After the brutal rape and murder of a medical student on a bus, the world watches as India "wakes up" to the notion of sexual abuse and harassment of women. The term "Eve Teasing" is making its way into the modern lexicon. The BBC defines it as "referring to a wide variety of behavior including molestation, flashing or any verbal/physical sexual street harassment that falls short of rape. An archaic term, the 'Eve' part comes from the Old Testament and describing harassment as "teasing" makes it sound almost like a mild romantic overture that should be tolerated - which of course it should not."
From Minnesota, it's easy to wonder, "Is it really that bad?" On one hand, India seems so modern with its notable accomplishments in science and technology. On the other, it seems decades behind in its attitudes towards women. In a globalizing world, those attitudes affect all of us-- even yoga teachers in Minneapolis!
I've been secretly planning a trip to India for the last year. As yoga has become a full-time vocation for me, I figured it's time to take the plunge and go to The Source. I have had opportunities to travel to India before, mostly when I worked in Tokyo as a Branch Manager for a software company. Why didn't I do it? Frankly, the men, collectively, not individually, as there are many fine exceptions. I had experienced what I now know as "Eve Teasing" enough in Japan, often by business tripping expats from India. They didn't seem to flinch when confronted or called out, which made me even more uneasy.
Fast forward decades later to Minnesota: after taking a class with a local Iyengar teacher whom I admire, it felt like divine intervention last Fall when I saw a flyer at his studio for a winter workshop here in Minneapolis at the Iyengar Yoga Center, led by Jawahar Bangera. Mr. Bangera is a Director on the Board at the Iyengar Institute in Pune, India, as well as a Trustee of the Light on Yoga Research Trust. In short: India was coming to Minneapolis.
Before registering, I made a call to the Iyengar Yoga Teachers Association of Minnesota (IYAMN) to address a couple of issues on the flyer, which stated: 1) for "intermediate classes, you should have a regular practice of at least 5 years, be able to maintain a 5 minute Sirasana (headstand) / 10 minute Sarvangasana, and be able to push up to Urdva Dhanurasana (wheel)" and, 2) "recommended minimum 2 years study of Iyengar Yoga."
When I phoned in, I mentioned that I had a whiplash injury and that holding those positions for that duration, was too risky. The friendly woman with whom I spoke assured me it would not be a problem. I also told her I was a Kripalu teacher, and I had done some Iyengar yoga, off and on. Besides, I was only going to do one "intermediate" class that weekend, the rest being "general/beginner." She said it would be fine. Later, when they postponed the workshop a month without explanation, I suspected they needed headcount, and therefore, were willing to bend the rules.
In the lead up to the workshop, I exchanged further emails with the woman to whom I had spoken on the phone. I was so looking forward to meeting her. Unfortunately, I never got the chance. When I checked in to the small, hole-in-the-wall studio in Minneapolis, she wasn't there. Instead, there was a gentleman behind the desk-- professional, but out of his comfort zone, possibly filling in. When I announced that I was The Kripalu Teacher, he looked surprised, as though no one had briefed him on this. As I was making out the check, I added that I had some neck issues, which he advised me to inform instructor about before class.
My next order of business, was to Approach the Guru. Mr. Bangera invited me to sit down next to him, also avoiding all eye contact. I followed his cue and stared straight ahead into space. When I briefly explained my neck issues, he asked me if I knew how to do headstand with chairs. I did, problem solved. I would Have the Guru's Blessing to use the chairs.
After getting my boatload of props (Iyengar is sometimes called the 'furniture yogi'), I claimed my spot. The woman next to me was nice enough, sharing that the instructor was " a little hard on a gal in the earlier session." Another neighbor chimed in, "you feel like you can't do anything right." Note that Iyengar teachers are known for being somewhat "anal," shall we say, about alignment. I knew going in it would be a stark contrast to the training I did with Paul Grilley, a.k.a. "The Anatomy Yogi," who refutes the Iyengar universal alignment ideal based on the premise that, as no two bodies are alike, no two poses should be completely alike--the antithesis to Iyengar. But, yoga is about "dancing between the opposites" with equanimity. I thought it would be good for me. I thought it would take me out of my comfort zone. I was right.
After a decadent half hour in supported bound ankle, (baddha konasana) listening to Mr. Bangera's lucid explanation of breath patterns, I was truly relaxed and settled. From there, we transitioned into the poses where I had the greatest trepidation: sirasana and sarvangasana (head and shoulder stands). Unfortunately, they were the featured poses of the evening. Had I known this, to be honest, I probably wouldn't have attended.
I retrieved my chairs and set up in a corner. Mr. Bangera reminded me to tie the chairs together for stability. I gestured to show I understood, to which he directed, "Don't shake your head like that, just say 'yes.'" I chuckled under my breath, marveling at the Asian male's sense of entitlement to openly comment on all aspects of a woman's physicality. Oh well, I was focusing on the task at hand, which was setting up the chairs so I wouldn't crash headfirst on the floor.
As I went to kick up to headstand, each shoulder supported by a chair, head dangling down in the middle, it was a trifle awkward, due to an inconveniently placed heat radiator. Mr. Bangera approached and snipped, "I thought you said you knew how to do this; the chairs are too far apart." I dismounted and came down. I had positioned the chairs where I knew they would be most comfortable on my rather bony shoulders. Mr. Bangera repositioned them closer, but as I kicked up, I could feel them impinging on my neck. It was a long 10 minutes.
Next up: shoulderstand. I scrounged up a couple of blankets to support my shoulders and protect the neck. As I made my way up, my neck protested after being squashed so tightly in headstand. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mr. Bangera's stealthy feet move closer and braced myself. "No wonder you have a bad neck, you need another blanket" he diagnosed. "No, the reason I have a bad neck is because the driver in the car behind me wasn't paying attention," I thought.
I had never used such a high stack of blankets in the pose before, and felt like the "Princess and the Pea." The result of the extra height was it pushed my pelvis so far forward that I actually had more pressure on my neck, not less. I then struggled to find what was a new fulcrum for me in the pose, feeling that, at any moment, my 6’ frame could wipe out half the participants if toppled into a backwards sommersault. I took stock of the situation: was I going to risk an injury to appease this man in the diaper? No. Self-care over egos--students' and teachers'.
After a transformative yoga nidra, I felt peaceful. I was also relieved that the rest of my sessions in the workshop would not be with Iyengar teachers, but in the "general" section with students only. I had only taken the "intermediate" level session as a courtesy provided to me by the mystery woman on the phone as a "make up" opportunity, since I had to miss one of the "general" sessions to teach my class.
There I was, in the midst of 30 or so silent women, all packing up their gear, standing in line to put away props, when it happened: The Final Straw, The Crossing of the Line which I couldn't let roll off my back (or backside, for that matter). It came with a SLAP! -- on the left side of my left buttock, to be precise--followed by the breeze of Mr. Bangera leaving the room, followed by a quip, "You are NOT an Iyengar teacher." Slap. Breeze. Quip.
Stunned, I managed to echo back, "I'm a Kripalu Teacher." For comic relief, I smiled, "Ah, there's that Asian Patriarchy I miss," to the gentleman whom had checked me in. I was hoping a witness of The Slap might say something in my defense, as I was discombobulated. Certainly, there must be one 21st Century Woman with enough presence of mind to The Guru out? Or, might the man from the front desk utter a word against this behavior? Crickets...
Finally, the man from the front desk calculated I was the one in need of a reprimand, "You know, this is a workshop for Iyengar teachers" he said. I explained that I had spoken to a woman on the phone (Who was she? Did she exist?) and that I had studied Iyengar in the past, but took a lot of other classical yoga, like Sivananda, for instance. "This isn't Sivanananda" he said. He then waved over a woman whose name was on the flyer. For a moment, I thought, finally, the mystery woman was coming to my rescue to clear up the whole misunderstanding.
Turned out she was not the mystery woman, but she was poised to debate the wording in the flyer and construct her argument as to why I wasn't welcome. I nipped that one in the bud, with a firm, "I am not here to argue with you." After a dramatic pause and a long inhalation to collect my thoughts, I suggested, "Why don't you just refund my money for this and I'll vanish, be on my way..." I also added that, after studying many styles of yoga around the world, this was a "reception I'd never forget."
As my voice started to crack, I implored the man whom checked me in, "Do something because I really want to leave now." As I turned to find my coat, he calmly went over to the desk and handed me the check I had written 2 naive hours earlier.
This is almost the end of my cautionary tale. Am I sorry I went? No. I gathered some valuable insight on the breath, supported bound ankle pose and how not to place chairs in headstand if you want to have a headache the next day. It also reinforced how vulnerable students with injuries and limitations feel in a class when those around them seem to be doing poses adeptly; and, of course, the power of shame—a practice still used by teachers in many settings across Asia.
Finally, I realized, that as a female teacher of yoga, maybe I’ve been grasping, striving for too much “authenticity.” Some of the worst experiences of my yoga career have been in classical environments tainted by male chauvinism and guru worship. Is this “cultural baggage” from India, now internationally notorious for its ill treatment (and murder) of women worth schlepping into 21st Century America?
I, for one, will not volunteer to carry that baggage, and, I have crossed "yoga in India" off my bucket list for now. I encourage yoginis (female yogis) everywhere to practice less self-control when belittled, shamed and, in the worst cases, harassed by men who don’t play by modern rules. If you follow yoga news, you know these problems are not limited to men of Indian ethnicity, but unfortunately have been imported by opportunistic Western male “gurus” across a variety of styles and schools.
Many schools of "imported" classical Indian yoga, including Kripalu, have been disappointed by their gurus and are forced to ask, can the heart of the practice be maintained while extracting out the unhealthy cultural baggage? I am optimistic, as there are many Iyengar teachers doing this successfully, both male and female, all over the Twin Cities. I am sure if you attend their classes, you will feel welcomed and encouraged.
In light of recent events, The Iyengar Community needs to take stock and ask if those at the upper echelons are helping or hindering their reputation and their future. Men like Jawahar Bangea: you are on notice. Regardless of your esteemed position or knowledge, being ill equipped to interact positively with modern women (most practitioners and teachers are female) of all cultures will lead to your demise. And be advised: this modern woman is educated, literate and believes, "the pen is mightier than the slap."