Anjali Rao - Relearning Yoga History

Episode 140

60 mins

Anjali Rao - Relearning Yoga History

June 2, 2024

As we learn in our conversation with Anjali Rao, what we learn of yoga history in our teacher trainings is often limited by the biases of heteropatriarchy, Brahmanism and colonialism.

While what we get from our text books might hit many of the major points, this story is just as notable for whom it excludes.

For both Jo and Rane, this conversation was a huge recontextualisation of what they thought they knew and a wonderful relearning of yoga history.

Anjali Rao is a writer, the host of The Love of Yoga podcast, President of the Board of Directors of Accessible Yoga, and as she shares in our conversation is now beginning a Doctorate of Philosophy and Religion, with a concentration on Women’s Spirituality, a trans disciplinary program that delves into a feminist perspective and “explores varied spiritual, ecological, and political perspectives rooted in care for the Earth, each other, and the Sacred.”

Anjali is an Indian American immigrant, a cancer survivor and believes that a dedicated practice of yoga in all its expansiveness can alchemize and heal the world by creating ripples of change within and around us.

She brings a multi disciplinary approach, integrating yoga philosophy and history, with storytelling, imagery and poetry. She brings an awe inspiring depth of knowledge and potent critical insight to yoga history which makes for a great conversation!


Use the code MAKFLOW at to receive a 10% discount!


Please email us to report any transcription errors

Rane Bowen: Hello. My name is Rane and this is the flow artist podcast. Together with my co host Jo Stewart, we speak with extraordinary movers, thinkers and teachers about how they find their flow and much, much more. Before we dive in, we want to take a moment to acknowledge and honour the traditional owners of the unceded land where this episode was recorded, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. We pay our deepest respects to the elders, both past and present, and acknowledge the emerging leaders within their community. This episode we are delighted to be speaking with Anjali Rao. Anjali is a writer, the host of the love of Yoga podcast, president of the board of directors of Accessible Yoga, and as she shares in our conversation, is now beginning a doctorate of philosophy and religion with a concentration on women's spirituality, a transdisciplinary programme that delves into a feminist perspective and explores varied spiritual, ecological and political perspectives rooted in care for the earth, each other and the sacred. Anjali is an Indian American immigrant, a cancer survivor, and believes that a dedicated practise of yoga in all its expansiveness, can alchemize and heal the world by creating ripples of change within and around us. She offers an insightful and nuanced understanding to yoga stories and histories that have been obscured by brahminism, heteropatriarchy and colonisation, as well as shining a light on how these forces affect our lives today. She brings a multidisciplinary approach, integrating yoga philosophy and history with storytelling, imagery and poetry. She brings an awe inspiring depth of knowledge and potent critical insight to yoga history, which makes for an amazing conversation. But before we get to the interview, I'd like you to please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. Spotify, good pods or wherever you listen to your podcast. This really helps us reach a wider audience and lets Jo and I know that we are delivering the type of content that you want to hear, because at the end of the day, we want to be of service to you, the listener. All right, let's get into our conversation with Anjali. All right, well, Anjali, thank you so much for speaking with us today. We appreciate you spending the time to speak with us, so much so perhaps we could start with you just telling us a little bit about your background and where you grew up.

Anjali Rao: Yeah, absolutely. It's a pleasure to be here with you both. I grew up in India, Bangalore, which is a southern city, and I was there for 23 years of my life. I go back often, I what I call what people have a like a status as a person of Indian origin and right now I'm an American citizen. I live here in the colonised land of the Ohlone, San Francisco Bay area, California. And, you know, I consider myself both Indian and American for whatever that, whatever that means. Yeah. So I. From what I do is I'm a practitioner of yoga, first and foremost a student. And everything comes from that. It stems from that studentship. I'm an educator. I would say sharing the histories of yoga in context to the times, really bringing the teachings in context to the times that we live in. Yeah, so that's, that's pretty much where I am. And yeah, I do other things. I'm a parent, I have a podcast, the Love of yoga podcast. And currently I'm enrolled as a student in the PhD programme, doctorate in philosophy and religion from a feminist lens. So my work is really to unravel and deconstruct the power and privilege that runs through the teachings and which is a microcosm of the larger systems historically and to the present moment. So that's pretty much in a nutshell what I do.

Jo Stewart: Thank you so much. I really appreciate all of the educating that you do through all of your online sharing because you've really opened my eyes to the full richness of the yoga tradition and just what a narrow facet I've been taught in my training and in a lot of other texts that I've read. And I love that your approach to sharing is also so multi dimensional and so creative. Like it's a really, like you're talking about the microcosm and the macrocosm. It's like you're opening up our understanding, but it's also not just told through one viewpoint. It's really about sharing a lot of perspectives. And I know that how the caste system has really impacted so many aspects of society, but also our understanding of the teaching and practise of yoga. Would you like to start unpacking a bit of that?

Anjali Rao: Yeah. Oh, we're diving right in. You're not kidding. First of all, I have to position myself and locate myself as a person with caste privilege, which means that as a person who has been conditioned to regard the caste system as an inevitable part of society, I had to really understand where that falls in my own psyche and in my own conditioning. And it's something that I've always challenged growing up in India. And I felt that this is not what liberation is, at least for a lot of people. And even as a person with caste privilege, how am I enacting that in my own life? So, to answer your question, the caste system. I would really love for people to listen to the podcast that I had with Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Prachi Patankar in the love of Yoga podcast, because they are from, they are both Dalit and Bahujan activists who are really working in the fields of caste abolition and in yoga. The development of yoga and the development of caste almost happened at the same time. So it's kind of very integrated. Not many people know about it because the people who have taught us come from brahminical scholar, the scholar caste lineage. So obviously that is sort of invisibilized. And there is a strong thread of patriarchy as it manifests in caste, in the caste system, especially in the. In the two, the three castes in the hierarchy, which is the priest scholar caste, as well as the warrior caste, that's a kshatriya. And then there is a merchant caste. And this is a vast simplification, because what we are talking right now is what we call as the Varna system. So it basically started off as a division of Labour 3000 years ago, and I would say 2500 to. Yeah, around 2500 to 3000 years ago. And it then became this very rigid structure. Whereas newer migrants came into the region, the Indus Valley region, Harappan region, civilization, the Indo Aryans, that's when the caste system came in to what we now call as modern day Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. So they bring in the stratification system based on a division of labour after nomadic people settling into agricultural communities. You know, so think about it. You need somebody to do the farming, somebody to protect the farming, somebody to, you know, have some sort of a government structure, then somebody to trade. So it started off as that, and it was far more fluid. And then it sort of get got more rigid as newer migrant waves come in. And there was a lot of intermingling, there was conflict, there was coexistence, there was all of that. And what we consider the caste system now is actually what we call as the jati, which is literally, it means by birth. That means you're born into a jati, and then you have to, like, that's your identity. So what we call right now are actually the jati system, not the Varna system, that's the big umbrella term. Jatis are basically endogamous groups. It started coming in where they couldn't get married between each other, they couldn't be, you know, and that creates a very strict, rigid structure for people to not move in society. Access to resources, access to spiritual resources, access to yogic teachings, all of that. Comes in because of the caste system.

Rane Bowen: It's.

Anjali Rao: It's everywhere. It's invisible. It's in the air we breathe. And because, you know, in the caste, caste is sort of invisible also because all of us look the same. It's not like a black person versus a brown person and a white person. It's a very visible sort of a, you know, difference. So here, only the people who are in the group kind of know who is which caste because of the name or something like that. So it's sort of insidious and it's invisible. And it's. That's why it's very challenging to unearth. And that's why it's also very harmful. And it's one of the oldest. It is the oldest social stratification systems in the world. So in terms of yoga, first of all, nobody much understands what it means. Like, what does that mean and where is it lying? So it's there everywhere. Sanskrit was a language which was accessible only for or was the language of the elite. It was a language of the Brahmins, the scholars, as well as the Kshatriyas, and to a certain extent, the merchants. But typically, those were the people who kind of protected the language. So all the oral compositions of the Vedas and the Upanishads. Upanishads were slightly more egalitarian because it took the. It distilled the rituals, mystic very, you know, brahminical teachings of the Vedas. And then it became the Upanishads and added to it from the ascetic traditions. So where does caste come into yoga spaces? Through the beginning, because it sort of evolved around the same time. And then in the modern moment, we have people, you know, from all over the world enacting those things again without knowing that they are actually perpetuating the harm from caste. But, for example, let's say even I'm not even going to go back 2500 years, because that's a lot. Even if you say, like, say, past 200 years, you know, my friends always make fun of me. They're like, okay, when Anjali starts talking about history, she really talks about, like, when people were making stone tools long ago. So we're talking about, like, 200 years ago, Krishnamacharya, who was like the. The sort of so called father of modern yoga, because he really created this system of teachings which were then dispersed through his students, Iyengar Pattabhi Jois, Desikachar and all of those. And Indra Devi, who was a white yoga teacher, who was the only woman foreigner who learned from him in Mysore. And then she goes to LA, and then she starts her school, and then it starts getting spread. So that's one big lineage with so many people learning from this one root teacher who was a Brahmin, and he was. He was his patron, was the ruler of Mysore. So he's a kshatriya, you know, so this is. It's such a big part of our. The quote, unquote, one very strong stream of the yogic tradition that people are not aware of. And my task in my work is to really look at some of that and really ask the questions, rather than say, okay, this part is brahminical and this part is not brahminical. It's very hard to divide that. And my question is, how. Where was it? How was it located? What was the social context? What was the political context around that teaching? And then how is that now translated and practised?

Jo Stewart: And so am I correct in thinking that the caste system was, like, further made rigid and enforced through colonisation and through British occupation as a way of kind of dividing and conquering local people and elevating some groups and then further diminishing the power of others?

Anjali Rao: Yes.

Jo Stewart: And it's so interesting as well, because that lineage that you're talking of, those are all the books that I read for my yoga teacher training. And it's almost shared in the way of like, oh, this is how it happened? And it's like, well, this is how it happened for one small group of people, but who are we not hearing from?

Anjali Rao: Yeah, absolutely. And yes, absolutely. So the caste system always existed. It's not true that, you know, the British created the caste system. British institutionalised it. They made it a part of governance, they made it part of the censorship. So till then, we did not have a person checking in a box saying, okay, I belong to a certain caste or a jati. That never really came into the administration, governance part of it, though, it was a part of the system, it was a part of the economic system of a particular region, and each region had their own laws. And so in come the British, and they see this mind boggling array of people doing all kinds of things, praying to all kinds of gods, eating all kinds of food. So they were like, how do we do this? And they had one group of people who are definitely not like the other group of people, which is the Muslims. So they had one law for the Muslims, they kept the Sharia law. And then they had looked at the other groups and they said, anybody who's not a Muslim is a Hindu. And so that came into the picture, and then they were like, okay, how do we, like, govern this big group of people who are all Hindus? They all have, like, this thing, which is the Manusmriti, which is one of the books they actually translated, I think, in 1700 and something, 90, 1790, something like that. So they actually translated this book, which is Manava Dharmashastra Manusmriti, which talked about caste. That was really not used for governance until then. The governance for each region, like I said, was very topical. It was very done. It was done by what we call as a panchayat, where the village or the region had a say in law and justice. So income. These people, they used one book and they said, okay, we are going to base a lot of our laws for governing you all based on this one book, which talked a lot about caste system and each person's role in each caste and all of that. So that sort of created this institutionalisation of caste that persists today and impacts every part, every realm of our lives.

Jo Stewart: And to follow on from what you've been saying about whose voices are heard and shared, another massive section of society who we don't hear from in history books, women and non binary and trans people. Would you like to unpack a little bit about the role that people who aren't men might have played in yoga history and practise and sharing and some of the reasons why their voices weren't recorded in the same way?

Anjali Rao: Yeah, that's a really good question. So caste operated, or rather patriarchy operated within the caste system. So Brahmin, the scholar, Brahmin, women were, you know, it is a bit. It was a patriarchal system, but within the four. Three. Four castes, the top three forecasts the rest of the castes, which were also people who are outside the caste system, which were the Dalit, the Adivasi, the tribal, the indigenous people, they have their own way of operating, you know. So to answer your question, why are women and non binary practitioners, for example, if you look at history, why do we not hear of them? It's a huge, long reason also, and I've done a whole podcast on it, but one is brahminical, so called, you know, brahminical patriarchy, which is where the scholars who were the upholders of the, you know, the teachings, which was based in Sanskrit, they could. They were the only ones who could do that. They could pass on from a student, a teacher to a student through Sanskrit. And that was not taught to the women. For maybe for a while, though, they were female ascetics and all of that during the vedic times. But then they started getting less and less as more people come in from different parts of the region, you know. So that's one of the reasons is brahminical patriarchy. Patriarchy operationalizing in the caste system. And two is that legitimacy of the written word, right? So the. While the brahminical patriarchy were created, this very oral tradition that then got written, written down, and it was done in Sanskrit, which was not available to the. To the women and non binary practitioners or the femme practitioners, the oral traditions were kept alive. The oral traditions were kept alive in the vernacular languages, in the regional languages, in forms of Sanskrit which were not in elitist forms. So Sanskrit then had, like, different forms. So that was then kept alive by women. And because it was not written down, it was not considered to be legitimate, it was not considered. It was considered to be unquote folk, right? And for example, the retellings of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the two great, what we call as epics, or Itihasa, they were told, retold and acted dramatically through dance, music and all of that. That was done in many ways by people who are not accessing or could not access the Sanskrit written down, very formal, sort of, you know, work. So women and femme. That's why we don't know much of them, or they are just footnotes. So people. It's 20, I think, 27 rishikas. Rishikas are female. Femme ascetics are mentioned in the vedas, for example, the root sort of the quote, unquote, the root compositions from a big stream of people. Because there was tantra happening at the same time. Tantra was a very rural quote, unquote. Again, when I say rural, I don't mean like, when I say rural, I mean all these things which we are talking about was existing in the urban town centres, right? But there was also people who were living on the fringes of those town centres or in the forests, who were doing that, who had their own system and those kind of practises traditions get then coalesced in tantra traditions. And that was not for the longest time. And again, now it's been totally co opted by brahminism as well as white supremacy and capitalism and all of that. But for the longest time, the lot of the tantric lineages coalesced and it was a far more egalitarian practise and tradition, not much hierarchy. And also people could get initiated into some of those traditions from a proper teacher. Like, there was an actual process of getting into those traditions and lineages, and not necessarily only men. So it's really a vast, complex thing. And so I think what is the problem now is that we are oversimplifying not only Asana, I think Asana is also being oversimplified, but in general yoga, and only when you start looking at the history, you realise how complex it all was and how homogenised it is now. So right now, I had a teacher once, and I always say this, that right now, Asana, I'm sorry, yoga has been reduced to asana. Asana has been reduced to downward dog and downward dog, and then that has been reduced to your hamstring flexibility. It is just like that. There is hardly any space given for complexity in the teachings in YTT or continuing education programme, and we really need to look at history to really realise how we are, where we are right now. How did, for example, if you start looking at, like you mentioned, why don't we hear about women and femme and non binary practitioners in our history? And it's exactly those same systems that are still prevailing today and in all the different realms, right? So the same systems of power and privilege operate within the yoga space that are reflected or that are reflections of the outside of the yoga space.

Jo Stewart: And it's so interesting as well, because there are gender fluid deities within those epics and kind of key characters who live those identities. And, yeah, it's really interesting hearing from you about the disconnect between how it was or one view of how it was and what we see now. And could we even go a little bit more into the gurukula system? Is that how I pronounce it? Which is the kind of going to the guru's house and learning for like, maybe ten years or a long time. And one of the description I've read of it is it's actually like an example of socialist education, because it's like an educational system that's kind of supported by the rest of the village. So it kind of would make that life of study more accessible. Or is that something of an idealised view that I've picked up? And maybe it was only a small selection of people who were able to kind of go and live and study and learn and immerse themselves in knowledge for that time?

Anjali Rao: Well, that's a very good question. So, Guru, the gurukul, that's what it's called. Guru is a teacher, and so it's a school within a forest or like on the fringes of village or urban centre. So a lot of. All of what you said has happened where it was kind of like. So Gurukul or an ashram, where a student would go to a teacher, stay with the teacher for, like, at least ten years, learn everything under the sun and the moon and the stars and the trees, about the scriptures and the texts, about the body, about taking care of the farm and the cows and archery and horse riding and, you know, all of that, right? Maybe not horse riding cattle. So all of that. So the student would learn everything and then go back to and would also serve the guru and the guru's family. So the guru is like, guru's family is like the sort of a proxy parent. During that entire time, there was actually a ritual that we still do in many Brahmin and Savannah, like the people with caste privilege households, where boys are sort of initiated into this teaching. And that's why. That's why the savarna castes are savarna is people who are within the caste system. So those are rituals that only boys do. Women didn't really go to, or a femme didn't go to a class. So it's not really that utopian ideal that you're talking about in terms of, oh, you know, but. And also that it really gave a very intimate, personal relationship between the teacher and the student, where it was a teacher really looked at what the student needed and what was the teacher, students inclination and aptitude, and then sort of really hone that and nourish that. And so it was a. And there's also been abuse in that relationship and. Which has been reflected in all the epics as well. So it's not like we are glorifying something. We. It's also. There's a glorification as well, as there are things which are not really good in that system. So this was also. This was also a way in which the Brahmin and the Kshatriya thing got kind of really encoded into the yogic way because the people who could go. There were people with the. In the caste system were in the Varna structure. There were Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and maybe some really rich merchants who could be there. So the people who were outside the system couldn't. The Dalit people, the Adivasis. And so there are many stories in the epics which actually talk about that, which actually talk about, like, for example, in a tribal boy, Ekalavya in the Mahabharata really wants to learn from one of the best teachers, the teacher of Arjuna and the Pandavas, and he really wants to learn from them. And he goes to him and he gets refused. He's like, you are a tribal boy. I can't teach the princes of the land along with you. So there is. And it's a tragic ending to the story. So it was a reflection that these struggles were happening, these conflicts were happening, these encounters were happening between the caste privileged and the caste oppressed, even back then. So, yeah, so a gurukul is a really great idea and has all the, you know, the frailties of a great idea when it actually gets operationalized and manifested, as well as the beauty of it. So it's all of that.

Jo Stewart: And another thing that I found really interesting to learn about and is somewhat of the opposite of my original perception of how yoga was uncovered and explored. Like, the idea I had was that a Rishi, like a sage, would go to the forest or go to a cave and kind of observe nature and meditate or maybe learn from the feet of a teacher and then contemplate and integrate that knowledge. However, it seems that actually debates were very much of the formation of yoga philosophy. Which would you like to share about the Vadavidya and how much discussion and disagreement and even conflict really shaped these ideas?

Anjali Rao: You have done your homework, too, I have to say. Good job.

Jo Stewart: You made it easy for me because you share all of this information in a very accessible way.

Anjali Rao: I love it. Yes. So conflict was really important and has been important in the creation of. Of the teachings. And like you said, the Vadavidya is part of the debate systems that were actually hosted by the kings of the land. And they would invite all these scholars and sometimes kings themselves and sometimes queens and sometimes ascetics of all kinds of genders would go, and then they would debate, like, really deeply esoteric points in a scripture or a philosophical concept, and then whoever won and all of the things that emerged from that debate would be added into the learning, you know? So that was a big part of the traditions and conflict. I mean, other than that, other than the whole Vadavidya piece of it, there's always been conflict in, quote unquote, yoga or a spiritual tradition. And when it comes to yoga, there were always not very pleasant conflicts. It didn't really get resolved, and it kind of created a lot of bad blood between people, and it created a lot of, you know, violence between people where people would. Would say, you know, my God is the right one and my God is the right one. So between, especially from Vaishnavites and Shaivites, people who worship Vishnu and Krishna and people who worship Shiva, lot of conflicts, even Buddhist and Jain kings who were, you know, more peace loving were not necessarily only only that. They really wanted to protect their land from outside religion, outside religions, and outside faith traditions. So there was. There's always been conflict. There's always been clashes between religions. Sometimes that added to it, like, like I said, in a debate or whatever, but in, in, sometimes it was absolutely violent and harmful. And, of course, if you look at it, even if any part of Mahabharata, which I absolutely love and I'm kind of obsessed with, you know, the stories in there, because that is actually a book of conflict. It is a book of how to be in right relationship. And what does that really mean? How complex that is? What is Dharma? And everybody questions about, what does it mean to be good? What does it mean to be right? What does it mean to do good? What is the right conduct? Like, all those questions keep emerging in those texts, and nothing is very simple. Everybody is not. Nobody is just a complete hero or a complete villain. There are shades of both in all of them, all the characters. So conflict was a part of life. And I think what we are missing is what are the. In the world right now, is that we are really not, first of all, understanding conflict. We are not really comfortable with it. We try to shy away from it. We are like, oh, oh, I'm going to talk about conflict in my yoga space. My yoga space is all about peace. And so that creates a sort of descendants for many of us whose lived experiences are very conflict ridden just by our. Our positionality of being in a certain body, you know, or a certain lived experience. So, for us, our life is about figuring out how to navigate conflict. And then you come here, and then you're supposed to not do any of that or not express any of that. So there is a sort of a dissonance and discomfort when we are talking about conflict in the modern world and forget about even being in a yoga space, but even in general in the popular culture, nobody really wants to talk about it because everybody's scared or of either messing up or saying the wrong thing or not knowing enough or, you know, all of the things. So I think that is one of the big part of the world that really needs to figure out how to be in conflict, in healthy conflict, and to not want to just solve the thing. You know, we need to be like, okay, this is a conflict that has gone back centuries, so really, let's look at the roots of it and see what has happened and hold the complexities of so many different people's lived experiences, right? So I think teachings of the yoga are so beautiful that can help us get more real about conflict.

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Jo Stewart: I think as well, it really comes into like, ahimsa is the term that I see this in the most, where sometimes it's interpreted in a passive way of like avoiding harm or avoiding violence. But then I also see it shared as like, no, this is an active practise and you have to actively work to like fight against harm and violence against oppressed people or animals or even the environment. Like, it's an active practise, not just avoiding that uncomfortable situation, but like, what can I do in my small way to help make things better?

Anjali Rao: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And ahimsa, you know, I always say this, it's funny, or rather ironic, but Ahimsa was never about a person doing harm to another person. It was, Ahimsa started from doing harm to an animal. It was a concept that was brought by ascetics who were increasingly critical of the Vedic sacrificial offerings of animals like cows, bulls and horses. And it's funny that none of us are even talking about ahimsa when it comes to animals anymore much. But we are definitely talking about ahimsa, as in, oh, I'm just like, I'm not going to create any harm, I'm not going to say anything, I'm just going to be this peaceful person and I'm not going to do anything, you know, so that's, that's just actually creating a passively. But staying silent is harmful because you're really up, you're really not disrupting or naming the harm that is happening in the world around you.

Jo Stewart: And we're seeing it so much now with the conflict in Palestine and how different people from different yoga backgrounds are responding to that and even reconciling that in your own life, where there's not that much you can do to help where you are now. But it's this kind of heavy cloud hanging over all of us in some ways, that obviously, I'm a very safe distance from it.

Anjali Rao: Yeah, yeah, no, absolutely. I think, you know, in terms of Gaza and what's happening there in Rafa, I don't think we, as human beings are, have ever actually witnessed something happening live. We are witnessing a genocide happening live, like, on our phones. Like, you open up. Open up a phone. You see, like, oh, my God. Like, the horrors that you're seeing and being a witness of it. I don't know whether we are capable of, like, processing that much. So people are either. I think, either in. And they should be even just witnessing that. Like, our nervous systems are, like, either completely turning off or we are in a flight and fight thing. And so I don't know what the impact will be on our long term psyches and for the next generation who are growing up thinking that this is what is normal. Like, how is this even normal? Like, we are seeing children and we are seeing. It's, like, terrible. So I don't know whether. How we can really respond. I'm still figuring that out. Like, what do we do? Where do we go from this space? And what is the role that each of us have? What is the responsibility that each of us have given our own lived experience and social backgrounds? Yeah, it's a pretty complex world, I think. I hope we are learning how to be empathetic and compassionate, no matter who we are and moving from that space of being interconnected. That though these people who don't look like us are going through, that, I have somehow contributed to this in some way, you know? So I'm still holding all of that. Yeah.

Jo Stewart: And I actually have found a lot of the stuff that you've written and shared really helpful for my own understanding and navigation. And how can we look to philosophy from thousands of years ago to deal with the problems that we're still facing as humans today on an even greater scale?

Anjali Rao: Yeah.

Jo Stewart: So, thank you.

Anjali Rao: Yeah, thank you. That's my only, I would say, vision for myself in some way, or vision for the teachings of yoga, I would say more than myself. It's the vision for thinking about yoga as being very relevant to the times that we live in and bringing those aspects of yoga which are relevant to the times we live in. So that's why I talk a lot more about conflict than the Mudra and the, you know, because I know that that's wrong. But I think each of us have our own inclination toward the part of the teaching that calls to us. And for me, that I feel that this, in the teachings of yoga, there is such a wealth of information about how to deal with conflict, how to deal with violence, how to deal with, you know, the complexity of the human experience, the psychology of each other and ourselves to how are we creating this system? What is my role in the system? How do I navigate this. This dichotomy of, you know, being safe in a home with everything and then looking at my phone when they. People have nothing and or, you know, in a rubble, like, how do I even wrap my mind around it, right? I mean, it's kind of like sometimes just very, very hard to even, like, do that. And yet we shouldn't look away, right? I mean, of course we have to take care of our own needs, otherwise we all will get burnt out and really be no effective in anything. But at the same time, the teachings are the things that are really keeping it together. On good days, for me, there are bad days, too, where I'm like, oh, my God, this is horrible, and I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know what the hell is going on.

Jo Stewart: So it's all of that just to slightly change direction. Another interesting thing that I've learned from you, and this is from your conversation with Dr. Padma Kaimal. And please correct me on her last name if needed, on the Love of Yoga podcast. Especially enjoyed your exploration of nonbinary thinking, or mangalam or mangala in Sanskrit. Would you like to explain a little bit more about this really interesting concept?

Anjali Rao: Yeah, yeah. So, I don't know what the word she used or I used, I don't remember the word exactly. But basically, non binary thinking is we are conditioned to think in binaries, right? That is a deeply entrenched samskara, the good versus evil, the binary of gender, the binary of experience, the binary of value systems that has really formed a lot of our education systems, everything, like all our systems, all our institutions. So. But life is not really binary. Life is actually more about everything in between, right? None of us are entirely good. None of us are entirely bad. We are all. We are all just all of it, right? So to really, whenever you even history, if you really study history, it will disrupt all the binaries that you have and because you will see that, for example, even the coloniser and the colonised, it is not a binary appreciation, appropriation is not a binary. The coloniser, especially in India, when British came in, the people who really helped them first to really gain a stronghold were the people of India. Who were the people, for example, the ruling, the elites of India, and not all of them, but a lot of them. And even within the people who were revolutionaries or who were anti colonial activists, there also was a lot of brahminical patriarchy within those people. And there was a lot of conflict between, for example, Gandhi and Ambedkar. Right? Gandhi is this supposed beacon of anti colonial work and ahimsa and all that. But he was a very complex person and he is not, he's very criticised and rightfully so, by people who are dalit and for example, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. So when you study history, really disrupts the binary of who's good and who's bad and really understand the complexity of a situation. So I think that's what Doctor Padma Kaimal, because she is an art historian, she was talking about. Her work basically traced the tantra goddesses of Chidambaram, I think, a place in Tamil Nadu. And so that's the context that she was sharing, that people who took the things away, took the goddesses, the statues away were not necessarily only the coloniser, it was also the people who were off the land who had, who either sold it or stole it away or, you know, all of those things. So I think that's what she was referring to. I don't know what word she actually used. I have to actually go back and read. Hear that? But that was a fascinating conversation. I actually listened to her in a museum here and I was like fascinated. And in fact she was one of the big inspirations why I wanted to do my PhD. I went to her, I'm like, I want to do my PhD. She's like, okay. So yeah, I think binary thinking is one of the biggest problems of humanity. You know, it's reflecting here in the US. I don't know. Where are you both located?

Jo Stewart: Australia.

Anjali Rao: Australia, yeah. So here in the US we have like a bind, two party system, mostly, right, Republicans and the Democrats. So again we have to choose. So both of them are horrible. Now what? So the same thing. Even in India, we have, we have the BJP and we have the Congress. Those are the two big ones. There are all lots of other ones, but those are the two big ones. So then everyone is like, this is really bad, and this is really bad too. So let's, let's choose the lesser evil. So the same thing here. You know, I'm seeing this everywhere, that it's that binary thinking that has manifested in all the realms and all the dimensions and that's really impacting our life in every way. And the way to dis. You know, I always say this, whenever you encounter a binary, then you have to stop yourself and say, oh, wow, I'm reacting in a binary way. I'm saying, this is wrong. You know, she's wrong, he's wrong, you know I'm right. So as soon as those things come up in your own psyche, just stop, really take a breath, you know, really practise your yoga and all the teachings and the asana or whatever it is, right? And examine that, examine where you're getting this binary from. Who is, what is the root of the binary? And, you know, that really will take.

Jo Stewart: You down a path and there's like a connection back into, like, dual and non dual philosophy as well. Right. Because is the yoga sutras kind of aware that dualist thinking is starting to become more and more mainstream yoga thinking, whereas the earlier times, the Upanishads and the Vedas was more non dual and kind of defining self and other, or self and higher self in different ways.

Anjali Rao: Yeah. Ooh. So the Vedas and the Upanishads had both dvaita as well as Advaita. It had dualistic and non dualistic, and many others, like Visheshta, Advaita, it had like, qualified non dualism. So it's like a whole lot of things. But to go back to your question about the yoga sutras, I don't know whether that's the root of our binary thinking, but that is definitely a dualistic form. But eventually even that dualism dissolves. Right? I mean, the point is that there is no dualism after that. Right? The point is that the whole thing is that when we realise we are purusha, that we are consciousness and everything else is a manifestation of that, that energy is, or spirit or whatever, that is what we want to call it, that is the ultimate true nature. So that is the ultimate teaching of the sutras. I don't know whether that's created a binary, but I think we think of it as in a binary because we are conditioned to think of it as matter and spirit. So, but it's really hard for our psyches to not take it in a binary way. So I think what I like to, like, sort of give an example is like salt water, right? There is salt. And this water, it's a very salty water. But when you look at it, it's the same thing. There is salt and there is water, though. It's like a mixture, and it tastes like. Only when you taste it, you realise that it is salty. So the salt is the sort of the, you know, the spirit, and it's there in it, and it has dissolved in the matter. Right. It is a part of. It is integrated in it. So it's not two things. It is one thing, you know? So eventually, the dualism of the Samkhya philosophy, which is a part, which is the underlying philosophy of the yoga sutras, goes toward non dualism, you know?

Jo Stewart: No, that's a great. That's a great answer. And as you were explaining that, I was also thinking about how I'm only ever reading a translation of the yoga sutra because I don't read Sanskrit. So I'm also reading the bias or the way that that translator, even if they are looking for words to express the meanings that they need, that don't necessarily exist in English. So it has to be simplified or it has to be kind of, you know, the nearest possible translation if that word just isn't in existence.

Anjali Rao: Absolutely. I think the translations, not only in English, but, yes, English is a totally different. What do you say? It has a different root language, right? I mean, Sanskrit at least. If you're reading it in, like, say, for example, Hindi or regional ish language, you kind of, like, get a sense of it because the. So the root words in Sanskrit and Hindi or, you know, are somewhat the same. So I think language plays a huge role in our understanding of it, and the language has formed a part of our thought process, so it's really hard to kind of distinguish. Yeah.

Jo Stewart: And this kind of takes us way back again, because another thing that I really appreciate you sharing on, which I don't hear so much about, well, definitely in my teacher training, is how many different religions, including Buddhism and Jainism and Sikhism, have all influenced and drawn from yoga philosophy and all have their own take on these philosophies. Would you like to. I mean, it's a massive question, but would you like to unpack a little bit of that? Because I think it kind of goes into the same sense of there are all these different frameworks of viewing these teachings and there's all these commonalities as well.

Anjali Rao: Yeah. So I. So again, another analogy, I like giving analogies because it kind of makes it somewhat simpler and accessible. I look at, like, yoga as an ocean, right? And yoga is like the primal ocean, and it has, like, touched upon different shores, and the shores are different time periods, different developments of society, including different religions. So it has taken in those elements and then it continues to flow. Right? So yoga was predating of any religion. There was no religion at that time. This was when we talk, when I. And again, we have to be very clear about what yoga even is. What is. When you're talking about yoga, what are we really talking about? So yoga is, again, a very syncretic thing. It has taken in elements of the Harappan civilization, has taken in principles from the Vedas, about consciousness and matter and life and death and Karma and all of that, from the Upanishads. Bhagavad Gita is all the other things, like the Bhakti, and Bhagavad Gita is a distillation of the Upanishads. So it's taken all these elements and then starts the more of the formulation of the religions, what we consider as religions. Hinduism is now not considered a religion at all. It was considered religion only, like, at the 18th century onwards because of colonisation. So that is there. Then it. Then the islamic influence comes in. Islamic rulers were some of the first people who translated the Yoga sutras and the Upanishads in Persian. And so that. And then there's a Sufi thought of, you know, alchemizing love and love for the divine and all of that. So that has been very influential. Then there is also Christianity that comes in later with its own paradigms. For example, the theosophical society that comes in, in the 18th century, which talks about the body and spirit and all of that. So all. It has always been a porous thing. Also, we have to hold that there were people who could change something. Who are the people who can change something? They're the ones who have agency, they're the ones who have power, they are the ones who decide, okay, I can do this. And this is legitimate, right? So who are the ones who can give that legitimacy are the people who have power. So we have to hold that as well. So, yeah, yoga is like this vast, vast ocean, pre organised religion that has taken in elements and has given elements of the teachings to different religions. And of course, I did not mention Buddhism and Jainism, but Buddhism and Jainism were the most influential in creating the teachings of yoga. The teachings of the yoga sutras are highly influenced by the teachings of Buddha or, you know, people say it's vice versa, but when you really look at the history, it is the shamanic traditions, the renunciate tradition that really created a lot of the teachings of yoga, which is. And they did not really get affiliated to any religion. They were a part, some were and some were not, because they really radically rejected any religion identity or a caste identity. So Buddhism and Jainism were one of the biggest influences of early yogic traditions.

Jo Stewart: And how does Khemetic yoga fit into this mix?

Anjali Rao: So Khemetic yoga, I'm not an expert, my expertise lies basically in all, or rather my studentship lies mainly in this traditions or histories of yoga. So I really don't know much about Khemetic yoga. I can say that I will. I'm not surprised that there are overlaps of traditions between Africa and, you know, the Indic region, because there was a lot of trade, there was a lot of exchange, cultural exchanges between the two regions back 3000, 2500 years. So I will not be surprised that they also have systems and traditions very similar to the practises that we consider as the Indic yogic traditions. So that's all I can say. I'm not an expert in Khemetic yoga, so I can't really comment on the nuances of it.

Jo Stewart: Yeah, I actually. I would love to learn more because just everything that I've seen, like some of the illustrations, just seem to align so much with yogic physiology of the body and even just diagrams of postures that look just like yoga. And again, it's like something that's just not really part of yoga education in a lot of trainings. And maybe there's just not a lot of written information about it and that's one of the reasons. Or maybe it's kind of cultural erasure as well could be.

Anjali Rao: And I think, you know, see, the word yoga itself is rooted in a culture, right? So I don't know whether I would call what Khemetic that as yoga, because that yoga itself comes from a certain culture and land and region and a history, you know, so. And they, I'm sure Khemetic yoga has a lot of those elements and vice versa, I don't know the. And I think a lot of it is, like you said, it is because of colonisation, erasure and being oral traditions, but hopefully they will, all of us will see that, you know, the overlaps and the exchanges. I think there's so much richness when people have discovered something together or at the end of the day, all of us are looking for pathways out of suffering and understanding what we are doing in this world, you know, what's the purpose and meaning of life or all of that. So I think, yeah, I don't feel particularly in any which way. There are people who are like, oh, you know, this is not yoga. That is not. I don't really have that. I'm like, as long as we are understanding of the histories and respectful of the histories and the ways in which it has changed or evolved, and understanding the power dynamics and being critical of all of that, not really taking it all for at face value, really understanding something and being dedicated in our practise, it's all good.

Jo Stewart: And that's such an aspect of yoga. It is like exploring ideas and looking deeper and not just taking something at face value. Like always looking for more layers.

Anjali Rao: Exactly, exactly. Being in a space of inquiry. I know, I've been thinking about this and maybe I'll post it sometime, that really what we should do more is to stay with the questions, to be an inquiry, rather than wanting to just jump to an answer and be solidified, just stay with the questions, because those questions are something that are the ones which are really going to reveal deeper layers of our own existence, you know?

Jo Stewart: And another thing that I've liked seen you share about as well, that I'm really interested in is this whole other stream of physical practise for a spiritual or a mental or an emotional goal with like, a really shared philosophy, which is your dad's practise. Would you like to share a little bit about how the history of dance and yoga are so intertwined and how it's what it does for you?

Anjali Rao: Oh, boy. So dance and the teachings of yoga have sort of a common root in the Vedas and the Upanishads, where a lot of the dance forms sort of emerged. And then the dance forms in India and Pakistan especially were a part of Natya Shastra, which is the book, the big book of all. All kinds of things, really cool things, where music emerged. Music came into, you know, more of a codified way. And it's such a complex, complex system with so many different variations. So for me, the dance is a way of really being in my. In my body. I haven't. I don't dance actively right now. My daughter is. I'm actually going to go meet my friend, was my dance teacher, who's a Kathak dance teacher. So I'm involved in the community in different ways, but I've learned three kinds of classical dance. And that was, for me, a way of really connecting to Bhakti. That was really. I'm not a very religious person. I'm much more of a rebel than ever since I was, like, I could talk, I think, much to the dismay of my mom. So dance was really the way I could really connect to speak, spirituality in some way, because it is an expression of deep connection and resonance with spirit, in whichever form, and beautiful language and poetry and all of that. So, for me, dance is really a connection to my roots, cultural roots, and a spiritual tradition, I would say beautiful.

Jo Stewart: And I love how it's that we've spoken about how some lineage is the wrong word, but a lot of the history is masculine, and a lot of that recording was done by men. And it seems like dance is perhaps a way of passing down this information and these practises. That's more for women, by women. Like, you're sharing it with your daughter, you're meeting with your teacher, who's another woman. It's like a very beautiful community of sharing.

Anjali Rao: Yeah. I mean, yes, because a lot of the dances were developed by women in temples, so there were offerings to the deity. So Kathak, for example, was a way of telling the stories of Krishna, narrative, oral accounts, as well as then music and dance, and then dramatisation. So, yes, it is a little bit more gender expansive, because there were also, like, a role play, and then there was, like, a woman dressed as a man dresses a woman, then there's a trans people there. All kinds of experimentation happened, and it was far more, in that sense, egalitarian. But this patriarchy in every art, because it is so, you know, what do you say? Extensive. So it has seeped in everywhere. And I think it also. I also choose people who are a certain. Of a certain sensibility. So that's one of the reasons why. Yeah, nice.

Rane Bowen: Well, sorry, I know I've been very quiet during this conversation, but I've just been stupid. I'm fascinated by just the complexity, and I just find the whole history and the interrelatedness of everything so fascinating, which is going to make this question I'm about to ask maybe so difficult to answer, because we asked this at the end of every episode. So if you could, I guess, distil everything that you've learned and everything that you teach down to one core essence, what do you think that one thing would be, or what would be a good starting point for people who really want to delve into this area and learn about this complexity?

Anjali Rao: Hmm. Can I go back to an imagery, like a metaphor for this? I would say consider yoga as a tapestry, like a colourful tapestry, full of different kinds of threads. And some of them are really pretty and beautiful and shiny. And they are the ones who are sometimes not the most comfortable. Right? And then there are some which are very rough and not very. We don't want them, but they are there. But they're probably the ones which we really want because, or need because they're the ones which give us warmth, right? So. And then there are some which are invisible. Like they are really tiny. Tiny. But they are there throughout the tapestry. Right? So I would say I look at yoga as a tapestry, like a colourful, multi textured, big, warm tapestry. So I would say start looking at one thread and see how that thread goes through the tapestry. And that would really lead you to a lot of insight.

Jo Stewart: Beautiful, beautiful. I love that analogy. And I love all of your analogies. Like, it definitely helps to find a way to wrap your brain around so much.

Anjali Rao: Yeah. Yeah. I'm all about imagery because I'm a very tactile person. So I like to like, I think that this is some of the most like, esoteric, abstract teachings. So it's really hard for people to, including myself. So I like to, like, think about things in a certain way.

Jo Stewart: Wonderful. Thank you so much for everything you've shared with us today.

Anjali Rao: Well, I'm glad to have had this conversation and I think we touched on all your questions and your questions were amazing in the sense you've done your homework and I really appreciate that. I love it.

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