Bad karma: Exposing the dark side of yoga

Soho House Bad Karma: Exposing the Dark Side of Yoga | Soho House

Restoring the mind, body and soul is yours for the taking – but only if you’re slim-limbed, bendy, able-bodied, and (probably) white, writes author and yoga teacher, Nadia Gilani

Tuesday 21 June 2022      By Nadia Gilani

It’s International Yoga Day (21 June), which is always a cue to turn off my phone. Every year it’s the same. Yoga fans take to social media, posting pictures that celebrate their best moves, subtitled with a caption that declares copious gratitude for all that the practice has granted them. I can’t argue with this. As someone who has practiced yoga in some shape or form for the past 25 years, the same has been true for me.

My trouble is that this celebration of modern yoga is at odds with the ethics of what the practice is actually meant to be about. Today, it’s become an aspirational deracinated lifestyle product, so divorced from its roots that it’s now riddled with cultural appropriation. This comes in the form of irksome ‘Namastay in bed all day’ T-shirts, and tattoos of decontextualised Sanskrit and Hindu gods. It’s the plant-based diets, bindis worn as fashion accessories, and bum-sculpting activewear. I’m generalising here, but this isn’t so far from the truth.

Soho House Bad Karma: Exposing the Dark Side of Yoga | Soho House

Yoga isn’t meant to only be about #selfcare or having a healthy body. It’s about following a suggested code of conduct outlined in The Eight Limbs of yoga, and living in a moral way. The postures exist to cleanse and purify the body, preparing us to sit still and meditate. And meditation is designed to help us make our lives more bearable – not escape from them.

I’d hazard a guess that we’re all looking for some kind of peace and contentment in our lives, and many people come to yoga for this reason. But I don’t think it works properly unless it’s engaged in issues facing society today. Yoga was never intended to live on a smartphone app as an escape from life, but rather as a way to deal with it. By the way, I’m not interested in policing anyone else’s approach here, nor am I suggesting we should practice in ways that align only to ancient times. I certainly don’t. My approach to yoga is liberal because I live a modern life; my practice has to accommodate that, and make space for the interaction of politics, including the way I feel about equality and justice. It would be impossible for me to separate the two.

Soho House Bad Karma: Exposing the Dark Side of Yoga | Soho House
Soho House Bad Karma: Exposing the Dark Side of Yoga | Soho House

This brings me to why I feel conflicted about International Yoga Day. It was introduced by the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, in 2014. According to the United Nations, it aims to raise awareness worldwide to the many benefits of practicing yoga. So far, so good. But the thing is, Modi’s politics aren’t the most harmonious. His time in office has seen the rise of Hindutva, a right-wing nationalist movement that condones the persecution of Muslims – and indeed anyone who isn’t Hindu. In this way, Modi’s reclamation of yoga as an Indian practice is being used as a political tool to push a catastrophic ideology. I can’t support anyone doing that.

That’s not all. In my work as a yoga teacher, I quickly became troubled by what I saw beneath the so-called ‘wellness’ industry. Unlike the yoga I experienced from a young age, I found myself increasingly surrounded by a type of practice that didn’t look like what I understood it to be: white-washed workouts set to a pounding soundtrack with complex, choreographed sequencing. I began to wonder, were people not coming to class because they weren’t interested in yoga, or because they didn’t feel welcome?

Soho House Bad Karma: Exposing the Dark Side of Yoga | Soho House

Sadly, many of the classes I taught lacked diversity in ethnicity and gender. Most tended to fill up with able bodies of a generally similar size, and failed to reflect the diverse communities outside the yoga studio doors.

The irony became clear. Despite working in the self-care industry, I often felt uncared for, and it was only through writing about some of my concerns on social media and finding my voice as the @theyogadissident on Instagram that I felt confident to start teaching in a way I wanted to. Now I love it, and thankfully those who practise with me do too, which is proof that yoga as we know it doesn’t have to stay the way it is.

The wellness industry has become an unwieldy beast that’s led yoga so far astray, it can sometimes feel like there’s no way out. But I believe change is possible if we stop using the practice as a way to disengage, and instead embrace it as a tool to re-engage with others and the world around us.

To help you get started, here are some ideas taken from my book, The Yoga Manifesto.

Soho House Bad Karma: Exposing the Dark Side of Yoga | Soho House

Lose the gimmicks
Anyone who profits from yoga could take a look at aligning themselves more closely with the philosophical ethics of the practice. There’s nothing wrong with offering the physical practice to consumers in studios – that’s usually the gateway to yoga for most of us. But is what we’re selling being offered with respect and integrity, or is it just gimmicky? Are you focussed on what the practice was meant for or has it been turned into a workout with a killer playlist? I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, but it’s important to be honest about the fact that it probably stops being yoga when a class comes garnished with so many distractions.

Practice what you preach
We might benefit from thinking about what we’re teaching and how we’re practising. In 2020 I led a series of mediation sessions at Soho House, teaching a combination of practices that stem from Zen Buddhism and yoga because I personally practise an amalgam of both. I explained the lineage of each, providing enough information to enable people to go and explore further. Giving context is important, and we don’t always need to throw bucketloads of philosophy at people every time.

Question everything
Questioning everything is always my first piece of advice. Wherever you are in your practice, think about what form your yoga takes. Is the physical practice helping you push to the edge of your experience so that you can make changes in your life? Or are you chasing quick fixes? Ideally, we want to be practising in order to find calm from the chaos of life, so that we can look inside ourselves more deeply. It could be that we’re not ready to do that, which is of course fine, but even that in itself is a useful thing to discover about ourselves.

The Yoga Manifesto by Nadia Gilani, published by Pan Macmillan, is out now.

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