It’s hard to speak truth to happy people. It’s painful to be the “complainer,” when everyone else is patting themselves on the back. The first serious research paper I remember writing in high school was about the mental health reform movement in the 19th century. Being a reformer is in my bones. Moving and shaking are inherent to my nature. Luckily I belong to the Iyengar Yoga tradition, in which “divine discontent” (a la Guruji) constantly drives us forward.
The 2019 IYNAUS convention was, by several standards, groundbreaking. The teachings, by Abhijata, were astounding, comprehensive, transformative, and healing. It’s the first time I recall the general membership meeting convening in a circle on the floor, instead of seating in rows with board members on a stage. We opened our hearts to each other, shed tears, and spoke openly. It’s the first time social justice has been explicitly explored in a workshop at a convention, and the thorny issue of race named head-on. It’s the first time we closed the gathering in a forum with our teacher, talking about our communities, expressing our needs, and sharing our resources.
But in other ways, this gathering was as painful as every other large convening of Iyengar Yoga teachers in the USA. If you’re willing to hear me out, please keep reading.
Do white people know what it feels like to be an extreme racial minority? East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian folks were moderately represented at the gathering, but in so many ways, we Asian Americans have been taught to ignore one another and instead identify with the white majority. Why? Because for many of us, our immigrant parents trained us to succeed in the white mainstream world. They came here in pursuit of the American Dream, or perhaps driven by political oppression, believing their children would be better off assimilating into the dominant culture.
The handful of Black folks at the convention were an even more extreme minority. If I felt marginalized as a Korean American, I can only imagine what it felt like for them. The event was also overwhelmingly cisgender folks, and the yoga practice itself, based in cis language and culture. All these factors make these events challenging for many of us.
When members of marginalized groups don’t see themselves reflected back to them in their surroundings, they may inwardly shrink, detach, or dissociate. I tend to feel suffocated, and feel a need to get away. I’ve never stayed at an IYNAUS convention hotel for this reason, as well as the exorbitant costs. There’s a way in which I put on a cloak of protection when I am in majority white settings, and I need a safe space to take off that cloak.
It’s extremely painful to come from the majority Black city of Detroit into the vast ocean of whiteness which is an Iyengar Yoga convention. Let’s be clear: white spaces are constructed through generations of systemic oppression. I can only guess that it was the power of the yogic practice that gave Guruji the inner strength to withstand the rampant racism of traveling through white nations in his early years: denied housing, appropriate food, and transportation; treated as a mascot; and objectified, exoticized, and fetishized.
And despite my mrdu practice, I too, lean into my yoga practice to withstand the torrent of white culture in these settings. It’s gotten more difficult as I age instead of easier, because I am more sensitive to disparities, imbalances, and injustices than when I was younger, just surviving, and doing my best to raise my three children.
Does anyone else experience the immersion into middle and upper class culture as violence? Can anyone else relate to capitalism as systemic oppression? The Iyengar Yoga world is not exempt from the need to produce and consume, which drives our nation’s economy. Mega hotels and convention centers thrive on this need and culture. Packed into artificially-lit, window-less ballrooms for days on end, forced to purchase over-priced foods sourced unethically from industrial farms and international distributors, drinking water from Nestle jugs, in buildings staffed by immigrants and people of color…. Are you with me? Think about the garbage produced by this event. Where does it go? Think about the waste inherent in the hotel industry, including the dependence on fossil fuels and fresh water, our precious natural resources. What would it take to convene in a more carbon-neutral setting?
Am I going too far? Are you feeling a need to shut down? I ask you to stay in this discomfort with me a moment longer. After all, we are Iyengar Yoga practitioners.
The Iyengar Yoga hierarchy which we depend on to learn, grow, and evolve is also the hierarchy that kept survivors silent for decades regarding sexual abuse. How do we value, appreciate, and continue to learn from our teachers without tolerating the harm they may cause, intentionally or accidentally? Apparently, we Iyengar Yoga students in the USA are not exempt from patriarchy, considering how a prominent alpha male, Manouso Manos, was allowed to harm students for so long.
Finally, let us with humility and a wide lens, be willing to examine the question of cultural appropriation and Iyengar Yoga in the USA. In what ways are we prioritizing white American teachers over our Indian counterparts? In what ways are we butchering, misinterpreting, or misrepresenting our tradition and lineage? In what ways are we personally profiting from this Indian practice, without acknowledging or giving back to our roots? In what ways may we be complicit in caste-ism by upholding a Brahmin practice? Guruji and the Iyengars themselves were explicitly not caste-bound, and Guruji famously welcomed everyone of all castes, races, and religions into the study of yoga. Yet caste oppression still beleaguers Indians, according to my politically-aware Indian friends. In fact, the name Iyengar in India, especially in South India, I am told, is practically synonymous with Brahminism. How do we feel about that, and how do we deal with that? Is it any wonder that here in the USA, Iyengar Yoga is also associated with the well-to-do, and largely inaccessible to lower classes?
I don’t have the solutions to these problems, but I have a ton of ideas, and I bet you do too, if you’ve come this far in this essay. I believe the momentum is behind us to evolve Iyengar Yoga in the 21st century into a more just, balanced, healing path for our communities and our world. If you are very comfortable with all of this, I’d venture to guess you are approaching all of this from your head and not your heart. We need to go deeper into the discomfort, like holding a 5-minute Paśchimottanāsana, and resist the temptation to come out sooner, or to use too many props, or distract ourselves from the discomfort. I don’t claim that any of this is easy for me either. In fact, writing this makes me extremely vulnerable, and I know for a fact that many disagree with these ideas, and some will resent me. But how else does reform come about? Can we do this together? Contact me at email@example.com.