Why I Will Never Give Up on Yoga. ~ Lakshmi Nair

Via elephant journal
on Sep 5, 2012
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Part Two

(Read Part One here.)

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 is a yoga teacher, educator, artist, mother and seeker who is living, loving and learning in Denver, CO.




Editor: Carolyn Gilligan


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22 Responses to “Why I Will Never Give Up on Yoga. ~ Lakshmi Nair”

  1. sara says:

    Right on. Thanks so much for writing this. The more honesty and honest conversation about yoga the better.

  2. blissful216 says:

    I feel awestruck and have so many reactions and thoughts to this post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and baring your soul. I think many people get caught in the machine that yoga has become. It sounds so trite but you are right about everything! Whenever I find a studio that focuses on the machine more than the yoga I leave. Yoga is something personal and transformative and healing for me, I don't want anyone messing with that! 😉 I know you will once again find healing through your practice and find your place in your local yoga community. Best wishes for healing! Namaste

  3. anita says:

    Thank you Lakshmi for being courageously open about yoga and race and culture experiences. I commend you for speaking up. I am sure that your voice has planed many seeds in that yoga teacher as well as others.

  4. susan says:

    it is only by the impression they have the power to make definitions that they can wield it, and they never really have it. why do we allow usurpers this power, to make these definitions for us? it isn't a matter of taking it back, just stop giving it.

  5. Sosanna says:

    I found Lakshmi Nair's essay on yoga as very insightful and heart felt. By taking us with her on a road trip through her genuine reactions and feelings, Lakshmi Nair has made us privy to view the emotional clouds or mental fog that block us on our journeys. The ultimate message of her essay is to recover the clarity and spaciousness of our true nature, to be 'midful' of who we are. The good news is what she says towards the end; "Giving up yoga is like giving up on Love." No
    maladaptive reaction here!

    "Each thing has to transform itself into something better, and acquire a new destiny." (Paulo Coehlo)

    Great essay!

  6. Pamela says:

    Thank you, Lakshmi. My heart has been broken by "yoga" and I feel lost as well. This essay is very insightful and gets to the heart of it. There is much to contemplate here. Thank you again.

  7. […] Like my yoga practice, I recognize that in some ways, my range is smaller now—even within my most intimate relationships. But, there is also considerably less injury now, no quiet resentments…and no unspoken conflicts live between me and those that I love, anymore. […]

  8. "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." This is an interesting comment and at first I thought I understood it and agreed with it and then realized that I'm not sure. Does that mean that if one has a successful yoga business it is not yoga? And if not, why? I have seen yoga become a commodity and have seen alot of unethical business behavior. Is it those instances you speak of?

    Are you saying that the Kali Yuga energy is big enough to corrupt a well intentioned venture?

    I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the opinon of an Amerian born Indian on yoga and appreciate your sentiments and analysis.

  9. ria says:

    Hello my sister. As another Indian women in the western Yoga world. I too am TOTALLY ISOLAGED. They just do NOT understand. Yoga is and has been totally up for the taking and turning it into whatever anyone wants. Its all about 200 hours teacher training, getting a hot body and showing off.
    I laugh at the fact that in SF the most popular yoga classes are the ones that have loud music playing. How many yoga teachers actually understand the Gita, have bothered to study Sanskrit (and I don't mean reading Sanskrit in English, I mean learning to chant read and write properly !!).
    Here is the issue — Indians in the west are NOT going to asana classes. If they did more would be becoming teachers and yoga perhaps could have a chance to be restored. Indians are too busy working in I.T and competing with the Kumar's as to who has the better Benz. Yoga, the most beautiful and valuable science in the world is up for the taking and being converted by anyone and everyone. Hoards of westerners are giving up corporate careers to learn, take and teach yoga. (Its unfortunate that they don't know that they need to at least practice for at least 20 years before teaching but that is another post). Where are the Indians ???? I can't wait to go to a Yoga asana class where the Yoga teacher can actually pronounce my name and where I don't feel like cringing everytime a Sanskrit word is mispronounced.

  10. Lakshmi says:

    I'll be honest, Hilary, and say that I don't really know. Sometimes I think that maybe yoga and business just don't go together. But it's hard for us see outside of that box, because that is just the world that we live in right now…where anything can be bought and sold. There are plenty of people in India selling yoga. But there are also plenty of people in India who don't sell yoga. I think there is such a thing as a yogic economy. My grandfather, for instance, was an ayurvedic physician and he didn't have any set charge for his consultation and treatment. He would accept payment in fish from fishermen even though he was a strict vegetarian. But he was also the physician to the president of India at that time, so he was quite comfortable…he had a balance of patients who paid him out of respect for what he provided according to their own means. I think that is really beautiful. I think it would be hard to do here. People try to have donation based classes, but sometimes people try to take advantage of that and end up not respecting the offering. Also there's a huge issue of shame associated with not having enough money to pay for goods and services that is woven into the fabric of our society. I do think there are many well intentioned yoga businesses that are generally doing good and no harm, and there's nothing wrong with that. But there are of course a lot that are corrupted by the larger corrupt scheme of business in general. I just hope that our world will move towards a more enlightened model as the ages shift. And of course, we shouldn't just be waiting around for that to happen…we need to work to bring it into being.

  11. Lakshmi says:

    I feel you, sister! I also feel like we need to mine our own community for the wealth of yoga knowledge that is contained there. There are so many uncles and aunties (like my dad), who have been quietly practicing for years and would be able to teach simple, no-nonsense classes (with good pronunciation!) 🙂 And YES! It is so sad how our community here is only getting interested in yoga when they see the $$ potential. Our community here is more interested in the values of capitalism, while it is the West that is preserving yoga in a sense, which is a good thing but also bad sometimes, as my story shows.

  12. I am not an Indian nor do I own any yoga heritage but I have studied, practiced yoga (sometimes more than others) since I am a teenager in the emotional upheaval Vietnam years of American change post 60s. That is to say that yoga is hard wired into my emotional body and therefore has informed me much of my life. In this way I feel everything you are saying or I can relate to it somehow. I don't know why even saying this makes me sad but it does. Some things are beyond words. Thank you for the thoughtful response.

  13. […] Why I Will Never Give Up on Yoga. ~ Lakshmi Nair […]

  14. […] no less significant) poses with pleasure, recalling how at one time they were so uncomfortable. So what keeps people coming back for more? Just as time and the layers in life soothe and comfort, so they do in Yoga. Alena Gerst is a […]

  15. AMacDonald says:

    I love this piece and your previous one. They are both deeply moving and stunningly clear examples of how racism operates in the "yoga" world. I'm putting together a zine on yoga and community care. I'm wondering if you'd like to submit? You could submit this piece or something else.. or multiple pieces. Details for submission are here :http://moonlitmoth.wordpress.com/2012/10/18/call-out-for-submissions-zine-on-yoga-and-community-care/

    My contact info is there as well if you have any questions.

  16. earthenergyreader says:

    Thank you so much for validating what I have been feeling. I know my article came out like a sledgehammer but both your articles came out like a dove, they looked at the nuances and the deeper emotional implications of this sort of cultural imperialism and blindsided white privilege.
    I contemplated taking teacher training and offer yoga to the immigrant communities but after reading your article, I'm wondering how effective I would be, unless I went out and created my own space for it.
    It would seem our African-American sisters are also feeling left out in the cold as well

  17. CGanatra says:

    Hello Lakshmi,
    THANK YOU SO MUCH! I have just read your article and I resonate with so much of what you have to say. I also come from an Indian heritage and when I grew up it was not cool to have hindu parents and the fact that my dad meditated was strange. So when Yoga became popular I was happy and decided to become a Yoga teacher. I often looked away at the cultural appropriation and was just happy that people actually loved the Indian culture however I now realise its just the culture not really the people who are accepted, like your example of what happened at Gurrdwara. Teaching in the studio setting I also struggle with the emphasise on only the asanas used mainly for self-care and/or vanity. Yoga is union and when it is used to divide us through the business and appropriation I find it very discouraging. However I did find your article comforting, it's nice to know I am not alone. I also really like Irasna Rising's article. Wishing you all the best! Thanks again! 🙂

  18. Albeli says:

    Take heart in this quotation "Imitation is the sincerest flattery." – Mahatma Gandhi

  19. tyler zambori says:

    Well here's an idea: don't promote yoga to the West. Keep it at home. That would take care of it. Still, I actually am impressed with the author. Nice article.

  20. tyler zambori says:

    Is your complaint really about lack of spirtuality, or about culture? I'm kind of glad I moved on to a practice that is not the hot new in thing, and is also not about woshipping culture. Culture is important, to people, but spiritual development will take you past culture. And if Yoga doesn't take you past culture, it won't take you to spirituality.