[The Decolonizing Medicine Podcast S01E03. Originally release date July 23, 2021.]
Jamee: Mabuhay! You are listening to The Decolonizing Medicine Podcast. We will be exploring the intersection of decolonization and healing work with Black and Brown practitioners involved in a variety of modalities. I am your host, Jamee Pineda, coming to you from Piscataway territory otherwise known as Baltimore, Maryland. My ancestry is mostly Tagalog and some Chinoy, but I was raised here on Turtle Island. I am also a queer non-binary trans person and a practitioner of Hilot and Chinese medicine. I am dying to introduce our guest for today. Pooja Virani is a pain-free movement specialist and social justice consultant on a mission to spread joy, foster equality, and help people reach their highest potential. Pooja is certified in Kripalu yoga and meditation, kids yoga, and acro yoga. She has practiced yoga for over 15 years and taught it all over the world, most recently in Bali, Indonesia.
Jamee: Alright, our guest for today's episode is Pooja. Pooja, I'm gonna go ahead and let you introduce yourself.
Pooja: Sure! My pronouns are she, her, and hers and I am a queer, second generation Indian American. I am also a pain-free movement specialist and social justice consultant. I've created a rehabilitative yoga program and a pain-free hips and knees course and I teach LGBT and BIPOC yoga as well as social justice education for yoga teachers, community leaders, and businesses.
Jamee: Wow! That is a lot and that is so awesome. So this brings me perfectly to my next question which is what brought you to your yoga practice and what does yoga mean to you?
Pooja: For me it's part of my lineage and part of my ancestry, um, as an Indian American yoga has been something that's been in our culture for millennia and my mom and grandmother grew up in Pune, India which is the home of the Iyengar institute which is one of the most renowned places to study yoga in the world. And Iyengar was one of those figures who was one of the central figures of yoga in the past century who helped bring it over to the US and honestly I have memories of being yelled at as a five-year-old visiting the institute because my Hindi wasn't that great and I wasn't able to sit correctly and sit the way they told me. So that's kind of what originally brought me to my yoga practice and then I rediscovered it in college because I signed up for a college course. I used to play rugby, realized I'm not that aggressive. I'd rather run and hug people. So they offered yoga as a college class for credit and I said okay let me go try this out. And it was taught by this white guy named "Tony" who wore really really tight spandex shorts and I didn't really understand the connection between what he was teaching and my own ancestry. But during my first yoga teacher training when we studied yoga philosophy, I started hearing a lot of this terminology and I was like, actually, I know what all of this means and I realized a lot of those concepts I had grown up studying not as physical fitness, but in my religious center growing up Hindu and studying religions of Southeast Asia and South Asia. So that's kind of - it was this whole journey, right? Started in India, came to the U.S., and in a way it's reconnecting with India and South Asia, and my roots.
Jamee: Thank you so much for describing how it was to, I guess, re-encounter yoga in a totally out-of-context setting in the U.S. What are your critiques of how yoga is practiced here on Turtle Island?
Pooja: So my critiques are that so much of the focus is on fitness and me, I will say that there is a component that is fitness and movement, right? I do pain-free movement. I'm obsessed with the movement of the human body and if it wasn't for the fitness aspect, I probably wouldn't have been drawn back in. And there's eight limbs of yoga of which only one is movement. The others deal with breathing and meditation and concentration and how you live your life, the ethical principles you uphold from day to day. So my problem with this focus on fitness is it's inaccessible and it's exclusive. I just find it really off-putting that yoga bodies are skinny, white, rich, blonde women when this practice was invented for men who were people of color, who were brown-skinned, who look a lot more similar to what I look like. And the fact that women can even practice it has been a gift of the past century. I don't like the inaccessibility, I don't like the exclusivity, and I don't like the way it's being commodified and sold. And to a certain aspect, I do believe it should be sold. I do it as a career. And in ancient India how it was passed down was through a gurukul system where somebody would literally leave their house, usually a young child or a young boy because for a long time it was only men who were practicing it, and would go study with their guru. Would go study with their teacher for years or even decades. So there was an investment of time and in our society where everything is about money, I do think spending money is valuing this tradition. At the same time it's what are we spending money for? Are we spending money for goat yoga or to like get booties, or, like, a yoga booty, or are we spending money because we actually want to go down this rabbit hole, this journey that's going to transform us, not just physically, but from the inside out.
Jamee: I appreciate you bringing up the point about the money as an energy exchange especially because it my relationship my relationship to it, um, is that it helps the practitioners from that culture actually continue practicing it and continuing to hold that space because otherwise, like, how would it survive?
Pooja: Exactly, right?
Jamee: You know? Like, you still have bills to pay. We want you to continue to teach something that is from your lineage.
Pooja: Yeah and, you know, so many of these teachings were practiced in times when capitalism wasn't what it was, right? Like, capitalism wasn't the dominant system. So in the ancient gurukul system, could you leave your life and go live as a yogi? A yogi was a monk. Could you go live as a monk your entire life and not pay household bills? Yes, but you also didn't have a wife or husband or a partner. You didn't have kids. You didn't have all these bills. You didn't have rent or a mortgage. So in the century we live in, in the time we live in, when most of us are trying to pass on these traditions without being the crazy person who lives on the outskirts of society, and I'm not saying there's isn't any role for that, right? Often the people called crazy are the ones who are the seers and the ones who view things from a lens that the rest of our crazy maladjusted society doesn't understand. And if we do want this to be accessible to everyone we do need to follow this path of well, I need to pay my bills and I want to be able to teach and share this practice in a way that not just the select few can gain access to it, but everyone.
Jamee: I wholeheartedly agree with that. I think so much of capitalism really is - it's something that has infiltrated a lot of societies that existed without it because of colonization, because it's been forced on different cultural constructs, which leads me to my next question for you and that is how does decolonizing show up in how you teach and practice?
Pooja: For me, I'm constantly linking the roots of yoga and the history of yoga and the philosophy into my asana classes. So every time I teach asana, which is movement, I'm bringing in these components even if it's just a few minutes at the beginning and a few minutes at the end. I always, even when I taught at the Y when I was starting out my yoga career, I would always end with an "Om" because for me, again I practiced it spiritually, I didn't practice the physical parts, but the the rest of it, the other seven limbs, I've been practicing my entire life. So for me I always do an "Om" as a nod to that. And then I've started leading workshops on cultural appropriation and appreciation teasing that out as well as looking at privilege and oppression because there's so much talk today about white privilege, which I think is truly important, and there's so many other types of privilege, right? Like me as a Brown queer person, I still have a ton of privilege. I have a privilege of education and socioeconomic privilege and other privilege that enables me to - it basically gives me power and it gives me access to resources and it also means that can be oppressing those with less privilege than me. So I think I do a lot of conversations where we reflect on that because yoga is really about this life transformation and it's about unity. The word "yoga" comes from the Sanskrit "yugu" which means unity. So if I'm just looking at uplifting myself, then how am I practicing unity? In order to do that I really need to ally and need to stand up for and more than that believe that I am at heart the same as all of my Black siblings and my South Asian siblings and my disabled siblings and people who have less than what I do.
Jamee: I love - love that. I find it really interesting the compartmentalization that happens when yoga is taken out of context, out of South Asian culture, and then practiced in the U.S. where it does just become about the asana. And then to hear you say, like, oh all the rest of these aspects, all these other limbs of yoga, has just been integrated into your life and how you move in the world and that to me that is such an aspect of decolonizing medicine as well as seeing how you just live it. It's not just you show up for a class and then the thing happens and then you leave. Like, it really needs to be in in all aspects of your life.
Jamee: So part of decolonizing medicine, I think, is about access and you've mentioned that a couple times before. And, I want to hear, like, how you work with that. How does that show up when you teach and also what can the yoga community do to address the issue of access?
Pooja: Absolutely. So I think the yoga community can make sure that there's space for marginalized folks who are BIPOC, queer, fat, disabled, neurodivergent, old, young, other marginalized groups. They're so, again the stereotype of somebody who's skinny, who's fit, who's a certain age, middle age, really excludes those on other ends of the spectrum and what I do particularly is I teach workshops and classes for queer folks and BIPOC folk. I usually do this as monthly offerings. I also offer workshops to educate people whether it's within these communities or allies. For example, I have an upcoming workshop on queer representation as well as body positive representation knowing that I speak with a certain amount of cisgender privilege as well as skinny privilege and so many people need to be educated. So what steps can I take? Because just looking at my own behavior, have I always been the most inclusive towards other queer folks or towards people who are fat or towards people who are disabled? Probably not, right? So it's re-examining my behavior and then taking those learnings and helping others come to places where they can do that. Um, so a lot of work to increase representation as well as what I've started doing more and more is demo-ing. Demo-ing variations of poses the way I was taught yoga was always the lowest barrier meaning we're always going to use props. And if you look at yoga pictures you'll see very few actually use props and a prop could be a strap or a block or something else. Most don't use those pictures. And if I'm outside, I'm probably not using those, but every single time I'm in a class, I always have those props and it's not if you need this prop, it's I'm just going to show you how to do this because if the person doesn't need it they're not going to use it, you know? So, I like to show things with props. I also like to show poses that people can do in bed, that they can do on the couch, and that they can do sitting in a chair so that if they do have those needs and they can't transition from the ground to the to standing, or if they're put into a certain position, there's usually a number of different ways that they can do a certain pose.
Jamee: I really appreciate that you're incorporating so much of the props into the way that you teach and practice because I know that if I'm practicing yoga, I actually don't know when I will and when I won't need a prop because my body changes. My body ages and, like, what I was doing, you know, 15, 20 years ago I might wake up one day and it might not be accessible or there could be other things that are accessible now that weren't before. So I just, I like that that is just that is the standard of class for you.
Pooja: Yeah, I mean I think it is important, right? It's like we always start with that and then if you're feeling strong, if you're feeling great that day, you don't need it. And also know that you could use a prop to enhance or intensify a pose so it shouldn't be shamed or stigmatized that "Hey, this person needs to lean on something". I mean, I regularly, will do warrior threes and half moons of these complicated balance poses in classes and my alignment is so much better and my balance is better if I have something to lean on, you know? Part of me feels ashamed and then it's like why am I feeling ashamed about this? What does that say about me and what I've internalized of colonization versus just this is what this is, what works for my body, and that's okay.
Jamee: It really sounds like what you are describing is sort of a hierarchy with how poses are done, that the less props the better or the more "correct", which is colonization, too. That's also fitting us into little boxes that actually are not realistic or practical practical for most people.
Pooja: Absolutely. I mean, when yoga was developed asana was - we don't know how complex or how undeveloped it was because so much of it has been passed down as an oral tradition and has changed over time. So it's hard to trace without poses being described in the past, but remember that so much of it was done so that a person could become a yogi. And a yogi was not somebody who goes to a gym, drinks their green juice, goes home, you know? Like, daycare takes care of their five kids. A yogi was a monk. A yogi was somebody who retreated to the forest and spent all of their time in meditation so the only point of physical movement was to limber up the body to sit. So who knows if they were even doing all these complicated poses or they were just practicing sitting for 12 hours every day and that was the only barrier or standard of progress.
Jamee: Thank you so much for that context. That really does change the framework of how we can have a relationship with yoga and what it actually historically functioned as. So, how can people how can people connect with you? How can people find more about your work?
Pooja: Sure. So I post a lot about these issues on Instagram @poojaviraniyoga and then also on my website: poojavirani.com. I have a blog where I've been posting more and more
and then it's the same thing: @poojaviraniyoga on Facebook. Basically, Pooja Virani or poojaviraniyoga on all the platforms. They're all, you know, I mentioned upcoming workshops, but then I also just, you know my Instagram, I lived in Bali for a long time so I got a certain group of followers because I would post a lot of pictures in a bikini. And it wasn't a way of showing off it was just that I happened to live near a beach and had a lot of fun doing yoga, right? I was just in the moment and I grew my following to a certain level where it was like, okay this is great and is this the community I want to attract, right? People who are just looking at the physical aspects. So now it's more of a mix of yes there's pictures of me doing poses, but generally they're poses - I do a lot of warrior twos and what I consider simpler poses - that I feel comfortable with and then mixed into that or, you know below almost everything, is a commentary on like how you could do this pose in your body or what is that? What is the meaning of this pose? What is the Sanskrit name of this pose? There's always some sort of comment about history or philosophy or just a conversation about is this part of yoga? Because I really think that's why I would rather engage people and and I think that asking these deeper questions is where the yoga community and all traditional medicine communities need to evolve.
Jamee: Yes! Thank you so much for that. Work that algorithm. So, my last question is is there anything else that you wanted to share?
Pooja: I think what's important for me about decolonizing medicine, and I'm just speaking as somebody who's gotten a lot of questions and complaints and pushback, you know, whether it's yoga and people will say, "Well, do you have to be South Asian to practice or South Asian to teach it?" Or a lot of the Tai Ji teachers I know are white or Thai massage people I know are white. I don't think you need to necessarily be of that ethnicity or of that race to practice it. What I do think is really important in the decolonizing process is learning as much as you can from the source culture and benefiting the source culture. So if you are teaching Thai massage, how are you making room for Thai practitioners and Southeast Asian practitioners? If you are teaching Ayurveda are you getting all of your knowledge from white folks? Are you getting your knowledge from Indians who've been studying and practicing Ayurveda for millennia, for generations and generations and generations? So I think that attribution and acknowledgement, as well as aiming to uplift and support, is the most important aspect. And one way that yoga practitioners are doing that now, at least the ones who are keeping themselves abreast of the news, is India is going through this huge COVID crisis and people are getting involved by sending money to India, right? Sending money to local organizations and helping the culture that gave them this practice that they now enjoy either for their personal lives or their professional lives.
Jamee: Oh, that's so awesome. I couldn't have said that better thank you so much, Pooja.
Pooja: Thanks so much, Jamee.
Jamee: Is there any person or group, especially if they're QTBIPOC, that you would like to highlight for support, for resource distribution?
Pooja: Absolutely. Um, Jesal Prikh. She's one of the hosts and creators of the Yoga Is Dead podcast. Her Instagram handle is @yogawalla. She tags and shares in stories and posts other resources all the time. She's really good. I will go to her page to find out more information about decolonization and anything from anti-racism to anti-fat phobia to anti-homophobia and she's also personally just been pushing me in the direction I've been going. She's been pushing me to stand up and say more and to have conversations with people about these issues so I really appreciate her. And then Tejal Patel. She's also from the Yoga is Dead podcast, started it with Jesal. Um, she created a platform called ABCD Yogi, which is pretty amazing. They have an Instagram handle and then they also have a virtual platform and it's just South Asian yoga teachers. So I think it's really powerful to have, um, a place that you can turn to. So often I get people that say, "Well, there's no South Asian yoga teacher at my studio" and you don't need one at your studio. We live in the age of Zoom. So everything from meditation, to yin yoga, to vinyasa, they have teachers on that platform who can teach. And hopefully I will be teaching on that platform soon.
Jamee: Thank you so much for sharing those resources. We'll link to it in the show notes.
Jamee: I am thrilled to share that I have updated my Patreon benefits to include The Decolonizing Medicine Patreon Community on Mighty Networks. Members can now access self-directed educational modules on Chinese medicine, Hilot, and magic as well as seasonal live Q&As. Patreon members help me cultivate three important things: wellness offerings that are more accessible to QTBIPOC, the revival and reclamation of helot my ancestral medicine, and a decolonizing approach to medicine, like with this podcast. If this calls to you visit patreon.com/jameepinedahealingarts.
Jamee: Maraming salamat for listening to The Decolonizing Medicine Podcast. If you want to support this work via Patreon or apply to be a guest on the show go to linktr.ee/jameepinedahealingarts. We'll also link to that in the show notes. Music is by Amber Ojeda, Hed Kandi, and Rocky Marciano. Big thanks to Laurenellen McCann, my sweetie and fabulous audio engineer, and all our listeners and supporters out there. Ingat!