13. Yoga’s Liberatory Potential and How We Can Access It with Sheena Sood

episode description & show notes

Harriet is joined by Sheena Sood.

Sheena Sood, PhD (she/her) is a Philadelphia-based activist, educator, sociologist, and healing justice visionary of South Asian descent and southern roots. Sheena has studied yoga, Ayurvedic Kundalini Massage therapy, Reiki, and sound healing traditions at Kailash Tribal School of Yoga and Holistic Healing in Mcleodganj, India (YTT – 200hr, AYTTC – 500hr). Sheena enjoys teaching gentle vinyasa or hatha practices infused with embodied liberatory philosophy. She is also the founder of Yoga Warrior Tales, an adventure-based yoga program that teaches children mindfulness and yoga skills through educational and interactive social justice narratives.

Currently, Sheena serves as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Muhlenberg College in the Sociology and Anthropology department, where she teaches introductory and advanced sociology courses covering social and cultural movements. Her current research project Omwashing Yoga: Weaponized Spirituality in India, Israel and the US scrutinizes the application of yoga and mindfulness around the globe, particularly by far-right governments who use yoga to advance their colonial and ethno-nationalist agendas. Rather than propagate narratives that glorify yoga’s ancient past, Sheena works to curate healing justice offerings through frameworks that recognize yoga’s oppressive layers and its liberatory potential; she envisions a futuristic yoga that centres collective freedom and embodies political action by centering humanity, all living beings, and Mother Earth.

Sheena is grateful to call Philly home and to be in relationship with healers, artists, cultural workers, and grassroots groups that work to abolish the carceral state and free all political prisoners. Visit www.sheenashining.com to learn more about her passions and values and to connect for a deeper yoga experience!

Sheena and Harriet talked about the liberatory potential of yoga, how governments and organizations use yoga to sanitise their image, and the joy of having delicious treats to hand.

You can find Sheena here:

Read the full transcript:

SUMMARY KEYWORDS
yoga, social justice, connected, sheena, community, yoga teacher, spaces, people, care, potential, practice, important, interconnectivity, thinking, scholar, creating, Hindu, ways, organisations, mindfulness

SPEAKERS
Harriet McAtee, Sheena Sood

Harriet McAtee
Welcome to In Our Experience, a podcast exploring the many ways of living well with Nourish Yoga Training. I’m your host, Harrie,t yoga teacher and founder of Nourish and today, I’m being joined virtually from Philadelphia by Sheena Sood. So Sheena is an activist, educator, sociologist and healing Justice visionary of South Asian descent and Southern roots. Sheena enjoys teaching gentle vinyasa or hatha practices infused with embodied liberatory philosophy. Currently, Sheena serves as a visiting Assistant Professor at Muhlenberg College in the Sociology and Anthropology Department. Her current research project omwashing yoga weaponise spirituality in India, Israel, and the US scrutinises the application of yoga and mindfulness around the globe, particularly by far-right governments who use yoga to advance their colonial and ethno-nationalist agendas. I had such a great time chatting with Sheena; we could have talked for hours, I’m sure. But in this episode, we cover the liberatory potential of yoga, how governments and organisations use yoga to sanitise their image and the joy of having very delicious treats to hand. As always, I’m so keen to hear what you think. So do pop us an email; you can find how to contact us in the show notes. Thanks again to Sheena for joining me. And here’s the episode. Hi, Sheena. Welcome to In Our Experience. It’s so lovely to have you here.

Sheena Sood
Oh, it’s so lovely to be a guest. Thank you so much for thinking of and inviting me.

Harriet McAtee
My pleasure. Well, we’ll get started as I do every episode by asking you what’s nourishing you this week, and it can be big, serious. It could be silly. It could be small. And I’ll, I’ll help you by sharing mine first. So I play guitar. And I sing and not in public. And not really for anybody else except for me. But the past couple of months, I’ve really been challenging my guitar playing skills. And it’s been really rewarding to see that playing off. So I’ve sort of transitioned into doing more like complex fingerpicking folk songs, which has like it’s the music that I listen to the most. And now to be able to play it and sing it has felt really, really rewarding and really nourishing to me and to see, I think, to see like a skill developing in a way that it hasn’t in a while has been really nice. So that’s me, how about you?

Sheena Sood
That sounds really beautiful. Oh, thanks for sharing. Mine is, um, just purely decadent pleasure of knowing that there are numerous vegan treats in my fridge that I have been like slowly picking up each day this week because not only did I order a box of vegan croissants from like, the only vegan French bakery in the country for my birthday, but I also had like friends bring me treats. And so I’ve just been slowly making my way through them. And I think I’ll have enough until like a couple of weeks from now, at least.

Harriet McAtee
That’s a good one. I love the joy of knowing that you have really delicious things like right there. It’s great.

Sheena Sood
Yeah.

Harriet McAtee
Are you, are you more of a sweet treat person, or you’re like a savoury treat person.

Sheena Sood
I, I think I’m both, um, I grew up in a home where food and food preparation really mattered. And so my parents make both of my parents cook a bunch a lot of Indian food, a lot of other recipes and so I do think I have desires for savoury foods and love to cook you know, spicy food, love to cook different stir-fries and curries, and you know, dhals and what we call subzis in Punjab, which I like vegetable dishes. Then I also just really love, like, decadent but also really like not too sweet but like really intentionally planned. Like vegan treats

Harriet McAtee
Ahh, how wonderful I just out of my island at the moment I have a box of cupcakes that my other guest today brought me, and And it’s that sort of staring at me they’re calling my name. But you know, I, I really, I really hear around the intentionality of it as well, like it being something that’s really deliberately chosen and cultivated is so so lovely too.

Sheena Sood
Yeah, I love food.

Harriet McAtee
Yeah. Just I should really just have a food podcast; what are we doing talking about? But we are here; we are here to talk about you a little bit. So I’d love to. I’d love to ask you a little bit about your background and how it is that you describe what you do because you like so many people in, I guess, the yoga space. You do many things.

Sheena Sood
Yeah. My background and how I do what I do. I’m going to try and not make this a really long answer as well. But so I started practising yoga, mostly through my grandmother teaching me mantras and chanting. When I was younger and kind of during college, I found solace in learning a little bit of yoga from organisations, such as like, Hindu student groups on campus, this one organisation called The Art of Living. And then I actually ended up leaving yoga for a little bit during a time at which I was becoming politicised. Because I was getting politicised and kind of connecting with more leftist analysis of global capitalism of oppression of you know, just like racial politics, but also like Hindutva, or Hindu right politics, as we call it. And so I felt like I couldn’t have a relationship with these organisations that thought that they owned yoga or that thought that you had to learn yoga in this way. And I entered grad school much later, in my 20s, at a time when I was like, slowly coming back to the practice of yoga. And I entered a PhD programme in Sociology at that time. And as I was kind of building relationships with organisations that were working for, you know, let’s say like, ecological justice, or prison abolition, or the freedom of political prisoners, and for racial justice issues, I started finding a way to kind of carve out my path for yoga, or a way in which, you know, kind of learning yoga became a practice of social justice and a practice of care for me. And pursued, um, a yoga certification in India at that time, like, while I was in grad school, and, and so it’s funny because, you know, it’s like, um, you know, I have this identity, as you know, having a PhD in Sociology. And, you know, in that practice of learning how to do research as a Sociologist on issues like South Asian politics, or the politics of yoga, I also was kind of studying and learning, what is my relationship to my spiritual practice in a way that wasn’t connected to organised religion or it wasn’t connected to Hinduism In this very monolithic way of how it’s understood or this kind of way in which it was politicised towards fundamentalism. And, and so I think having that kind of unique pathway, and then growing up as like a, a woman of colour in the US South, and letting that inform my identity and my experience in the academy has allowed me to kind of build a practice or build like a, a way of connecting to like a healer identity, or a scholar identity and an activist identity that is really committed to something around like community liberation that’s really committed to something around like, multi-generational, kind of creating multi-generational spaces that allow for people to be able to access like healing within themselves and to pursue a practice of social justice in their community.

Harriet McAtee
That is just I love that so much. And I love, I mean, there are many, many things in there that I am interested in to sort of, like, tug on a little bit, but I just what you said at the end there around a practice of social justice about this you know, it being a process that you’re involved in on a personal level, but then on also on a community base level, I think is, is something that’s often missed by people working in activist spaces about it, you know, I, I have a lot of friends that have, you know, in activism roles, or in these sort of like campaigning spaces, and the burnout is real, and it’s intense. And it’s a know sort of marrying the personal spiritual practice along with the sort of more, I guess, outward-looking society community-based work is something that I’m, I’m really, I’m really interested in because it’s sort of how I’ve chosen to navigate the space as well, right? Like?

Sheena Sood
Absolutely. Yeah, um, I mean, burnout is definitely very, very real, and so much, you know, I have a number of organisers, activist-scholar friends, who just give so much of themselves to these really righteous causes of, you know, working on prison abolitionism, or working on issues of internationalism, and tried to feed their communities and trying to create mutual aid in the time, this pandemic, and who end up doing a lot for others in a way that neglects themselves. And, and I don’t necessarily, I’m not necessarily an active proponent of the concept of self-care, per se. But what does it mean to think about collective care? is something that I’m trying to make more sense of, and that doesn’t mean that I think self-care is not important. I think, you know, it is very important, but how is it that we can think about creating structures in society that really allow us to care for each other better? Or how is it that we can kind of use our gaze for what we envision in transforming society and also be equally reflective of how we can, you know, transform ourselves in the process of trying to work for transforming society? And I think part of that is the spiritual care that we provide for ourselves; it’s about evolving ourselves toward a higher version of ourselves. And, and I think that can happen in so many ways. It doesn’t have to happen through an active yoga practice; it can happen through taking a walk and really connecting with nature in whatever way feels possible. Maybe it’s observing, you know, leaves on a tree, or as much as I’m not a fan of being cold, really just staring in awe at the way in which snow falls or taking a moment in nature. And, um, and yeah, I think I just wish we had more of those spaces and that we were more unapologetic in being able to access those spaces. While we work on behalf of activist and social justice causes.

Harriet McAtee
I really hear that. Likewise, similar to you, I don’t love the whole self-care thing. One of the, one of the real issues that I think we are facing in, in contemporary yoga is how it just becomes a gateway into like, like hyper-individualism, and, you know, the whole, you know, neoliberal agenda, essentially. And you know, the links between wellness and those spaces are just so stark and like they get they get. Unfortunately, they get stronger and stronger all the time. So I love this. This idea of collective care and, you know, the unapologetic-ness of it as well, I think it really is really important. One of my, one of my favourite quotes about this is from Jivana Heyman, who runs accessible yoga, and Jivana has this quote around spiritual power without service is just power. And It’s this, you know, I guess for me the sense of like, unless you have a framework and a perspective and a community to sort of locate your spiritual practice within, he just gets turned back in on into you in ways that can sometimes, like be quite unsupportive or quite damaging, I think,

Sheena Sood
yeah, um, I love the work of accessible yoga too. And I bought Jivana’s book. I haven’t read it yet, but I think I’m anything that’s popular within our culture can get taken up by a neoliberal agenda and used in ways to advance a capitalist kind of framework or capitalist structure. And, and so yeah, self-care, you know, becomes this way in which, you know, if somebody is struggling, or somebody, um, you know, can’t keep up at work, or, you know, even in schools, like, you know, the amount of like, ways in which schools are using mindfulness and yoga, as remedies for people who maybe need to be disciplined, quote, unquote, um, it’s really scary, because I think all of this points towards like, you know, this idea that if people aren’t, people are struggling, then they need to fix themselves. And self-care is the way to fix themselves, which you still have to pay for, materials for a bubble bath; you still have to pay for the yoga class, you still have to pay for the retreat or the, you know, whatever it is, that is connected to self-care too, you know, feeding yourself, quote, unquote, you know, nourishing foods or health foods. And I think that’s really scary because it absolves the government or it absorbs these social structures from creating jobs that pay you well enough to where you have enough time and resources to be able to participate in care. And, and, you know, creating work conditions that actually realise your humanity or meet your humanity in a way that allows you to take care of social and familial obligations and care obligations, in addition to, you know, participating in, you know, the social and economic structure. So, so yeah, it’s just, it’s kind of, um, it’s a really tricky conversation, how self-care gets taken up by some of the yoga industry or the yeah, the industry that serves wellness in this current context.

Harriet McAtee
Yeah, definitely. I, I’m interested to hear a little bit about your work as a sociologist and your research because I mean, I’ve read, I’ve read, you know, some of your work and I’ve, I’ve listened to an episode of conspiratorially with Matthew, and yeah, I’m keen to hear about your work and where it’s taking you at the moment.

Sheena Sood
Oh, yeah. Thank you. Um, I was excitedly typing notes before this podcast started because this semester, I get to teach sociology of yoga course at Muhlenberg.

Harriet McAtee
Wow. Yeah, I wanna be in your class, yes.

Sheena Sood
Yes, I would love that. Maybe one day, I’ll think about making it a public class, as well. Um, but yeah, I was typing notes from a book by Andrea Jane; I’m not sure if you know her work. Um, they’re gonna read a bunch of Andrea Jane this semester. And, um, yeah, so I’m really excited to kind of work on giving students like an embodied practice, but then also giving them a critical scholarly understanding of yoga, which, I don’t think that fusion or that merging often happens. You know, I’m a yoga practitioner. A lot of scholars who are studying yoga, some of them are, you know, practitioners as well or scholar-practitioners. But a lot of times within the scholarly realm, you get religious studies scholars who maybe are, are, are definitely critical, but not necessarily um kind of coming from not practitioner edge, and so I’m hoping that my students can kind of get a mixture of both. Um, but I say that to say that I do really believe that Yoga can, can be used for liberatory potential. Yeah. Um, I think the opportunity to really spend time healing oneself and helping others recognise the healer potential within themselves is hugely significant for when we think about the freedom and transformation of our communities towards social justice. But I think because of the situation that we’re in, where, you know, the yoga industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, where yoga is often co-opted and appropriated by, you know, not just the West, but, you know, even by governments that are far right-leaning that are inclined towards fascist politics and fascist social agendas. That it, um, it has become apparent to me how important it is that scholars and scholar-practitioners be able to talk about the weaponisation of yoga. And so this project of omwashing yoga is really about trying to unearth and take a critical eye to the way in which far right-leaning governments that have either colonial agendas or, you know, kind of fascist right-wing authoritarian agendas, use yoga to sanitise their reputation. So I’m looking, particularly at three countries as case studies. I’m looking at India, where, you know, you see the work of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ever since he was elected in 2014.
Even though the work of the right-wing Hindu fundamentalists kind of goes far back to like the early 1900s. But looking specifically at the ways in which, you know, some of how he uses yoga is towards also towards like, sanitising his own reputation and making him seem peaceful, and his political agenda seeming peaceful while passing really abhorrent policies and citizenship acts that are discriminatory towards Muslims towards lower caste people, towards anyone who’s non-Hindu, right—so trying to create this like Hindu only agenda and trying to instil this idea that yoga belongs to Hindus in order to justify creating a less secular and more Hindu nationalist country within India. And so and then the other two countries that I’m looking at are Israel, right, which is kind of third rail to talk about, but, but really looking at the way in which, you know, not just the Israeli military, but like Israeli popular culture, and post-service in the military, the way in which a lot of members of the Israeli occupation force after compulsory service will often go on these kind of backpacking trips or these spiritual journeys to other countries such as India to learn about meditation and spirituality, which I think is, you know, really important if it can be used to help them interrogate what it is that they participated in, which is really brutal colonial violence against Palestinian people in the occupied territories of, you know, occupied Palestine. So it can be used towards libratory purposes. But I think more often what I have seen is this way in which they’re using it towards spiritual bypass of just kind of, like, erasing the violence from their memory of what it is that they’ve just participated in. And, um, and then I also am looking at the United States, so looking at the way in which yoga is used in the US military, but also in law enforcement. So in policing institutions, not systematically, but it’s you’ll have, you know, these media headlines where you know, they’ll say like, oh, police officers use yoga to thwart police brutality. Right. So this assumption that if we invest more resources in policing, by giving them access to these mindfulness and yoga techniques that it’s gonna, like, you know, just automatically transform, um, the, the systematic violence that they’re perpetuating against oppressed communities in, you know, in low-income neighbourhoods and wherever, or just like as if it’s going to kind of like, automatically subvert the anti-black violence and, and so, so yeah, just kind of like trying to bring the critical eye to the way in which some of these institutions that are structurally violent, use yoga to kind of sanitise their reputation.

Harriet McAtee
That I mean, I, I love it, I just think it’s, I think it’s absolutely so fascinating, because, I mean, on a lived experience level for me, and I think it’s the same for any, any yoga practitioner and a yoga teacher, you like, I’m constantly having to, like, undo or reframe people’s assumptions about me and how I live my life, because I’m a yoga teacher that you’re like, Oh, you must be so relaxed, or you must be so he must be so peaceful. And I’m like, I, like sometimes is that yeah, it’s not, it’s not how it works. And also, you know, my, I guess my experience of my practice is that it only makes me I don’t know, gives me more energy to be engaged in these things, rather than like, you know, avoidance of them, or escaping them or something. So, you know,

Sheena Sood
or the assumption that it makes you inherently good, as opposed to just stronger at whatever it is you think you’re supposed to do. Right, which, if you’re in the military, if you’re in law enforcement, then you know, and no shame on the individual, but thinking more structurally about the systems and the institutions that it’s just going to make you that much sharper, that much more at a capacity to do your job. If you have the breathing techniques, if you are doing the postures, and, um, you know, just kind of really intentionally focusing on bringing that practice into yourself to get better at whatever it is you’re doing. And so it’s to me, yoga is neutral. It’s not inherently peaceful; it’s not inherently good. It’s not inherently liberatory. It has liberatory potential. If it can be linked with a social justice practice, I don’t think it’s inherently social justice, either. Even though I think there are some practitioners who write about yoga being inherently about social justice, I think I disagree with that and say yoga, to me, is neutral.

Harriet McAtee
I think that’s a really; I think that’s a really important and really grounding perspective to have. I recently interviewed a guest, Amelia wood, who’s writing a PhD on spiritual abuse within yoga. And I was talking with her about often, when people outside of yoga hear that there’s an abuse problem within yoga, they’re like, oh, like, you know, Catholic Church, maybe. But yoga shouldn’t have an abuse problem, should it? And her point is that yoga is not outside of these, you know, outside of our culture. Like there’s a there’s a weird, there’s an exoticisisiation that happens, it’s like, well, because it’s coming from somewhere else. And because it’s really like, it makes you a good person; then yoga doesn’t have an abuse problem. But, you know, yoga is just as much in the culture as the Catholic Church as government, as, you know, schools, as you know, the military. You know, and it really speaks to your point that, you know, I love this idea that yoga is neutral, and it has liberatory potential. And that’s what makes like, the frame that it exists in for you so important because I think there, there is so many people I talk to you who feel like yoga isn’t for them. And it’s because they’ve encountered it through a sort of moralising shame-filled discourse, right? And I totally get it like; I wouldn’t want to be a part of that either. Like I would, I wouldn’t feel like I was welcome in that space too. So what are what are some of them if you have liberatory? Potential? What are some of the conditions that you think it needs in order to express that potential?

Sheena Sood
Yeah, um, I do think that there is like something that I think is prototypical but not essential; within the context of how yoga is discussed is this idea of interconnectivity. And how yoga brings us into mindfulness and self-awareness of how we are not. We are not separate, right? We are connected to each other human beings are connected to each other humans are connected to for babies like Cora, my puppy, or, you know, just like all life is connected. And I do think that this idea of interconnectivity in action or in practice is something that is really important to the way I think about how yoga can reach that liberatory potential is through recognising that any action we take does have an impact on others. And so how can we think mindfully in a way so that, you know, whatever it is that we’re doing, whether it’s like, we’re throwing out trash or thinking about recycling, or we’re thinking about going to this action? Around, you know, Indian police brutality? You know, if even if police brutality may not directly affect my community or someone of my identity markers, how is it that I can tap into a sense of interconnectivity in that moment and realise that it doesn’t matter if my superficial identity markers are not affected by this structurally violent phenomenon? But I have a duty right. So I think like the idea, and you know, duty brings to mind this concept within yoga around Dharma, which, you know, I don’t think Dharma is also inherently about social justice, I think Therma can be used to justify things like abuse of hierarchical systems like caste, but in the way that I think about Dharma, um, how can it be used for us to think about like, a dutiful purpose that is about bridging that interconnectivity? Right. And so what is my duty? And as it relates to, like, liberatory potential, I think that there are a lot of different ways in which, you know, we can think about what is our it’s not necessarily like a duty, but a sense of, kind of community or communal style. I’m trying to think about how you might link that to a liberatory vision, but the way in which we operate, not so much as oriented towards what will serve me, but what will serve me, my community and the world. And, and so making decisions from that place of like, you know, having relationships within one’s community, and, and really thinking about relationship building as a practice, that yoga can help us right, yoga can help us communicate better with those we care about yoga can help us, you know, just like those mindful breaths, whenever we take mindful breaths, and whenever we practise yoga, are we just thinking about serving ourselves? Are we just thinking about exercise? Or are we thinking about and reflecting on the interactions that we have with people we care about and finding more loving and tender ways to interact with the people that we care about? And maybe even the people who we might feel struggles with? Right or challenges with and so how can yoga help us through conflict? And, and yeah, just be able to like fuel, our vision for creative for creative projects for transformative justice? There I think there are a lot of ways, but yeah. When it comes to liberatory potential, I just think that I’m reminded of the work of Grace Lee Boggs. She was an author who lived in Detroit for a long period of time and a philosopher. And she was a community activist who talked a lot about transformation and evolution as a really important principle for thinking about revolution. So, if we’re working towards revolution, and revolutionary change, are we prepared to evolve ourselves so that we’re not just thinking about changing the structures around us? But also, how are we participating in that revolutionary change by committing to evolution within ourselves, and so there’s something there about self-growth, and a willingness to change ourselves in the process of changing the world around us to

Harriet McAtee
Oh, I love, I love that and sort of how, yeah, there, there is real potential that for yoga to be something that helps in that process of self-evolution. Whilst we’re, you know, waiting for the revolution to come. So, on that, on that note, we are have rapidly run out of time; it goes too quickly. So before we finish up, where, where can our audience find you? And what sort of things are you up to at the moment that they can maybe see?

Sheena Sood
Oh, it’s been such a lovely conversation, Harriet; thank you so much. Um, so, a couple things that I’m really excited to be planning right now. I have a yoga retreat in Jamaica coming up in June. Um, a friend of mine who lives there, Empress Thandi and I, are co-curating this experience together. It’s a friend of mine who I’ve been close to for about ten years now. And it’s called a solstice chakra reset. And it is an opportunity; it’s a five-day opportunity to work with the chakras, which are those inner sacral sacred energy portals within, within ourselves, and use them to connect to nature, but then also to connect to values and principles of social justice and collective liberation. And that’s June 17 through the 22nd, 2022. So I’m so pumped. It’s also going to be mango season. Oh,

Harriet McAtee
do you know what I am in true yoga teacher fashion? I’m on retreat that week. Otherwise, I would come myself.

Sheena Sood
hilarious; good for you. So that, um, I have a kids yoga project that is about educating, um, or offering mindfulness to children and to kids, ages 4 through 10, usually through a social justice lens. I’m in the midst of using inspiration from you to start recording my videos um so that I can share them with the world. So that’s yoga warrior tails. If you want to check out any of those projects, you can find me on Instagram; the handle is @sheena_shining, and then @yogawarriortales, you’ll get to see my puppy who’s the mascot, my puppy Cora. And then my website’s sheenashining.com. So that’s just www.sheenashining.com. I’m grateful to hear from others. You know how they received this conversation if they have further questions. And thank you.

Harriet McAtee
Thank you so much, Sheena. It’s been a pleasure; cheers.

Sheena Sood
Yes, take care.

Harriet McAtee
Thanks for listening to In Our Experience. Don’t forget to subscribe, rate and review the podcast. We love hearing what you think, and it makes a really big difference. In the meantime, until the next episode comes out. Why not? Check us out on our Instagram account @nourishyogatraining, or pop us an email via our website. See you soo

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