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March 28, 2021

“Hate is Not What Yoga is: An Open Letter to J Brown.” ~ Susanna Barkataki

 

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Editor’s note: There’s prejudice in the yoga community, as in all communities, and Elephant is here to bring light and meaningful conversation around that. Thanks to Susanna.

We welcome vital dialogue, held mindfully. Join the conversation by commenting below, or posting here.

 

On March 22, 2021, J Brown, a yoga teacher and podcaster, published an interview on his podcast “Yoga Talks” called “Gender Identity and Biological Sex” with guest Katchie Ananda. 

I do not regularly listen to his podcast. Some trans colleagues and siblings of mine alerted me to this and also asked for support from cis allies. 

The podcast is long and full of transphobia and cruel words. I listened to it in its entirety, often crying, to be able to speak on it. I am not recommending you listen to it unless you want to—and please note, it is harmful.

If you do listen, you can choose a section or read the linked article on the show notes, which will give you information as to what hatred is being spread. 

TW: transphobia, misinformation, bigotry, and hurtful language 

~

Dear J,

Your “Yoga Talks” podcast from March 22, 2021, “Gender Identity and Biological Sex,” with guest Katchie Ananda is really upsetting and concerning to me. 

You asked at the end for us to respond. And I have a response. I first need to share my identity. I am not trans. I am a cis Indian woman who works to uplift yoga culture, and, like you, I am a parent. 

You asked and, absolutely yes, I do think there’s something off in your podcast. It felt off from start to finish. You keeping this podcast up is not in the essence of ahimsa, or kindness, nor is it treating everyone equally. It’s erasing trans folks’ reality. Trans folks humanity and reality isn’t a debate or something to argue over. It’s really not a “this side or that side” thing.

I am also someone with trans siblings and cousins, and words like the ones you allowed on your show deny folks reality and are immensely hurtful. I ask: do you have trans folks in your life? Because listening to folks share on their own experience is part of swaraj, creating self-rule, in yoga, and hugely important for us as practitioners. 

Your podcast is called “Yoga Talks,” but this is not yoga talking. Hate is not what yoga is. 

In the podcast on trans issues, you feature a cis person—not a trans person—Katchie Ananda, and she proceeds to erase trans and non-binary folks’ agency and existence with no evidence, citations of resources, or science. (Not that, even if she’d had that, it would have been okay.)

She claims, “Gender is on a spectrum but not sex” and used logical fallacies for many of her arguments, including how she says that in this “new gender orthodoxy, you can choose your sex and choose your gender,” but only based on stereotypes. This is an oversimplified straw person argument. See Tanya Wan’s recent powerful article: “No, Transgender People Do Not Perpetuate Gender Stereotypes – And Here’s Why.”

In your podcast, Katchie Ananda goes further says trans and middle sex people have a disorder and later alludes to fetishes. There are so many moments of cruelty in this episode. 

This goes beyond just himsa (harm) and is dangerous. Are you aware of the statistics around trans mortality and suicide rates or violent crimes? Family inclusion or workplace discrimination for trans folks? To pile the kind of hateful and harmful rhetoric shared on your podcast on already targeted folks is unconscionable. It’s also the hallmark of ignorance and cis privilege. 

Have you considered centering trans voices—not in a “this perspective/that perspective way,” no one wants to show up to have their humanity debated—but actually listened to, learned from, researched, or talked to multiple trans folks? 

Also, I want to name that sharing this on a yoga podcast in the name of yoga is harmful to me as a South Asian. Hate is the opposite of what yoga is. The episode is promoting bigotry and hate and is problematic in the way that it’s misrepresenting yoga.

Yoga is about ahimsa, as you know, and this is the opposite of that. For more on this, see a few sources, including Devdutt Pattanaik. In his Tea Time Tales on Twitter, author Pattanaik shares much-researched information on these issues within South Asian and Yogic traditions. In particular, his story from the Yoga Vashistha about Chaudala on gender fluidity where Pattanaik says the stories point to how “gender is fluid. Sexuality is fluid.”

He also writes about trans hero Shikhandi, Draupadi’s sibling, on the Kurukshetra battlefield in the Mahabharata. He shares many stories in Shikhandi And Other Tales They Don’t Tell You. According to First Posts Sandip Roy:

“They are all stories that take place in the fault lines between our conventional notions of masculinity and feminity. There’s Bhagirath, who was born of two women, and Urvashi, who was born of no woman. Vishnu becomes a woman to enchant the gods and demons while Kali becomes a man to entrance milkmaids.” 

Clearly, it’s yogic and part of the tradition to live in and explore identity beyond false binaries. To experience ahamkara (ego) unattached to form, shape, beyond definition, Advaita (oneness, no separation).

We have a long history of Hijra and folks who are non-men, non-women, and both in our communities. See this article for exploration of The Sexual Orientation and Gender Presentation of HijraKothi, and Panthi in Mumbai, India, in South Asian culture. Also, note that marginalization and harm are clearly documented in this article Transgender Minority Stress and Mental Health Outcomes among Hijras in India. Hijras can experience high levels of stress due to their transgender minority status. 

It can be hard to admit that you may disagree with your teacher or to see one’s teacher fall from esteem. And I hear and get the pain of misogyny and the nervousness you must feel raising a young daughter in a patriarchal and sexist world. I share concerns around gender norms and pressure as I raise my kiddo too.

And, as a cis woman, I’ve experienced a lifetime of sexism which I continue to unpack. But any fear or pain we may feel doesn’t justify erasing or causing pain to others. Nor will it be healed by such actions. Oppressions are not competitions. They can only be healed with mutual care and respect. 

So I’m really wondering: 

Why are you supporting this hurtful separation and erasure of trans identities in the world and yoga space? 

This being part of your expression of yoga is deeply concerning. We are talking about people’s existences and realities. The gender essentialism Katchie is espousing on your podcast platform is regressive and harmful.

You spoke of yoga opening you to truths beyond societal structures…can you look beyond this hurtful and outdated mode of gender essentialism that she is sharing? This is so harmful to trans folks and also to yoga. 

Ideas rooted in gender essentialism are explicitly documented as harmful to transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming folks (as I’ll share in a researched, peer-reviewed article below). 

As yoga teachers, and people, intending to include rather than exclude, this is really important to address and repair. 

Not erasing folks’ culture and identity alone should be enough to stop this type of harmful gender essentialism. 

Here’s some more info—researched and medically reviewed by Janet Brito, Ph.D., LCSW, CST—written by Mere Abrams, LCSW, on January 27, 2020:

“Gender essentialism fails to acknowledge the scientifically recognized fact that sex and gender are different and both exist on a spectrum.

The spectrum of sex involves a wide variety of combinations of anatomy, hormones, biology, and chromosomes that are naturally occurring and healthy parts of human diversity.

The spectrum of gender includes the many personal identities, experiences, and cultural beliefs systems that relate to being:

a man

a woman

cisgender

transgender

nonbinary

masculine

feminine

some combination of these labels or something else altogether

It’s now a scientifically proven and accepted fact that sex doesn’t necessarily determine or indicate anything conclusive or permanent about an individual’s gender identity, personality, or preferences.

Ideas rooted in gender essentialism are particularly harmful to transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people who have a gender identity or presentation that’s different from the one prescribed at birth.”

As yoga teachers, and people, moving toward inclusion rather than separation, this is really important. It’s also needful in our cueing and language to use gender-inclusive cues like, “Hi, folks” or “Hi, fabulous humans” instead of assuming gender. 

As someone who is cis, I can’t presume to speak for trans folks. It’s important for me to acknowledge my privilege and center trans folks to speak on their own experience. I follow the leadership of and learn from our colleagues at Trans Yoga Project and Bending Toward Justice.

As a South Asian who has been excluded from the yoga world for over a decade, for speaking on cultural issues, and is only now finding tempered inclusion, I also want to name that Katchie’s portrayal of cancel culture isn’t accurate and speaks to her privilege. 

Please don’t ask trans people to come into your spaces or on your podcast unless you take time and steps to repair this harm. Your space isn’t feeling safe for me as a cis South Asian or for many trans folks because, as I mentioned, people’s humanity isn’t up for debate. 

A first step could be paying for trans education for yourself and taking down this harmful podcast that only spreads misinformation and hate. 

I’d love to know if you agree and what you plan to do to address and repair this harm caused. 

Sincerely,

Susanna Barkataki

Yoga Teacher and Author, Embrace Yoga’s Roots 

~

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