Introducing Kiran, a longtime member of IYCWM and one who loves to build community. Kiran has opened her home to our workshop groups for joyful lunches and loves to plan dance parties! Her quick wit and wry sense of humor always brings a smile to her fellow students faces. She famously coined “Vacation Dog,” referring to the Downward facing dog you do after hard work in another pose. Enjoy getting to know this wonderfully thoughtful and creative being!
Tell us a bit about yourself – I was born and raised in Bombay (now Mumbai), but left in the 1980s for graduate work in Wildlife ecology. Since then, I have lived all over the Americas: the East coast of the US (from Florida to Maine), Central America (Costa Rica and Belize), and South America (Brazil and Colombia). In the last decade I’ve been happy to be able to return to India for long spells, and to live in Indonesia prior to returning to western MA. My current job as a Professor in the Department of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at UMass enables my interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching. Both of these and my activism are grounded in three decades of field-based research on wildlife conservation, international development, and struggles for social change with particular attention to race and gender. Many people find this combination of the natural and social sciences unusual so I’ve written about it here and here. I’m currently writing my second book entitled Fieldwork: Nature, Culture, and Gender in the Age of Climate Change, which foregrounds what I have learnt about the intertwining of ecology, political economy, and society and how such learning may inform 21st-century concerns about environmental and social justice.
What is a little known or surprising fact about you or your work? I’m a Postcolonial, Marxist, feminist like our previous poodle, Chloe! Yeah – that’s a story but it’s real!
What led you to Iyengar yoga? How did you find IYCWM? My first encounter with Iyengar yoga during my college years in Bombay (now Mumbai) intimidated me. When I moved to Northampton in 2010, I attended a yoga class by an Iyengar yoga teacher at the YMCA and was hooked!
How long have you been practicing yoga? I’ve been practicing yoga in the broadest sense all my life. I heard many of its premises and principles from my maternal grandfather (my Nana), and we incorporated them into our daily life. Besides some basic physical aspects, the practice included discussions and debates (with him and my mother) about how British colonialism and Indian nationalism shaped our understanding and practice of yogic philosophy. I miss them deeply.
I started taking formal yoga lessons in my teens. I continued a self-practice of sorts on my own for about two decades, or since coming to the US as a graduate student in the late 1980s. I really needed and wanted a yoga teacher but the exigencies of academic life made it difficult to find or afford one. That became my priority after I got tenure, and I started Iyengar yoga in 2010. I’ve had a systematic disciplined practice since then, i.e., for about a decade.
What keeps you on the mat? Recognizing that yoga (or indeed any discipline) is a practice.
What keeps you off the mat? Very little! But major transitions (like adopting a puppy at the start of an insane semester of an insane year), very cold days (and thus a cold house), or sunny days during winter (when one must get out for Vitamin D!) make it iffy to keep my date with my mat!
What poses do you love? Inversions and backbends! I also love Tadasana, Trikonasana, and Adho Mukho Svanasana. Each of these is a practice in itself.
What poses do you find challenging? Each one poses a challenge in its own way, but forward bends are my nemesis!
What do you like to do when you are not doing yoga? I love the intellectual and critical aspects of being an academic. In pre-COVID times that included travel for fieldwork and research conferences. And, of course to connect with my global family and friends. Locally I hike, walk, play with fabric and yarn (sewing in the summer and knitting in the winters), train my dog, watch British (tentacles of colonialism continue to inhabit my psyche!) crime drama with my partner Robert, eat Indian food, dance, and generally live life! La vida es por vivirla!
How has practicing yoga impacted your life? The physical aspects of my practice help me stay healthy and strong in body. That focuses my mind and allows me to be fully present but also mindful about my critical passions. This means balancing my deep commitment to yoga with a critical awareness of its reification in the West, and its appropriation by right wing, fundamentalist Hindu nationalist forces in India.
How does yoga show up in your everyday life? As I note above, yoga has been part of my life since childhood. I now have a more formal, regular practice and feel its benefits every day. Thus, I’m tempted to annoy those close to me by asking them to stop hunching! Fortunately for them I resist that temptation and hope that they find their own path.
How has the pandemic changed your daily life? How are you dealing with the COVID-19 crisis? Does your yoga practice help you in any way? The pandemic exacerbated existing patterns and tendencies on the large and small scale. Like most class privileged people, I have been working/teaching remotely and living under virtual lockdown for a year. And given that life in New England is socially distant even in non-COVID times, crisis times didn’t feel drastically different. Indeed (and many in this community won’t like hearing this), it was a relief to not be subject to the subtle forms of everyday racism that define my social existence as a non-white person in the Pioneer Valley.
Several members of my nuclear family are medical workers and supporting them emotionally (and making masks for them when PPE supplies were low in March 2020) was a priority. And since so many of my friends around the world were also under lockdown, my virtual community and connections blossomed (and helped organize against racism if not sexism in June last year).
On the other hand, having done long stints of solitary fieldwork in remote regions of the world and living with a writer (whose works is isolating by nature) also helped me develop healthy routines for living indoors and inwards. The summer and fall in rural Western Massachusetts enabled outdoor activities and visits with a few friends. Remote teaching and the fall semester were really tough but ameliorated by the arrival in our lives of Runa, our red standard poodle puppy. The winter is tougher than most winters because of COVID isolation and Zoom fatigue. All in all, the COVID crisis brought many chances to acknowledge my blessings, and needless to say my yoga teachers and practice are a life saver and a lifeline.
What has it been like to become part of a virtual yoga community where you do not know some of the other students? I’ve been grateful for my virtual yoga communities. But honestly, I have been completely overwhelmed and exhausted with virtual life (Zoom fatigue!) to really engage with new people, and of engaging folks one knows in their own contexts (because of the forced intimacy of Zoom).
How does this yoga community contribute to your practice? The IYCWM and yoga community is one of my grounding forces of my life in New England. It defines and enables my practice.
How has the switch to online classes during the pandemic affected your sense of community? How does it help stay connected? How does it fall short? I’m infinitely grateful for the grace and agility with which Susan Elena (and Iyengar teachers across the world including my teachers in Bangalore) pivoted to remote teaching. The range of online classes and workshops that Susan Elena has hosted via the IYCWM have enhanced the already wide community of Iyengar yoga practitioners.
It falls short in the same way that long distance connections fall short: one feels the absence of materiality acutely, especially after the long haul. I think often about migrant and diasporic communities, who are kept physically apart from those they love for months, years, and decades. Perhaps we may yet learn from them about how to make and maintain connections across difference and distance.
Any advice for those seeking to connect to a virtual yoga community? Find one! Don’t expect it to be the “real” thing, and when the world opens up, don’t forget to show up for your community! I’ve learnt the same thing from my yoga teachers as from my social movement compañeros – show up!