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When trauma informs identity

by Sangeeta Vallabhan

In the yoga world, there is an increasing awareness of cultural appropriation, as race discussions in America have expanded from a mostly black and white issue to include brown and all shades in between. I’ve been teaching yoga for over fifteen years, and as an American yoga teacher of Indian descent, my road of exploring and understanding this topic has been anything but straight. 

When I arrived in New York City in 1997, I voraciously took yoga classes at different studios. I found a few teachers and studios I liked, but I kept getting pulled back to a studio that incorporated a lot of Indian traditions in their classes. In many ways, it was comforting, after being brought up in West Texas. I grew up in a time where as a brown kid, you often felt like making sure you didn’t do or wear anything that would make you look different. So in these yoga classes, having exposure to my Indian culture felt a lot like coming home. It was an internal and experiential merging of Indian and American cultures. Even though my teachers were white, I didn’t question how they fit in with the traditions. 

I was a dancer at the time and was moved by the active nature of an asana class. I was getting to move my body in an athletic, yet measured and intelligent way. The use of Sanskrit caught me off guard; I had to learn that like any of the other non-Indians in class. The chanting gave me a spiritual experience that had yet to happen – invoking both my heart and my intellect. I’d always loved music and singing. But for me, hearing the Indian melodies was somehow familiar and being offered translations of what we were singing made participation a no brainer.

Early on, I completed teacher trainings from two different studios. I taught for a few years, and while I was teaching, I still took classes at the studio that incorporated more Indian elements in their classes. Through the use of chanting, imagery, Sanskrit, Indian spiritual text and philosophy, I felt like these classes offered much more depth and dimension to the practice, than simply offering asana by itself. Eventually I did their training too, in the hopes of bringing in the elements I enjoyed. I had already been teaching for some time, so adding these elements carried some hesitation. I didn’t know if people would reject the teachings or me; I felt incredibly self conscious presenting more Indian-ness in my yoga teaching. But I had a lot of support from students and the people I was working for, and then it felt almost second nature.

I ended up teaching at the studio, that incorporated Indian elements into their practice, right after completing their training. I quickly got several classes on the schedule and ended up staying there for five years. I was on the teacher training staff and my trajectory was looking good, until it wasn’t. One day the owners of the studio, who were also my teachers, and I clashed. It felt catastrophic and my whole sense of being was shattered. I tried to stay and make it work but eventually I left the studio. I had to, for the simple reason of taking myself out of a toxic situation. I now understand the complexity and depth of that traumatic event.

I was the victim of spiritual abuse, at the hands of my teachers. They publicly shamed and humiliated me; it was an incredibly deep betrayal. Spiritual abuse is particularly insidious, how it attacks your core belief system and leaves you with so many questions and so much distrust. My confidence was shattered. I was filled with doubt, which still lingers from time to time.  After teaching a style of yoga that felt very personal and dear to me, the abuse broke my heart. How could I ever trust anyone again? Will this feeling of betrayal ever heal? I still have trust issues – especially with yoga people. 

I was broken. I left the studio because I hated how I felt and I knew any kind of repair and rehab-ing of my spirit and well being was not going to happen while I was still there. I knew I didn’t want to feel like shit anymore. And it has been a long road to really understanding what was going on in my head and my heart. And my life.

I started teaching at other studios and felt like “yoga roadkill” trying to pull it together. But eventually I did. While I had come from a yoga studio that honored more of the Indian aspects of yoga, many of the places I was now teaching in didn’t. It all seemed a bit whitewashed or westernized, with no apparent reference to Indian culture, other than the word itself – yoga. It was interesting how most teachers didn’t include philosophy, used very limited Sanskrit and incorporated very little chanting in class. So little that I felt self conscious offering it. The environment was very different; I was accustomed to a different yoga studio culture.

At the same time, I was navigating my own trauma. Different aspects of my identity were flailing in the wind. My self esteem had plummeted, and at the studio I felt like the odd person out as a yoga teacher of Indian descent who wanted to chant. I didn’t fully grasp what was going on.

I now understand that the incident with my teachers was not only traumatizing, it unearthed all of my wounds. Every vulnerability was at the surface. The trauma left me feeling completely inept, filled with self doubt, self hate, not trusting anyone, thinking everyone was out to get me. I was very angry and completely weighed down. I eventually found a therapist, who was well versed in cult dynamics and spiritual abuse. She helped me understand what my wounds were and why I was hurting – and previously not recovering. Once I was able to put the layers of my experience together, I felt much more confident to navigate everything in my life. 

I was able to begin to articulate my frustration with aspects of cultural appropriation in the yoga world. More so, because I’d been involved in teacher training programs since 2009. When fellow teacher trainers would minimize the teaching of Sanskrit and yoga philosophy, it was both baffling and disheartening. Because I wasn’t trained this way, when I encountered teachers who came from very westernized yoga trainings, it was shocking to see the lack of knowledge of Sanskrit and philosophy, but also to see a dismissive attitude towards it. It felt personal, even if it wasn’t meant to be personal.

If you are a yoga teacher who does not include historical context of India, yoga history and Indian culture in your teacher training – in a respectful way – your knowledge and training is inherently flawed and incomplete. If someone is told at their 200hr or 300hr training, “you don’t need to know that” they are going to believe it to be true. It’ll be a foundational concept in their whole outlook of being a yoga teacher. It is teaching someone to be completely dismissive of yoga’s indigenous roots. It is teaching someone unintentional racism.

Even when going to events addressing diversity in yoga – I was noticing that whenever cultural appropriation was referenced, it was always – yes, that’s it’s own topic. It wasn’t addressed, even on a minimal level. I do think it is it’s own topic. But as we work towards creating more diversity and accessibility in the yoga community, can we also have more diversity in the people who are making the argument to honor the country and culture yoga comes from? Can we examine the deeper roots of colonialism and its lingering effects in our world today? Can we collectively chip away at the pervasive dismissive regard of India and Indian culture as the origin of yoga?