In this guest post, Roopa Singh, the founder of South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America (SAAPYA), responds to recent criticism of the organization, taking this opportunity to refine and elevate the SAAPYA platform. A version of this article was posted on the SAAPYA blog on February 27.
SAAPYA is an emerging platform moving forward in our support of South Asian diasporic stewardship in yoga across North America. We take each step in our organizing journey with the clear intention of intervening in the past, present, and future appropriation of yoga, specifically where this appropriation is sadly used to further oppression, exclusion, and violence against marginalized bodies.
This is a timely, symbiotic moment in yoga justice organizing. Those of us on the front lines of amplifying silenced voices and images in yoga are working hard to create a path of leadership, safety, and inclusion. This requires us, as stewards, to adeptly pivot between the reality of yoga as a co-opted source for caste-based oppression in India, and yoga as a co-opted source for class- and race-based oppression in North America.
These two realities also intersect with a narrative that pits yoga as inherently dangerous, a narrative promoted by both the Christian right and a few activists of South Asian descent. SAAPYA believes that yoga itself is naturally a healing practice, a critical tool in stemming the exponential effects of political and personal trauma.
Having said this, SAAPYA is curious about whether or not the desi activist community can grow to understand the growing call from yoga communities for South Asian American stewardship in yoga in the west. At the risk of sounding reductive, let us take as an example hip hop cultural and political organizing. There is a generally accepted support and need for black and latino/a leaders in that particular movement.
Similarly, based on SAAPYA’s initial steps in nationwide organizing, there is a palpable desire for more South Asian diasporic voices in U.S.-based yoga. As we deal with all of our imperfections, can we still accept the call to leadership in yoga in the west? SAAPYA says yes, we can, we must, we are. Not because we always love yoga, far from it, but because we are being called to stand in leadership, and it makes sense to listen to the call.
Responding to Criticism
A recent article on Jadaliyaa, “Ghosts of Yogas Past and Present,” critiques efforts to raise awareness around post-colonial appropriation and race politics in yoga in the west. Specifically, the critique highlights diasporic political risks associated with any attempt to “take yoga back” to a reductive India, South Asia, and Hinduism. This risk is set against the sharp edge of the “Take Back Yoga” movement promoted by the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), which has been linked to “extremist and violent Hindutva supremacist organizations.” The article delves into a map of the violent oppression burning through historically marginalized populations in India in the name of Hinduism, right now.
Unfortunately, the article goes on to link the innovative, civil rights and popular culture based work of SAAPYA with right wing Hindu fundamentalism. This contextualization erroneously pegs SAAPYA as an effort to “take yoga back,” despite numerous opportunities to hear SAAPYA on the fact. While journalists have described our diverse and emerging platform this way, but that is not how we describe ourselves.
The article sadly leaves no room for strategic next steps in alliance, such as the creation of best practices in distinguishing non-violent Hindu and Buddhist led efforts in the west from the strain of fanatical Hindu practices within India. Instead, the article singularly names SAAPYA as a catchall context for what the author deems problematic in current yoga justice organizing. SAAPYA is a new and growing platform that has already come to catalyze much goodness in the way of yoga and inclusion. We are comprised of people of color from all walks of life who are heavily involved in yoga in the west, consistently exposed to core experience in the field.
Based on coming face to face with deep dysfunction in yoga spaces over years, SAAPYA continues its dedication to create channels for marginalized voices in yoga to be heard around their experiences of racism, supremacist violence, and exclusion within the western yoga site. Yoga is a sensitive petri dish for societal layers, which makes SAAPYA’s emerging integration efforts (around race, class, ability, orientation) necessary not only for yoga, but for society. To us, the call now is to focus on best strategies for moving forward into increasingly powerful organizing. Though we understand the urge to burn, our interest lies in building bridges within our communities. How else will we actually curb violence in the world, except by working together?
Building a Platform from the Roots Up
We would like to shed light on two crucial points in SAAPYA’s platform moving forward, with an emphasis on solidarity within South Asian diasporic social justice communities.
1. Let us build an inclusive effort to integrate yoga and society, and collaborate on best practices in opposing state sponsored violence in India, and that efforts’ appropriation of yoga and Hinduism.
Are we each other’s targets? A South Asian activist in the community recently and boldly proclaimed that any SAAPYA association with undergrads across the country involved with the Hindu Students Council, who may or may not be funded in part by right wing Hindu groups, would be viewed as a move to support genocide. But this practice of mandates, black lists, and excluding large swaths of South Asian diasporic youth communities is not strategic in SAAPYA’s eyes. Why should we exclude youth and young adults who may be allies, because they are at varying stages of politicization around how and where to practice their faith?
Nor is SAAPYA prepared to denounce the desi folks from coast to coast for whom Hindu temples figure as layered anchors of cultural, spiritual and civic life. We need to build with each other in order to best move forward. To wholesale dismiss Muslims and Islam because of the actions of a tiny percentage of violent fanatics is not right. To disparage all of Hinduism, or Christianity, because of the violence that has been done in its name is too reductive, a dangerously slippery slope. If we are each other’s targets, if we do not seek to be tolerant, even compassionate with each other, then what exactly separates us from the violent factions we aim to quell?
To us, a guiding question is how to educate and politicize without the single-minded trappings of evangelism, that communication style which presupposes wholesale agreement and conversion as the primary positive end. If the goal is to raise awareness, then education seems to be the best strategy.
For SAAPYA, education does not lean towards denunciation, or even suspicion. Instead, according to the liberation-based pedagogies we subscribe to, education builds towards opening minds, without virulent attachment to which way those minds open. Guiding questions include: Who are our most strategic targets in opposing state violence? What are our goals? How can we best build a broad coalition of diasporic support to stem fanaticism? Who are natural allies, and how do we prioritize inclusivity as we organize? Are we ourselves able to step up and step back, and not, as activists, presume we have the superior perspective or final word on how to understand the past, the present, and the future of these efforts? Can we learn from each other, and speak with each other face to face, with patience and compassion?
2. Let us be vigilant around the insidious place of self-hate and internalized oppression in organizing to end violent systems of supremacy.
A recent weekend in NYC had numerous circles of desi activists from all walks of life gathering together to build, strategically, towards an increasingly just future. From anti-black racism, to dealing with sexual violence, desi activist circles in the U.S. are courageously confronting sensitive and powerful layers of our own internalized oppression. When our political drive brings us to these growing edges, it seems increasingly important for us to ground in our personal relationship to the issues we are organizing around.
This is a timely moment to focus on how to learn more about ourselves and each other through these organizing initiatives. As the Jadaliyaa article rightly points out, we are not one people, and therefore there is not one strain of internalized racism projecting out onto others, not one monolithic anti-black racism that emerges out of the South Asian American community, but many strains. For example, my relationship with blackness is influenced by so many factors: from a politicized awareness of being black under British rule; to living and growing in primarily African diasporic peer, civic and cultural circles; to a keen awareness of my family’s own blackness in a heavily tiered class system within desi communities in the states.
I have personal and political work to do when it comes to being the best ally I can be to my African diasporic sisters and brothers. My work is necessarily going to look very different from the solidarity path of another, hypothetically, rich and largely white-identified desi peer. While we work to identify macro issues like anti-black racism in our communities, let us not give in to self-flagellation and slashing and burning each other on the way to building a better day. Bearing witness, being honest, moving forward with courageous solidarity and strategy: Yes, effective. Identifying as bad, bad, bad: No, draining and dysfunctional.
This is also and especially true as we approach the issue of sexual violence. Unless we take a courageous and compassionate look at our own relationship with sexual violence, we will be under-strategic when it comes to how to heal in our communities from this societal illness. Condemnation is not a final step in the path to heal ourselves and each other from the ravages of sexual violence. Staying with and focusing on condemnation is a degree of stagnation SAAPYA is not comfortable with.
We are hoping to move through stagnation and into greater realms of strategic communication. Please feel free to lend your voices and responses to any of our upcoming events as part of our nationwide spring tour (more details to come on SAAPYA’s Facebook page).
Roopa Singh is the founder of SAAPYA (South Asian Arts and Perspectives on Yoga and America), a groundbreaking platform on the personal and political implications of yoga, with a focus on integration and accessibility. Roopa has taught pre-law and popular culture at City College (CUNY) and Pace University. She has also worked at National Public Radio, the U.S. Supreme Court, the ACLU, and the Center for Media Justice. She is a yoga teacher (pre-natal, restorative, and hip hop yoga) and co-owner at Third Root Wellness Center in Brooklyn, has a law degree from UC Berkeley, a Masters in Cinema Studies from Tisch (NYU), and studied sound engineering at the Institute of Audio Research. Roopa often writes about yoga at the intersection of race, hip hop, and body politics, with an eye on increased access and inclusiveness in yoga. She is no stranger to inciting controversy, having once made international news for being asked to remove her hijab in the United States Supreme Court. Roopa is a singer and guitarist in Roopa and Vex, a band working on kick ass music for the people.