Tag Archives: #liberation

Quest of a Modern Day Yogi in America

Come walk with me

I’ve been revisiting the rich teachings and wisdom of my Vedic heritage as I traverse my golden years. Examining them through the lens of the world around me today, I realize the need to re-interpret Vanaprastha and Sannyasa for myself, for the present day in which I live. Back in those ‘golden-olden’ days, society looked after an individual entering Vanaprastha; he or she did not have to worry about the next meal or a roof overhead.  Today, so many of our fellow seniors cannot see beyond a meal for the day. How can they possibly contemplate transitioning from the obligations of a householder? How can they detach from society to enter introspection? How best can the more fortunate among us – those who have enjoyed a decent life, and are now reasonably secure in their circumstances – deal with the ‘emptiness’ of the transition from Grihasta?

Come and walk with me for a while on my quest to be a modern-day Yogi in today’s America, and I’ll tell you.

Historic path to self-realization

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is a collection of around two hundred statements, observations or truths that describe the science of Yoga in its entirety. The Yoga Sutras describe the Raja Yoga, or Ashtanga Yoga – the eight-step practice that enables individuals to attain self-control, discipline, internal clarity, peace and ultimately self-realization or Samadhi – the ecstatic union of the individual with the cosmos. Scholars believe these primary scriptures of Yoga were written around the 2nd century BCE. Through the intervening centuries, philosophers and learned sages have been pulling at the threads of Patanjali’s work, translating and explaining them for our consumption.  

Each stage or limb of Ashtanga Yoga builds naturally on those that precede it. The first four limbs are designed to help us gain control over our bodies and become aware of ourselves. When you or I talk about ‘practicing yoga,’ we are referring to Asana, the third limb which follows Yama and Niyama.  The postures we practice – often referred to as Hatha Yoga – help us maintain physical health and well-being.  In addition, they promote self-discipline, focus and concentration, and prepare us for meditation. Pranayama, which literally means life-force extension, is the fourth limb of Ashtanga Yoga, and consists of breath-control techniques to rejuvenate the body and extend life. It is either practiced on its own, or integrated into Hatha Yoga routines. 

The next three stages, Pratyahara, Dharana and Dhyana are preparation for the last, ultimate stage: Samadhi. They involve a conscious withdrawal from the outside world and an effort to transcend external stimuli to focus increasingly inward. This cultivation of detachment and an increased effort to concentrate and singularly focus inward, while leveraging the training in posture and breath control leads naturally to Dhyana: meditation or contemplation.

Meditation or Mindfulness?

In Eastern philosophy, cultures and tradition – whether it be the scientific path of Yoga or one of the more monastic forms of Buddhism, meditation is a practice that combines inward focus and concentration with controlled breathing, allowing individuals to follow their breath to an inner harmonious state. Harmony, peace, tranquility, and compassion both for self and others should follow.

The prevalence of meditation in other cultures and religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has traditionally been described by scholars as self-administered techniques for inner transformation. Attempts to link meditation and spirituality have created controversy. Western meditation typically involved the reading of religious texts, prayer, and contemplation.  Worldwide interest in Eastern forms of meditation and their adoption began in earnest around the middle of the 20th century as travel increased. The same period witnessed a rapid decline of religion, especially Christianity, in the US, Europe, and most of the Western world. This trend, coupled with a marked increase in stress and mental-health issues induced by the unrelenting pace of modern life and work began to drive people to seek other sources for comfort and healing; to the practice of meditation and the health benefits that accrue from it.  A growing body of scientific evidence verifies what Patanjali taught centuries ago: regular meditation improves physical and mental health; it reduces blood pressure, helps with digestive disorders, eases the symptoms of anxiety and depression, improves sleep, and promotes physical changes in the brain that promote better overall health.

We often hear the term mindfulness these days; some use it interchangeably with meditation. There are differences, however. Meditation is a practice, while mindfulness is a state or quality. 

Dr. John Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) program defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” 

Mindfulness is a cultivated behavior, the process of focusing one’s attention. We can derive a lot of value by making it part of our way of life. Mindfulness and being in the moment are key to building resilience and overcoming adversity and stress. The essence of mindfulness is embedded in the practices of Ashtanga Yoga. 

Whether you are on the Ashtanga path towards the ultimate goal of a Yogi, an agnostic, or a disbeliever; whether you practice this or that religion or are an atheist, whether you are on the modern-day treadmill seemingly getting nowhere, or attuned with Mother Nature with days filled with purpose, the regular practice of meditation is good for your body, your mind, and your soul. Regardless of what terminology you use – mindfulness or something else, the ability to focus your attention and be in the present moment with equanimity is worth developing.  Attributions to East or West and distinguishing between shades of meaning may be interesting philosophically or may make for a robust debate, but they do not change the individual outcome. Meditation, pranayama, and mindfulness transcend culture, religion, and national or political boundaries. They have intrinsic value. Pranayama and meditation should be part of all stages of our life journey. I’m trying to make them part of mine.

Heading towards Liberation

In Vedic culture, the path of Ashtanga Yoga weaves through the four Ashramas or stages of spiritual life.  Beginning with Brahmacharya or student life, the Ashramas set a living framework and define spiritual practices based on the duties and responsibilities required at each stage of life, as the individual progresses on a path towards ultimate self-realization or Samadhi.  Brahmacharya sets the foundation, provides learning about family life and community, teaches spiritual practice, and provides yogic training. The second stage of life is spent as a Grihastha or householder – raising and supporting a family, following one’s worldly interests, continuing to drink from the fountain of Jnana, and carrying out the teachings of Bhakti and Karma Yoga. Once these responsibilities are fulfilled, the individual begins to withdraw from the world into the transitional stage of Vanaprastha, counseling the family and community while becoming increasingly more detached, with decreasing attention to the world and surroundings. Attention instead turns inward in preparation for the final stage: Sannyasa or renunciation, working towards the attainment of Samadhi, and ultimately seeking Moksha or salvation.

Every religion and culture addresses Moksha –liberation from the state of being human to become one with the cosmos or some higher power – in its own terms, and with its own descriptions and definitions of both the pathway and the ultimate end state. The Bhagavad Gita describes three margas or pathways: Bhakti (devotion), Jnana (knowledge), and Karma (duty or service). You will find proponents and devoted followers of each approach. The descriptions, discussions, and discourse on each alternative, and the relative merits of one versus the other would fill a small library. 

While commenting on Adi Sankara’s renowned devotional hymn Bhaja Govindam, the elder statesman and writer C. Rajagopalachari statedthe way of devotion is not different from the way of knowledge or jnana. When intelligence matures and lodges securely in the mind, it becomes wisdom. When wisdom integrates with life and issues out in action, it becomes bhakti. Knowledge when it becomes fully mature is Bhakti. If it does not get transformed into Bhakti, such knowledge is useless tinsel. To believe that knowledge and devotion, jnana and bhakti are different from each other is ignorance.

Intuitively, and from an objective viewpoint, one could argue – and I do – that ultimately all three paths overlap. I would leave the distinctions to philosophers and debaters.

Re-defining my path

This sets the stage for the central tenet I wish to present. Each of us is formed by our experiences. The older among us were born in India, growing up in an environment with traditional culture and roots, in society and familial environment that formed our values and guided our practices of daily living.  We now live – either in India or relocated in our adopted countries – in a modern world that has transformed significantly in the space of a generation. During this transformation, we’ve had to adapt to a new way of life.  We’ve changed in many ways and adjusted to different societal norms and thinking. The attitudes and practices of daily living have changed for most of us. I would argue that in either era – then or now, most people would not move all the way up the ladder of Ashtanga Yoga and attain a level of Yogic discipline and practice to be prepared and ready to renounce their way of life and enter Sannyasa in a quest for Samadhi. A few might, but not most.  To the rest of us today, I pose the question: can we adapt the guidance of our ancient Yoga Scriptures and build for ourselves the model of a modern-day Yogi?

I posit that we should embrace the conceptual basis of Vanaprastha and Sannyasa spiritually, and adapt them for our modern times. We should treat Vanaprastha not as a time for transition and withdrawal, but as a time for liberation and increased activism. During this stage of life, Bhakti Yoga provides enrichment, courage, and support as we sustain ourselves in the face of the realities of aging. Let’s leverage this support to actively pursue the path of Karma Yoga –selfless service to others – and work for the benefit of our communities, always dipping into the ocean of Jnana to learn how better to serve our fellow man. Continue to find strength and comfort in Bhakti Yoga.  By doing so, we will find our Sukham – joy and fulfillment.  As we continue our service, we will slowly but surely embed tiny fragments of ourselves in our fellow human beings, and find our own salvation through each of them. We will successfully make our transition to an ecstatic union with the cosmos.


Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents.


Bay-Area Based Filmmaker Alka Raghuram Documents Muslim Women Boxers’ Fight for Liberation

How far would you go for freedom? A choice between survival and social acceptance.

For girls of Kiddirpur, a small Muslim neighborhood in West Bengal, the path they chose was something no one even dreamt of; a path less trodden. To be women boxers, carving out a space of their own in a male-dominated sport, that too in a patriarchal society. Burqa Boxers, an internationally acclaimed documentary portrays the incredible life story of these Muslim women boxers, how they shatter the preconceived notions incredulously and stand up for their fight for survival. 

Written and Directed by California-based Indian American Alka Raghuram, the documentary is currently premiered on Cinemapreneur – an OTT platform for independent filmmakers, and has already received rave reviews from across the world.

“When I heard about this unusual story of girls from a traditional community stepping out of their comfort zone to do something unique, it just inspired me right away. One of my photographer friends had shot these women in action and seeing those photographs gave me a massive adrenaline rush, and then and there, I decided that I want to tell this incredible story to the world,” said Alka Raghuram, who is also the producer of the film along with Deann Borshay Liem, 24 Images from France and Premlatha Durham.

With three women boxers belonging to different age groups as main protagonists, trained under Razia Shabnam, one of the first Indian women to become a boxing coach and an international referee, the documentary sheds light on their life trajectory amidst societal acceptance, financial conditions, aspirations, and dreams. Smitten by poverty, for these girls, boxing is not just their passion, but a path to attain financial independence. Being an earning member of the family empowers them to take their own decisions. The only way to break free, or else they are married off.

“Kolkata has a long history of boxing with many public boxing rings around and these girls have seen their brother or father in the field and that gave them the exposure. Coming from underprivileged communities and boxing being a cheap sport compared to others, they saw this practical opportunity and grabbed it right away. Boxing gives them financial independence and also the confidence to defend and stay strong when needed,” adds Alka, who spent nearly a year for research, building relations with the conservative community, and understanding the intricacies of complicated dynamics of the society. 

The movie explores the emotions of not just the three boxers but people around who influence them and how boxing acts as a catalyst in life-changing decisions. For Ajmira Khatoon, an aspiring boxer from the neighborhood, boxing is her future and leaves no stone unturned to attain the goal, even if it means regular beatings from father and family fights. To be financially independent is boxer Parveen Sajda’s dream, who is already a state champion but still struggles to get a job amidst societal marital pressure. And for Taslima Khatoon, who resides at a hostel for kids of impoverished communities like sex workers, run by New Light NGO, boxing has opened up new avenues to flourish. 

Apart from these main protagonists, the documentary also brings to fore many alarming issues like the rise in the number of rape cases in India, an upsurge in fear, and how girls discover the need to rise, fight, and conquer their fears. Through the eyes of coach Razia Shabnam and her son, it also delves into prejudiced notions of society that perpetuate unknowingly and engulfs even the educated minds. 

Funded by Independent Television Service (ITVS), Diversity Development Fund, Centre national du cinema et de l’image animee (CNC France), and Visions Sud Est, Burqa Boxers has already many accolades to its credit. Screened at the Locarno Film Festival co-production market, it received the top honor and the team also exhibited a compilation of photo, video and art installation based on the project at the venue.  

California Filmmaker, Alka Raghuram

“Even though the setting of the movie is a poor neighborhood in West Bengal, people from across the world could resonate and relate to it during the screenings, which I consider as most rewarding. To be able to convey a story crossing all cultural boundaries was fulfilling as a visual storyteller. I would love to take Burqa Boxers further ahead to many more public platforms where it reaches a wider audience, especially educational screenings that initiate a conversation on women empowerment and the need for change. We need more stories like these for people to step out of their comfort zone and discover their dreams,” states Alka, who is all set to embark on a new project – fiction feature film ‘Ayna’ starring acclaimed actress Mithila Palkar, a psychological thriller with cinematography by Gurgaon fame director Shanker Raman

Alka also collaborates with other artists for different projects and is currently working on five short films based on choreography by Charlotte Moraga, artistic director at Chitresh Das Institute that encompasses the theme of five elements of life. She is also working on advocacy videos profiling mothers of kids with serious mental illness. 

Dreaming high with her best-laid projects ahead, Alka contemplates the proclaimed theme of Burqa Boxers, women need to step out of their comfort zone to discover their true self. Raised in a small town of Indore, Madhya Pradesh, filmmaking was never her childhood dream but it was her hidden passion that she unraveled while living in the US, returning to school after having kids. “We must always continue to explore ourselves. Nobody comes on the world stage with everything in hand. The only thing required is to be able to ask questions without any hesitation. You just have to ask, to learn, to empower, and to discover yourselves!” concludes Alka. 


Suchithra Pillai comes with over 15 years of experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community stories for many leading media publications in India and the United States.


 

Bra or No Bra, That Is the Question

No single event in history has disrupted our lives as has COVID-19. Maybe, the two world wars had a far more disastrous effect on our psyche, but the arrival of Coronavirus forced us to adopt new ways of living by isolating ourselves in the closed confines of our homes. 

The first few days of the lockdown/SIP, globally, we witnessed a burst of creative activity with people entering kitchens to prepare delicious dishes, trying their hands at baking cakes, experimenting with Dalgona coffee, painting, sketching, Instagramming, and whatnot.

But soon we started to see its spillover effects. Long hours of Zoom calls, webinars, and increased household chores. And amidst all these developments, a ‘liberating’ thing happened: more and women discarded their bras in the comfort of their homes away from prying eyes. 

On July 6, Geeta Pandey, a BBC journalist based in New Delhi, posted an article on the death of the bra to which I replied saying, “I like the bra. (It) makes me feel more like a woman.”

What’s in a bra?

Why did I say that?

I go braless only when I sleep or throughout the day the very thought of my boobs hanging about without any kind of support is too much to bear. I do not feel comfortable and to add to my woes, there’s a man staying next door and a couple of men living in the building opposite mine. Yet, sometimes I sneak out braless in the dead of the night to enter my kitchen for a cup of coffee.

For me, the bra doesn’t only mean a basic necessity to wear under your clothes. It is part of lingerie after all; something sexy, sensual, and unique. I remember once when discussing a colleague’s wedding plans, someone commented that lingerie shopping was the first thing she bought after her wedding was fixed. 

Back in my school days in India, I used to accompany my mother when I needed to buy bras. She only got me the basic white and skin-colored ones. Malls didn’t exist then and the shopkeeper used to take a cursory look and bring whatever size he thought would fit me without even bothering to ask my size. My mother used to quickly hide the packets in her shopping bag and that was it. It was never ever enjoyable. “It doesn’t matter what you wear. No one sees the bra,” was all she would say. I couldn’t even dare reply that a boyfriend very much sees the bra. Thank God I didn’t have a boyfriend then.

When malls started popping up, I began to enjoy bra shopping. Most places let you try them on and for the first time, I learned basic things about the exact cup size, fit, purpose, and the need to find the right bra for sportswear, sarees, dresses, and so on. 

Buying bras has made me feel so liberated that now, I cannot think of going without them or ditching them. They are my best friends and given me many moments of pleasure. Once in the middle of the night, my roommate and I started a discussion on bras after she came back from a late shopping spree with a bag full of lingerie. Surely, this is a liberating moment with no sense of shame or hesitation about one of the most basic things in a woman’s life.

In the Bollywood movie Queen, there is a scene when Lisa Haydon takes off her bra and places it over Kangana Ranaut’s head. It reminded me of the bra-burning movement where bras were featured as an oppressive element to a women’s life. 

My Instagram profile mentions me as a journalist, bibliophile, and feminist. Going without a bra doesn’t seem like liberation to me. For me, real freedom would be able to walk down the streets any time of the day without being harassed or ogled at. For me, real freedom would be to see the end of crimes like rapes, dowry deaths, and workplace harassment against women.

Bra or no bra? Maybe that isn’t the question…


Deepanwita Gita Niyogi is a Delhi-based freelance journalist.

Racial and Caste Apartheid: Are They Similar?

“No one is free until we are all free.”

Dr. King’s words continue to be a powerful message for South Asians throughout the U.S. 

Over the past month and a half, our country has been jolted by recent acts of violence against black folks. While systemic injustice and racism have existed in this country for centuries, there is renewed political engagement with the entrenched issues of race in our country. 

For the South Asian community, it is more important than ever to be “accomplices” in the fight against white supremacy and racism. Several South Asian activist groups and nonprofits are paving the way to help our community uncover some of its entrenched prejudices. Through education and civic leadership, these groups are helping the community discover how to participate in today’s movement. 

Why does this matter to the South Asian community? 

The human dignity of black folks is something so fundamental that has been repeatedly ignored by our country. South Asians have often ignored their complicity in this reality by hiding behind the bootstrap myth or perpetrating harmful anti-black ideologies

However, our communities are more interdependent than people might initially believe. 

“Our stories are very much interconnected and to deny that it is the doing of white supremacy and colonization that tries to keep our people divided,” says Sabiha Basrai, a member of ASATA, a grassroots South Asian activist organization in San Francisco. 

South Asians and black folks have a long and shared history. Black leaders have long fought for the liberation of South Asian communities. In the 1960s, the activism on the part of the civil rights movement banned national and racial quotas on immigrants, enabling the vast majority of today’s South Asian immigrants to come to America. 

Solidarity with communities of color is more than merely a thought, it’s been exemplified throughout the course of history. 

ASATA protests

“A specific example of that kind of solidarity is demonstrated through Bayard Rustin who was a civil rights leader. He actually committed an act of civil disobedience in support of the free India movement in the forties. He locked himself to a British embassy in the United States to protest the British occupation of India,” says Basrai. 

But over time, the South Asian community has forgotten about that solidarity. In today’s moment, it’s important to hear the call to action, Basrai advises. 

What’s Caste got to do with it? 

Equality Labs 2018 Research on Casteism in U.S.

“We must examine and reflect on our own complicity with hierarchical systems, like caste, which enables so much police violence within our communities and within home regions,” says Mahn, communications director at Equality Labs. Equality Labs is an organization that fights against oppressive systems in South Asian communities through political education and collective organizing. 

Holding complexity is an important part of this conversation, Mahn says. 

“Caste isn’t just a theory. It’s a real experience of hegemony for a lot of people.” Black and South Asian experiences are both tied to hierarchies of power. 

“Racial apartheid and caste apartheid depend on both racial abolition and caste abolition. They’re corollaries, they intersect in a lot of important ways for the South Asian community, but they’re parallel. They’re not the same thing,” Mahn says. 

Caste continues to be crucial to the conversation about the South Asian diaspora. Last month, technology giant Cisco Systems was sued for discrimination against Dalit employees. The employee experienced verbal harassment and fewer workplace opportunities due to caste. These systems of harm are real and have tangible consequences in diaspora communities. 

Progressive organizations like Equality Labs are encouraging South Asians to reflect on different vectors of privilege. While South Asians may be harmed by white supremacy in some respects, the community also benefits from the model minority myth. Similarly, it’s critical for South Asians to understand how they may propagate systems of harm. 

That’s great, but what do I do now? 

Being an “accomplice” to the movement can be framed in multiple ways, says Sree Sinha, cofounder of the South Asian Sexual and Mental Health Alliance (SASMHA). 

“The incredible thing about activism is that there are so many different ways to be involved and each of them matter, each of them are important in terms of what the work is that needs to be done and the change that we need to see happen,” she says. 

Getting involved can range from a variety of different activities, from attending protests, to donating to black non-profits, to starting conversations in one’s own community – the critical piece is personal education. 

“None of us are born with bias against anyone. It is taught to us. And the beautiful thing about that is it means that it can be unlearned as well.” Sinha says. 

Sinha says action is like a ladder. We have the personal-level, targeting biases in our own minds. We have the community-level, where we help people in our communities fight against these injustices. And finally, we have the policy level. It’s important to hold political systems accountable, “whether that’s through calling into different congressional offices and police departments, and being able to use your voice in whatever ways is comfortable to you.”

It’s important for South Asians to mobilize against anti-blackness. 

“Where I really want people to understand that rather than being a source of fear or holding you back or paralysis that in fact, making even those small changes helps buffer us against racism. So if you’re feeling a little helpless or a little stuck pushing yourself to act on any level is a major part of what makes us heal.” 

Today’s moment is different from anything in our recent history. Sinha thinks that shows promise. 

“People are thinking about these issues for many people in a way that they never have before. And that just speaks to the power of the possibility and power of growth and change for humans.”

South Asian history is now inextricably linked to American history. The radical nature of today’s moment is important and will define the way our society functions for generations. We must choose the side of justice, for our collective liberation. 

Swathi Ramprasad is a senior at Duke University. She enjoys learning more about the world through her South Asian heritage.