One way I have taken care of my mental health in India is by avoiding placing expectations or judgement on unfamiliar practices or new experiences. In this, I have been open-minded to try new things, while also avoiding disappointment if unexpected events emerge. This framework arrived with me from Canada, but I have been able to cultivate it further through a regular yoga practice. Almost every evening that I spent in Ajmer, I visited my yoga teacher’s home studio, where myself and about ten other women would stretch, breath, laugh, and chat.
By showing up every day, at the same time, I began to notice the ebbs and flows of my mental and physical health. Just as I tried not to place expectations or judgement on my outward, daily experiences in Ajmer, yoga helped me avoid casting judgement or expectations on my physical or mental health. Through a regular practice I realized that I was okay with feeling tired, sad, or disillusioned, because other days I felt energetic, happy, and inspired. Being able to balance my thoughts (and my body) every evening helped me appreciate the nuances of living in India and gave me the opportunity to reflect on how I was feeling each day.
Through this, I also began to feel connected to a community of women who would use their daily practice to not only stretch and breath, but also to socialize with one another. Although most of the conversations were in Hindi, I still felt like I could laugh alongside the other women in the class, whose ages spanned generations. Yoga classes in Canada are marked by silence and individual movement, but in my experience in India, words of encouragement were given and people’s successes celebrated. One evening I arrived to find the whole class sitting in a circle eating pasta to celebrate someone’s birthday. After that, we did savasana or “corpse pose” for an hour because we were all too full to move! Another day, someone brought sweets to celebrate their engagement – again, we all shared in on their excitement.
On another occasion, I participated in a “detox” with a number of the women who also regularly attend the class. Although I would normally be skeptical to any practice claiming to promote “detoxification”, I was curious enough to participate. I quickly learned what was meant by “detoxification” after waking up at 5am to drink 14 glasses of salty herb water, purge, meditate, and then eat a huge meal of dahl and ghee. Did my body feel better? Not really, but I still appreciated the opportunity to spend time with the other women as we laughed about the weird things drinking salt water with herbs does to our bodies.
Practising yoga everyday, along with the friendships I formed by doing so, was an important part of my time in Ajmer. But as yoga has gained popularity, both in a “western” context as well as in India, the politics of yoga have shifted. Recently, one of my favorite podcasts, Call Your Girlfriend, reviewed a book called Every Body Yoga by Jessamyn Stanley. Stanley is a plus-sized black woman based in the United States who offers several critiques to westernized versions of yoga, including how a normative yoga-body in the West is represented as a hyper-flexible, skinny, upper-class, white women. Stanley disrupts this stereotype with her book as well as with her own body; she shares her personal relationship to yoga, while also outlying postures and practices that are accessible to all bodies, regardless of size or ability. Hearing her critiques of yoga made me reflect on how the commodification of yoga in the West has morphed into something so removed from my experiences in Ajmer. The women I practiced with were a range of ages and body types and were guided in a practice that worked for their individual bodies. Everyone was also at a different stage with their practice and that was okay. Moreover, no one wore yoga pants or practiced on fancy mats. Instead we wore kurtas and practiced on wool mats with cotton sheets overtop. Although the women who attend each evening are from a particular socio-economic background, the diversity in body-type and age, as well as my teacher’s careful guidance created a non-judgmental space for relaxation, learning, and practice.
This idea however, that yoga is a useful and “good” practice for all bodies, is also being debated in an Indian context. Instead of focusing on whose bodies are represented and encouraged to “do” yoga, this debate is centered around yoga and religion. Yoga is rooted in Hindu philosophy, but has evolved into various expressions and forms in recent years. However, recent moves by the BPJ (a Hindu nationalist party) to promote yoga, have been critiqued as a way of pushing elements of Hinduism onto non-Hindus. For example, a ruling requiring yoga to be taught in all goverment schools has stirred controversy as religious practices are not tolerated in the Indian school system (The Hindu, 2015). In response, questions are asked: Is yoga a mind-body exercise or is it a religions practice? Who gets to decide? With Hindu nationalism on the rise, these questions are being discussed by people of all religions. One women, a yoga practicing Muslim, interviewed on the podcast Rough Translations, said that to her, yoga is a form of mental and physical exercise; any religious component, such as using om (which can be interpreted as “god”) to mediate can be replaced by similar sounding words (such as home). Yet, some firmly believe that the introduction of yoga in schools is a way for the BPJ to infiltrate the education system with elements of Hinduism disguised as a “good” mind-body practice for all to participate in. Similar questions of the role of yoga and “mindfulness” in public institutions, including the education system, have been debated in other contexts too. In 2015 the University of Ottawa canceled a free yoga event over concerns of “cultural appropriation” (CBC, 2015). In 2013, a California court ruled yoga as a non-religious practice and therefore a permissible component of education (Reuters, 2013). In this, the judge, dismissed the claim that yoga in school promotes Hinduism, a question that the Indian courts may soon face too. Yoga and its role in culture is complex and as some practitioners look to make it more accessible and inclusive, others sees the spread and popularity of yoga as an act of exclusion.
CBC. (2015). Yoga class cancelled at University of Ottawa over ‘cultural issues’. Online. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/university-ottawa-yoga-cultural-sensitivity-1.3330441
The Hindu. (2015). Yoga a compulsory subject in Central schools. Retrieved from: http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/yoga-a-compulsory-subject-in-central-schools/article7342179.ece
Reuters. (2013). Yoga in school not same as teaching religion, California judge rules. Online. Retrieved from: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-yoga-california/yoga-in-school-not-same-as-teaching-religion-california-judge-rules-idUSBRE96016Y20130702
Rough Translations. (2017). Om alone in India. Audio podcast. Retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/podcasts/510324/rough-translation
Call Your Girlfriend. (2017). Political Bodies, Part 1. Audio podcast. Retrieved from: http://www.callyourgirlfriend.com/episodes#/episode-112-political-bodies-part-1-featuring-good-muslim-bad-muslim/