"If you practise yoga or meditation, I'm asking you to help India"

·6-min read
Photo credit: DUFFY, Yogi Bare
Photo credit: DUFFY, Yogi Bare

As you know, India is currently in crisis. A deadly second wave of COVID-19 is ripping through the population, causing reams of death and suffering. Amid the devastation, Indian yoga and meditation teacher, Angie Tiwari, has something to ask.

She asks that if you engage in a soothing practice such as yoga, meditation or Ayurvedic rituals, which come from the South Asian country and are woven through its culture, that you engage with the reality that is unfolding – and do something to help.

As, here in the UK, we become ever more hopeful that a summer of enjoying festivals and cuddling family and friends is in reach, the people of India are running out of oxygen supplies. These are desperately needed to keep COVID-19 patients in intensive care units alive.

The way that the pandemic is currently playing out in the South Asian country is a stark reminder of the devastating impact of this disease – and the reality that its brutal ramifications are far from nearing their end, on a global level.

The country which produces the highest number of vaccines is now the epicentre of the pandemic, with over 20 million infected, and over 222,000 deaths reported, at the time of writing. Experts have warned that the true figure could be significantly higher, with a high number of cases and lives lost going undocumented.

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In the country, hospitals, crematoriums and burial grounds are overwhelmed, people are dying on the streets and at home, completely helplessly. When I spoke to a relative in India recently, they told me: "the country is struggling hard to fight shortages while infections are increasing in horrible proportions. This is a trying time for India."

This is heartbreaking. India is my motherland. When you have family living in a different country so far away, especially elderly relatives, you prepare yourself for the harsh reality that your latest hug goodbye could be the final one. While I've been attuned to this sad fact for years, nothing could have prepared me for witnessing, via screens and phone calls with people I love, a pandemic ripping through a nation with such cruel velocity.

Compounding my sadness is the feeling that, here, in the country I live in, there has been a lack of yoga studios, teachers and brands that claim to be founded on ancient Indian wisdom, be it Ayurveda (the Indian 'science of life') yoga or meditation, speaking about the crisis. (Of course, some have, but they appear to be low on the ground.)

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This ties in with a wider issue. As a yoga and meditation teacher, and as someone born into the traditions and culture of Hinduism, it is my dharma – my purpose – to share the roots of these Indian practices.

Sadly, few of these sorts of businesses seem to do the same, nor do many elevate the voices of those who come from this culture (being taught by a yoga teacher of Indian descent at a studio is a rarity.) This reflects the reality of the digital space. None of the top 3 YouTube yoga teachers – who have a combined 10.7 million subscribers – are Indian.

It's testament to the efficacy of these Vedic practices that they have all soared in popularity during the pandemic. Major yoga YouTubers announced that numbers in April 2020 were dramatically up; fitness provider ClassPass said that yoga was their top digital workout of the year.

Meanwhile, downloads of mindfulness apps – an iteration of mediation, which was first documented in India several thousand years ago – were up by 25 per cent during the week of 29 March 2020, versus the weekly average in January and February, according to one mobile insights platform. To zoom further out, over the past few years, ideas from Ayurveda have become mainstream, from oil pulling to clean your mouth, to 'turmeric lattes' and massaging warm oil into your skin.

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To be clear: I’m deeply proud that India’s spiritual practices have positively transformed so many lives. I love that the West wants to delve deeper into Eastern wisdom. But my message, in all of this, is that when you take from another culture, it’s also important that you engage with its hardships and understand its history – pandemic or no pandemic, but especially now.

India is a strong and physically fit country with powerful devotional practices and tireless faith. We survived 89 years of colonial subjugation under the British Raj, which followed decades of prior oppression. Uniquely, we liberated ourselves through peaceful protests rooted in the yogic philosophy of ‘ahimsa’, which translates to ‘non-violence’. Wellness practices of meditation, Yoga and Ayurveda were legally banned by British rule, yet have survived the centuries.

While I am requesting that those who make money from these practices, in particular, take action as this crisis goes on, I would ask that anyone in the West who uses these traditions in their personal wellness toolkit engages, as well. If you do use these ancient, indigenous arts, it's likely that you hugely benefit from them.

So as you sip your chai, flow through your surya namaskar (sun salutations), meditate, practice alternate nostril breathing, or melt into Ayurvedic rituals, I have some questions. Are you also engaging with the devastation in India, and donating where you can? How can you practice Yoga’s yamas (moral vows) of ‘satya’ (‘truth’) and ‘aparigraha’ (‘non-stealing’?) at this time? How can you elevate the voices of Indians in this space? How can you spread awareness of what is currently unfolding in India, and ask businesses and brands that profit from Indian culture, from yoga studios to meditation platforms, to do the same?

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It can be hard to talk about. But let’s not ignore or spiritually bypass – using 'good vibes only' style rhetoric to avoid painful discussions – this dire situation. This humanitarian crisis wholeheartedly needs our attention, now. Please know that, as I see it, a true spiritual practice is not just about finding your peace, it’s about how you can help other sentient beings to find theirs.

That might look like asking how can you be of service to those who are in need of help and how can you put the Eastern wisdom that you have learned into practice. Like you might already know, the root meaning of the word 'yoga' is 'yoke' – to seek union. It's time to unite with the land that gave this gift to the world. I am asking you, to do it today.

5 ways you can help the Indian coronavirus crisis

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