I Learned Yoga in India. I Did My Teacher Training at CorePower.


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My first experience with yoga took place at my grandmother’s house when I was five years old. Sitting across from her at the dining table, half-awake as the Kolkata sun began to warm the day, I watched as Dimma pressed one nostril closed with her delicate, wrinkled hand while sending puffs of air out the other nostril. Then she switched from her right nostril to her left and back again.

When she excused herself to do her morning puja, the sound of her prayers floated down the stairs and enveloped me in serenity. In the evening, we stood on her rooftop as she walked backward along the length of the terrace and explained how the exercise increases balance. Before eating her dinner, she fed some rotis to the crows that landed on the railings of her house.

Although my Dimma has likely never done a Downward Dog, she practices yoga everyday. Her morning breathing is her pranayama, her puja is her mantra, backward walking is her asana, and feeding crows is her karma. Growing up, this was what I understood yoga to be—a holistic practice passed down through my ancestors in India to help us create a good life.

Over the years, I read ancient Indian texts. I developed a meditation practice. I took my first vinyasa class while in high school in New Jersey. I spent time with my breath, body, and mind as a daily practice. And I began to dream of doing my yoga teacher training (YTT) in India.

Visions of YTT in the mountains of Dharamsala or the jungles of Kerala consumed my waking hours. I wanted to root myself in traditional wisdom and then spread it far and wide. I grew more and more determined to make this dream a reality, and as the months passed, I spent my weekends researching trainings, comparing flight prices, and working extra hours to save money for tuition.

And then, with one email, everything changed.

“Congratulations!” it read. “You’ve been selected as a recipient for CorePower Teacher Training!”

For a moment, I was confused. Then it came back to me. Months earlier, I had seen an advertisement outside a CorePower Yoga studio in Manhattan advertising a BIPOC scholarship, which provides full or partial funding to aspiring yoga teachers of color to complete their YTT. I had filled out the application and submitted it without any expectation that I would hear back.

And now here I was with an offer to do my yoga teacher training for free—right outside my doorstep.

What CorePower’s BIPOC Scholarship Meant to Me

I enrolled immediately. Although I was overcome with gratitude, I also felt a twinge of shame and a sense of betrayal. I knew the YTT experience I would have at CorePower would be very different from the one I had always imagined for myself. Instead of delving into the yogic wisdom I had been so lucky to inherit, I felt like I was going to learn how to teach a workout class disguised as yoga.

I had never taken a class at CorePower because of the $38 price tag for one drop-in class, but I had imagined it to be a room of wealthy white women wearing Lululemon trying to get ready for swimsuit season. It was a far cry from my grandmother’s pujas and mantras. Before even starting my YTT, I felt out of place.

I reminded myself that was the very reason I was there. I wanted to change the landscape of yoga in the west to be more diverse, inclusive, and authentic. So I put on my game face and counted down the days until the first class of YTT.

My Initial Impressions

On a Tuesday evening in March, I cycled down to the Tribeca studio where my teacher training would be held for the next nine weeks. Excitement, nerves, and skepticism mingled in my body as I walked up the stairs to meet my instructors and classmates. As I had assumed, my fellow trainees were mostly women, mostly white, and mostly in expensive athleisure wear. But even though they seemed to fit my stereotypes of outward appearances, the energy in the room was welcoming and kind.

After introducing ourselves, we gathered in a circle for a grounding meditation led by an instructor. As she spoke, I felt my nerves melt away and the tension in my jaws and eyebrows release. Until she said, “These are the words from the Hindu language…”

My state of tranquility suddenly shattered and I felt as if someone had elbowed me in the gut. There is no such thing as a “Hindu language.” How could someone responsible for training yoga teachers say that? Hinduism is a religion. Many Hindus speak Hindi.

As I sat in Lotus Pose, my eyes closed in an outward state of calm but my thoughts engaged in an inward frenzy of irritation, I reminded myself that everyone makes mistakes and it was probably just a slip. I willed myself to stay positive, forgive, and move on.

Then we each shared our sankalpas, or intentions and reasons, for being at a teacher training. In my notebook, I wrote down that I wanted to make yoga accessible and inclusive, in part by becoming for others the South Asian yoga teacher that I had never seen in yoga studios while growing up. I left with a renewed sense of purpose.

The next few weeks flew by. My body and mind grew stronger from attending vinyasa classes every day. At our training sessions, I was constantly impressed by the depth of my instructors’ knowledge about asana, anatomy, philosophy, and Sanskrit. We discussed making each pose as accessible as possible, using inclusive language, and prioritizing consent before conducting hands-on assists. My own practice gained much more depth, and I began doing what was best for my body rather than what looked the most challenging.

Yoga became even more pleasurable and grounding for me than it had ever been.

What Was Left Unsaid

Our instructors never shied away from conversations about diversity and equity in the yoga space. They discussed strategies we could use to acknowledge to our students that CorePower classes are very different from traditional Indian yoga. One instructor suggested clarifying at the beginning of every class that this is a posture practice. Another instructor mentioned not chanting “om” or displaying statues of deities if, as a teacher, you don’t fully understand their significance.

We also had insightful discussions on cultural appropriation, the use of “namaste,” and the hypocrisy of fads like goat yoga and drunk yoga. I practiced rewiring my brain to say “all of your fingers” instead of “all 10 of your fingers” and “reach toward your toes” instead of “touch your toes” to create a welcoming space for every single person. Because of the emphasis on equity in the yoga space, I felt much more prepared to guide my future students through a practice.

Still, there was much left unsaid. We learned some Sanskrit, but not a lot. The Bhagavad Gita and the Sutras were mentioned, but we never read them. We learned that Savasana is essential to a yoga class, although we never discussed meditation in-depth. We talked about the idea of reparations to India, although we never spoke of colonization. And we acknowledged the need for South Asian teachers and educators in the yoga space, yet I didn’t have a single South Asian teacher during the 50 in-person classes I attended to complete my YTT.

I don’t blame my instructors. Rather, I attribute the issues to the minimized version of yoga that is the status quo outside of India and the corporate models that espouse this version. This version of yoga focuses mostly on asana and pranayama, but there are six more limbs in the eight limbs of yogayama (restraints), niyama (duties), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (enlightenment). This practice of turning inward was at the root of Dimma’s yoga, but I was hard-pressed to find this emphasis on a higher meaning in yoga spaces in the U.S.

Why Continued BIPOC Scholarships Are Needed

CorePower established its BIPOC scholarships in June of 2020. To date, it has awarded some 2,000 scholarships to applicants who might otherwise find a $3,000 YTT to be out of the question.

“Yoga in this country is not diverse,” says Tamarah Saif, the senior vice president of human resources at CorePower. “Being the largest yoga company in the U.S., we have a responsibility to change that.”

CorePower has set a goal of increasing representation of BIPOC yoga instructors to 45% by 2026. Having more yoga teachers of color, according to Saif, creates a ripple effect. “More employees [of color] might come, but [also] more students may feel like ‘Okay, I can come to this class, because someone is more like me in this space,’” says Saif.

What Could Be Done Differently in YTTs

As I worked through my teacher training, I stumbled across two South Asian yoga teachers online whose work became a guiding light throughout my journey. Although I had never met them in person, their books and blog posts brought me comfort through our shared culture and mutual understanding.

Recently, I asked them to consider how YTTs outside of India could include more traditional Indian knowledge.

Yoga advocate and teacher Susanna Barkataki grew up in England and the U.S. She remembers being attacked because of her appearance and her traditional Indian clothing. But she would see white yoga teachers wearing bindis and kurtas and being praised as avant-garde.

The same exact thing, Barkataki realized, happened with yoga. The pujas, mantras, and other rituals that she inherited have been commercialized and sold for a hefty price. Meanwhile, her elders in the U.K. and U.S. would say, “Beta (child), I can’t go to a yoga class. I don’t belong there.”

In response, Barkataki wrote a blog post titled “How To Decolonize Your Yoga Practice.” In it, she encourages studios and teachers to amplify South Asian voices in yoga spaces however possible, including examining traditional texts by South Asian commentators in teacher training or svadhyaya, or self study. Also, by hiring more South Asian yoga teacher training instructors through platforms like abcd yogi.

Barkataki estimates that fewer than one percent of yoga teachers in the US are South Asian. This is not only ironic. It is a tremendous loss for the yoga community that South Asian teachers are not given the platform to share the immense cultural knowledge they might have inherited.

When London-based South Asian yoga teacher Kallie Schut recognized the gaps in the YTT that she took in the United Kingdom, she created her own to fill those spaces. Thus, Radical Darshan was born. The 300-hour training walks students through the history of colonization in India, the impact of British rule on yoga, and the current mission of decolonizing contemporary yoga and our own minds by recognizing and eliminating racialized biases in our thinking.

The course also addresses grief and healing, trauma-informed practices, ritual and ceremonial practices, and meditation as a path to liberation. These ideas are often relegated to short lectures or excluded altogether in many teacher trainings in the West, including the CorePower YTT I took.

Schut reminds us that approaching justice in yoga with care includes thinking critically about hierarchies of caste, color, and religion. For example, sending money to India as a reparation can be well-intentioned but mainly symbolic and potentially harmful. Donating money to groups with Hindu nationalist or Islamophobic ideologies goes against the principles of yoga, but it may be the most obvious option for someone who is not informed.

South Asian teachers can, Schut says, bring a level of cultural awareness and understanding that has been passed down through generations to their teaching. But it’s not always that simple. She reminds me that we must also decolonize our minds, both in and out of the studio. None of us are exempt from continuing to learn about the ways colonialism and racism are present just because of our identity. Nor should we stop working to eliminate those biases in every class that we teach.

Where I Go From Here

Recently, my chosen intention during yoga class has been gratitude. Gratitude for CorePower’s BIPOC scholarship that made my YTT possible. Gratitude for the many people who surely fought to instate the program. And gratitude for the fact that the landscape of yoga in the US is shifting.

As I complete my final YTT requirements and prepare to audition and teach yoga at CorePower and beyond, Schut’s and Barkataki’s words and work fill in the gaps of my training. Their support and advice keep me grounded, not just in my breath and my body but in the legacy of yoga that is in my blood.

Whenever I feel lost, I return to the sound of my grandmother’s mantras and the thought of her giving food to the crows, and I remember the principle of ishvara pranidhana, the knowing that we are part of something much greater than ourselves.

About Our Contributor

Trisha Mukherjee is a print and audio journalist based in New York City. Her work focuses on global human rights, travel, and adventure. Find more at www.trishawrites.com.

 





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