Through the lockdowns over the past year, an increasing number of people seem to have turned to practicing yoga, not just to maintain their physical but also mental health. I have often seen yoga described as something that helps the body, mind and soul. But what I notice a lot about yoga practitioners is that a lot of them are usually cis, het, thin people who are making people do complicated poses that look impossible to accomplish for a beginner; it seems to suggest that the more complex poses you do, the more accomplished you are.
Such movements are restricted to a certain group of people who are privileged through aspects of ability, race, money, sexuality and so on. Thin people often become the face of fitness and this extends to the brand of yoga. It is also seen as an activity to become thin, to gain that ‘hot summer bod’, rather than as a mindful practice. However, in the spirit of subversion of dominant heteronormative ideas of movement, we spoke to Allé K (he/they), a queer, fat, trans masc activist and educator who is also a certified yoga instructor.
They are currently based in Ashville, North Carolina, but one can book for an online class with them from any part of the world. Allé said they discovered the benefits of yoga through their own journey of pain and healing. “I was interested in learning more about the nadis, the energy channels and the subtle anatomy, so I pursued a Yoga Teacher Training”; he enjoys teaching others as well and so, the hobby took a professional turn with wanting to share the healing benefits of yoga with others. Allé shared with me about how practising yoga helped him accept himself and that they don’t see their body as something that needs to be reduced or shrunk, but rather something that is perfect as it is and that needs to be celebrated through a practice that is grounding and supportive.
They studied with Darma Mittra, a traditional yoga teacher, and learnt the yamas, niyamas, and other aspects of yoga philosophy, including texts like the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, all of which helped them release their patterns of shame, self-doubt, attachment as they want to feel peace, be free of pain, suffering and desire. Their intention with their classes is to help other people who have faced cis-tems that discriminate against them.
Allé says that a class for queer people very much begins with the teacher being queer themselves and that the space which is thus created is determined by their identity, and the people who participate in their classes are people like them because they identify with Allé. Allé makes sure to honour people’s pronouns and their chosen names while doing introductions in class, for starters. The atmosphere is comfortable and familiar, with Allé making jokes and queer references that are relatable for queer people while also providing modifications for people who are binding and/or recovering from top surgery. The students feel seen and validated for their bodies and their identities, which keeps them coming back.
Allé says that yoga also helped them to fully come to terms with their queerness and that it encouraged and helped them in their self-study (svadhyaya). “I am queer because I am beyond shape and form, I am limitless. These are the teachings of yoga. Yoga has us searching to find who we are beyond the body and the mind; to be connected to our true nature. Mine is queer”.
With his teachings going digital, Allé has been able to connect with queer people from all over the world this past year. Nonetheless, they miss the in-person experience of teaching and being able to share people’s energies, breathing with them, they miss hearing people laugh and chant, and while the chanting can be done online, it’s not the same. Despite the online restrictions, they are grateful to be able to reach a wider community, and because of this connection, he looks forward to visiting friends in new places, like Vancouver, New Mexico, Toronto/ Ontario, UK, India, among others. They say that they also like teaching from the comfort of their home, where they don’t have to spend hours commuting to & fro places as it also helps them to maintain their energy balance without the distractions of the world.
Most conversations about yoga is centered around spirituality, energy, and also about its Indian and Sanskrit origins. In recent years, it has more or less, taken on the form of a tool for extreme Hindutva ideology, to homgenize and appropriate the diverse history and culture of the subcontinent, while along becoming part of a political campaign that erases other practices in India. The use of Sanskrit terms to refer to the asanas and the chanting of ‘om’, as well as the ideas derived from Vedic texts, indicates an exclusion of bodies of historically oppressed castes.
In India, Yoga is mostly accessed by upper caste Brahmin groups through studios and organized groups, made accessible through expensive teacher trainings. Even across the world, yoga is understood as something that originated from the “Hindu” culture, when yoga is actually a collective of various practices across cultures and time, including even Buddhism, which was unified and homogenized by colonial supremacists for ease of rule and control. As a result, queer people are also excluded from its common practise.
Allé thinks that understanding yoga as merely an appropriated practise from the East is a disservice to yoga. While they are conscious of their roots as a white person who doesn’t fully understand the cultural origins of yoga, they think it is important to approach it with curiosity to learn more about it and understand that it’s not just a physical but also a spiritual practise that has the ability to unite people. Personally, I think it is important to understand and decolonize the modern practice of yoga by making it accessible to various groups of people and modify its practice accordingly. As a consequence, yoga practice can come to mean different things for different people. For some, it’s about the physical fitness, for some it’s about the spiritual and mental practise of mindfullness, and for some others, it is a hegemonic Hindu practise. While it is important to share culture, I think it is equally important for us to actively understand what we are practising while we are practising yoga, and try to be more conscious of what is being silenced or left out while we do so.