Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Yoga Lineage: Who’s Included?

Here in Pune, on my 6th trip to RIMYI since 2005, I am more aware than ever of the passage of time, and the mortality of my teachers. Since Guruji passed in 2014, and Geetaji and Prashantji have stepped up to uphold his legacy, Geetaji has reminded us repeatedly of how we must carry on in our own associations, not come to her with petty conflicts and confusions, and recognize that her years with us will also come to an end. She is enlisting the international community of Iyengar Yoga practitioners to carry on Guruji's teachings with integrity.

In an age of 200-hour yoga teaching certifications and the rampant proliferation and commercialization of yoga, the issue of lineage rarely comes up. In a nation built on immigrants who, by choice or force, abandoned their heritage and homelands to embrace the American dream (or nightmare, as it turns out), we place much more value on individual initiative, personal accomplishment, and the myth of meritocracy, than we do on legacy and lineage.

In fact, most yoga teacher trainings pride themselves on being “eclectic,” gleaning from many traditions and presumably bringing “the best” from each. This dabbling mentality typically results in lack of depth and a mindset of extraction, typical of settler colonialism. “I’ll take a little of this, toss that away….” without consideration of context, history, politics, and the consequences of extraction.

In a way, lack of lineage, at least familial, is freeing. We are not bound by class and caste for generations on end, and at least theoretically, there is more economic mobility. But does this apply also to yoga lineage and spiritual traditions?

Prashantji told a sweet story of going to a festival with his father as a small boy, unable to see anything except the hips of the adults around him. But then his father took him up on his shoulders, and little Prashant was able to see far and wide, well beyond the vision of those below him. It’s the same now, he said, explaining how he is standing on the shoulders of Guruji, and what he can see is because he has been taught, supported, and uplifted by Guruji.

What our lineage has given us, we also owe back to our mentors and ancestors. In the Iyengar tradition, we give to Guruji’s Bellur Foundation, which supports his home village with a hospital, high school, junior college, and more. We also “pay it forward” by devoting many hours to our own students and mentees, sharing what we have learned and nurturing their growth.

Belonging to a lineage means always being accountable to someone. Even my mentors, 40-year students of Iyengar Yoga, must answer to the Iyengar family. How many of the recent yoga scandals could’ve been prevented had there been more accountability? At its best, lineage manifests as conscience, so instead of authoritarian shaming and punishment, we develop the inner discipline to be our most noble selves.

All of this is well and good, but where does progress, growth, and evolution come in? When do lineage and tradition become oppressive and stifling? When is it inadequate for the times we are living in? For instance, in this super busy, crowded month at RIMYI, as far as I can tell, there is only 1 Black person in attendance. What does this say about the global Iyengar Yoga movement? How does this impact a highly racialized, 85% Black city like Detroit, MI, which has been through the wringer of white flight, corporate land grabs, foreclosures, water shut-offs, school closures, and more? How will it be possible to cultivate the practice of Iyengar Yoga in communities that have not had exposure or access? How will we develop teachers from and in those communities? From the perspective of my racially fraught home city of Detroit, in the inescapably racist USA, what does it mean that Black bodies are such an extreme minority at RIMYI?

If we know our roots, if we know where we’re from, if we know who we are accountable to, we should be able to evolve from there.

Prashantji commented on how he thought Guruji was wasting his time and energy traveling to Russia and China in his 90s to teach beginners. “Why go yourself when there are so many Senior Teachers?” he asked Guruji, who remained staunch in his commitment to go and teach them himself. Prashantji went on to observe that Guruji took as his dharma the sharing of yoga with the world.

At the risk of overstating my role, I have to admit that I take as my dharma the rattling of the gates of Iyengar Yoga in the USA. I am committed to expanding the population of practitioners, especially to include more people of color and low income folks. As such, I have taken it upon myself to progress on the path of Iyengar Yoga to help evolve the tradition from the inside out.

So what do I see as the future of Iyengar Yoga in the USA? Indulge me in this visualization:
  •  A proliferation of free and low-cost classes in nontraditional venues, like places of worship, community centers, and public schools. Perhaps childcare and transportation could be included.
  • Bilingual classes, ASL classes, adaptive classes for those with disabilities.
  • Cultivating serious study in such nontraditional settings so potential teachers can be recognized and supported.
  •  Low-cost teacher trainings in accessible locales to enable serious students to enter the path to certification.
  •  Affordable conventions and conferences.
  • Broader ways to assess teacher skill and competence, and accommodate different ways of learning and testing. 
Really, these are not radical propositions. Iyengar Yoga in India since its inception embraced all these practices. Iyengar Yoga by its very nature is designed to meet the needs of every ability. It’s just that the international proliferation of Iyengar yoga grew out of Yehudi Menuhin and his upper class, aristocratic following. Iyengar Yoga in the USA largely came through the wealthy and well-connected, and this legacy continues to this day.

Let’s be true to Guruji and his own humble roots, his commitment to Bellur, and his duty to bring Iyengar Yoga to the world. Standing on his shoulders and honoring our gracious lineage, let’s move the tradition forward, into cities like Detroit, making Iyengar Yoga more inclusive than ever before in the USA.


Anonymous said...

I love your vision of Iyengar yoga. I teach a donation based class out of the room of a church. I have had the same students for 15+ years. If we want this practice to live further, we need to make it accessible to those who need it most. Specifically senior and student populations.

Free Thinker said...

Thank you for your pursuit of equality and accessibility. Desire creates direction. Lineage and the socio demographic that catapulted Gurujis teaching into action in the west is also not to be forgotten. How do we erase boundaries in asana? Folding and unfolding in prayer; letting all in and leaving our “stories” behind. Then the concrete instruction can build new base.
Practioner of 21 years

Unknown said...

Thank you for this. You are definitely following your dharma, and inspiring me!!!