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January 19, 2022

The Shamelessness of Sovereignty in Yoga: Eastern Fascism meets Western Wellness.

Photo by Lucas Pezeta on Pexels.

My mother the yogini:

When I was a girl, my mother did yoga moves in the kitchen while baking bread.

My parents lived a kind of “back to the land” lifestyle in a big old house they’d bought for a pittance back in the day. I’d scythe the yard and we kept chickens and grew potatoes on the boulevard. As this was in Kerrisdale, a relatively affluent neighbourhood of Vancouver, I was a self-conscious kid.

My genes ensured that self-consciousness evolved into a full-blown anxiety disorder before I knew there was such a thing.

Which brings us to yoga.

While I was only somewhat intrigued in the black-and-white, spiral-bound book of a blond woman in black leotard doing yoga that my mother referred to, as an adult myself, I was drawn to books on yoga and meditation to soothe my anxiety.

My hot yoga addiction:

Eventually, I found my way to a local studio. What’s more, it had the benefits of being female run (I’d heard of sexual abuse in yoga communities) as well as being heated, which appealed to my Ayuverdic vata nature.

Initially, I was blown away by the beauty of my fellow yogis in their willingness to surrender and the skill of the teachers leading us through our moves toward relaxation and calm. The studio I attended was a super friendly and fun community, albeit within the context of being a business. I met people there who remained friends. I couldn’t keep away and took advantage of working a “cleaning shift in exchange for yoga classes” scheme they offered. Many of us who attended did so between three times a week to daily.

“If you meet the Buddha on the road…”

Cognitive dissonance, though, crept in on a fairly regular basis.

Where were all the people taking expensive teacher trainings finding work? But especially, the very surrender I’d initially witnessed as beautiful, and had engaged in myself, began to seem gullible. What was a blonde teacher, dressed in white, and wearing mala beads doing leading us in Sanskrit chants when the people I’d met in India over the years didn’t do such things?

Jyoti Puri, Hazel Dick Leonard Chair and Professor of Sociology at Simmons University has some prize words for how yoga, after being appropriated by the West, has been reclaimed by the Hindu Fundamentalist Government of Narendra Modi and used to further his fascistic politics.

In her piece, “Sculpting the Saffron Body,” she says, “As a technology focussed on the self, modern yoga was perfectly suited to intensifying neoliberal ethics of self improvement and self care…” And “…yoga is increasingly used to advance questionable forms of nationalism geared towards internal and external audiences.” What’s more, “…chanting Om, doing sun salutations and embracing Yogas’ Sanskrit terminology are associated with upper class Hinduism.” She goes more into the implications of Modi reclaiming yoga as a tool for Nationalist power at the expense of religious minorities.

Mathew Remski, yoga practitioner and author as well as co-host of the Conspirituality podcast would agree. He’s said on Medium, “A reactionary Hindutva politics of bodily sovereignty and purity have also been exported through the globalization of yoga meshing with and moulding to similar body fascisms of Europe.”

None of this sat easily with me.

Individualism and anti-vax sentiment:

Then came COVID-19. Some of us found acquaintances holding views we found questionable. People primed by the concept of “surrender” seem to have surrendered their intellects to conspiracy theories and are fearful of vaccinations at a time when it is important to listen to the science. Relationships have frayed and sometimes fractured.

Those who talked of sovereignty often put their personal freedom ahead of the actual health of the community.

While the studio I’d attended complied with health guidelines, by this time, I’d become accustomed to my solo practice.

I still see the appeal of well-run yoga studios, but for now am opting out.

Finding myself:

While surrender and the magical thinking of chakras and such are relaxing, perhaps ironically, I’ve “found myself”—the girl who loved Sherlock Holmes for his clear thinking while her mother did yoga in the kitchen is now a 50-something woman appreciating her own ability to think critically.

And, as no one and nothing is black and white, I still love to put my hands in prayer gesture to greet people, and do believe in the meaning of Namaste: “the light in me greets the light in you.” That light embraces rational thought as well as the joy of community, which I intend to keep finding and creating till the end of my days.

I wish clear thought, good health, and wise community for us all going into 2022. We’ll need it more than ever.

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