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Farmers, history and yoga

Today's blog is about something I personally am wrestling with and most definitely have more questions than answers still. I wasn't intending on writing anything until I had read more, researched more, thought more, and come to a place of a considered decision which I could nicely and succinctly convey to you in a blog with a bow. However, this morning I found out about the protests by Indian farmers from the Punjab at new laws which remove minimum rates for produce and enable farmers to sell to anyone, removing restrictions and protections.

What do famer protests have to do with yoga, you say? in India produce a lot of the world's food. Especially the special plants, herbs and spices used in Ayurvedic products. They also produce a lot of the world's sugar, wheat and tea. And the farmers have gone on strike and are protesting the new laws because after decades of being mistreated by various governments, this, they feel, is the nail in the coffin; putting them out of business because they won't be able to raise enough money to live from farming anymore. Which means - no farmers, no herbal tea, no British builder's tea, no biscuits with your tea, no herbal supplements, no Indian curry spices. Still - what's tea got to do with yoga?

And no, I'm not about to tell you what to drink or not to drink. It's not that kind of blog. Yoga, like tea, comes from the India sub-continent. It is centuries old traditions, customs and practices which were passed on orally, and were started to be written down around 2000BCE. A lot is still not written down but passed on guru to student. These traditions and practices were developed in a place which had great and sophisticated civilisations. India, later, then was colonised by the British who suppressed spiritual practices and made the people seem like exotics, uneducated, uncivilised and barbaric. British colonial rule has also led to the oppression of the farmers today, who are mostly Sikh and are still discriminated against because of their religion. The Punjab is part of the region in India which was brutalised at the end of colonial rule, dividing India into India and Pakistan (and later Bangladesh) - partition - based on arbitrary and religious lines. It is a place of contention, suppression, violence and oppression. So given all this - how have we ended up with yoga in the West today? In order to practice yoga without raising alarm bells with the British, it was transformed into a largely physical based practice which was promoted to the British as 'gymnastics'. Much of the spiritual side of it was hidden due to British suppression. So long story short, the kind of yoga we tend to get here in the UK today, and especially the kind taught in gyms, is very physical posture based and much of the spiritual side has been removed. And yet, probably the physical side (asanas) is one of the least important aspects of yoga. The pranayama (breathwork), mudras (hand postures), mantras (chants), and meditations are the more profoundly transformative aspects of yoga, but have largely been stripped out as being too spiritual.

Which means that yoga has been stripped of all of the important spiritual, cultural, historical and social aspects of it which make it so great and we have a whitewashed colonially appropriate stripped down version here. Of course, not all yoga is like this, and increasing numbers of yoga teachers are working to decolonise their yoga and to culturally appreciate its origins, sharing this information with their students. But yoga has been, specifically whitewashed and stripped of its true meanings and origins, recreating colonial practices, colonial beliefs, and colonial words.

If we are to decolonise our yoga, to understand its roots, history, culture and spirituality, to really honour and respect it; then we also need to understand where it comes from. Some of it comes from the Punjab. Yoga is something which runs parallel to Ayurvedic practices. And much of the herbs and spices for Ayurvedic medicines are grown in the Punjab. And yet, it is not recognised that the tea we drink, the biscuits we eat, the yoga we practice comes from the peoples living in the Punjab, who's livelihoods are now on the line. Many of the farmers protesting are in their 70s and 80s. They've lived through partition and post-colonialism in India. They lived through the denial of their practices, their livelihoods, their ancient recipes and medical knowledge being ignored, marginalised, distorted, repackaged and sold for great profit in the West. Ahimsa is one of the 8 limbs of yoga as set out by Patanjali in one of the oldest and foremost texts on yoga. Ahimsa means to do no harm, non-stealing. It's a bit like the medical hippocratic oath. As a yogi we commit to practicing ahimsa - non-stealing, doing no harm. But when we whitewash yoga, disregard its roots, its origins, its culture, its people, its spiritual practices - this is himsa (harming, striking). We are stealing and not repaying the honour of such practices. We are doing harm to the people who own and pass on the ancient yogic traditions, and to the farmers who cannot be paid enough because we want our turmeric and ginger tea cheaper.

As you can see now, this is a weighty and complex subject and I'm literally not even scratching the surface with this short blog. But my intention in writing it is to start the cogs turning, to let you know about the farmers protesting because their livelihoods are being taken away from them (and due to discrimination are unlikely to be able to get other jobs), in recognising that we are all connected. We are connected to the farmers in the Punjab, both historically through colonialism, and currently through the produce we buy from them - spices, teas, sugar, wheat, herbs, coconuts....We are connected to them through the yoga we practice, these beautiful, powerful ancient spiritual teachings. Often "we are one" is a phrase banded about for spiritual bypassing in the yoga community to absolve ourselves for the need to have responsibility. Its is absolutely true - we are one with the farmers in the Punjab. But, are we behaving like it? Are we recognising that the benefits we have today are due to their labour, their hard work, their blood, sweat and tears? And are we considering how we can repay this debt? How can we stand up with the farmers and support them?

There's a bunch of information on social media about this as the mainstream media seem to be barely mentioning it. As with all information these days - watch out for misinformation. Follow some reputable accounts which are sharing information. There are also local organisations providing medical care, food and other support to the farmers which you can donate to. Think about your yoga, where it comes from, and how whilst it may benefit you, it has also, and continues to be used to oppress others. How can we use the privilege we hold as yogis to support those who are oppressed because of their practice, their history, their customs? How can we practice ahimsa and repair harm? This is not about being the white person saving brown and black people. This is about standing shoulder to shoulder, letting them know we see and bear witness to their struggles.

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