guard against negative energy. A blend of baptism and bar mitzvah, this rite of passage is only possible for those biologically born Brahmin and male. Iyengar wearing it at all times illustrates his allegiance to Brahmin codes and customs, and the book adoringly depicts his religiosity and adherence to Brahmin rituals and lifestyle. Caste apartheid and caste violence in India is so enduring, so systemic and so horrifying that a movement-making figure such as Iyengar upholding the caste structure is triggering and offensive, to say the least.

Almost two decades ago, journalist Elizabeth Kadetsky’s book First There is a Mountain detailed her year spent at Iyengar’s institute where she not only learned yoga but also grew to know the aging Iyengar and his family. Kadetsky has argued that Iyengar was one of the world’s most influential figures and that without him, there would be no “yoga industrial complex.” She also reveals that Iyengar’s pedagogy was “physically brutal to the point of abuse.” This is not surprising to me, given the strictness with which I was taught yoga. But learning about his affiliation with far-right Hindu nationalism in the wake of the 1992 demolition of the 16th-century Babri mosque in Ayodhya is particularly jarring. Kadetsky writes: “Later, when Hindu nationalism swept India in the 1990s and the Bharatiya Janata Party came to national power, Iyengar became newly religious. He seemed, then, to be a man of contradiction: a supporter of India’s attempt to build nuclear weapons; a believer in yoga as a martial sport in the training of soldiers and militants; and a supporter, perhaps most controversially, of India’s far right Hindu Nationalists and their questionable doings during the Ayodhya/Babri Masjid affair.”

Many of us who came of age politically during this time saw firsthand the ways in which Hindu militancy became legitimized and the killing of Muslims became sanctioned. Just recently, we have been forced to relive this memory as Modi did away with the mosque entirely and consecrated the shrine as millions of jingoistic Hindus celebrated worldwide. Though always staunchly nationalistic, Iyengar’s thinking became aligned with the fanatic Hindu right in the nineties, and he was even “a believer in yoga as a martial sport in the training of soldiers and militants.” When the origins of such a popular practice and philosophy are troubled, it is only logical that it sets in motion all kinds of skewed trajectories. Indeed, it cannot be far from the truth that the worldwide spread of the yoga industrial complex may have simultaneously spread casteist and Brahminical Hindu nationalism that often goes hand in hand with it.

 
 

A majority of yoga practitioners repeatedly refute the claim that yoga originates within a Brahminical Hindu tradition, and this rejection allows for a continuation of that genealogy in active and abhorrent ways. There is a long list of books that have delved deeply into yoga’s origins. Debates about the definitive histories of yoga are, firstly, confounded by the nature of the word itself. In their respected and widely cited book Roots of Yoga, James Mallinson and Mark Singleton write that yoga is a “particularly polyvalent Sanskrit word, which, in ordinary usage, may signify joining or attaching, a means or method or way, profit or wealth, a trick or deceit, an undertaking or business, mixing, putting together or ordering, suitability, diligence or magic.” All this talk of polyvalence and multiplicity shows us why it is so easy to make all kinds of claims about the concept of “yoga” and to insist on its secularism and simplicity. It's just a word, it's just a type of exercise, it's a breathing technique and that above all, it has nothing to do with religion.

Mallinson and Singleton’s volume traces the ways in which yoga emerged and re-emerged at different periods and in somewhat revised forms. They start with allusions to certain meditation and ascetic practices mentioned in the Rigveda prior to 500 BCE, though the word “yoga” also appears to simply refer to the “yoke” that was required to attach horses to chariots. They conclude that there is no solid evidence of an ancient yogic culture. It is around 500 BCE that certain ascetic practices emerged that comprised excruciating and austere physical methods to liberate humans from past karma or to gain supernatural powers. Yoga has other roots too. There is a school of thought that proclaims that yoga does not originate in Vedic sources but in the much older Tantra school of thought. Ramesh Bjonnes, author of A Brief History of Yoga: From its Tantric Roots to the Modern Yoga Studio, insists that there is an “untold” history of yoga and that his work “pays tribute to the suppressed history of yoga from the point of view of the conquered, from the point of view of the lower classes and castes…” Bjonnes’s Tantra argument with its claim of yoga being heavily Buddhist insists that yoga is untainted by the Vedic traditions. Here, I'm watering down a significantly rigorous debate, most of which is well documented. But yoga cannot be absolved of the fact that it was largely taught and promoted by Brahmin priests; venerated gurus who were ordained as divine keepers of knowledge and belonged to the highest caste.

 
 

The journey of yoga as most know it today is traced back to the Yogasutra of Patanjali, a collection of 196 aphorisms compiled by the sage Patanjali, who is said to have lived sometime between the 2nd and 4th century BCE. The text is steeped in Buddhist and Jain influences. Some scholars have argued that the later accompanying commentary to the Yogasutra by bard Vyasa heavily Hindu-ized the work, erasing much of the other religious influences. Thus despite yoga’s complex and debated origins, it became grounded in a Hindu ethos and now, centuries later, yoga’s ties with Hinduism as religion, philosophy, and politics have only become much stronger.

Of course, efforts to secularize yoga and adapt it to the various places where it gained popularity have also been ongoing for decades. In many Western countries, yoga has been distilled into a good workout and the culture of yoga teachers chanting in badly pronounced Sanskrit is slowly on its way out. There is also a widespread belief that transforming yoga culture means to make sure that more persons of color teach yoga, that yoga becomes affordable and available to more diverse sections of society, and to make it more respectful of Indian culture. I bring up the Hindu roots of yoga because despite yoga’s many avatars today, it is unable to shake off its religious origins which has, on the one hand, either been seen as cool and marketable or, on the other hand, has become a harbinger of toxic nationalism.

Yoga now functions on two particularly pernicious levels: the corporate-commercial and the ideological-political. Any which way you see it, a new imperial yoga is upon us.

Yoga today also sits on a dangerous line. It has always been part of an imperial Hindu ideology that systematically and violently excludes groups of people based on caste, religion, gender, and ability. But in its current iteration, it has become an extraordinarily profitable, global force that has given new impetus to age-old orientalism and has thus further legitimized a fetish for forms of indigenous and ubiquitously Eastern “culture.” That yoga severely impacts our general understanding of the female body and that it upholds an unabashed ableism also needs serious unpacking. A sort of vague energy around making yoga more progressive has been in the air for a long time. Now and again, magazine articles, blogs and posts erupt in irritation about yoga’s racism, yoga’s lack of diversity and yoga’s problematic orientalism, but what this line of thought misses is that it does not account for yoga’s troubled origins and yoga’s many uses and misuses today.

 

“Some years ago, Modi asked to declare an International Yoga Day on June 21st. Arguing that yoga was instrumental in the global fight against climate change, Modi declared that practicing yoga would be beneficial for the health of the world’s population.”

 

Some years ago, as over a hundred nations gathered for the United National General Assembly in New York, the Indian Prime Minister used the platform allotted to him to roll out an unprecedented and whimsical proposal. Modi asked to declare an International Yoga Day on June 21st, the longest day in the Northern Hemisphere. Arguing that yoga was instrumental in the global fight against climate change, Modi declared that practicing yoga would be beneficial for the health of the world’s population. India’s then ambassador, Asoke Mukerji, announced that the resolution was approved by 175 nations, an extremely high number for a General Assembly resolution.

International Day of Yoga came into being rather swiftly, and Modi was able to showcase his agenda of unity on June 21st, 2015 with a massive performance attended by various ministers from all over India, all the major yoga institutes, volunteers and yoga fans, as well as participants from the Indian army, building up to almost 36,000 participants.

Dignitaries from 85 nations practiced yoga postures for half an hour. Delhi’s grand boulevard, Rajpath, was chosen for this performance, and most of the major Indian cities participated simultaneously in these celebrations. “Indian Embassies and High Commissions in 251 cities in 191 other countries were also to follow suit.” Even as heavy rains lashed many of the cities, enthusiastic and undeterred yoga aficionados went through a sequence of yoga asanas. Despite the disgruntled ones who couldn’t get in and the inconvenient weather, it was heralded as a media success for Modi, not the first for a leader preoccupied with event management and media spectacles.

Predictable kerfuffles followed. Neighboring Pakistan had refused to participate and the Indian media found the perfect excuse to bash Pakistan by claiming that not celebrating the special day meant they were not invested in peace. The high-minded statements were relentless. Then Union Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, insisted that yoga has absolutely no religious roots and in fact, “is a symbol of mankind, peace and brotherhood . . . Yoga is for moral values and for the well being of the mankind regardless of its community, faith or nationality,” With yoga now reduced to a mere symbol of moral valor, peace, health and unity, Modi and his cohort had scored the ultimate soft-power victory.

 
 

Soft-power diplomacy is a well-worked-out and forceful iteration of how Indian leaders and scholars have strategized foreign relations and shaped India’s place in the world. From Bollywood to Information Technology (IT), cricket, or the spirituality industry, India has consistently attempted to compensate for a lack of hard global power through a promotion of these unique assets. However, the Modi administration was the first one to push yoga into this mix and make it a strategic foreign relations priority.

Modi had also pumped new energy and funding into the revival of AYUSH, an acronym for indigenous and holistic health systems that have been historically practiced in India and include Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy. AYUSH went from being a department to a full-blown ministry within the Indian government. The mobilization for yoga day at the UN soon followed, thus revealing the detailed planning and strategizing involved in promoting and instituting several Hindu wellness systems in India and abroad. It was assigned a massive budget and all sorts of plans to build hospitals and institutes centering these systems were immediately approved.

Those that oppose AYUSH tend to engage Western scientific rationales and methods, and critics cite lack of any medical evidence to prove the efficacy of these alt-med systems. They view these practices as hack cures that exploit vulnerable populations. These are valid critiques, but in positioning Modi as trying to take India back to a primitive time without modernity, the critics miss his bigger agenda of a Hindu supremacist consolidation of power. Modi’s initiatives are often portrayed as the whims of a crazy tyrant frustrating India’s rigorous history of modernization. But he has immense clarity about what he is proposing and here, the key agenda is harnessing modernity, industry, medicine, and technology in service of Hinduism.

A chain of paradoxes ensue: progressive thinking that is often in favor of reviving indigenous systems of healing and community care does not hold up in these cases, since they have stopped being anti-capitalist and are not particularly pro-community. The Modi government instrumentalizes indigenous systems of wellness for profit and to put in place a rigorous Hindu nationalist agenda whose goal is to obliterate inclusion and citizenship for any groups that lie outside of this religio-political framework.

Yoga, with its global network of influence, immense economic potential, and an inbuilt history of Brahminical Hinduism presents a perfect opportunity for India’s imperial ambition and its attempts to consolidate power in the international arena.

 
 

Cut to June 2020, the fifth year of Yoga Day. India’s Covid-19 numbers were rising drastically and the death toll was mounting. Modi continued to promote yoga at this time and even declared that yoga can combat the contagion: “If our immunity is strong, it is of great help in defeating this disease. For boosting immunity, there are several methods in yoga, various ‘asanas’ are there. These ‘asanas’ are such that they increase the strength of the body and strengthen our metabolism.” He added that yoga’s famous breathing exercises (pranayama) could fortify the respiratory system. By mid-July that year, India was the third most Covid-19 infected country with almost 3 million active cases. Patriotic pride in Hindu customs seemed like an unlikely balm as the country experienced an astounding wave of death and disease, but somehow the Modi magic continued to cast its spell.

Cut to November 2023. As the equivalent of two nuclear bombs rained down on Gaza in November 2023 and a 4-day ceasefire led to an exchange between Israeli and Palestinian detainees, India showcased its alliance with Israel by organizing a special yoga session for the Israeli families evacuated from some of the areas which had been attacked. In Israel itself, a group of people in identical black clothing pinned photos of Israeli hostages on their backs and participated in a mass yoga event.

It's certainly clear that yoga is not a cure for Covid, nor is it going to make a dent in a 75-year-old conflict over Palestinian land. Yet it is the extraordinary delusion at the heart of it all that is so confounding. Yoga is a wonderful exercise but the high-mindedness around it must go. Despite what Modi, the Tel Aviv yogis, or yoga clothing influencers want to brainwash you into believing, yoga cannot be equated with being on the side of peace. Crediting yoga ideologues with peace work is about the same as believing that America is spreading freedom and democracy in every corner of the earth. Indulging in your favorite form of exercise should not have to be an ethical conundrum but this is where we are now, and like with all ethical conundrums we have to take a deep breath and really stay vigilant.

 
 

Yoga’s ideological brainwashing has been so intense and so successful that we have firmly bought into the notion that it also comes with a heavy dose of transformative and healing capacity and might be spiritually grounded. Delinking yoga from this precise baggage might be the only way to resist the yoga industrial complex. It is not easy. As someone who loves doing yoga but has straddled ambivalence towards it since childhood, the rewiring is difficult. But it does need to happen. The political horror should be the wake-up call.

Some years ago, I took an hour-long yoga class in a New York City studio. The teacher took us through the vinyasa sequence and began to slow it down a bit earlier than normal. It was morning on a weekday, the class was packed, and she began leading us through a powerful meditative breathing sequence. It felt incredible and I hung on to every word she was saying, we all did. The lights were dim and the entire class closed their eyes to enter the final, restful shavasana phase. She continued to guide us into a deeper state of rest with her soothing, rhythmic voice. As our heartbeats slowed and our bodies calmed into stillness, she kept uttering a Sanskrit word explaining how it meant to breathe, to move, to live, and to find the light. She seared that wonderful Sanskrit word right into our semi-hypnotized brains and the class fell into a silent sleep for a few minutes. She then roused us gently awake and just as gently, she relayed to the class that the yoga clothing she was selling was named after the very word she had now imprinted into our brains, and would be available to purchase right outside the classroom. Like sheep, we all flocked over by the clothing stands. It took me a full thirty minutes before I realized we had all been played.

 
 

Spring / Summer 2024



Bhakti Shringarpure

Bhakti Shringarpure is a writer, editor, and academic who is creative director of the Radical Books Collective and founding editor of Warscapes online magazine. She is the author of Cold War Assemblages: Decolonization to Digital and the co-editor of Insurgent Feminisms: Writing War.



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